Why History Matters, in 12 Essential Books

The very best works of history writing are fascinating, and sometimes even fun, but more importantly, they are filled with stories that inform our lives. They recount the events that shaped the world in which we live, but they also provide lessons that are essential for navigating turbulent times. Just as importantly, they’re inspiring—consider the story of the disabled spy who hiked across the Pyrenees to thwart the Nazis, or of the escaped slave who molded himself into an American icon; each offers a model for the ways in which individuals can change the world, no matter their background or circumstances.

Here are a a dozen recent books that demonstrate the many, many ways in which history matters, and always will.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (B&N Exclusive Edition), by David McCullough
Wisely, Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough tells the broad story of American expansion by narrowing his focus, zeroing in on five key characters: a Massachusetts minister who, with his son, encouraged Revolutionary War veterans to settle west; the general who lead them; as well as an architect and a physician. These people and their families built a town in the wilderness, while facing unfamiliar environments and navigating an increasingly hostile relationship with the Indigenous Americans they were displacing. For decades, McCullough has been one of our most influential chroniclers of American history, and his latest is as revelatory and insightful as anything he’s written. A previously unpublished lecture by the author is exclusive to the Barnes & Noble edition.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell
“She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” That was the message sent out by the Gestapo in 1942 regarding Baltimore socialite Virginia Hall, who had escaped to London from Vichy-controlled Paris and joined up with the spies at the Special Operations Executive. Referred to as “the limping lady” because of her prosthetic leg, she returned to France to coordinate the underground resistance effort. Her cover blown, she then escaped on foot to Spain before venturing back into France again to lead guerrilla forces in advance of the Normandy landing. Hall’s is an incredible true story, and its told like never before in this book by celebrated journalist and historian Sonia Purnell.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson
Rick Atkinson, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning works on World War II, steps further back  in time to chronicle the first two years of the American Revolution. This is the first book of what will be a trilogy covering the entirety of the war. With an incredible level of detail and benefitting from new research (including access to materials only recently made available), Atkinson begins with the battles at Lexington and Concord and focuses on the lives of the extraordinary individuals who play key roles in the country’s founding and the subsequent, seemingly unwinnable conflict. This isn’t a whitewashed look back: the author considers the British perspective on the war and isn’t shy about exploring the hypocrisy of the slave-owning American leaders.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, by Jared Diamond
In his latest, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond considers the historical actions of six nations in moments of crisis to understand how and with what degree of success they withstood the challenges and emerged from them for better or worse. From the forced opening of Japan by Western powers; to coups in Chile and Indonesia; to the transformations of Germany and Austria post-World War II; to the Soviet invasion of Finland, he finds the common threads and weaves them into lessons that might predict how successfully we’ll deal with current and future crises. This is more than simple history; Diamond combines disciplines to root out the matters of human psychology essential to a nation’s survival.

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (B&N Exclusive), by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
Counterintelligence might seem to be a modern discipline, but Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch go back centuries to explore the origins of American spycraft that led to the eventual creation of the CIA. In 1776, a group of soldiers were selected to serve as the personal bodyguards to George Washington. What Washington didn’t know was that they weren’t all loyal: some were part of a murderous plot lead by the British governor of New York and the loyalist mayor of New York City. The authors revisit this crucial time, and the uncovering of a plot that might have seen the American Revolution lost almost before it began.

Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II, by Adam Makos
The European front in World War II saw an exponential growth in the development and use of tank warfare, with each side fighting for dominance in war machines that were “invincible”—at least until the other side developed something more powerful. Adam Makos’ new book tells the story of Gunner Clarence Smoyer, eventually assigned to one of only 20 Pershings—super-tanks designed to counter the Germans fearsome Panzers. That power and armor didn’t come without a cost, though: Smoyer and his crew were ordered to spearhead every attack, placing themselves in the most dangerous positions, time and again. This is a story of tank warfare, but also of the unexpected bond that develops between Smoyer and Gustav Schaefer, a teenaged German gunner sent on a suicide mission.

Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts
Much has been written on Winston Churchill, one of the most impactful and fascinating political figures of the 20th century. Still, Roberts new single-volume biography breaks new ground: offering a wealth of new information, it’s more extensive and closer to definitive than any earlier work. How did it come about? Roberts had access to newly available government documents from the war era, as well as exclusive permission from the Royal Family to review notes and diary entries from King George VI. The result is a comprehensive look at a political legend: as an individual and as a politician, and in his failures as well as his triumphs.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Returning to the figures she has studied most closely in her career—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—Pulitzer-winner Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the very nature of leadership, finding that, while there are commonalities, each individual’s journey is unique. A culmination of 50 years of scholarship, Leadership is a work of history as well as an essential guide to budding leaders in all fields.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight
He lived one of the most consequential of all American lives in a deeply turbulent time, even when large swaths of his country didn’t see him as a citizen, or even as a human being, for most of it. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and traveled the country to tell his own story of the institution’s brutality and horror, galvanizing the abolition movement and doing as much to end the institution of legal slavery as any single figure in American history. David W. Blight’s new, comprehensive biography takes a fresh look at Douglass’ life and times, incorporating new research and material from previously unavailable sources to create the most complete picture of the life of the activist, orator, and author.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer
Tellings of Native American history often end with the deaths of 150 Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890, suggesting the massacre represents a tragic endpoint to Indigenous civilization. Ojibwe author David Treuer’s experiences as a child on a Minnesota reservation taught him otherwise: Native peoples did not disappear, and their history has not ended. In the decades following the massacre, each tribe was forced to adapt its own distinctive culture to meet the needs and restrictions of a new reality, often developing sophisticated legal and political strategies in order to survive and maintain their identities. Treuer tells the story of a multitude of peoples across a century of challenges and change, taking us right up to modern times to consider a new generation of resistance.

First: Sandra Day O’Connor, by Evan Thomas
While current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been in the zeitgeist for a while now, it’s worth remembering the pioneering efforts of Sandra Day O’Connor, who paved the way for RBG, serving as the court’s first female justice (not quite two centuries after the establishment of the institution). Her service came at the mid-point of a remarkable career that saw her go from a quiet life on a cattle ranch to Stanford Law at a time when women  were still rarely seen practicing law. She became the majority leader of the Arizona state senate and then a judge before eventually joining the Supreme Court, on which she served for several incredibly consequential decades in American jurisprudence and politics. In crafting this definitive biography, Thomas has made use of exclusive interviews and gained access to the Justice’s archives for the first time.

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic
There were two disasters involved in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945. The first was the attack on the ship itself; it was fired upon and sunk by a Japanese submarine, ending the lives of many of the crew. The second was in the Navy’s response: a flawed and nearly incompetent recovery operation that saw 600 surviving sailors lost as they drifted, waiting for rescue, for four days. Looking for a scapegoat, the Navy court-martialed the ship’s captain. Though Captain Charles McVay III was eventually exonerated, he’d already taken his own life. This new book finally sets the record straight, telling the whole grim story of the Indianapolis and her crew.

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