The best books on Ukraine and Russia, recommended by Serhii Plokhy

Thousands of people have been killed since 2014 in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in a war that has been rife with disinformation, misleading narratives and false flag operations. Here Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, recommends books to better understand the conflict, from an introductory work by an eminent historian to the latest work of some of Ukraine’s leading novelists.

The best books on World War I, recommended by Jonathan Boff

It’s been 100 years since World War I ended, but there is still very little consensus about what caused it, or what its consequences were. Historian Jonathan Boff talks us through the latest books and best modern interpretations of World War I.

The best books on American History, recommended by Brent Glass

Which are the best books on American history? Brent Glass, Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the world’s largest museum devoted to telling the story of America, chooses five standout books in a crowded field.

The Best Books on the American Civil War, recommended by Drew Gilpin Faust

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. Here, Drew Gilpin Faust, a leading historian of the American Civil War and former President of Harvard, recommends the best books to read about the conflict between North and South that tore the United States apart from 1861 till 1865 – and beyond.

The best books on Maoism, recommended by Julia Lovell

While researching Maoism, China expert Julia Lovell battled against two incorrect assumptions: “firstly that Maoism is a story of China; and secondly that Maoism is a story of the past.” Here she recommends five books for coming to grips with the global, still-relevant impact of Maoism.

The best books on Alexander the Great, recommended by Hugh Bowden

Alexander the Great never lost a battle and established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. From the earliest times, historians have argued about the nature of his achievements and what his failings were, both as a man and as a political leader. Here, Hugh Bowden, professor of ancient history at King’s College London, chooses five books to help you understand the controversies, the man behind the legends, and why the legends have taken the forms they have.

The best books on The Middle Ages, recommended by Hannah Skoda

Oxford medieval historian Hannah Skoda chooses her top five books on the Middle Ages, explaining why she finds the whole idea of their ‘middleness’ problematic and how a more global approach tends to shatter many long-held assumptions about the period.

The best books on The Silk Road, recommended by Valerie Hansen

From the Han dynasty to the time of Marco Polo, the routes connecting Asia, Africa and Europe—now known as the Silk Road—were responsible for enormous amounts of global trade. Yale historian Valerie Hansen, author of The Silk Road: A New History, introduces us to its rich history: “one of the reasons the Silk Road is a misnomer is that silk was not the main good moving along.”

The best books on The Reformation, recommended by Peter Marshall

On October 31st 1517, Martin Luther, an unknown friar in an obscure town in eastern Germany may or may not have posted a list of complaints to the door of his local church. His actions would lead to what was later called ‘the Reformation’ — a grisly period in European history that nonetheless paved the way for a more tolerant and pluralistic society. Peter Marshall, one of the period’s leading scholars, talks us through the best books on the Reformation.

The best books on Bosnia, recommended by Velma Šarić

As a teenager, Velma Šarić’s hometown of Kladanj welcomed refugees from eastern Bosnia as it was bombed and shelled, her primary school eventually becoming a shelter for people fleeing the massacre at Srebenica. Now she runs Sarajevo’s Post-Conflict Research Centre, trying to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. She recommends books to read on the Bosnian War and explains that it was not a war between different communities, but rather an assault on the country’s multiethnic, multicultural identity.

The best books on Brexit, recommended by Anand Menon

Brexit shook British politics in 2016 and, six years on, its long-term consequences both for the UK and for the European Union remain highly uncertain. Here political scientist and Brexit expert Anand Menon recommends books to help you understand Brexit, what caused it and why, and puts those trends in a wider global political context.

The best books on The Civil Rights Era, recommended by Lerone Martin

The struggle for Black freedom in America has been going on since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the continent, but it was the civil rights era of 1954 to 1968 that finally resulted in a raft of legislation that gave equal citizenship to Black people in the United States. Here, Professor Lerone Martin of Stanford University recommends the best books to understand the American civil rights movement, with a focus on some of the individuals who were key to its success.

The best books on Modern French History, recommended by Richard Vinen

The social and political development of France has been strongly contested ever since the country finally became a republic for good in 1870. Here, Professor Richard Vinen of King’s College London recommends five books that will help you understand modern France, all written in a golden age of French historical writing.

The best books on The Austro-Hungarian Empire, recommended by Jonathan Kwan

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is often viewed as unmanageable in its diversity, and its eventual collapse inevitable. But, as historian Jonathan Kwan explains, it was politically much more robust that people have given it credit for and its capital, Vienna, the most culturally vibrant place in Europe.

