Friday, December 13, 2013

My Favorite Narrative History Books

The impetus for this post came from Phil, who  commented a month back:
You know, if you're ever stuck for post ideas, you've read more than enough history and nonfiction to start doing top-ten lists. "My Ten Favorites on the French Revolution"--that type of thing. I'd read the hell out of that (and in fact it would be pretty useful, as I find myself looking for those kinds of things every time I start to try to read more history. "Should I bother with Hobsbawm? If only a smart person would just tell me the best books on the age of revolutions!"--that type of thing.)

I'm flattered by the compliment, but in fact a quick look at my reading list over the past few years will reveal I'm probably not a very smart person.  I like history, but I tend towards more easily readable armchair histories and historical novels than hard hitting indepth analysis like Hobsbawm.  And then when I do read Hobsbawm, I spend most of the review just complaining about how difficult it was.  (This may be a sign I never would have succeeded in pursuing an advanced degree in history after all.)

But then I thought: Well, if narrative histories are what I like, then why not just do a list about that?
So, these are my favorite narrative history books.  I'm defining narrative history here as a book that tells history like a story, instead of analyzing it.  The author not only has to know their facts, but they have to have a lot of literary talent to write these facts up as an engaging narrative.  These are history books that almost read like novels--history books for pure enjoyment, books you can read to relax at night, or just get completely absorbed in during the afternoon.
(By the way, I'm not completely sure I'm using the correct word here.  Should I say "narrative histories" or "armchair histories"? Popular histories?  Literary histories? Novelistic histories?  What's the best word to describe history written as story?)

I decided rather than try and artificially inflate or deflate my list to reach 10, I would just list all my favorites, however many that turned out to be.

Wonderfully written.  Just a pure pleasure to read from beginning to end.

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines
Again, great story telling.  All sorts of wonderful little interesting facts or digressions about both men.  Lafayette in particular really had an interesting life.

Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen
If you're interested more in biography than philosophy (as I am) then this is an excellent biography that examines the idiosyncrasies of the man, and also includes lots of interesting gossip about his personal life.

Revolutions of 1848 by Priscilla Robertson
There are a lot of analytical histories of the revolutions of 1848, but this is the best narrative history I've read.  It's not comprehensive of every revolt that occurred during 1848, but takes you in depth into the stories of several of them. And, as I said in my original review: Robertson is an excellent story teller, and she's able to not only make the history come alive, but also to build a lot of suspense in the narrative. The reader is constantly turning the page to find out what happens next. On the whole, it makes for enthralling reading.

Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia by William Shawcross
As the title indicates, this is a very polemical history.  And a somewhat depressing subject matter.  But it's also extremely well-written.  William Shawcross, a journalist by trade, brings all his powers of story-telling to the book.

The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne
This may not be the orthodox leftist account of the siege and the commune, but this is a list about story-telling abilities and narrative qualities, and that Alistair Horne does very well.  As I said in my original review:
Alistair Horne is one of those few historians gifted with the ability to write well. This is one of those great armchair history books that reads more like a story than an academic thesis. Horne writes in clear easy to understand prose, and he gives lovingly detailed and almost literary descriptions of all the principle characters.

I criticized this book in my review for ignoring the story of the republican revolutionaries, and primarily focusing on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  But if you ignore the book's focus, and only judge it by how well the author does at telling the story he sets out to tell, then it's excellent, well-written narrative history.

I'm not normally interested in art history, but as I wrote in my review: This book is rich with historical background on all of these events and more. And Ross King is a talented writer who has a gift for story-telling. I really enjoyed listening to him as he narrated through all these events.

Don't be fooled by the title.  This is one of the best narrative history books I've ever read.  Each chapter is pure story-telling art from beginning to end.

Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green
As I said in my review: Green wants to tell an interesting story, and bring to life all the colorful characters of the past.And he does this remarkably well. A truly skilled writer, this is one of those history books that almost reads like a novel.

And last but not least:

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Yeah, I know.  I just got done giving this book a mixed review, and now I'm already putting it on my list of favorites.
As with some of the other books on this list, I do have my criticisms of the book, but the writing style isn't one of them.  For all the books faults, Simon Sebag Montefiore does write very engaging prose, even if I got a little bit bored by all the details of young Stalin's life.

And, if we're including well-written historical memoirs as good armchair history, then I'd like to add the following two additions:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
It's not just one of the most important ideological books written on the heartbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it's also just really really well written, and you get sucked into the narrative.

The Insurrectionist by Jules Valles
Jules Valles's roman-a-clef first hand account of the Paris Commune, with some literary liberties taken to make it read more like a work of literature than a straight history.  Fascinating reading.

And one last edition:

Monarchy by David Starkey
I'm putting this last book as an "also ran" because I generally think of narrative history books as telling a detailed story about a certain person or event.  This book, covering several hundred years of British history, is much more of a survey history book.
And yet, as I said originally in my review: The author David Starkey is one of those delightful authors who likes to tell history as a story. And he has excellent skills as a story teller. He focuses in on the quirks and peculiarities of each monarch, and has lots of interesting anecdotes. Despite the rather intimidating sounding title ("from the middle ages to modernity"), this book is incredibly easy to digest and almost reads like a novel.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: How Climate Change Became a 'Liberal Hoax'
and from Christian conservatives have perfected playing the victim card