Last month I posted this list of holiday book recommendations. They’re all works of high quality popular history, with some verging in a more academic direction, because that is all I read. This was inspired by, part of, an idea I’ve been percolating for some time of starting a TPM Book Club as part of TPM. For now, as we’re at the tail end of the year I wanted to add a few more recommendations.
Unlike that other list I want add a short review in each case. This is just a list of books, most published in the last few years which I considered very good.
Before adding my list I thought I should say something about the criteria I apply to recommendations. The critical one is quite subjective. If a book doesn’t hold my attention I usually stop reading. You can learn a lot of information page by page. You don’t always need to read it from cover to cover. So a critical part of my judgment about a book is whether it engages me enough, sufficiently engrosses me that I finish reading it. That is only a threshold criteria. But it’s a key one. The engagement, though, is a particular one: does the book bring me into an unfamiliar world, which is past always is, and make me need to understand and absorb the story I’m being told and the questions and problems it raises.
Why did the Roman Empire collapse? Why in the West and not in the East until many centuries later? Why did the people who lived in what we now call Turkey and spoke Greek consider themselves “Romans”? Are there explanations for why events unfolded in one way and not another. Can I get enough understanding of these other worlds where the explanation makes intuitive sense to me?
All these are basic questions. But if I’m honest, the real hook is more immediate and elemental. This is another world that I don’t know about but I want to understand it. If I’m particularly engaged I’ll hop from one book to the next in the same basic topic area, wanting to get to the bottom of the other the mysteries and complexities.
As many of you know, before I became a journalist and a publisher I studied to be an academic historian and got a PhD in history. One evening late in college I was having a meal with one of my college mentors and a couple other would-be historian undergraduates. We were talking about the pros and cons of graduate school and being a professional historian. At one point in the conversation, my mentor told us, “A lot of people decided they want to go to history graduate school because they’re interested in history or they like history. That’s not a good reason.”
This caught my attention in the way we sometimes hear something we did not quite expect, choose to set it aside or perhaps close to ignore it but yet return to it in later years, sometimes with a gathering significance. Eventually I realized that while I greatly enjoyed graduate school I shouldn’t be a professional historian. I’ve also thought a great deal about whether this was correct. Regardless, it was clear to me in retrospect that I loved history, that I had a seemingly insatiable appetite to read about it which has now lasted decades after I realized it shouldn’t be my profession. My core criteria for the books I recommend is that they engage that fascination and love for reading about the past. With that, a few more recommendations.
Eric H. Cline: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History): Fascinating work of historical archeology, the crisis of a world that existed in the eastern Mediterranean before what most of us consider the most ancient history.
Roger Crowley: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World: The Ottoman Siege of Malta, a great, fast-paced engrossing narrative of a key turning point event in the history of the Mediterranean, Europe and the lands of Islam. This is the kind of book I wish I could read for the first time ten more times.
David Abulafia: The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean: A broad ranging history of the whole history of human interaction with the Mediterranean sea. Fascinating. A book you can lose yourself in.
James Romm: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire: What happened after Alexander died was in many ways more interesting and more consequential than his own brief life.
Peter Heather: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians: Great narrative and interpretative history. Highly influential and one book that has shaped all of my subsequent understanding of the collapse of the Western Roman state and analogous developments in the 7th century Middle East and the 21st century global order.
Peter Heather: Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe: The story continued.
Peter Heather: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders: And continued more.
Hugh Thomas: Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico: In key ways this is an old fashioned work, what many will see as an unexamined euro-centrism. But this is the best narrative of the the conquest of Mexico I’ve read.
Lionel Casson: Libraries in the Ancient World: A small, fascinating, virtuoso book by a highly respected ancient historian. How did libraries work in the classical Greco-Roman world?