Best Books of 2016 – History!
The field of history-writing displayed its usual dazzling variety in 2016, with commercial titles ranging from 120-page large-type bestsellers containing not one single actual fact to 120-page monographs containing not one readable sentence – and the whole spectrum in between. But as great as that variety was, there were some common strands running through a great deal of it, and one of those was a very well-done turning to the Braudel-style “Big Picture,” books that worked on broad canvases and took invigoratingly fresh looks at old, established subjects. Several such books are on the list this time around of the best history books of the year:
10. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh (Knopf) – In lively, fast-moving prose, Whitmarsh tells a broad-strokes version of a story often curiously overlooked: the long history of atheism, particularly in classical times. For as long as humanity has believed in gods, a certain percentage of humans have called the whole thing so much nonsense, and this book gives readers a very engaging new version of their story. You can read my full review here
9. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s) – Considering the sheer number of books published every year about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, it’s astonishing that David Cesarani’s big book, very handsomely produced by St. Martin’s, should feel so new. Like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands from six years ago, Final Solution takes a subject a subject so well-known as to be a self-contained orthodoxy and examines all its assumptions from a fresh stance of objectivity. The result is amazingly thought-provoking; no Holocaust library is complete without this book.
8. Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell (Pantheon) – At first glance, the central gimmick of this book – Tom Bissell traveling to the various places traditionally held to be the final resting places of the Apostles and then cleverly relating the tourist-style lore of such places – seems disappointingly shallow, a kind of Stations of the Cross version of Bill Bryson. But Bissell doesn’t disappoint: he digs into his subject and delivers a rich cross-section of early Christianity. You can read my full review here
7. Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon) – This book, too, could easily have been trite in the hands of a different writer – but Susan Jacoby is so reliably superb as a writer and historical thinker that I went into this book expecting great heaps of fascinating stuff, and that’s exactly what I got: a thoroughly rigorous and, you should pardon the term, spirited study of the personal and social mechanisms involved when a person (including a great many famous people) decides to switch from believing in the existence of one imaginary being to believing in a different one. You can read my full review here
6. East West Street by Philippe Sands (Knopf) – The heart of this extraordinary book is the author’s painstaking detective work into the lives of the two men who created and elaborated on the concepts of both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” – two men who, it turns out, were both law students at Lviv University in the early decades of the 20th century. But Philippe Sands both broadens and deepens that inquiry by mixing in disarming amounts of his own family history, and the book that results is one of the most invigorating ideological excavations since Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost.
5. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon) – The full, frustrating horror of the Attica uprising, which involved over at thousand inmates and eventually provoked a violent military response, is laid out in these pages in scrupulous detail, and Heather Ann Thompson charges the details with real page-turning pathos – and in the process sheds new light on almost every stage of the event.
4. Brothers at Arms by Larrie Ferreiro (Penguin Random House) – This amazing book is only partly about the subject most readers would think about when they think about the American Revolution; as Ferreiro’s clear, vivid prose rolls on and on, the typical account of the Revolution shrinks and shrinks, until it’s just one pocket conflict in a sprawling hemispheric war between the British Empire and its enemies. Absolutely eye-opening. You can read my full review here
3. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwath (FSG) – As with so many books on this list this year, Robert Gerwath’s study of the First World War and its sprawling, complicated aftermath is very briskly paradigm-resetting. Gerwath presents a far broader canvas of the Great War and the cataclysmic thunderclap of violence it unleashed than any comprehensive account to appear in years. You can read my full review here
2. How to Survive a Plague by David France (Knopf) – The underlying contrast of this great, heartbreaking book – that David France could use such lively, gorgeous prose to describe such an ugly, depressing catastrophe – is just one of the many fruitful contrasts France puts to use in crafting the definitive narrative of the AIDS epidemic. He turns a clear, unsparing light on the many different personalities involved in the fight to understand and fight both the disease and the public’s perception of its victims. His book and Blood in the Water are two superb examples of contemporary-events historical writing at its finest.
1. The Slave’s Cause by Manisha Sinha (Yale University Press) – The paradigm-shifting in Manisha Sinha’s monumental book, 2016’s best work of history, happens along lines of agency: the long history of the abolitionist cause in North America is broadened to include the intellectual ardor, the idealogical cold anger, and the life-endangering heroism of the many Africans, slaves and former slaves, who fought for the cause right alongside the better-known white leaders of the movement. You can read my full review here
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