20 Non-Fiction History Books You Should Read

Feb 23, 2020

Category: Entertainment

In today’s increasingly digitized world, learning has never been easier. Pick a subject and you can find out everything you’d ever hope to know about it across a wide variety of platforms, including podcasts, encyclopedic websites, binge-worthy television, and more. However, ink-and-paper books are still one of the absolute best ways to edify oneself — especially when it comes to historical subjects.

As is the case with any form of amusement, some examples out in the world are better than others. The trick, when it comes to non-fiction historical tomes, however, comes in striking a balance between an abundance of accurate information and narrative fascination. That is to say, they need to be both educational and entertaining. And that’s what we’ve wrangled together here for you today: a grouping of the 20 best history books you should read that will both hold your attention and increase your knowledge base.

Over the Edge of the World

Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Depending upon who you ask, Ferdinand Magellan was either a hero or a villain and sometimes both. He was responsible for numerous atrocities but also stands as the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe (with the help of his robust crew of 270 men and five ships, of course). Either way, there’s no minimizing his historical impact on the world and this tome, which recounts the tale of his 60,000-mile ocean odyssey with the help of candid firsthand accounts, captures every bit of it with a no-punches-pulled narrative. If you find yourself drawn to swashbuckling adventure and journeys of discovery, this is not a book to miss.

Author: Laurence Bergreen
Publish Date: November 2, 2004
Pages: 458

Purchase: $2+

The River of Doubt

Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States of America from 1901 to 1909. And while he was a memorable and honorable statesman, at his core he was an adventurer. In fact, exploration was so deeply ingrained in his soul that, following an embarrassing 1912 election defeat, he chose, rather than wallow, to descend deep into the Amazon alongside his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon. This book charts his ambitious expedition, along with all of its perils, misfortunes, chills, and thrills. If you’ve ever wondered why Teddy Roosevelt is so revered to this day, read The River of Doubt.

Author: Candice Millard
Publish Date: October 10, 2006
Pages: 416

Purchase: $10+

The Devil in the White City

Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Often times throughout history, significant narratives have collided with one another — sometimes seeming like disjointed and/or opposing pieces. However, when you pull back and look at them together, these coinciding events can serve to paint a more complete picture of a particular time and place. That’s exactly the case with The Devil in the White City. This expansive tome covers two seemingly distinct stories that were, in reality, inextricably intertwined: the challenges of bringing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago to life and the story of H.H. Holmes, one of the USA’s most vile and prolific serial killers. As an added bonus, this book is being adapted into a television show on Hulu with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese at the helm.

Author: Erik Larson
Publish Date: February 10, 2004
Pages: 447

Purchase: $10+

In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Herman Melville’s nautical classic, Moby-Dick, is a seemingly over-the-top tale of the futility of vengeance and man’s struggles against nature. As it turns out, however, this whale-of-a-tale was actually based on a very real naval disaster of 1820, in which the whaling vessel Essex was rammed by an enraged sperm whale before capsizing off the coast of Nantucket — leaving its crew afloat on the open ocean for over 90 days. If the name of this book sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was already adapted into a big-budget movie of the same name starring Chris Hemsworth. That being said, as cliche as it seems, the historically-factual book is much better than the movie.

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Publish Date: May 1, 2001
Pages: 320

Purchase: $11+

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Dictionaries, as useful as they are, are not something anyone might consider edgy or controversial. As it turns out, however, the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be is actually quite uniquely lurid. You see, as the words and definitions that adorn its pages were being gathered, a man by the name of Dr. W. C. Minor had submitted over a whopping 10,000. The problem was, Minor was actually incarcerated at an asylum for the criminally insane — a discovery that wasn’t made until Professor James Murray and the committee behind the OED chose to honor the man. In vivid detail and beautiful prose, this book tells that very story.

Author: Simon Winchester
Publish Date: July 5, 2005
Pages: 242

Purchase: $11+

Genghis Khan

and the Making of the Modern World

There’s an argument to be made that Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror in all of history. In fact, he and his Mongol army subjugated more lands and people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. And while there’s no minimizing the horrors he and his army wrought on the world, he was also an exceedingly influential historical figure that helped shape the world as we know it today, at least in part. In fact, his rule might even be considered progressive, as he abolished torture, smashed the aristocracy, and even allowed complete religious freedom. This true story traces his humble origins in a remote corner of the world all the way to his rise to the top of the world’s greatest empire.

