Tuesday, May 15, 2007

History Books

From My Childhood

These were my favorite books that I had read while in elementary school. Yes, Douglas Southall Freeman was one of my fav authors. A teacher even chewed me out for reading books that were "too difficult"! Actually, the more in depth a history book is, the better. The more details the historian has to work with to weave a good story. That is, if the historian knows the art of storytelling.

In third grade I got very sick. My parents went to the library and got me this book to read (among others). This book so engage me, that I was hooked on history thereafter.

This book was part of a series. She called them "horizontal history". John Smith served as the anchor, not the subject of the story. The book is a history of the world during his lifetime. For us, those world events are "history"; for him these stories were "current news". This was a different slant on things. I never understood why this kind of history book was only done by her.

Of her series, this was the best book. It worked because for this kind of history, it is best that your star player be in as many scenes of the overall story as possible. The trouble with anchors like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln was that they were more national leaders than international leaders.

In Caesar's time, Rome's power was such that he was in the thick of a great deal of the story of world events of his lifetime.

I can't remember when I got H.G. Wells' book but I'm sure it was soon after I had read Captain John Smith. It maybe even have been in the same batch of books my parents had brought home from the library but I don't see why they would have. They would not have got this book unless they already were sure that I was interested in history and I wasn't interested until I had read John Smith.

The thing about this book is that H.G. Wells knew how to tell a great story. This book presented the entire sweep of history as one huge yarn.

This was the biggie book of my youth. THIS is how history ought to be written. Note how the author marshalls the details to build suspense. Also, note how he uses the forknowledge that Lee will loose in the end to make a tragedy. Storytelling at it's best!

We ought to not forget the footnotes. This is a history book. The footnotes tell us how the author got his facts and from that how he put this book together. The original work consisted of 3 volumes. This one-volume abridgement contains the main text without the footnotes. The price for the full set is probably prohibitive for most. Get the full-meal deal from the library.

I was in 9th. grade when I got the boxed set of this for $5 new. I would have bought the boxed set of his History of WWII but that would have set me back $7.50. As it was, I got the better deal.

Yes, now I'm familiar with the problems of this book. For example, how can you have any history of the "English Speaking" peoples without mentioning Shakespeare? For all his problems as an historian (he was adequate) he was a storyteller. This was what lifted these books above the pack.

Be careful if you purchase this book. I shopped around on Amazon before I picked this icon to display. I regard most of the prices to be outrageous. This looks to me like the best deal there but I can't be sure if the price is for the set or for a single volume of it. You’re looking for a 4 volume set. Don’t go for abridgements. You’ll be missing out on too much good stuff if you do.

Adult Years
These were books that I ran into from my twenties on.

I know this is a high price. The set consists of 10 really thick volumes so I think it's a good deal. I’d got my set 30 years ago as a special for the Book of the Month Club.

Durant covered cultural history and went light on political and military history, reversing the priority of most other books. These books are well written with a distinctive style. One ought to read them again and again. If one were to be familiar with these books, one would really get to know history as well as have a firm foundation in philosophy, science, art, and the rest of the intellectual arts.

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

Volume 5

This is another Douglas Southall Freeman style book. The lesson from this book is that in the hands of a master storyteller, more detail gives him to tell a better story. This book covers the time from just before the Fall of the Stuart Dynasty in 1688 to the death of William of Orange.

Despite the strengths of this book, there is one very huge problem. His name is Winston Churchill. Macaulay really dumped on Winston's ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marborough in this book. Churchill, in his biography of the Duke completely refuted Macaulay's version of events. The larger problem with this is that if an historian screws up as badly as Macaulay screwed but the Churchill story, one wonders what else is wrong with the book.

This book was greatly admired before Winston's hit and admired since. It goes into so much detail on so many matters, that one just roots for this book to be redeemed.

You can also download the books from the Guttenberg Library for free. The links are to the left under the Amazon ad.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

by Edward Gibbon

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

Volume 5

Volume 6

This is a must-read book. You can't go through life without reading this book - not if you want to tell people that you're interested in history. It goes into detail like no other. The insights must be noticed. Written in George Washington's day it is still the most forward-thinking, most modern book written. For example, he notices that the major rivers such as the Danube froze annually in Roman times while they had not in modern times. Reading about Global Warming from Gibbon is just one surprise awaiting you.

Don't try to skate on an abridged edition. And don't miss the footnotes. Be tough! You're big. You're strong. You can take it. Read the whole thing!

The links are to the Guttenberg Library. Download and read for free. I cannot recomment the prices that I see on Amazon for this. And I cannot recommend buying an abridgement. If you do read the abridged edition, just borrow a copy from the library.

After all of this, don't forget that you can find many of these books at the library. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books that are now out of print and exhorbitantly expensive. That's why I didn't list them. Check your library, though. Titles include histories of Egypt, The Near East, Greece, Rome (2 volumes), and so on. He emphasizes political and military history over cultural history. That makes his series a perfect companion to Durant's series.

Disclaimer: This gives you a picture of the book and an idea of what it costs. The fact that I will be compensated if you click on the link and buy the book turns this post into a semi-advertisement. I only will link to Amazon.com for books I actually liked.