Study history for any length of time, and you'll be familiar with the importance of 'primary sources', accounts written at the time about the events taking place or the theme you're writing about. Even though every source will have its own bias or perspective and some may be pure fiction, no historian worth their salt is likely to write a book without referring to and relying on them.
What's less often mentioned is how incredibly empowering primary sources can be. You hear the voice of someone writing centuries, maybe even millennia, ago, telling you their story (or interpretation of events) directly. Read primary sources and, on one level, you will know everything there is to know about a subject–because the writing of all subsequent historians will be works of expansion and explanation, using that same material.
Of course, after reading these primary sources, you'll probably want to know a lot more about the person, their time, how accurate their accounts are. But that's the role of a good book: to make you want to read and find out more.
Below, we've listed some of the primary sources that have been recommended on Five Books.
“This is a famous book. It was quite famous when it was first written, in the late 18th century, but it has had a renaissance from the 1960s onwards. The crucial thing about this book—and this is why I’ve listed it first—is that it gives you the lived experience of enslavement and it neatly pieces together pretty much every chapter in the story of the rise and fall of slavery, and it also covers the geography of the slave trade. “ Read more...
The best books on The Slave Trade
William A. Pettigrew,
“The conservative case at its most formidable—against change, in favour of tradition, in favour of hierarchy…He summarises, in a marvelous piece of writing, the case for tradition…and that’s an absolutely pure pleasure to read: the language is absolutely glowing with eloquence and passion.” Read more...
The best books on The French Revolution
“‘Vin’ is their word for wine, related to the grapes they find there. It’s hard to know exactly what area they’re talking about. Coming down from Arctic Canada, we can match up Baffin Island to the Helluland or ‘Stone slab land’ they talk about in The Vinland Sagas—it’s very rocky. Further south, you get the coast of Labrador, which they called Markland or ‘Forest land’ because there are lots of trees. And then they talk about this area called Vinland. It’s not America as we think of it, it’s more Newfoundland and then heading down the coast to Nova Scotia: the St Lawrence River region.” Read more...
The best books on The Vikings
Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough,
“This is Plato’s version of Socrates’ court speech. It’s very short, yet it gives us all sorts of extraordinary things. On first reading it is a brilliant piece of forensic oratory…This is so much more sophisticated as writing than most philosophy written today. It’s amazing that 2,500 years ago there were writers around who were better at writing about ideas than just about anyone alive today, even though there are many more philosophers in our era.” Read more...
The best books on Socrates
M M McCabe,
“With Vasari, we begin thinking that artistic biography might matter. As much as we may want to resist the notion that biography is central to understanding art, it seems as though it is just inevitable – the life of the artist is an inevitable element in considering the art itself, as Vasari realised early on.” Read more...
The best books on Andy Warhol
“Ennin’s diary is one of our best sources for learning what life was like in China during the time of the Silk Road. Ennin was a monk who traveled from Japan to China in the 800s. He began traveling as part of an embassy that the Japanese sent to learn about Chinese technology. He got caught in an 845 Buddhist suppression, when the Emperor ordered all monks to grow their hair and stop wearing robes. It’s a real adventure story about his experiences, trying to hide from the authorities and always trying to get home. It’s a great book.” Read more...
The best books on The Silk Road
“Euclides da Cunha was a military engineer turned journalist who, in the 1890s, covered a rebellion of pro-monarchist settlers in Canudos led by a religious fanatic called Antonio Conselheiro. The army was sent in to crush the rebellion five times and 15,000 people were killed. This book is about the campaign, but it’s also about Brazilian society, about Brazilian-style religious fanaticism.” Read more...
The best books on Brazil
“Thucydides is the single best treatment of international relations, foreign policy and military affairs that exists. It is the best description of what life in a multipolar world is like, what politics and war are like for the units involved, of the basic realities of international relations. It has no single line.” Read more...
The best books on US Foreign Policy
"The long list of ‘the achievements of the deified Augustus, by which he made the world subject to the rule of the Roman People, and of the expenses he incurred for the republic and the Roman People’, was composed to be inscribed on bronze and set up on two bronze pillars in front of Augustus’ monumental tomb on the Campus Martius in Rome. We know it from the copy—both in the original Latin and in a Greek translation—that was inscribed on the walls of a temple at Ancyra in the province of Galatia (modern Ankara in Turkey) and discovered and transcribed in the sixteenth century. Obviously, Augustus’ own account is of fundamental importance for understanding his life and times, and Alison Cooley has done a brilliant job both of translation and of historical commentary. A lot of the detail will be more than the general reader needs, but there’s an immense amount of information here"—Peter Wiseman, recommending the best books on Augustus.
Read expert recommendations
Bede is writing about 130 years after the English had first experienced Christianity, and so one reason to choose Bede is that if you’re in any sort of English-speaking tradition, his history is the first really, really big piece of history in that tradition. If you’re in the United States or in Australia, you’re still in a sense the heir to this man’s book.
Read expert recommendations