In which I offer, and ask for, book recommendations

I recently received an email from a young, smart history bugg and aspiring writer of my acquaintance asking me if I could recommend a history book or two that had impressed me or influenced my writing.* I quickly put together a short list of books, focusing for the most part on books I had read with the same fascination as a novel–what we call Flashlight Reads over on the Non-Fiction Fans Facebook group. I kept going back to pull “just one more” off the shelf.

Here’s the list I came up with, in alphabetical order by last name:

Tanim Ansary. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
Sarah Gristwood. Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the War of the Roses
Sarah Gristwood. Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth Century Europe
David Howarth. 1066: The Year of the Conquest.
Steve Kemper. A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa.
Lynne Olson. Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War.
E. P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class.
Pretty much anything by Barbara Tuchman
Holly Tucker. City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris

It’s a random list. Chosen quickly, and heavily weighted toward books I’ve read recently because those are the ones at the front of my brain. Even as I type, I’m tempted to cheat and add one or ten more.

I’m curious. What would your list look like?

* I didn’t even try to limit myself to one or two. To do that in any meaningful way you have to define your terms.


  1. Elizabeth Lunday on April 3, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    Two books that were tremendously impressive–books that really changed how I view the world–were 1491 and 1493, both by Charles C. Mann. The first looks at the Americas before the European arrival, and the second explores the “Columbian Exchange,” when the plants, animals, insects, and cultures of the Old and New Worlds collided. They’re histories, but also touch biology, ecology, economics, culture. Really recommend highly.

    I also agree with you wholeheartedly about anything by Barbara Tuchman. Some the other titles on your list are new me–I will have to check them out!

    • pamela on April 3, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      Both the Charles Mann books are wonderful! Good suggestions.

  2. pamela on April 3, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    A Twitter follower offered the following suggestion: Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. Another excellent suggestion.

  3. Stephanie Publicker on April 3, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    I spent the morning thinking about this and here’s my list. Some of these I’ve enjoyed so much I read them twice. I am not an historian and I think my choices are colored by a career spent trying to make government documents understandable by the average person and make toxicology comprehensible to the non-scientist. Meaning I appreciate clear writing.

    1) Making Haste from Babylon by Nick Bunker
    2) A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker
    3) King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
    4) Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
    5) The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge
    6) The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

    • pamela on April 3, 2018 at 5:09 pm

      Great list: I’m a big Hochschild fan, but the rest of these are new to me.

      Keep’em coming, people.

  4. Theresa on April 4, 2018 at 1:51 am

    Anything by Jill Lepore, but especially Book of Ages.

    • pamela on April 4, 2018 at 2:13 am


  5. Gina Conkle on April 5, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    1. An Early Meal by Daniel Serra & Hanna Tunberg (your rec. to me and I devoured it in 1 sitting…LOL! no pun intended).
    2. Women in Old Norse Society by Jenny Jochens
    3. Eleanor of Acquitaine by Alison Weir (another one I read in 1 sitting)
    4. The Far Traveler by Nancy Marie Brown
    5. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga ed. by Fitzhugh and Ward
    6. Downside Abbey Discovers: Bristol Georgian Cookbook: Over 100 Original Everyday Recipes, Written c. 1793 ed. by Davis

    These are books I’ve read and re-read while the last one is a recent read. A few stand out because post-it notes stick out at all angles from the pages. The other interesting thing of late is my curiosity about food, culture, and history. I’ve bought 2 other food history books (but haven’t had the chance to read). I thank you, Pam, for this fork in the road when you introduced me to An Early Meal.

    Happy reading to all!

    • pamela on April 5, 2018 at 7:12 pm

      Some old friends on this list and some new to me!

      That place where food, culture, and history meet can be pretty fascinating. The one I’ve acquired most recently (though not yet read) is Lizzie Collingham. The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World

      • Stephanie Publicker on April 9, 2018 at 12:01 am

        I just finished The Taste of Empire. While reading it I felt my brain expanding and my understanding of how we got to the present deepened.

        In my earlier post, I neglected to mention a writer who is witty and engaging. Ben Macintyre is British and he writes about WWII from spies to covert operations. My husband and I listen to his books on long trips and we end up not noticing how long we’ve been driving.

        • pamela on April 10, 2018 at 7:37 pm

          Okay! Moving The Taste of Empire up the To-Be-Read list!

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