13 Books That Make You Think Differently About History
Most lifelong bookworms will agree that different types of books serve different purposes: Some provide a dreamy escape from the everyday, others pull you into a world of suspense and intrigue, still others inspire or inform. Right now, perhaps the most important titles are the books that help you rethink history as you know it. In these socially and politically tumultuous times, it's essential that we reexamine our collective history, not just as Americans, but as human beings.
Whether you’re hoping to deepen your understanding of race in America, or you’ve always been curious to learn more about the AIDs crisis or World War II or even the New York theatre scene in the 1940s, there’s a book here for you. From essays on the Iranian-American immigrant experience to a harrowing look at the history of women watchmakers (seriously, harrowing), there's so much to be learned from these groundbreaking works.
And don’t worry, none of these books will make you feel like you’re doing your homework or put you to sleep mid-read. With a mix of fiction and non-fiction, the books here are, yes, important in a historical context, but most of all, they’re all great reads (often award-winning, bestselling reads, too).
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1. Stamped From The Beginning By Ibram X. Kendi
This book is a must-read for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of racism in America. Historian, professor, and the Founding Director of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University, Ibram X. Kendi explains that ignorance and hatred are not entirely to blame for modern day racism; instead, much of the onus is on the policies and the policymakers. This books sharpens and clarifies why and how racism has been allowed to continue, and how to become truly anti-racist, we need anti-racists leaders and policies guiding us forward.
2. Beloved By Toni Morrison
Beloved By Toni Morrison opens in 1873 and follows the life of a woman named Sethe, a slave whose personal history is revealed through a series of flashbacks to pre-Civil War America. The character is based off the true story of a Margaret Garner, (per Britannica) who, with her family, escaped a plantation only to be tracked down. It's a harrowing yet beautifully told story about slavery and the ripples of its impact.
3. Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which was released in 2016, chronicles the lives of Ghanese half sisters, Effia and Esi in the 18th century. The former sister marries a British General while the latter is sold into slavery right under the castle where her sister lives, unbeknownst to both women. The book follows seven generations of their family members and shows, through beautiful prose and an outstanding, thoroughly researched plot, how much history impacts the lives of future generations.
4. Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour
A series of essays about the author's experiences growing up in Los Angeles after her fleeing the Iranian Revolution with her family, Khakpour's writing is both hilarious and profound. From Time's review: “This collection of essays by novelist Porochista Khakpour thoughtfully illustrates what it’s like to be caught between cultures... The pieces range in subject, from the process of writing a novel to the aftermath of President Trump’s election, but all provide fresh insight into one woman’s experience as an immigrant in the U.S.”
5. Pachinko By Min Jin Lee
Pachinko tells the complicated history of Koreans living in Japan in the early 20th century (during which Japan occupied Korea and World War II was happening) and it spans all the way until 1989, a period of time which includes the Korean War. While the gripping story about a family trying to fit in in a country where they're largely ostracized is fictionalized, the history is very real and raw.
6. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
A stunning novel spanning generations, this novel begins in London in 1974, but the intricate tapestry of tales touches on the other periods of time and places, too, such as the Balkans in 1945, the West Indies in 1907, and India in 1857. The New York Times called it "a meditation on the varieties of historical experience and the impact that cultural and familial history can have on the shape of an individual's life... it is about roots and rootlessness and the contradictory yearnings for freedom and connection."
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind By Yuval Noah Harari
The book to read if you're interested in human history (like, all of it) is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. This book sold over 10 million copies (per the author's website) and covers how and why our species evolved. You'll learn about capitalism, cooperation, religion, politics, imagination, and agriculture all in one long but very rewarding read.
8. The Great Believers By Rebecca Makkai
A heartbreaking and page-turning novel, The Great Believers follows a group of friends, mostly gay men, as they navigate the AIDs crisis in '80s Chicago. The story follows two distinct intertwining stories and timelines (one in 2015 Paris) and will leave you with a greater knowledge and even deeper compassion for the ripples and ramifications of AIDs in America and beyond.
9. In The Garden Of Beasts By Erik Larson
Described as "narrative non-fiction" by Penguin Random House, In The Garden Of Beasts tells the true story of William E. Dodd, America's ambassador to Germany in 1933, the year of Hitler's rise to power. It gives a stark and highly readable account of how the world largely ignored Hitler's tactics, and it will chill you to your bones while giving you a deeper sense of this dark history. This book is by Erik Larson who is also the author of the famed non-fiction book, Devil In The White City, about murder and the 1893 World's Fair.
10. The God Of Small Things By Arundhati Roy
The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy follows fraternal twins, Ammu Ipe and Chacko, and switches between the year 1969 (where the twins are 7-years-old) and 1993. The beautifully written book is fiction, but it gives a deeper look into India's history, politics, and far-reaching ramifications of Indian and British relations in a post-colonial India.
11. The Warmth Of Other Suns By Isabel Wilkerson
This award-winning book by Isabel Wilkerson tells a story often left out of American history class. It recounts the great migration of over six million Black people who left the South seeking a better life in Northern and Western cities. Told through the stories of three distinct individuals who each made migrations of their own, you'll be left with not only heartbreaking and sometimes triumphant true stories, but also a greater understanding of what it meant to be Black in America between the years of 1915 and 1970.
12. The Radium Girls By Kate Moore
If you're into niche history, this book is for you. The Radium Girls is the true story of a group of female factory workers who made watch dials. Not a spoiler, but the women ultimately suffered from radiation poisoning due to the self-luminous paint they worked with daily (after being instructed to use their lips to give the brushes a fine point). This page-turner follows the 1928 court case that ultimately was a turning point for women's rights.
13. City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you've ever been curious to learn about the glam and theatre of 1940s New York, then City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert is your book. It follows a young woman who flunks out of Vassar, then moves to Manhattan to live with her aunt. While the book is fictional, it tells an accurate history of mid-century Manhattan that just might serve as the ideal mid-summer escape