The best modern history books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about modern history and why they recommend each book.

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After Tamerlane

By John Darwin,

Book cover of After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000

You might not know who Tamerlane is, but you should. He was one of the last of the ‘World-conquerors’ in the tradition of Genghis Khan, the man who marched the Mongols from one end of Eurasia to the other in the 13th century. Tamerlane died in 1405 and with him the last nomadic empire of the Eurasian steppes. The Europeans then took up the quest ‘to conquer the word’. But John Darwin tells this story like no one else before him: Rather than starting the story of the European “Age of Discovery” on the bows of Iberian ships crossing the Atlantic ocean, Darwin keeps his readers grounded in Eurasia. He redirects our gaze to this massive continent as we follow emerging European empires as they had to compete with pre-existing ones. Anyone interested in understanding the global dynamics of the early 21st century should read this book with…

Who am I?

Christopher Goscha first fell in love with world history while reading Fernand Braudel's La Méditerranée in graduate school in France and doing research for his PhD in Southeast Asia. He is currently a professor of international relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he teaches world history and publishes on the wars for Vietnam in a global context. He does this most recently in his forthcoming book entitled The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First Vietnam War.

I wrote...

The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

By Christopher Goscha,

Book cover of The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

What is my book about?

On May 7, 1954, when the bullets stopped and the air stilled in Dien Bien Phu, there was no doubt that Vietnam could fight a mighty colonial power and win. After nearly a decade of struggle, a nation forged in the crucible of war had achieved a victory undreamed of by any other national liberation movement. The Road to Dien Bien Phu tells the story of how Ho Chi Minh turned a ragtag guerilla army into a modern fighting force capable of bringing down the formidable French army.

Panoramic in scope, The Road to Dien Bien Phu transforms our understanding of this conflict and the one the United States would later enter, and sheds new light on communist warfare and statecraft in East Asia today.

Lost Colony

By Tonio Andrade,

Book cover of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory Over the West

Few stood against many as the fate of Taiwan hung in the balance. This is a gripping account of the 1660s clash between Ming loyalist Koxinga and besieged Dutch colonists at Fort Zeelandia. Written by a historian with a flair for narrative, Taiwan’s most exciting historical episode is recounted in fascinating detail, with twists and turns, and wide zooms out for comparisons of European and Chinese technological prowess. It’s an accessible book yet so richly informative and dramatic that it rewards multiple readings. 

Who am I?

I’m a Kiwi who has spent most of the past three decades in Asia. My books include Formosan Odyssey, You Don't Know China, and Taiwan in 100 Books. I live in a small town in southern Taiwan with my Taiwanese wife. When not writing, reading, or lusting over maps, I can be found on the abandoned family farm slashing jungle undergrowth (and having a sly drink).

I wrote...

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present

By John Grant Ross,

Book cover of Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present

What is my book about?

This mix of travelogue, history, and vignettes of small-town life is the kind of book I like to read myself: history and culture woven into travel narratives, and with a healthy sprinkling of eccentric characters. I think readers will be surprised to learn that Taiwan was – until the early twentieth century – one of the wildest places in Asia, as shown in the tales recounted of fatal shipwrecks, headhunting tribes, banditry, and revolts. From those early frontier days, Formosan Odyssey takes us through the period of Japanese colonial rule, and the post-war transition from impoverished police state to a prosperous democracy.

Inventing the American Astronaut

By Matthew H. Hersch,

Book cover of Inventing the American Astronaut

Hersch applies the sober, decidedly unsentimental, and almost brutally incisive analytical framework of labor conflict and professionalization to a whole range of issues negotiated within NASA—from the criteria for astronaut selection to the degree of spacecraft automation to mission programming. Each of these issues emerges loaded with interests of various professional groups—test pilots, military pilots, scientists, engineers, and managers. The astronaut profession is born through a series of clashes of professional cultures, each competing for influence within the US space program.

In my view, comparing this story with the parallel developments on the Soviet side reveals drastic differences. While the pilots-cosmonauts found themselves almost completely at the mercy of powerful space engineers, the astronauts skillfully used their symbolic capital to gain influence on decision-making at NASA.

Who am I?

My interest in space history began with stamp collecting and continued much later with visits to Russian archives, Star City, and aerospace companies, and interviews with cosmonauts and space engineers, who often told their personal stories for the first time. As a historian of science and technology teaching at MIT, I was especially interested in cases where technology and society intertwined: cosmonauts and engineers lobbied politicians with competing agendas, personal rivalries tore apart ambitious projects, and pervasive secrecy perpetuated public myths and private counter-myths. My digging into tensions and arguments that shaped the Soviet space program resulted in two books, Soviet Space Mythologies and Voices of the Soviet Space Program.

I wrote...

Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

By Slava Gerovitch,

Book cover of Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

What is my book about?