Author: Jack Weatherford
Publish Date: March 22, 2005
Pages: 312

Purchase: $11+

A Brief History of Time

Steven Hawking was, undoubtedly, one of the most brilliant scientific theoreticians of all of human history. And nowhere are his ideas more approachable than in his legendary book, A Brief History of Time. Exceedingly readable thanks to his use of everyday language and laymen’s terminology, this timeless tome delves into some of the biggest questions humanity has ever tried to tackle — including musings on the beginnings of the universe, the boundaries of the concept of time itself, multiple dimensions, the end of everything, and more. It’s a big book full of massive ideas, and it’s also one of the greatest works ever written.

Author: Stephen Hawking
Publish Date: September 1, 1998
Pages: 212

Purchase: $12+

The Ghost Map

The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

By 1894, London had emerged as one of the most important hubs of western civilization and quickly became one of the first modern cities of the world. However, its infrastructure was certainly wanting, as it had neither proper access to clean water nor a sound system for waste disposal. And that made this metropolis the perfect breeding ground for a massive outbreak of cholera — a horrific disease with no known cure. The Ghost Map intertwines both science and history into a unique look at one of the most devastating plagues in the history of civilization and relates it directly to how it has changed the world as we know it today.

Author: Steven Johnson
Publish Date: October 2, 2007
Pages: 336

Purchase: $12+

Rats

Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

It could be said that, if you want to learn about a city in-depth, you should seek out its vermin. And none are both more telling and unsettling as rats. Author Robert Sullivan took this to heart when he chose to chronicle the story of these rodents by immersing himself in their story via an infested alleyway just blocks away from Wall Street, NYC. And while this tale charts the animals themselves, it also examines their relationship to humanity through interactions with exterminators, sanitation workers, activists, and more. Rats are perhaps even better at urban living that humanity itself, and this book explains exactly how that came to pass.

Author: Robert Sullivan
Publish Date: March 24, 2005
Pages: 272

Purchase: $12+

Norse Mythology

Ask the average joe whether a book on mythology belongs on a non-fiction history best-of list and they might just laugh at you. Ask a true student of history, however, and they’ll express that folklore — even fictional — speaks volumes in regards to cultural practices, belief systems, and even the things that everyday people cherish and/or revile. While the allegories within the pages themselves might not be factual, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology nonetheless factually documents the lore of the Viking people through novelistic storytelling that gives plenty of insight into this complex European culture.

Author: Neil Gaiman
Publish Date: March 6, 2018
Pages: 260

Purchase: $12+

Say Nothing

A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Westerners like to believe that socio-political turmoil — especially in regards to acts of violence and terrorism — are not a part of their culture. But the history of Northern Ireland and the I.R.A. paints a very different picture. Of course, if you want to learn about it, one of the best ways is through personal man-on-the-street accounts, which is exactly what Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is about. This book chronicles the I.R.A’s abduction of mother-of-ten Jean McConville, her subsequent murder, the eventual discovery of her remains, and the climate of fear and paranoia that silenced an entire community. It’s not a happy story, but it is an important one every student of history should know and, hopefully, learn from.

Author: Patrick Radden Keefe
Publish Date: February 26, 2019
Pages: 464

Purchase: $12+

1776

The United States has one of the most explosive, violent, inspiring, and intriguing origin stories of any modern country. And that story hit its climax in 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed and enacted. It’s this very tale that David McCullough chronicles here, with a focus on those who marched with General George Washington and pertinent information pulled from both American and British archives. But its not a dry list of facts, either, as the narrative is woven in the dramatic style of a novel, adding to its relevance and approachability. In fact, it’s not simply a story of the American perspective, as it also outlines the experiences of the British redcoats. Even if you think yourself an expert on American history, you should still read this book.

Author: David McCullough
Publish Date: June 27, 2006
Pages: 386

Purchase: $12+

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

An Indian History of the American West

Typically (and especially in modern media), the USA is painted in a positive light. However, our country’s history also contains plenty of black spots that, while uncomfortable, should be brought to light in order to educate and make more compassionate the generations of the future. Perhaps no part of this country’s history is more illustrative of that than the genocide and exile of the Native American people. And that’s the story that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells — from the Long Walk of the Navajos to the massacre of Sioux at the eponymous Wounded Knee. In our opinion, this book should be required reading for all American students and we can’t recommend it more strongly.

