I routinely get questions from friends and readers about the best books on particular topics in history. The choices available to us are virtually infinite, especially with the advent of self-publishing and the digitization of older books.
As with everything else in our consumer society, however, our options for history books are not equal. Think of books as being like food. Food quality runs along what we might call a “palatability” continuum. On one end of the continuum are highly processed foods like Pringles or Reese’s cups. They taste really good, but have virtually no nutritional value.
On the other end of the palatability scale are foods that are really good for you, but don’t taste so great. My son is on a healthy eating kick, and he recently made a smoothie. It involved celery, kale, and similar ingredients. It was extremely healthy, but it looked and tasted awful.
What we’re ideally looking for in food (and books) is a “just right” option in the middle—something that tastes great but also has nutritional value. For example, a locally farmed roasted chicken, with a side of well-seasoned steamed broccoli. Sorry if you don’t like broccoli—I do!
History books are a lot like those food choices. On one end of the spectrum are breezy, easily digested books about topics that might be interesting (usually about war or well-known politicians) but don’t challenge us intellectually. On the other end are well-researched books by academic scholars which are not very accessible except to a few other specialists. They often sell only a couple hundred copies. (I am setting aside the question here of history books that are really just polemics and, at worst, invent or hide evidence, are intellectually dishonest, or are even plagiarized.)
We’d ideally want to spend most of our reading time in the happy middle of the history and nonfiction book continuum, feasting on books that are intellectually robust AND well-written.
How do we find such books? It is often not easy. The books that are the easiest to find are often intellectual junk food. Marketers push junk food hard, and they do the same with ephemeral books. We often hear about or see books (on the front table of bookstores, in Amazon results, or in newspaper ads) because big trade publishers paid to have you see those books. Occasionally those books are intellectually serious, but often they are not.
There are three great ways to discern the intellectual value of a book. First, consider the author’s profile. Does the author have a position or track record that would suggest that he or she is a qualified expert in the topic? If you’re reading on a specifically Christian history topic, for example, does the person hold a position at a seminary or similar scholarly employer that suggests they have credentials and trustworthiness? Conversely, one of the most common warning signs is when an author parlays political, religious, or media connections in order to write on a history topic on which they (or their co-author/ghost writer, who did most of the work) have no obvious expertise.
Candidly, Fox News is the worst offender on this point—their hosts and former hosts have produced dozens of history-themed books in recent years. Some of these books may be modestly worthwhile, but why would we look to a Fox News host to tell us about a history topic that many other scholars and experts have devoted years to understanding? Often I’m afraid that the reason we choose them is that Fox hosts have unparalleled ability to market their books.
Second, look at the publisher. Some publishers traffic mainly in junk food history, while others stake their brand on publishing highly qualified, respected authorities. (I am speaking here mostly of the secular publishing business; many at TGC know the Christian publishing business far better than I do.) Trade publishers like Knopf and Basic Books, and academic houses like Yale and Oxford University Press, base their reputations on doing books that are readable but are serious, influential, and academically credible. Rarely books at such presses turn out not to be credible, but in general these are the types of presses that base their business on hitting the sweet spot—intellectual seriousness plus readability. (Major academic presses like Oxford tend to have both academic and trade book divisions—their books that are priced less than about $30 are the trade books.)
Finally, use reliable sources to vet books before you buy. The primary reason that I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal is because of their book reviews (daily, and in their weekend book review section). They generally only review books from credible authors and presses, and use credentialed experts to do the reviews. Reading reviews in the Journal, the New York Review of Books, and similar outlets, introduces me to a wide range of books that I might be interested in reading, but are not in my field. (It is part of my job to keep up with books in colonial and Revolutionary American history, the history of evangelicalism, and related topics—I tend to find out about such books through more specialized academic sources like history journals.)
I do a lot of reading in nonfiction and history topics that are well out of my specialty. I always try to apply the standards above to my own reading choices. One example of such a terrific nonfiction book, which I have been re-reading under shelter-in-place, is John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010). This book is an all-time favorite of mine, but it is _way_ outside of my specialty—it is the true story of a hunt for a man-eating tiger in southern Siberia. The riveting story is interspersed with reflections in politics, economy, and the environment in post-Soviet Russia.
It’s been a while since I first purchased and read the book, but I believe that I came across it first in a laudatory New York Times review of the book. That review vetted the book for me as a serious title in a field in which I had virtually no bearings. Vaillant himself has written for a host of well-known national periodicals and has won major American and Canadian awards for his writing. The book is with Knopf, one of my recommended publishers in nonfiction and history writing.
It is on a geographic topic that interests me personally, partly because of a summer I spent doing missionary work in nearby Vladivostok, Russia. But the incredibly well-researched book opened up a cultural and environmental world to me that I knew almost nothing about. Plus, the story of the tiger was utterly riveting. You won’t always have that kind of success in picking a book, but a little discernment can help make your history reading profitable and enjoyable at the same time.
See also my periodic “5 Great Books” posts, such as “5 Great Books on Thomas Jefferson.”