Soviet propaganda, which widely mythologized the heroism of cosmonauts and the skill of engineers, faced a contradiction: were Soviet cosmonauts heroic pilots steering their craft through the dangers of space, or were they mere passengers riding safely aboard perfect automated machines? Under the technical issue of division of function between human and machine this book uncovers a social drama of rivalry of cosmonauts and engineers. Not only were the cosmonauts forced to fit into the automated control system of their spacecraft, but they also had to follow the preset agenda of the state propaganda machine, publicly representing an idealized human face of the communist regime. Pushing back, the cosmonauts tried to grasp control over their space missions, as well as over their public role.

The Transnational World of the Cominternians

By Brigitte Studer,

Book cover of The Transnational World of the Cominternians

For a long time, studies of the Comintern focused on the political organization itself. Brigitte Studer’s work focuses on developing a cultural history of the organization, focusing on what she calls the “Cominternians,” the various communists who worked in the apparatus. Here, she uses a variety of lenses, from Moscow as a transnational hub, to the role of gender, to the impact of the Stalinist terror on these members. By also focusing on a wide array of experiences, she showcases the hope many Cominternians had, but also the betrayal they experienced as Stalinism changed the movement in the 1930s. Partially responsible for the transnational turn in Comintern studies, this book is a must-read for anyone looking to know more about the organization. 

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of international relations and when I started graduate studies, I focused on Russian and Soviet foreign policy between the World Wars. When I began my research, I learned of the existence of the Comintern and was fascinated both by this attempt to develop a worldwide movement and its connection to Soviet foreign policy. Since then, I have focused on trying to understand the individuals who populated the parties and the organization and unearthing a legacy that still resonates today. One cannot fully understand the history of decolonization or of human and civil rights movements without considering the influence of the Comintern. 

I edited...

Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

By Oleksa Drachewych (editor), Ian McKay (editor),

Book cover of Left Transnationalism: The Communist International and the National, Colonial, and Racial Questions

What is my book about?

In 1919, the Communist International was formed in Moscow, Russia. The Communist International’s (Comintern) purpose was to guide the world communist movement and bring about revolution. Over time, with the failure of the communist revolution in Europe, priorities changed. A new area of concern for the movement was the fight against imperialism and, later, the fight against racism. Left Transnationalism brings together scholars from all over the world to analyze how the Comintern and its goals resonated in various regions outside of Europe. Taking a transnational perspective, this collection provides new insights into the development of the communist movement, the legacy of interwar communism, and how anti-imperialism or racial equality became intertwined with the communist movement. 

The World Aflame

By Dan Jones, Marina Amaral,

Book cover of The World Aflame: The Long War, 1914-1945

Colorized images are often controversial, and I never much liked them, but Marina Amaral’s amazing work changed my mind.  She is a master at thoughtful and surprisingly natural-looking colorizing and it’s amazing to me how our brains are so used to processing historical photos in black and white, as if the world really was colorless. The photos in this book, accompanied by the text by Dan Jones allow you to pick it up open to a random page, look and read and put it back down having learned something and viewed a scene you thought you know in a new light. Amaral is also one of my favorite follows on Twitter (@marinamaral2). That’s how I discovered her work.

Who am I?

In my “day job” I write about architecture, which means I often write about things I see in photos. When I began writing fiction, I continued using photos as inspiration and research. My novels are inspired by my family’s circumstances at the end of World War II and my fascination with the work of the Monuments Men. Photos show me details like a little girl playing with her doll under a sign that declares her building to be at risk of collapse, or a woman using the ruins of a building to hang out the wash. I love finding ways to use these elements in my writing.

I wrote...

The Roses Underneath

By C.F. Yetmen,

Book cover of The Roses Underneath

What is my book about?

It is August 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the country in ruins, Anna Klein, displaced and separated from her beloved husband, struggles to support herself and her six-year-old daughter. As a typist at the Collecting Point for the US Army’s Monuments Men she barely has her head above water. When the easy-going American Captain Henry Cooper recruits her as his translator, they stumble on a mysterious stash of art, and Anna finds she has a bigger gift for sleuthing than for typing. And Cooper’s penchant for breaking the rules provides an enticing taste of a newfound freedom that might change the future she thought she had planned.

"There She Is, Miss America"

By Elwood Watson (editor), Darcy Martin (editor),

Book cover of "There She Is, Miss America": The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America's Most Famous Pageant

This anthology spans a remarkable and surprising range of topics including first-hand accounts by pageant winnersand losers—along with rich historical context. Historian Kimberly Hamlin documents the first Miss America Pageant (launched a year after women won the vote), showing how it both appropriated the format of suffrage pageants and defined itself in opposition to them. Feminist scholar Donelle Ruwe explains why becoming Miss Meridian [Miss.] in 1985 had an unexpectedly positive impact on her life, even though she considers beauty pageants to be “oppressive” and “degrading.” And the African-American scholar Gerald Early’s riveting “Waiting for Miss America” weighs the racial implications of Vanessa Williams’ 1983 crowning as the first Black Miss America. “[S]he was the most loved and most suspect woman in America,” he writes. Suspect, because “some blacks don’t trust her motives and some whites don’t trust her abilities.”  

