Josh’s Epic List of Books

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Over recent months I’ve had a number of readers write in to ask if I’d put all my book reviews and recommendations in one place. So I’ve done that. After the jump are recommendations for just over 60 books – all what I’d call serious popular history, with a few examples stretching over into more academic books. The topics range from language and alphabets to Rome and Late Antiquity to Christianity, Islam, the Renaissance, pre-history and ancient civilizations, Israel, Eastern Europe and a number of other topics. Many of them I’ve recommended at some point over the last couple decades. A number are recommended for the first time. And I’m not done. I have at least 15 or 20 more I plan to add.

I’m posting this today. But I mean it to be a reference which I will link to and add to in the future.

A quick note on the asterisks that appear after some of the books – two stars and three stars in some cases. These are not ratings or measures of the quality of the given book. They are very personal notes about books that either changed my thinking or understanding of some aspect of history in some major way or books which I found particularly or even uniquely engrossing. So that can be as much the subject matter or the particular matrix of my interests as anything about the quality of the book itself.

Many of these if you search the titles on TPM you’ll find a fuller review and discussion of the book. Here I’m just listing them. Later I plan to add some additional notation distinguishing those which are more natural page turners (everything is relative) from those that are more challenging reads or ones that are simply more obscure in their subject matter or very granular.

Language, the Origins of Writing and the History of Print

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster. (***)

The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan (**)

The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree. (**)

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree (**)

The Gutenberg Revolution by John Man

The Book by Keith Houston

Pre-History and Ancient Civilizations

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia by Barry Cunliffe (**)

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (***)

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David Anthony (***)

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William G Dever (**)

The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) by Eric H. Cline (***)

Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire by James Romm

Mediterranean Civilizations and the Renaissance

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley (**)

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia (**)

The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale

Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King (**)

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (**)

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley

Rome and Late Antiquity

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (History of the Ancient World) by Michael Kulikowski

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (The Penguin History of Europe) by Chris Wickham (**)

The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather (***)

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe by Peter Heather (***)

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders by Peter Heather (***)

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson (**)

The Ancient Mariners by Lionel Casson (**)

Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt

The History of Islam

My interest in the origins of Islam is focused on efforts to apply source critical methods to the Quran and early texts of Islam. These source and text critical methods have been established in the study of early Christianity and Judaism and their basic texts for more than a century. But they are only beginning to be applied to the origins of Islam. As such, some of these works are highly revisionist and advance theses which are not necessarily widely accepted among scholars of Islam. This applies to Shoemaker’s work and to a lesser extent Hoyland’s.

Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman by W. Montgomery Watt.

In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of the Islamic Empire by Robert G. Hoyland (**)

The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam by Stephen J. Shoemaker (**)

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland

The History of Christianity and the Ancient World

I have a longstanding interest in the origins of Christianity. The two MacCulloch books here are extremely good but generally traditional in their understanding of their topic. Gager’s and Fredriksen’s are more source critical understandings of the first decades of Christianity with a particular focus on the reinterpretation of Paul’s relationship to Judaism, which has been underway for the last few decades.

The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmid MacCulloch

A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State by Charles Freeman

A New History of Early Christianity by Charles Freeman

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation by Paula Fredriksen

Reinventing Paul by John Gager (***)

The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul by John Gager

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard E. Rubenstein

Israel and Zionism

Most of these books are by Israelis. But most are by the so-called ‘New Historians’ who began publishing in the 1980s and had a critical take on the history of Zionism and Israel which had been widely accepted within Israel until that time. They focused specifically on the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict itself and what happened in the Israeli war of independence of 1948. Morris and Schlaim are most closely associated with this school though Segev is also fairly placed in that general group. Michael Oren is now in politics and is a more traditional take on the Six Day War.

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East by Tom Segev (**)

1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War by Benny Morris

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris

The Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael Oren

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World by Avi Shlaim

A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel by Walter Laqueur

One Palestine Complete by Tom Segev

The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon (**)

The Era of European Expansion and Discovery

The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf

The Spanish Armada by Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker

Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet by Nicholas Crane

Holy War: How Vasco da Gama’s Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations by Nigel Cliff

Crop Cultures, Imperialism and Globalization

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire by Roy Moxham

For all the Tea in China by Sarah Rose

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield

Europe, The Great Wars, Fascism and Communism

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth (***)

The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 by Timothy Snyder (***)

Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski

Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski

Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? by David Fromkin

Various Topics

Love Thy Neighbor by Peter Maass (**)

Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France by Ernest R. May

Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund

William the Silent by C.V. Wedgwood

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

China, A History by John Keay

The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander Pantsov and Steven I Levine

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 by John Darwin

Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango

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