History books seek to explain and analyse the past with objectivity, but novels (or plays) written at the time show what an individual actually living through the period experienced, thought about and was preoccupied with. Hence, the assertion by Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at the University of Oxford, that, “You learn much more about Russia before the revolution by reading The Cherry Orchard than you will by studying the tsar and his land reforms or other decisions made in St Petersburg by the leadership.”
Here, we've listed all of the works of fiction that have been recommended by historians interviewed on Five Books. Overall, the most recommended book in our history section is in fact a novel: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. A Soviet journalist, Grossman witnessed the nightmare of both the German invasion of Russia during World War II and the Holocaust. The Vietnam War and the American Civil War have also attracted a number of fiction recommendations. Perhaps there is something about the horror of war that fiction is particularly suited to capturing.
“The Spider’s Web was Roth’s first novel. Far more people know his nostalgic work, The Radetzky March, about the late Habsburg Empire. But I think this earlier novel, which was first serialised in a newspaper at the very beginning of the 1920s, is extremely insightful, even prophetic in a way.” Read more...
The best books on The Weimar Republic
Robert Gerwarth, Historian
“It’s an emotionally powerful book about race in the South. The other books that I’ve recommended are straightforward. William Faulkner is something else. Faulkner gives you nightmares, he gets inside your psyche and presents the terrors of the South. And he does it in such an interesting way.” Read more...
The Best Books on the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust, Historian
“This book is a mini-classic that is neglected. It gives a very good feel about what it was like to be on the Italian campaign, but it also gives a good feel about war. It is specific to Anzio, absolutely. There is a moment when they’re back in Capri and recovering before going off again. It has a sense of place. But, at the same time—and this is really the point about much war literature—it’s about what it reflects of war more generally. And this book does that.” Read more...
The Best Military History Books
Hew Strachan, Military Historians & Veteran
“You learn much more about Russia before the revolution by reading The Cherry Orchard than you will by studying the tsar and his land reforms or other decisions made in St Petersburg by the leadership.” Read more...
Peter Frankopan, Historian
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
by James Joyce
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not only a great place to start on the books by Irish novelist James Joyce, it’s also recommended by historian Richard Bourke as a way of understanding modern Irish history. He says, “Joyce’s depiction is one of Ireland in the aftermath of the fall of Parnell. At the start of the 1890s, much of Ireland glimpsed the prospect of national unity based around Parnell himself, embodying a national project, whilst offering credible leadership. This, as the Portrait reflects, fell apart under the weight of sexual scandal and ensuing religious polarities.”
“At the time it came out, in the 1990s, the North Vietnamese had been stereotyped as robotic killers and fanatic communists. The Sorrow of War was a revelation for anyone who wanted to hear the other side. Kien, the protagonist, is a soldier with the North Vietnamese Army. He is a sensitive, sorrowful soul, caught up in these terrible, terrible events.” Read more...
Sherry Buchanan, Journalist
“It’s probably the most influential novel of the 18th century. The mid-18th century is when the novel was invented, so it’s possibly the most influential novel ever written in English, because it influences everyone who comes afterwards, from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen onwards.” Read more...
The best books on The 18th Century Sexual Revolution
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Historian
“I love the Cazalet books, and Marking Time is part of that series. I also loved the TV adaptation, which only ran for one series but was fabulously filmed and acted. This is the best book in the series. War is coming, and the Cazalet family are plunged into the situation. Like everyone else they have to deal with the start of the war, and the youngest son goes off to fight in Dunkirk…….It is steeped in authenticity. It all feels right. All the characters feel very real, because they were based on real people. I can’t think of another book which more vividly captures the mood at that time of an upper middle-class family on the cusp of war.” Read more...
Novels and Memoirs of World War II
James Holland, Military Historians & Veteran
“I find the darkness in le Carré particularly interesting because it’s quite melancholic. It evokes a sadness about Britain and the establishment at that time. There’s a sense of the world closing in. He really captures that in the book.” Read more...
Andy Beckett, Journalist
“This is the ultimate dystopia written by someone who wasn’t just one of the greatest of all journalists, but one of the most prescient…Orwell is of perennial fascination to me because…he straddles the world of investigative journalism and fiction. He also deliberately chose to experience different levels of society, which I believe is essential for a novelist interested in the truth about the way we live now. He wrote this book in 1948, when he was dying of tuberculosis, in a great burst of passionate determination, because he could see long before other people where totalitarianism and communism were heading. Animal Farm had told it as a kind of dark fairy-tale, but this was the culmination. The intellectual dishonesty of the Left, which refused to see how evil Stalin was, is despicable, and Orwell was brave enough to stand up to his friends as well as his enemies. Orwell saw the death of the dream at first-hand in Spain. He was in contact with a lot of communists, and fought on their sides against Fascism but, as Stalin’s Russia gained power, he could see this dream of equality that so many idealistic and young people have shared leaves a nightmare, just like Fascism. Anything other than democracy and truth leaves the jackboot stamping eternally into the human face, as Winston realises. His hero Winston is named, of course, after Winston Churchill” Read more...
Amanda Craig, Journalist
Life and Fate
by Vasily Grossman and translated by Robert Chandler
Life and Fate, a novel set in World War II by Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, is one of our most recommended books on Five Books (including by historians). Modeled on Tolstoy's War and Peace, Grossman brought into it his experience as a journalist, accompanying the Red Army at major battles, including Stalingrad and Berlin. He was also among the first to enter Treblinka and witness firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. Sadly for Grossman, the book was considered too harmful to be published in his lifetime.
Life and Fate is a long novel. If you want to listen to it as an audiobook, there's no unabridged version, BUT there is a dramatised version of Life and Fate, starring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, that lasts a manageable 8 hours.
(Stalingrad is the precursor to Life and Fate, translated into English for the first time in 2019 and also well worth reading)
“Roadside Picnic is the single greatest work of sci-fi fiction, written by these two scientist brothers. Roadside Picnic is, among other things, a wonderful indirect metaphorical reflection on everything about Soviet Russia – from its terrible scrappy industrial texture, through to the way that the possibility of miracles kept bobbing on through the wasteland like will-o’-the-wisps. It’s about the way that industrial grime and decay always coincided with promises that at any moment things could be radiantly wonderful.” Read more...
The best books on 20th Century Russia
Francis Spufford, Historian
The Things They Carried
by Tim O’ Brien
The Things They Carried is a semi-fictional collection of short stories about an American platoon in the Vietnam War.
Narrator: Bryan Cranston
Length: 7 hours and 47 minutes