Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ten Good History "Beach Reads" for the Summer

It probably won't surprise any readers of my blog that most of my spare time - the time not taken up in being a full-time teacher, writer, father, and husband, in other words - is taken up with reading history books. My ratio of reading nonfiction to fiction is probably around twenty-to-one. If you ask me, a well-written history book is better than the best novel, with the added attraction of being a true story.

As the summer begins and we all try to relax a bit, I thought I'd offer a few modest suggestions for good history books to read over the summer, perhaps while lounging around on the beach. None of these are overly academic. Each is written by a good historical writer, tells a rollicking good story, and is intended for the general public. They tell important stories, to be sure, but aren't so heavy as, say, books about the Holocaust or the Soviet gulags. It's important to read those books, but maybe not on the beach during summer vacation.

Of course, my first recommendations would be my own books, Shattered Nation: An Alternate History Novel of the American Civil War and Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Shattered Nation Novella. Trust me, I have read both of them very carefully and consider them quite good. But this is not about tooting my own horn. Let's talk about what I think would be the ten most fun history books to read over the summer.

First up is The Neptune File, by Tom Standage, published in 2000. I loved this book, which tells the remarkable story of how Neptune was discovered in the late 19th Century. Mathematicians and astronomers, armed with their understanding of Newton's laws of gravity, had noticed something odd about the orbit of Uranus, the first planet invisible to the naked eye to be discovered, which suggested that an object of enormous mass was "tugging" on it with its gravity. Yet no such planet was known to exist. Much of the drama of the story comes from the controversy over whether English mathematician John Couch Adams or French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier deserves the credit for the discovery. It may sound cerebral, but I can assure you it's a delightful, entertaining book that you won't regret reading. It also leaves one with a profound respect for the ability of the human being to comprehend the universe in which we live.

Next is the wonderful book Longitude, by Dava Sobel, published in 1996. Like The Neptune File, it's a story of a complicated problem being solved by human ingenuity. The problem of finding longitude at sea might seem insignificant today, but it was a matter of life and death to the people of the 18th Century, not to mention extraordinary profits and military supremacy. Parliament offered an astounding monetary reward to anyone who could devise a solution. Amazingly, this task fell to an amateur clock-maker and choir director, John Harrison, a man from rural Yorkshire rather than London. But it was far from an easy task. In this lovely volume, easily read in a single day, Sobel details hows Harrison solved each technical challenge as it came up, as well as how he navigated the corridors of scientific and political power in the British Empire to claim the prize against all odds.

Another wonderful summer read I would recommend is The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. In prose that flows like fine wine, Hopkirk details the clock-and-dagger struggle that took place in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and the British Empire during the mid-to-late 19th Century. British spymasters in India feared that Russia, steadily pushing down from the north, might one day penetrate through the Khyber Pass and invade Her Majesty's most valuable colonial possession. The stories of daring escapes, secret missions, espionage, and counterintelligence that Hopkirk describes makes one feel as if James Bond or Jason Bourne had been dropped down into the imperialistic age of the 1800s. Honestly, I have no idea why half a dozen different movies haven't been made out of this material.

We now come to Queen Victoria's Little Wars, by Byron Farwell. This book is by one of my favorite authors, who tells stories of soldiers in the British Empire in such an engrossing and entertaining way that one feels less like they are reading a book and more like they are on a rollicking amusement park ride. Yes, war is terrible, yet somehow the gentlemen of the Victorian army made it all seem like a game. With stories of adventure and glory as far afield as Canada, China, India, Africa, and the Middle East, filled with the most colorful characters in all of military history, this book is sure to delight anyone who reads it.

Next up is Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben MacIntyre. The deception campaign by the Allied against the Germans before the D-Day invasion, leading them to believe that the landing would be at Calais rather than Normandy, is arguably the greatest counterintelligence effort of all time. It had many aspects, but perhaps the most important was the "turning" of literally every German agent operating in Britain at the time, using them to feed false information to Berlin. It's a story of colorful characters and dramatic escapades, masterfully told here in highly entertaining prose.

The next book on my list of recommendations is City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley. There is something about the Republic of Venice that fascinates me and fills me with wonder. It's the story of a small city on an island in the middle of a great lagoon, which through courage, daring, skill and a head for business, comes to dominate the Mediterranean world and become one of the great powers of Europe. It then held the line for Christian Europe against the Islamic power of the Ottoman Turks, engaging in a series of wars that eventually exhausted it. With highly entertaining writing, the story comes alive in the pages of this book.

A Short History of Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich, comes next. It's a one volume abridged edition of a three-volume work. Norwich's witty, always clear and often amusing writing style takes what is often seen as a boring and esoteric subject and makes it easily accessible and hugely entertaining. The history of the Byzantine Empire is a subject deeply fascinating and this lovely volume is a magnificent introduction to it.

Another lovely book to read in the summer appeals to though who, like me, like wine along with their history. It is Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, by James Gabler. This book describes in loving detail the travels of Jefferson in Europe, through France, northern Italy, southern England, and the Rhine Valley. Its primary focus is wine, for Jefferson was the greatest wine connoisseur of the late 18th Century, but it also gives attention to the gardens and architecture that Jefferson so loved. Politics is touched on only fleetingly, for this is a book about Jefferson the Renaissance Man, not Jefferson the revolutionary. The last few chapters detail how Jefferson's European experience impacted his time in the White House and in his retirement at his beloved Monticello.

A book I cannot recommend highly enough is Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, by Tom Holland. If you're looking for epic drama in history, you can't do better than the collapse of the Roman Republic in the First Century BC. In Holland's skillful hands, the story comes alive in all of its complexity and its astonishing cast of characters. When you come to the end of the book, you'll have been taken on a fantastic ride, yet find yourself shaking your head at the thought that such events were even possible.

We come to the end of the list with Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen. I've always loved stories of the great explorers and this one certainly ranks among the best. The story of Magellan's heroic crew and the suffering they endured during the first circumnavigation of the world, it is a gripping adventure story that leaves one astonished. Of course, the one "fact" that everyone knows about this story is false; Magellan was not the first man to sail around the world, because he died halfway through the voyage. Yet a few skeleton survivors did make it back to Spain and the story they had to tell defied imagination. In the capable hands of Bergreen, it comes alive in this wonderful history book that is written like the best novel.

And that's the list. Happy reading, everyone!

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