I read more books in 2015 than in any other year of my life (I exceeded my previous personal best – which was 2014 – in mid-December of this year and just kept going), and a great many of those books were squarely in my preferred genres of history and biography – in fact, as with a couple of other genres in this year-end round-up, I believe I read virtually every major new release work of history published in English in 2015. I read my share of monographs and scholarly books as well, but I concentrated on the stuff published by mainstream presses and aimed a mainstream audience, and I had a whale of a good time. The picking was very, very tough, but here’s the top titles from 2015:
10. The English and Their History by Robert Tombs (Knopf) – Gigantic, panoramic history of England come along with such regularity – and so regularly based on the same batch of secondary sources – that there’s a temptation to view them more as the re-issuing of textbooks than as new creations. But the saving difference is narrative wit, and in this Robert Tombs’s book shines; this really is a gigantic, panoramic history of England to own and re-read. You can read my full review here.
9.The Age of Catastrophe by Heinrich August Winkler (Yale University Press) & Out of Ashes by Konrad Jaurusch (Princeton University Press) – The 20th century in its broader scope got a large amount of critical attention from historians this year, with the undergirding thesis being that the one-two hammer-blows of the First and Second World Wars in many ways traumatized the entire century (a thesis that will perhaps be familiar to readers of the very first issue of Open Letters Monthly). These two enormous books deal with that trauma in eloquent and learned ways, and yet they read very differently, with Winkler a bit more concerned with the trauma and Jaurusch a bit more concerned with the recovery. Each immensely worth reading.
8. The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis (Harvard University Press) – The typical thumbnail view of the Byzantine Empire – that it was hyper-sensuous, hyper-corrupt, and prematurely senescent for most of its existence – has always annoyed its serious historians, and in this intelligent, compacted study, the real Byzantium gets a stunning narration. You can read my review here.
7. The End of the Cold War by Robert Service (Public Affairs) – Maybe the primary salient characteristic of the fifty-year period known as the Cold War was a depressing characteristic: its stability. It seemed poised to go on forever, which made the experience of living through its abrupt end all the more amazing. Robert Service (the great historian, not the great poet) here tells that amazing story with sure-handed erudition. You can read my full review here
6. Black Earth by Timothy Snyder (Crown) – In this harrowing follow-up to his Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder continues to re-tell the story of the Holocaust in ways it’s never been told before, radically shifting conceptions of both its geography and its very nature. This is required reading about one of
the century’s signature traumas. You can read my full review here.
5. KL by Niklaus Wachsmann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The actual beating heart of that signature trauma – the system of concentration and death camps strung throughout the short-lived Nazi Empire – has never had a more thorough and readable history than this devastating volume by Niklaus Wachsmann, in which he traces in relentless detail the administration of a nightmare. You can read my full review here.
4. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Viking) – Half a century after John Hersey’s Hiroshima changed – established, really – Western conceptions about the atomic bomb blast that destroyed its title city, Susan Southard here does a similarly searching and eloquent job with Hiroshima’s sister city in devastation, Nagasaki, and like Hersey, Southard tells most of her story by highlighting a handful of survivors and telling their incredible stories. You can read my full review here.
3. The Witches by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown) – The incredible story of the Salem Witch Trials has been told many, many times before, and even fans of her fantastic Cleopatra might have wondered what Stacy Schiff could possibly bring to the tale of madness and accusation in Salem that would warrant a new book. And the answer is the same as it was with the oft-chronicled Cleopatra: she brings her vivid storytelling art, her ability to craft an irresistibly thoughtful narrative. Were I still working in bookstores, I’d be handing a copy of this book to every person walking into the shop.
2. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, Nicholas Stargardt (Basic Books) – The subject of this intensely good book – the rise and fall of Nazi Germany – has likewise been written many times before, but much like Stacy Schiff, Nicholas Stargardt somehow manages to write about his subject with an energy and freshness of insight that makes it riveting all over again. You can read my full review here
1. In These Times by Jenny Uglow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – I’ve never read a history of the Napoleonic Wars quite like this one, the Stevereads Best History of 2015; it’s the story, sifted from dozens of diaries and tranches of letters, of the people caught in this long and complicated conflict, and it’s a story that builds in nuance and intensity as it goes along, thanks to Jenny Uglow’s powerful narrative gifts. You can read my full review here.
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