The best books on The Mughal Empire, recommended by Richard M. Eaton

The Mughals ruled the Indian subcontinent for three centuries, a multicultural empire that brought together an extraordinary mix of Mongol, Islamic, Persian and Indian practices, religious beliefs and philosophies. Here, historian Richard M. Eaton, a professor at the University of Arizona, chooses some of the best scholarly works on the Mughals that shed new light on how the empire functioned.

The best books on American Naval History, recommended by John Kroger

The story of the American navy is deeply intertwined with that of the nation, says John Kroger—former Chief Learning Officer to the US Navy—although we don’t always afford naval history the attention it deserves. Here he selects five of the best books about American naval history and predicts a renewed focus on Pacific naval defenses in the coming decades.

The best books on Angela Merkel, recommended by Tom Nuttall

For 16 years, as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel was the most powerful woman in the world. Here Tom Nuttall, the Economist’s Berlin bureau chief, talks us through books to help us understand her time in office, and explains how her East German upbringing influenced her style of governance.

The best books on The US Cabinet, recommended by Lindsay Chervinsky

In contrast to many other countries, the secretaries who serve in the United States cabinet aren’t chosen from among the country’s elected officials but entirely reflect the president’s personal choices. Here, presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, talks us through the role of the cabinet and recommends which books to read to understand more about it.

Best History Books of 2021, recommended by Paul Lay

Historical writing continues to shed new and interesting light on all manner of topics, including even much-written about subjects like Napoleon, who died 200 years ago this year. Paul Lay, the editor of History Today, offers his choices for the best history books published in 2021.

African American History Books, recommended by Imani Perry

Princeton Professor Imani Perry—a prolific scholar of African American Studies whose biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Looking For Lorraine,  won the 2019 PEN Biography Prize—recommends five books she considers essential to an understanding of the history of black life in America.

The best books on Joe Biden, recommended by Ronald A. Klain

On January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States. Here Ronald A. Klain, the veteran lawyer who is once again serving as Biden’s chief of staff, recommends books that show the man behind the public persona including his love of Irish poetry, the string of terrible personal tragedies that have affected his life and career, and his leading role in blocking a Supreme Court appointment that would’ve decimated abortion rights.

Best History of Medicine Books, recommended by Keith Wailoo

The history of medicine is not just the story of life-saving discoveries, it’s also about how medical advances interact with the society from which they emerge. Here Professor Keith Wailoo, a historian of medicine and public health at Princeton University, recommends books that shed light on the social history of medicine, especially in the United States.

The best books on The Crusades, recommended by Guy Perry

Once seen as a great romantic adventure, the Crusades tend to be viewed now as an early venture in Western imperialism. But, as the Oxford historian Guy Perry explains, there is nothing so simple about them. He chooses five books that get to the complex truth of the Crusades as historical phenomena.

The best books on Boudica, recommended by Richard Hingley

Boudica was an Iron Age queen who led her people into rebellion against Roman rule in the province of Britannia. She was defeated, but only after she had burned several towns, including London, to the ground. Here Richard Hingley, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, explains how to sift the truth from the myth, and why Boudica has remained an enduring source of fascination down the centuries.

Best Books on the History of the American South, recommended by Edward Ayers

To understand the America of today, you must understand the American South of the past, says historian Edward Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Here, he recommends five books to get started with, and also explains what his own books were aiming to contribute to the field of Southern history.

The best books on Saint Teresa of Avila, recommended by Rowan Williams

St Teresa of Avila was one of the towering figures of the Counter-Reformation, both as a theologian and as a reformer of the religious life. Here, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, discusses her insights into spiritual growth and prayer, the impact her Jewish roots had on her life and career, and why Bernini’s statue of her in ecstasy is unhelpful.

Best Books for History Reading Groups, recommended by Donna McBride

It’s a golden age for narrative history, with lots of highly readable books bringing to life many different aspects of the past, says historian Donna McBride. A Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, she has led ‘The Historians’ reading group there for the last five years. Here, she recommends some of the best popular histories the group has read and shares some tips on how to set up and run your own history reading group.

The best books on Assassinations, recommended by Michael Burleigh

From Julius Caesar to Jamal Khashoggi, assassinations often seem earth-shattering in their consequences. But, as historian Michael Burleigh explains, those consequences are rarely the ones the assassins intended. Here, he recommends the best books on assassinations and the assassins who carry them out, including the role of drones and PR agencies.

