The Summer’s Best History Books in Paperback

The most shocking thing about summer is that it reminds you it’s been a year since last summer. It also means all the great history books you meant to read a few months ago are now in paperback, the better to read at the beach. These eight history books were well worth it in hardcover, making them the ultimate bargains in paperback.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard
In modern times, Winston Churchill is often reduced to the jowly, growling, portly man who made epic speeches during the Blitz. Churchill was one of the most important people in the world long before World War II, however—a man who rose to the epitome of power in England, only to stumble and fall before finding greatness again. Millard makes an argument that Churchill was more than just a brilliant politician, examining a specific moment in his youth—his capture and escape from a POW camp during the Boer War—finding within him a James Bond type, a man of daring action and peerless talent. This fascinating character study will drive you to reconsider your opinion of the man who remains quite possibly the most famous prime minister of all time.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Everyone should read Philbrick’s incredible examination of the Revolutionary War, focused on the two men who dominated its early years: George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Philbrick will surprise even a well-read historian with revelations about the personalities and politics of the early Revolution; his in-depth examination of Washington and Arnold offers up plenty of surprises—the former wasn’t the perfect leader he’s sometimes imagined to be, and the latter wasn’t entirely unjustified in the anger and sense of betrayal that led his name to become shorthand for treachery.

Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
Hill, a Secret Service agent who served from 1958 to 1975 under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford—and immortalized in the Zapruder Film when he leaped onto the President’s car after Kennedy was shot—offers incredible insights into the top tier of American power. Dealing with his own undiagnosed psychological problems after the trauma of the Kennedy assassination, Hill battled through to serve his country with distinction. His eye for detail makes this book fascinating from beginning to end, as even private moments take on the weight of history. While presidents might be judged by their actions, orders, and written accounts, eye-witness testimonies like Hill’s are every bit as essential.

Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, by Clinton Romesha
Medal of Honor awardee Romesha recounts the incredibly story of the Battle of Keating. The Command Outpost was located in one of the most remote and dangerous areas of Afghanistan, and on October 3rd, 2009 the Taliban attacked it, sparking one of the bloodiest battles in the war’s history, leaving eight American soldiers and more than 150 Taliban dead. Romesha combines his own firsthand experience of the conflict with impressive journalism, bringing hours of interviews and research to the story in order to give you a real sense of the desperation and pressure these soldiers were under. Red Platoon is a visceral experience anyone debating the moral hazard of war must read.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye
Nearly fifty years after his assassination, Bobby Kennedy has become more saint than human being, with all his problematic failings sanded down in veneration. Tye has a deep respect for Kennedy’s accomplishments, but doesn’t shy away from depicting the very real human being who evolved and changed over the years. Bobby Kennedy in his youth was a very different man from the Bobby Kennedy who many now see as the last gasp of 1960s optimism, and Tye presents a clear-eyed view of the man over time.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Sometimes history requires a broad vision and huge cast of characters, and sometimes, you need to drill down to a focal point. Montefiore does the latter in spectacular fashion, tracing a single family’s origins, exploits, and violent ending. Of course, the family happens to be the Romanovs, who collectively ruled the Russian Empire for three centuries, producing some of the most colorful and powerful figures in history while carving out a huge but delicate empire. Few families were as cohesive and as interesting, and few had as much influence over history, as the doomed Romanovs, whose decisions, failures, and obsessions loom over the modern age.

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, by Neal Bascomb
While the Allies knew the Nazis were working on their own atomic bomb during World War II, they didn’t know how close it was to completion. If this sounds like the premise of a taut spy thriller, you’d be right—but it’s also real history. The German bomb effort relied on heavy water, which was produced in German-occupied Norway, and Bascomb spins the tale of multiple efforts to destroy the facility with a fiction writer’s skill for tension and surprise. That the heroic efforts of overmatched resistance soldiers—on skis—are all true makes this one of the most remarkable books you’ll ever read about World War II.

Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943, by Nigel Hamilton
In the story of World War II, Winston Churchill is usually painted as the stalwart strategist and brilliant leader, and Roosevelt is given less attention. Hamilton seeks to rectify this with the second installment of his study of Roosevelt’s life and career, focusing on the pivotal year of 1943, when Roosevelt brought forth his vision of a European invasion, the total destruction of Germany, and the establishment of the United Nations—a plan Churchill superficially endorsed, but attempted to block and undermine at every turn, because he didn’t think it could succeed. The Roosevelt that emerges from these pages is a leader for the ages, and a revelation for those who haven’t yet studied one of the greatest presidents ever.

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