Since retiring two years ago, I’ve had ample time to reflect on my thirty-seven years as a history teacher. I always considered myself very lucky in my choice of vocation, since I loved to read history even as a young person. During my years as a teacher, I felt a professional responsibility to continue to read and keep up with the most current scholarship. This never seemed like work for me; the only burden I felt was finding enough time to indulge my passion for reading. However, raising children and spending time with the family often had a higher priority. Nevertheless, vacations and summers provided the opportunity to catch up, and I did my best to take advantage of these times to keep up and stay current.
My lifelong love of reading got me thinking about the books that were most helpful to me in the classroom. Consequently, I’ve been asking myself the question ‘what would a list of my top ten history books look like?’ While some of these books are among my favorites, that factor was not the most important ingredient for a book to make this list (that’s a list for another time!). Rather, these are the books that informed me about a period, event, person, or theme in history, and influenced the judgements I made in front of my students.
1. Henry Kissinger. Diplomacy (1994). If you aren’t a fan of Kissinger, you may have to put personal feelings aside. Focusing on Europe, this book is a highly informative history of international relations from the early modern period through the twentieth century. Balance of power politics, raisons d’etat, and RealPolitik dominate his realist approach to diplomacy from Richelieu to the twentieth century.
2. J.H. Plumb. The Italian Renaissance (1961). This old classic is a simple yet instructive series of essays on a variety of topics related to the age of the renaissance in Italy. I love this book for its readability, and because it hits all the relevant topics of the Italian Renaissance.
3. Jasper Ridley. Statesman and State: Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and the Politics of Henry VIII (1987). If you need some schooling on how politics was played in early modern Europe, this dual biography of Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey is what you need! I read this as a very young teacher and it forever shaped my understanding of how politics worked in this period.
4. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize winning book lays down the idea that the roots of the American Revolution could be found in the Whig desire for liberty, and that these ideas could be found in pamphlets dating as far back as the 1730s.
5. Peter Gay. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy – From Baudelaire to Becket and Beyond (2007). If the meaning of modern art and literature are as confounding to you as they are to me, Gay’s book can help you. He clearly explains the dramatic turn taken by western culture around the mid-nineteenth century that spawned “the modern.”
6. Joseph and Frances Gies. Life in a Medieval City (1969). This husband and wife team wrote a series of books about life for ordinary people in the Middle Ages. Accessible, clear, and highly respected, a great aid in teaching the realities of life in medieval Europe.
7. Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011). The author recounts how the unlikely recovery of an ancient Roman text, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, played a key role in the introduction of ideas that sparked the Italian Renaissance and the origins of modern society. I wish I had this book twenty years earlier!
8. Adam Hochschild. King Leopold’s Ghost: Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999). Hochschild exposes the worst aspects of nineteenth-century European imperialism in a very graphic way. The crimes of the Belgian King Leopold will outrage your students and spark many questions!
9. Richard Hofstadter. America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971). Hofstadter draws a comprehensive picture of American society by the mid-eighteenth century, including immigration, servitude, and religious life.
10. Ross King. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2001). A classic of art history, King tells the fascinating story of Brunelleschi’s construction of the Duomo over the Cathedral of Florence, one of the iconographic images of the Florentine Renaissance. A frequent summer read for my AP European history students.
· Olivier Bernier. Louis XIV: A Royal Life. – Great biography of the Sun King.
· Anne Llewellyn Barstow. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. – Interesting thesis on the causes of this tragic chapter in European and American history.
· Norman Cantor. In the Wake of the Plague. – The medievalist Cantor explains the greatest disaster in the last two millennia.
· Natalie Zemon Davis. The Return of Martin Guerre. – Fascinating story based on the true story of peasants in sixteenth century France. An excellent movie with English subtitles exists.
· Anthony Everett. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. – The politics of Rome on the threshold of the end of Republican Rome.
· Maurice Keen. The Pelican History of Medieval History. – Great overview of Europe from Charlemagne to the fifteenth century.
· James Schlesinger. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. – Schlesinger reminds us of the importance and power of history, and how it can be used as a weapon.
· Desmond Seward: Metternich: The First European. – Biography of the architect of the Vienna Conference and the chief conservative of the European nineteenth century.
· Gerhard Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. – Comprehensive military history of the Second World War by a scholar of the period.
· Robert Wilken. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. – Unique look at the emergence of Christianity through the eyes of the Romans.
Narrowing the list to the titles above was challenging, but thinking about this was fun. I found myself cutting titles that I initially thought were absolutely essential, but I finally decided the books on this list should truly represent books that impacted me in the greatest way in my interaction with students. There are dozens of other books that could have made the list, but for me, these books were legitimately important.
What does your list look like? Love to hear comments from you! Or, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for my next post for results of your feedback.