Best Graphic Histories, recommended by Eleanor Janega & Neil Emmanuel

Graphic histories can offer complex and layered insights into the past and are underused as a medium, argue historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Emmanuel, authors of The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Here, they recommend five graphic histories that show the power of comics not only for telling moving stories but also transmitting difficult concepts.

The best books on Catherine the Great, recommended by Andrei Zorin

She was born in 1729 as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, but by 1762 had become Empress of All Russia and went on to rule for 34 years as Catherine II. She regarded herself as an enlightened despot who embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and consorted with the French philosophes. Russian historian Andrei Zorin introduces the remarkably industrious and able politician who is remembered as Catherine the Great.

The best books on Naval History (20th Century), recommended by Nicholas Rodger

In the world wars of the twentieth century, naval warfare has often been given a secondary role. But as naval historian Nicholas Rodger explains, the protagonists who thought like that lost. Here, he chooses five books that explain the military role and development of navies over the course of the 20th century.

Key Philosophical Texts in the Western Canon, recommended by Nigel Warburton

Even if you’ve never studied philosophy, it’s nice to be able to read a few books and get a sense of what it’s all about. Here, we asked our philosophy editor, Nigel Warburton, to talk us through five key works of Western philosophy—many of them in the public domain and available for free as ebooks—and explain why, despite one or two odd conclusions or quirky writing styles, they’ve played such an important role in expanding our understanding of the world.

The Best Donald Trump Books, recommended by Tony Schwartz

Around the world, people were taken aback when the populist candidate, a real estate developer and reality TV show star called Donald Trump, was elected as the 45th President of the United States. Here Tony Schwartz, Trump’s co-author on his bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, talks us through how that happened and why Trump is so mesmerising, even to those who oppose him.

The Best History Books of 2020, recommended by Paul Lay

From the great Latin poet Ovid, to the poet of the 17th century English republic, John Milton. From the Jews in Reformation Europe, to the world of the Aztecs across the centuries. From the life of Ludwig van Beethoven to the importance of language, in all its varieties, to studying history. Paul Lay, editor of History Today, recommends his favourite history books of 2020.  

The best books on Mary Seacole, recommended by Jane Robinson

Mary Seacole looked after and provided support to British troops during the Crimean War (1853-1856), setting up a hotel for sick and recovering soldiers close to the fighting near Balaclava. In her day, she was as celebrated as Florence Nightingale, but it was not until the rediscovery and publication of her diary in the 1980s that she came to be widely known as a Victorian heroine in modern times. In 2016, a memorial statue of her was unveiled in London, the first in the UK in honour of a named Black woman. Here her biographer, Jane Robinson, tells us more about the remarkable life of Mary Seacole and the world she lived in.

The Best Mary Wollstonecraft Books, recommended by Sylvana Tomaselli

Mary Wollstonecraft lived by her pen and wrote trenchant critiques of the role of women and marriage in late 18th century British society. She died aged 38, a few days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley. She is often remembered for writing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but it was not in fact her best book, says Cambridge intellectual historian Sylvana Tomaselli. Here, she recommends books to read to get a good understanding of the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft, and the writers she was both influenced by and reacting against.

History of Prostitution Books, recommended by Siobhán Hearne

Societies of all different stamps have tried to eliminate prostitution but it never works and there are always unintended consequences. Siobhan Hearne, a historian of sexuality in Tsarist and Soviet Russia, explains how exploring the history of prostitution provides fascinating insights into social and political history as well as offering some genuine, and very clear, lessons from the past.

The best books on Thomas Jefferson, recommended by Andrew Burstein

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having written the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing claim that “all men are created equal”.  In modern times he has been castigated for hypocrisy, given his ownership of slaves and his failure to campaign for abolition. Here, historian Andrew Burstein discusses Jefferson’s wider political career and whether it is fair to judge his attitude to slavery by contemporary standards.

The best books on Empires, recommended by Peter Fibiger Bang

Empires are a reflection of the fact some states are stronger than others and are by no means just a relic of the past, says Peter Fibiger Bang, historian of empire and world history at the University of Copenhagen. Here, he recommends books on a variety of empires, from the ancient Romans to the Mughal, Qing and Russian empires and explains what it is that made some empires so durable and resilient across the centuries.

The best books on Big History, recommended by Toby Ord

‘Big history’ looks at history on the timescale of the Earth and the universe, rather than just the short period of time that humanity has been around. Here, Toby Ord, a moral philosopher at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, recommends books to get a handle on it, and explains why now is a critical time for Homo sapiens.