As any teacher knows, textbooks tend to cover a lot of ground, and they often do so in a way almost guaranteed to make a student's eyes glaze over. This grind factor can be offset by good teaching, of course. But books by wonderful authors telling resonant tales of particular eras and events can also present the true magic of history. Here's an arbitrary list of ten. We'll add to the list in future issues, and invite you to send us your favorites.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. (Penguin Books) History, according to this deeply researched book, is gilled by association. Who would have thought that one family of fish, once plentiful and now almost wiped out, could shape the modern world?
The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford. (Wordsworth Military Library) A great storyteller/historian recounts the cinematic tale of two charismatic septuagenarian leaders, Suleiman the Magnificent and Jean de la Valette, fiercely battling over "the keystone of the Mediterranean." Put your money on the Knights of St. John.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. (W. W. Norton & Co.) The sometimes-arch author makes a convincing case for the theory that becoming a great world power is as much about luck as pluck.
A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, by Charles Van Doren. (Ballantine Books) Sadly, this author is best known for his role in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, but his encyclopedic learning is put to exceptional use in this treatise on how humanity figured out just about everything.
The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, by Cecil Woodham-Smith. (Penguin Books) Woodham-Smith goes behind Tennyson's cheerleading poem to look at how a couple feuding, bumbling aristocratic twits sacrificed "the Six Hundred."
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. (Bantam Books) This classic, novelistic dissection of the sometimes poignant, always exciting transition from the era of aviation to the space age is history at its journalistic best.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, by T. E. Lawrence. (Anchor Books) In recounting his own amazing story, Lawrence of Arabia, as much a scholar as a war hero, gives insights into the history and politics of the Arabs that remain as valid today as they were almost a century ago.
Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. (Touchstone Books) One of Italy's most famous writers of fiction tells his own story, with a kind of deep philosophical melancholy, of living and not quite dying in one of the Nazis' notorious concentration camps.
When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, by Patricia O'Toole. (Simon & Schuster) Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps our most colorful president, was as busy in the years after he left the White House as he had been while in power. O'Toole, a marvelous writer, captures TR's final decade with depth and dramatic finesse.
A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, by William Manchester. (Back Bay Books) Though some historians quibble that the author isn't a historian per se, Manchester vividly throws light on day-to-day existence during Europe's Middle Ages.