Author: Dee Alexander Brown
Publish Date: December 1, 1987
Pages: 512

Purchase: $13+

Killers of the Flower Moon

The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Back in the 1920s, the Osage Nation — Native American people living in Oklahoma — had discovered a wealth of crude oil beneath their lands, effectively making them the richest people in the world per capita at the time. However, with that wealth came mystery and murder, as the Osage began to be killed off by unknown assailants one at a time, with the focus seemingly on the family of a woman by the name of Mollie Burkhart. To combat these killings, a young J. Edgar Hoover and his newly-formed FBI called upon a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to put a stop to the murders and solve these heinous crimes. That story is captured in the pages of Killers of the Flower Moon, a book widely considered to be one of the best true crime novels ever penned.

Author: David Grann
Publish Date: April 3, 2018
Pages: 400

Purchase: $13+

Sapiens

A Brief History of Humankind

In spite of the fact that humankind has only been around for about 200,000 years — a fraction of the history of the Earth itself — we’ve shaped a huge portion of the planet to our own purposes. From hunting and gathering cavemen all the way to the ultra-connected, high-tech, near-cyborgs we are today, humanity is undoubtedly the most unique species ever to grace this planet we call home. And while it would be entirely impossible to capture that entire story in a single book, Yuval Noah Harari does a bang-up job of giving us some of the highest highs and lowest lows, starting about 70,000 years ago with the first inklings of cognitive thought, in Sapiens.

Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Publish Date: May 15, 2018
Pages: 464

Purchase: $14+

SPQR

A History of Ancient Rome

Though they borrowed many facets of their culture from the ancient Greeks, Rome far surpassed their Mediterranean neighbors in nearly every regard, ending up as the single most important empire in western history. In fact, the Roman Empire was so influential that its history, science, discoveries, lore, etc. are all still highly relevant today. Even the architecture in the U.S. capital was highly influenced by Roman edifices. Mary Beard’s SPQR may very well be the first and last word on the history of Rome — from its seemingly modest beginnings as “a slightly shabby Iron Age village” to being crowned the “undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean.” And while the words found in this book are enough to earn it a spot here, it also contains 100 illustrations as an added bonus.

Author: Mary Beard
Publish Date: September 6, 2016
Pages: 608

Purchase: $14+

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Originally published in 1995, Lies My Teacher Told Me is proof that the old adage, “history is written by the victors,” can often be a very, very bad thing. Originally, this book started as a survey of the USA’s 12 leading history textbooks but eventually evolved into a treatise on everything wrong with the way the subject (and others) is taught in public schools. It’s insightful, incisive, and a brutally beautiful exploration of the deeply-ingrained problems with the American educational system. It’s important to note that, while that sounds like a rallying cry against schooling, it’s actually quite the opposite: a plea for its betterment.

Author: James W. Loewen
Publish Date: July 17, 2018
Pages: 480

Purchase: $14+

Ten Restaurants That Changed America

Believe it or not, food is actually one of the driving forces of human development. In fact, the shift from hunting and gathering to an agrarian society (AKA growing food rather than foraging) is one of the signifiers of a civilized culture. It’s also a defining characteristic of regional societies — like individual countries — and tells a story all its own. And that’s what Paul Freedman’s book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, is all about. Learn all you need to know about the inextricable bond of cuisine and U.S. culture in this hefty, mouthwatering tome.

Author: Paul Freedman
Publish Date: September 20, 2016
Pages: 560

Purchase: $14+

Guns, Germs, and Steel

The Fates of Human Societies

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond argues that the modern world was shaped not by conquerors and armies, but rather geographical and environmental factors that gave certain societies and groups of people a jumpstart on food production and technological advancement. It’s an interesting take on human history, one that should be carefully considered — especially since this book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, amongst a slew of other accolades.

Author: Jared Diamond
Publish Date: March 7, 2017
Pages: 528

Purchase: $15+

The Last Lion

Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

The kinds of leaders that truly define world history are few and fairly far between, but they’re the figures our history tends to latch onto the most, as it gives a face to the larger picture surrounding those events. Winston Churchill, the late former Prime Minister of England was one such figure, as he was an absolutely integral piece of the Allied victory during WWII. He was also a remarkable statesman, albeit an exceedingly imperfect one that deserves the recognition and loving detail put into Paul Reid and William Manchester’s exceptionally hefty 1,200-page biography spanning the time between 1940 and 1965. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it might just be the definitive work on this monolithic politician.

Author: William Manchester & Paul Reid
Publish Date: November 5, 2013
Pages: 1,200

Purchase: $18+

The 50 Best Adventure Books Of All Time

Many of the best stories told throughout history are true, but many are not. In either case, you’ll find all of the most exceptional ones on our list of the best adventure books of all time.

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