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
“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,
“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 on History
If you’re new to James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might be the best place to start. We highly recommend the audiobook. What better way to experience James Joyce's first novel than hearing Colin Farrell, of In Bruges, dive into Joyce’s streams of consciousness with all the natural musicality of his Irish accent?
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“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...
The Best Vietnamese Novels
“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. The book is cross generational, so you have the children and the patriarch and matriarch in this lovely old house in Sussex……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
Military Historian and 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...
The best books on The 1970s
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a dystopian novel written in 1948. Often a standard text in school for teenagers, 1984 is many people's first introduction to totalitarianism. Ominously prescient in some ways, (such as the scope for surveillance to reach into our lives through the ubiquity of screens) and wide off the mark in others (Big Brother's omnipresent, unitary police state is not a reality we live with in the West), it makes fascinating reading.
Some of Orwell's inventions from 1984 entered the English language, like 'Thought Police,' 'Big Brother' 'Newspeak' and of course, the general concept of an 'Orwellian' society or future.
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by Vasily Grossman and translated by Robert Chandler
Life and Fate, the masterpiece by Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, is one of our most recommended books (including in history book interviews—even though it's a novel). 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.
If you want to listen to Life and Fate as an audiobook, there's no unabridged version, BUT there is a dramatised version, starring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, that lasts a manageable 8 hours.
(Stalingrad is the precursor to Life and Fate, newly translated into English.)
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“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
“It’s short stories about Vietnam written by a guy who was there as a very young man. And it really is a book about what it is like to be a regular ordinary American teenager and suddenly find yourself neck-deep in a jungle fighting a war that you neither understand nor care about. Killing people that are so different from you with no opportunity to understand or appreciate their culture. He presents you with a gang of teenagers carrying 60 or 70 pounds of equipment in 40-plus centigrade temperatures with malaria, fighting insects, fighting monsoons, fighting conscience, fighting political ideology, fighting religious ideas and their own code of ethics and morals even more than they are fighting what they have been told is the common enemy. And I think the way that he does that with such humanity and such heart is outstanding. And again it is a book I have read probably three times.” Read more...
The best books on Human Dramas
R J Ellory,