Who am I?

I write about pop culture and women’s history, often as it relates to the body and beauty. I’m intrigued by the ways women claim unconventional means of expression for their own beautification (such as tattooing) and how they harness beauty in the service of social and economic mobility (as in pageant culture). These books offer insight into the varied ways pageantry, from campus pageants to the Miss America stage, inform American identity and ratify the historian Rosalyn Baxandall’s belief that “every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss America contest.”

I wrote...

Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

By Margot Mifflin,

Book cover of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant's 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

What is my book about?

Looking for Miss America is the first cultural history of the Miss America pageant. From its start in 1921 as an Atlantic City tourist draw to its current incarnation as a “scholarship competition,” the pageant has indexed women’s status during periods of social change–the post-suffrage 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the #MeToo era. This narrative history tells the stories of the beauty queens who loved it, hated it, rebelled against it, and exploited it to seize opportunities men got without dressing up (or stripping down) on national television. Written in deeply researched, fast-paced chapters that unpack each decade of the competition, Looking for Miss America examines the heady blend of capitalism, patriotism, class anxiety, and cultural mythology that has fueled this American ritual.

On the Front Line

By Marie Colvin,

Book cover of On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin

On the Front Line is an award-winning collection of stories by veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin. Prior to being targeted for assassination by the Syrian government in February 2012 while she covered the civil war there, Colvin's career and writing showed peerless courage in the pursuit of stories that revealed the inhumanities of war and civil strife. The book contains insightful accounts of interviews of Arafat and Gadaffi as well as her intimate reporting of fighting in Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings. Blinded in one eye shrapnel while reporting on the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Colvin's style and legendary courage live on in this select collection of her work.

Who am I?

K. Lee Lerner is an author, editor, and producer of science and factual media, including four editions of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science and the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. His expansive writing on science, climate change, disasters, disease, and global issues has earned multiple book and media awards, including books named Outstanding Academic Titles. An aviator, sailor, and member of the National Press Club in Washington, his two global circumnavigations and portfolio of work in challenging and dangerous environments reveal a visceral drive to explore and investigate. With a public intellectual's broad palate and a scientist's regard for evidence-based analysis, Lerner dissects and accessibly explains complex issues. 

I wrote...

Government, Politics, and Protest: Essential Primary Sources

By Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner, K. Lee Lerner

Book cover of Government, Politics, and Protest: Essential Primary Sources

What is my book about?

Part of the Essential Primary Source series by K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, et al., that critics described as well-written, thoughtful and cogent. Individual volumes topically related to issues provide historical context and insights into people, places, and issues still dominating news headlines as well as the scholars, journalists and other experts who document history in the making. The series covers Terrorism; Medicine, Health, and Bioethics; Environmental Issues; Crime and Punishment;  Government, Politics, and Protest; Gender Issues and Sexuality; Human and Civil Rights; Immigration and Multiculturalism; Social Policy, and more.

The March of Folly

By Barbara Wertheim Tuchman,

Book cover of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

This classic, from the 1980s, is a must-read for history buffs and those interested in international affairs. The author cites examples from ancient Greece to the 1970s, to demonstrate how empires and nations often make decisions that are detrimental to their long-term interests. I love this book for its writing style which is captivating, for the breath of its examples which range from ancient times to modern-day and for the recommendations this book gives not just for political leaders but those in business and other walks of life.

Who am I?

Foreign policy has been my passion since I was a child. My father was a civil servant and growing up in India, I always wanted to follow in his footsteps but instead of working on domestic issues, I wanted to work on international affairs. History was another passion of mine and I wanted to combine the two of them in such a way that I studied the past in order to explain the present and help the future. This passion led me to enroll in a PhD program in the United States and then work at a think tank. I have written three books, two of which focus exclusively on foreign policy. I hope you enjoy reading the books I have listed and read my book.  

I wrote...

From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India's Foreign Policy

By Aparna Pande,

Book cover of From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India's Foreign Policy

What is my book about?

Foreign policy doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum. It's shaped by national experience and a country’s view of itself. In the case of India, the foreign policy paradigm is as deeply informed by its civilizational heritage as it is by modern ideas about national interest. Even policies that appear to be new contain echoes of themes that recur in history. The two concepts that come and go most frequently in Indian engagement with the world from Chanakya in the third century BCE to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020 are autonomy and independence in decision making. 

Aparna Pande’s From Chanakya to Modi explores the deeper civilizational roots of Indian foreign policy. It identifies the neural roots of India’s engagement with the world outside. An essential addition to every thinking person's library.

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