The best books on Hitler, recommended by Michael Burleigh

Hitler has a reputation as the incarnation of evil. But, as British historian Michael Burleigh points out in selecting the best books on the German dictator, Hitler was a bizarre and strangely empty character who never did a proper day’s work in his life, as well as a raving fantasist on to whom Germans were able to project their longings.

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 Abraham Lincoln, recommended by Ted Widmer

He came from humble beginnings and never went to high school. Going into the presidency, he had limited political experience and lacked business, legislative and military achievements. The one thing he did not lack was a moral compass, says historian and author Ted Widmer. He picks the best books on the ups and downs and Shakespearean-style plot twists that were the life of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.

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 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.

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 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.

The best books on Hannah Arendt, recommended by Samantha Rose Hill

Unimpressed by the response of philosophers to the rise of Nazism in her native Germany, Hannah Arendt rejected the notion of being a philosopher and said she was a political theorist. Samantha Rose Hill, writer and formerly assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, talks us through Hannah Arendt’s life and work—and suggests which books to read if we want to learn more about her and her ideas.

The best books on Socrates, recommended by M M McCabe

The classical Greek philosopher is credited with laying the foundation of Western philosophy – without ever having written a word. Here, the eminent scholar M M McCabe recommends the best books to read to understand Socrates and engage with the eternal question: How best to live?

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci, recommended by Martin Kemp

Every generation has its own Leonardo, and for many he remains a man of mystery. Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor in Art History at Oxford and the author of the recently published Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, helps us identify the non-mythical Leonardo. What might Leonardo be doing were he alive today, in our own digital age?

The best books on Dante, recommended by Nick Havely

Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy has inspired countless thinkers and writers since it was first published almost 700 years ago. Here, Dante scholar and author Nick Havely picks the best five books on how one medieval poet had such a lasting impact on world literature, and how Dante’s vitality transmits into modern culture.

The best books on Charlemagne, recommended by Carine van Rhijn

We call him Charlemagne, but it was not a name that was used in his own lifetime. His conquests stretched across vast swathes of Europe, but he probably didn’t set out to become an emperor. Much has been written about him, but very little is known. Dutch historian Carine van Rhijn, a lecturer at the University of Utrecht, recommends the best books on Charles, King of the Franks.

The best books on Gandhi, recommended by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to British rule changed India and inspired freedom movements around the globe. But as well as being an inspiring leader, Gandhi was also a human being. Ramachandra Guha, author of a new two-part biography of Gandhi, introduces us to books that give a fuller picture of the man who came to be known as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi.

The best books on Chinggis Khan, recommended by Timothy May

He was born Temüjin and was afraid of dogs as a child. He went on to create the largest land empire the world has ever known, but was more than just a bloodthirsty conqueror. Timothy May, Professor of Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia and author of a number of books on the Mongol Empire, separates the facts from the myths and explains how the modern world would have looked very different without Genghis or, more accurately, Chinggis Khan.

The best books on Jesus, recommended by Robert Morgan

Jesus was a 1st century Jew from Galilee who had a ministry of teaching and healing. He gathered disciples around him, but was eventually arrested and executed by the Roman governor of Judaea from 26 to 36CE, Pontius Pilate. But what else do we know about Jesus and what is his significance in an increasingly secular age? New Testament scholar Robert Morgan talks us through his favourite books on Jesus.

The best books on Rembrandt, recommended by Onno Blom

Though he left more self-portraits to posterity than practically any Old Master, there remains an air of mystery around Rembrandt the man—even on the 350th anniversary of his death. Piecing together the very few personal letters and documents left behind, Onno Blom has now reconstructed Rembrandt’s formative years in Young Rembrandt. Here he guides us through five of the most authoritative—and imaginative—accounts of the artist.

The Best Virginia Woolf Books, recommended by Hermione Lee

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.

The Best George Orwell Books, recommended by D J Taylor

Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a lauded biography of Orwell and a forthcoming biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.

The Best Voltaire Books, recommended by Nicholas Cronk

The eighteenth-century philosopher wielded his powers of ridicule and witticism against religious fanatics—but always championed free speech and religious toleration. He was also a historian, scientist, poet, playwright, and political activist. Nicholas Cronk, General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire gives a detailed look at the polymathic philosophe.

The Best Simone de Beauvoir Books, recommended by Kate Kirkpatrick

Simone de Beauvoir is remembered today as the pioneering feminist author of The Second Sex and a close companion of Jean Paul Sartre. But the scope of her intellectual contribution has long been underestimated, argues her latest biographer Kate Kirkpatrick, who offers an introduction to the landscape of Beauvoir’s works, from fiction to philosophy to life writing.

