Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

12 History Books to Read

A reddit reader posed the question “I want to read 12 history books in one year to know ‘all the things’, what should be on the list?”

After much debate, the 12 below were chosen.

1. A History of the Modern World

…offers a wide-ranging survey that helps readers understand both the complexities of great events (e.g., the French Revolution, the First World War, or the collapse of great imperial systems) and the importance of historical analysis. It also provides a careful summary of the modern political changes that have affected the social and cultural development of all modern cultures.

2. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

This is the best history we have of Europe in the postwar period and not likely to be surpassed for many years.

3. Walking Since Daybreak

Part history, part memoir, this unconventional account of the fate of the Baltic nations is also an important reassessment of WWII and its outcome.

4. A People’s Tragedy

Written in a narrative style that captures both the scope and detail of the Russian revolution, Orlando Figes’s history is certain to become one of the most important contemporary studies of Russia as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

5. China: A History

Keay’s narrative spans 5,000 years, from the Three Dynasties (2000–220 BC) to Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China and the past three decades of economic growth. Broadly chronological, the book presents a history of all the Chinas—including regions (Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria) that account for two-thirds of the People’s Republic of China land mass but which barely feature in its conventional history.

6. The Arabs, A History

No better guide to the modern history of the Arab world could be found than Eugene Rogan. He is attentive as much to the insider accounts in Arab memoirs as to the imperial schemes hatched in drawing rooms in Paris and London, as concerned with popular movements and uprisings as with elite reformism, and unafraid to confront directly and with the best evidence and documentation available the vexed issues of colonialism, Orientalism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

7. Orientalism

Regardless of whether the reader agrees with it, anyone with an interest in the Middle East should have read this book at least once.

8. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

The twentieth century is usually seen as “the century of total war,” but as the historian David Bell argues in this landmark work, the phenomenon actually began much earlier, in the age of Napoleon. Bell takes us from campaigns of “extermination” in the blood-soaked fields of western France to savage street fighting in ruined Spanish cities to central European battlefields where tens of thousands died in a single day. Between 1792 and 1815, Europe plunged into an abyss of destruction, and our modern attitudes toward war were born.

9. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution

a work of majestic scale, written with great skill. It explores the growing consciousness, during a half century of revolutionary change, of the oldest and most extreme form of human exploitation. Concentrating on the Anglo-American experience, the historian also pursues his theme wherever it leads in western culture. His book is a distinguished example of historical scholarship and art.

10. Old World Encounters

…examines cross-cultural encounters before 1492, focusing in particular on the major cross-cultural influences that transformed Asia and Europe during this period: the ancient silk roads that linked China with the Roman Empire, the spread of the world religions, and the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century. The author’s goal throughout the work is to examine the conditions–political, social, economic, or cultural–that enable one culture to influence, mix with, or suppress another. On the basis of its global analysis, the book identifies several distinctive pattern of conversion, conflict, and compromise that emerged from cross-cultural encounters.

11. Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1550: Age of Discretion

I believe this is the best medieval history textbook.

12. Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age

Green offers a particularly trenchant analysis of what has been seen as the conscious dissemination in the East of Hellenistic culture, and finds it largely a myth fueled by Victorian scholars seeking justification for a no longer morally respectable imperialism. His work leaves us with a final impression of the Hellenistic Age as a world with haunting and disturbing resemblances to our own. This lively, personal survey of a period as colorful as it is complex will fascinate the general reader no less than students and scholars.