It’s always when I read a lot of history (and I read more new history in 2014 than in any previous year of my life) that I wonder even more intensely than usual why anybody would ever read anything else. Here, after all, are the stories of mankind in all its unpredictable voracity, told by chroniclers who – the good ones anyway – have spent months and years away from their families, their friends, and their porn in order to root through archives and bring forth the tales of murder, war, peace, and heroism that the Roman historian Livy (no slouch at it himself) rightly characterized as the essential narratives of humanity. It’s true that fiction can show you other worlds, and that’s a miracle in itself. But history done well can show you your world, as it was and by easy extension always will be – and these (in addition to the Honor Roll titles already mentioned!) are the best examples of history done well in 2014:
10. The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs) – The much-vexed continent of Africa has had its share of great accounts in print (including Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa and of course John Reader’s magnificent Africa: The Biography of a Continent), but to the best of my knowledge, The Fortunes of Africa marks the first time two of those great accounts have been written by the same person. Meredith produced the intensely good The Fate of Africa back in 2011, and in this new comprehensive history, he outdoes even himself.
9. Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea by Tim McGrath (New American Library) – McGrath’s account of the puny, brand-new Continental Navy and its confrontation with the veritable fleet of British warships sent to crush the American rebellion is rippingly told from start to finish, as exciting as the best of the Aubrey-Maturin novels
8. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by Jurgen Osterhammel (Princeton University Press) – Osterhammel’s panoramic history of the ‘long’ 19th Century (translated by Patrick Camiller) shifts so effortlessly from broad-stroke social analysis to fine-grained personal profiles and back that despite being very long and very detailed, it’s genuinely compelling. You can read my full review here.
7. Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648 by Mark Greengrass (Viking) – The Penguin History of Europe continues with this magisterial volume detailing the history and surprisingly wide-ranging after-effects of the Protestant Reformation across all aspects of European society and beyond. Greengrass’s historical insights glitter on every page – as a work of Church history, the book could hardly be bettered.
6. The Early Morning of War by Edward G. Longacre (University of Oklahoma Press) – Longacre’s nuts-and-bolts history of the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 is so spirited in its telling and so authoritative in its presentation that it takes its place immediately as a masterpiece of military history, as magnificent a portrait of its battle as Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red (about Antietam) or Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo.
5. The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plohky (Basic Books) – Plohky’s shrewd book about the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 is very strong on the history of the period (including quite a lot that will be new even to experts) and even stronger on the author’s witty and often subversive revisionism – a very droll, very Russian account of the U.S.S.R.’s sudden disintegration.
4. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel (The Belknap Press) – The surface implausibility of Motadel’s subject, the uneasy interactions between the Third Reich and the Muslim world, turns out to be remarkably fruitful in Motadel’s handling, revealing a great deal about the Muslim populations of almost a century ago, and revealing even more about the curious combination of ruthlessness and stupidity that was Nazi Germany. You can read my full review here.
3. Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America by Donald Miller (Simon and Schuster) – Miller’s sprawling, muscular history of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th Century bristles with oversized personalities – everybody from Babe Ruth to F. Scott Fitzgerald – and with huge amounts of the author’s fantastic writing. You can read my full review here
2. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright (Knopf) – This slim, packed narrative history of the 1978 Camp David conference at which U.S. President Jimmy Carter worked hard to broker a peace between Anwar Sadat’s Egypt and Menachem Begin’s Israel is so effortlessly readable that its meaty historical insights actually sneak up on you. You can read my full review here.
1. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham (Thomas Dunne Books) – The history of the Second World War isn’t exactly short on horrors, but for its weird, terrifying combination of tragedy and science fiction, no incident in the war matches the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Paul Ham’s book, the best work of history in 2014, captures that tragedy better than any other study of the subject. You can read my full review here.
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