The best books on Spinoza, recommended by Steven Nadler

In 1656 Baruch Spinoza was thrown out by Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish congregation for ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’, ensuring he would be forever remembered as a radical thinker. Here Steven Nadler, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a number of books on Spinoza, talks us through the life and work of the 17th century philosopher whose worldview remains, in many ways, remarkably modern.

The Best Adam Smith Books, recommended by Dennis Rasmussen

Adam Smith tends to be seen as the founder of capitalism and modern economics, but he was, first and foremost, a moral philosopher. Dennis Rasmussen, author of The Infidel and the Professor—a book about Smith’s friendship with David Hume—selects the best books by and about Adam Smith.

The Best Charles Dickens Books, recommended by Jenny Hartley

He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about Charles Dickens and discusses Dickens the phenomenon, past and present.

The best books on Wagner, recommended by Michael Tanner

Richard Wagner’s works are as immense as they are influential: the four-part, 15-hour saga Der Ring des Nibelungen is the most analysed opera of all time. And yet, Wagner was arrogant and virulently anti-semitic. Can we separate the musical genius from the man? Opera critic Michael Tanner recommends the best books on Wagner.

The Best George Eliot Books, recommended by Philip Davis

George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’

The best books on Galileo Galilei, recommended by Paula Findlen

The trial of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition was one of the most public confrontations between the new science emerging in the 17th century and the Catholic Church but, nearly 400 years later, there’s still a lot of scope to argue what it was about. Here historian of science Paula Findlen, a professor at Stanford University, explains the endless fascination of Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance man who turned a telescope to the sky and took the world by storm, and recommends the best books to start learning more about him.

The best books on Julius Caesar, recommended by Peter Stothard

Julius Caesar was a populist politician and general of the late Roman Republic who immortalized himself not only by his beautiful writing about his military exploits, but also by the manner of his death. Here, British journalist and critic Peter Stothard, author of The Last Assassin, chooses five books to help you understand both the man and what motivated him and some of the people who have been inspired by him in the 2,000 years since he died.

The Best Plato Books, recommended by Melissa Lane

Plato came from a politically active family, but renounced politics to become a philosopher. Or did he? Professor Melissa Lane of Princeton University recommends the best books to get a better understanding of the Greek philosopher Plato, including his most famous work, the Republic.

The best books on Thucydides, recommended by Johanna Hanink

The Greek historian and general Thucydides wanted his History of the Peloponnesian War “to be a possession for all time.” In that, he’s been remarkably successful, with his name still echoing in the corridors of power. But what lessons should we take away from his great work? Translator and classicist Johanna Hanink talks us through books to better understand Thucydides and the mythical Athens he lived in and wrote about.

The best books on Osama bin Laden, recommended by Peter Bergen

Many thought that 9/11 was the start of an Al-Qaeda assault on the West, but it turned out to be Bin Laden’s Pearl Harbor – a victory that led to strategic defeat – says Peter Bergen, one of the few reporters who met the Saudi-born militant.

The best books on JFK, recommended by Fredrik Logevall

Of the thousands of books written about JFK, America’s iconic 35th president, which ones should you read first? Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University, talks us through five key books, starting with the first volume of his biography, tracking JFK’s coming of age in the years that also saw America transforming from economic powerhouse to global superpower.

The best books on Charles de Gaulle, recommended by Julian Jackson

Charles de Gaulle had ‘a certain idea of France’ which even he didn’t manage to articulate clearly. De Gaulle biographer and one of Britain’s leading historians of modern France, Julian Jackson, talks us through some key books to get a sense of France’s wartime leader and president, Charles de Gaulle.

The best books on The Marquis de Sade, recommended by Will McMorran

The word ‘sadism’ derives from the Marquis de Sade, the infamous 18th century French aristocrat. His works such as Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom are profoundly disturbing, retaining the ability to shock, disgust, and unsettle. Will McMorran, Sade’s translator, looks at the way Sade destabilises the idea of benevolent narrators, and how we must remain ethically engaged when reading him

The best books on Marx and Marxism, recommended by Terrell Carver

Few people have had their ideas reinvented as many times as the German intellectual and political activist, Karl Marx. Professor of political theory, Terrell Carver, takes us through the most influential books, in English, about Marx, Marxism and his friend, publicist and financial backer, Friedrich Engels.

The best books on Samuel Johnson, recommended by Peter Lilley

Samuel Johnson, author of the 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, was not a hard-hearted Tory caricature, but a champion of the poor and enslaved, according to Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Lilley.

The Best Thomas Cromwell Books, recommended by Benedict King

The Mirror and the Light—the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s epic trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation—was published to great acclaim this month. Here, Five Books contributing editor Benedict King chooses five of the best books to help you get to grips with the real Thomas Cromwell and the political and religious environment in which he operated. You can watch Benedict talking about his Thomas Cromwell book choices here.