And the Rest, As They Say, Is History
June 2016

“History is more or less bunk.” – Henry Ford

“History is a great dust heap.” – Thomas Carlyle

“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” – Will and Ariel Durant

I beg to differ.  I agree with journalist Joe Murray:  “More and more,” he says, “I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers.” And I agree even more with Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Here are some unusual history books that I have loved, arranged in order from light to somber:

  • History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. A captivating exploration of the significant role that six beverages have played in the world’s history—such as beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt, coffee in the Age of Reason, tea in the English Empire, and Coke in today’s America. Read more here.
  • American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. A convincing account of how the U.S. divides into eleven regions, each with a culture of its own.  Read more here.
  • AmsterdamA History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. How both capitalism and liberal social justice originated in Amsterdam. I also recommend Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World about the crucial Dutch influence on New York and America as a whole.  Read more here.
  • Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman. Balanced and easy-to-read history of the field—from Freud to brain imaging.
  • Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. A wonderful overview of the various aspects of Russia (European, Eastern, etc.) Also recommended: A People’s Tragedy on the Russian Revolution, by the same author.
  • Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. Fascinating, thorough, well-written epic story about the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Beyond violence, another major theme of “Empire of Cotton” is that, contrary to the myth of untrammeled free enterprise, this expanding industry was fueled at every stage by government intervention.
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. King Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal plundering of the Congo and the moving portraits of those who crusaded against him. Also recommended by Hochschild:To End All Wars, an excellent history of WWI, again including good guys and bad guys.  Read more here.