Gift-giving time beckons. Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, Samhain, New Year’s Day — with a few exceptions, we will find ourselves looking for gifts for people we know and love, or people we know and work with, over the next few weeks. If you were to give a rather timeless gift, a book of history for the ages, what would it be?
I’m stealing ideas again, this time from Discover, the magazine that recently published its list of the 25 greatest science books of all time (that is a link to the introduction, written by Nobelist Kary Mullis; here is the list itself). (Tip of the old scrub brush to Larry Moran at Sandwalk, too.)
If you were to pick from a list of the greatest history books ever written, what would those books be? I hope you’ll share nominations for the top history books in the comments. Enlighten us to your reasons for picking the book, too.
Thinking out loud here: There would be a mix of old and new. Some books might be very short, some would be thousands of pages, perhaps in several volumes. I think a long-enough list would include some of these:
- All the President’s Men, the Woodward and Bernstein book that made it almost impossible for Richard Nixon to stay in office.
- Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People.
- Grant’s memoirs.
- Bernard DeVoto’s Course of Empire.
Well, any list I assemble solo would be a bit quirky.
What sort of criteria should be used to judge the books? Must they all be well-written? Should their effects on history and policy makers be considered? Should they be lyrical? I wonder, for example, about something like Homer’s Iliad. If effect on policy makers is a criterion, does the Bible qualify for a spot? Caesar’s diaries of the campaign in Gaul are famous, but who reads them any more? Do some books, or sets, make the list on the legs of the massive sales they racked up, partly because of a book club promotion (think Will and Ariel Durant)?
Make a nomination, please.