This Summer’s Essential History Books

July is when America celebrates its independence, which means it’s the perfect month to stock up on history books. This month’s best include new tomes from Pulitzer winners David McCullogh and Rick Atkinson, the untold story of superspy Virginia Hall, and a firsthand account of D-Day that belongs on everyone’s to-read list.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough
David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, returns with an in-depth study of the settlement of the Northwest Territory, telling the stories of the hardy and fearless pioneers who traveled into the unknown determined to enlarge and enrich our country with their bare hands and at risk of their very lives. The movement west began sooner than most people realize, with the first settlers—veterans of the Revolutionary War—arriving in Ohio in 1788. McCullough tells the story of the town they carved out of the wilderness through the eyes of five historical figures, who becomes characters in a story about bravery, tragedy, diplomacy, and the conquest of a wilderness that wanted nothing more than to sweep them aside.

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, by William H. McRaven
There are those people who have earned the right to have their advice listened to without question, and Admiral McRaven is one of them. McRaven entered the collective consciousness with his viral commencement speech-turned-inspirational book, Make Your Bed, but he is more than a man in uniform dispensing wisdom—he’s a true-life hero, having spent his whole adult life serving his country in some of the most dangerous places in the world. McRaven’s autobiography reads like an improbable thriller as he recounts his childhood, his career as a Navy SEAL and as commander of America’s Special Operations Forces, not to mention his involvement in events like the rescue of Captain Phillips, the execution of Osama bin Laden, and the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Abrams and Fisher deliver a close examination of an mostly overlooked moment in 20th century: a 1915 lawsuit against former president Theodore Roosevelt. The libel suit, brought against Roosevelt by political boss William Barnes due to Roosevelt’s public assertions that he was a corrupt official, was a sensation at the time, highlighted by Roosevelt’s turn as a witness on the stand, where the full power of his personality and intellect came into view for a whole week. After 38 hours being badgered by Barnes’ lawyers, Roosevelt emerged unscathed, having made an incredible impression on everyone involved. This detailed study of the incident brings Roosevelt to roaring life, and is a treat for anyone who wants to get a clearer of one of history’s larger-than-life players.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson
Pulitzer-winning Rick Atkinson delivers the first of three books covering the Revolutionary War in astonishing detail. This initial volume takes the reader through the first 21 months of the conflict, beginning with Lexington and Concord in 1775 and leaving off in the winter of 1777. Along the way, Atkinson dives deep into the personalities on both sides of the battlefield, including men who defined the fighting, like Henry Knox and George Washington, and men who defined the struggle for hearts and minds around the world, like Benjamin Franklin. The result is one of the most detailed and comprehensive studies of the early stages of a war that seemed doomed to be a short and futile one for the Americans, but instead birthed a nation.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond, another Pulitzer-winner best known for Guns, Germs, and Steel, returns with a unique look at history as seen through the lens of psychology, applying trauma treatment protocols to entire nations in order to explain sudden policy shifts and course corrections, from Chile’s wild political swings in the 20th century, to Japan’s opening to the West in the 19th century, to the persistence of the institution of slavery in the U.S., to the Winter War between the U.S.S.R. and Finland. Diamond argues that nations either take an honest look at themselves after disaster… or they don’t, and that willingness or unwillingness to acknowledge hard truths is the determining factor in what happens next.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari is no stranger to ambitious works of sweeping historical context, and here he tackles the story of how Homo sapiens—that is, us—came to be not just the dominant species on the planet, but the sole variety of the human species left standing. Harari argues that three distinct moments of evolution revolution made us masters of the planet: a cognitive revolution that gave us a mental advantage over other species; an agricultural revolution that allowed us to form permanent settlements and complex societies; and most recently, a technological revolution that allowed us to truly master the world, its resources, and the other creatures that populate it. Harari thoughtfully weaves in the disturbing question of whether our ascendancy and mastery has actually made us happier—and offers plenty of thoughtful evidence that the answer is no.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner
Baseball fans know pitching has always been the true throughline of the game. By charting the progress of the sport through 10 distinct pitches, Kepner offers a unique perspective on one of the most analyzed and romanticized games ever devised. His investigative work traces the origins of the monumental pitches—from the curveball, first developed in 1867, to the maligned spitball, still secretly in use today—and explores the lives of legends pitching like Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez, who discuss the technical side of their profession in fascinating terms.

The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II, by Alex Kershaw
The most complex and dangerous invasion in military history needed a front line, and the people who were part of the first wave of soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day faced the brunt of the danger while pursuing the most difficult missions. Without them, all who followed would’ve been lost. Kershaw illuminates the stories of the men who were first on the beach, from the paratroopers who were the first to enter Normandy, to the men who led troops through thick machine-gun fire on Juno Beach, to the French commandos who came home to use their intimate knowledge of the area to undermine the German invaders’ defenses. This is an important addition to any World War II reading list.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell
Anyone interested in stories of wartime bravery should know the name Virginia Hall. She joined the State Department when the Foreign Service was uninterested, lost her leg to a hunting accident, drove ambulances in France duringWorld War II, and eagerly signed up with the British Special Operations Executive when the opportunity came. Hall was a brilliant agent, creating a well-organized and effective network that did great work fighting the Germans—until her cover was blown in 1942. She fled to Spain, then demanded to be sent back to France to continue her work. When she was refused, she joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services to assist with D-Day preparations. Hall is one of the most important—and least-known—heroes of the war, and it’s about time someone brought her remarkable story to light.

Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day, the First Wave at Omaha Beach, and a World at War, by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice
As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the number of eyewitnesses to the heroics and horrors of that incredible achievement dwindles—making the 98-year old Lambert’s contribution especially important. Lambert’s charm and humility shine as he describes his early life, his training, and the brutal fighting he engaged in all over the theater, from Africa to Normandy, where he suffered a broken back while rescuing his fellow soldiers. The sheer level of insider detail that Lambert can offer on what it was really like to be involved in Operation Overlord is incredible, ranging from the way soldiers interacted to the equipment and training they had to work with. This is a personal and powerful testament to the heroics of an entire generation, told through an individual’s lens.

What’s you favorite history read of the year so far?

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