• The Best History Books

     Anonymous updated 1 year, 6 months ago 5 Members · 17 Posts
  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 20, 2011 at 8:16 am

    “Austerity Britain, 1945-51” by David Kynaston.
    This is for history enthusiasts and also for ordinary “baby boomers” hankering after a walk down memory lane. It’s a highly readable account of post-war Britain which tackles everything from rationing to spivs and their black market dealings, to the rebuilding of the nation both in terms of housing and industry.
    I remember my parents, back then, saying with touching, absolute trust, that those in power knew what they were doing – the book uncovers an entirely different story. In fact, there’s a lot about the strange incompetence of the “great and the good” who ran the country not because of some particular ability but often simply because their wives were pleasant, even witty, at dinner parties!
    “Austerity Britain” is interspersed with excerpts from the private diaries of ordinary, working people and their comments about their situation made to some organization called Mass Observation, which was probably created to feel the mood of the nation and avoid upsetting waves in a time of fairly, but not entirely, general hardship.
    The book is written in a quirky, narrative style which is entertaining and immensely poignant, and though it runs to nearly 700 pages, you’ll still be yearning for more and more when you reach the back cover.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 20, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Years ago I read “The Great Hunger” by (I think) Cecil Woodham Smith. I knew nothing about the Irish famine, but the book told stories of the ordinary people and how they were affected.
    Can we discuss historical novels in this forum, please, or just non fiction?

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    I think anything linked to history will be fine.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    BEST HISTORICAL NOVELS YOU EVER READ?
    The King Must Die Mary Renault
    The Boudica Series Manda Scott
    The Caesar series Conn Iggulden
    Most things by Philippa Gregory
    Katherine Anya Seton
    Thanks for the reply, Stilhere!

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I don’t read historical novels, really. The trouble with historical novels is that they’re based on a few facts and much supposition. They may be pleasant to read but how useful are they, really?
    It’s difficult enough to wheedle out the truth from non-fictional history books which are based on a vaster number of facts, but supposition – the author’s personal understanding and interpretation – is never entirely absent. And personal understanding is always biased, surely.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    I don’t doubt that historical fiction is often written by people who have studied history, and that their books are well researched. The authors are usually very keen to show just how well their books have been researched by including a lengthy bibliography at the back.
    These books are, however, full of romanticized hypotheses and the author’s personal interpretations of various facts.
    True, they may be more entertaining than non-fictional history. Some thirty years ago, non-fictional history books were, indeed, written in an indigestible, ponderous manner. However, that’s all changed. Non-fictional history books published now are written in an excellent, very readable manner – and they’re full of real, useful, quotable facts.
    In the end, it all boils down to what one is looking for. If it’s to pass the time, then fiction, whatever the genre, is fine. If it’s to understand what really went on, then there’s no option: it’s got to be non-fiction.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 22, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Hi Stillhere-I do agree with you-it all depends on what you want.Most of my professional life has involved history,and using primary and secondary source material. You even have to be careful with non fiction,too,of course,as so much depends on how people interpret the sources.
    I’m in favour of people reading good historical fiction-and watching some TV presentations, itdoes make versions of the past accessible to everyone, and gives them an idea of how people lived.History is a living subject, and although one of my lecturers used to sniff at ‘pop history’ millions of people enjoy-an important word!-enjoy historical novels. Good discussion, Stillhere! Take care! Maize

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 22, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Hi Maize, Yes, this is turning out very well.
    I concede an excellent point you’ve made: it’s very probable that historical fiction, being easily accessible may, indeed, spur every reader to delve more deeply into areas which seemed boring or even irrelevant, hitherto. Same goes for videos, films.

    As for non-fictional history – well, as I said, we are human and however objective we try to be, total objectivity is nigh on impossible. Anyway, history is famous for being written by “the winners” and the winners always see themselves as wearing wings and halos.

    However, I find this particular moment very interesting because there’s a tendency now to do the “warts and all” version, even of very modern history. There are also new documents surfacing all the time – hitherto top secret ones from World War II, for example, and those from the ex-USSR – and there are some mind boggling little details coming into full view. Absolutely fascinating.

    Not only that, but the very style of writing has so remarkably changed: non-fictional history writers are no longer aiming at a restricted market of their peers or their university students, and waffling about in grandiloquent terms where the basic message is “if you don’t get it, then perhaps you should descend to your obviously lower level”; no, now the aim if for best-sellership, and world renown – the mass market.

    Not that such a craving for fame isn’t without it’s dangers: the author’s need to be noticed, to make the top ten so to speak, could easily induce sensationalism and the possibility of tweaking facts into fame-making shape.

    Cheers! Stil

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

    I have been reading a lot of the biographical & autobiographical stuff about WW1 & 2. The one that got away, about the only German prisoner to escape back to Germany is well worth reading as is The War Magician about Jasper Meskelyn, the stage magician who used his skills to help the war effort. Pioneer Pilot, the life story of Smith Barry, one of the very early flyers who went on to be called “The man who taught the RAF to fly” By Lord Trenchard (& Trenchard formed the RAF.)

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Hello daxi!
    I like biographies and autobiographies too – the latter are especially good as a source of extra information that doesn’t make the mainstream…the sort of things “the great and the good” would prefer not to be remembered.

  • noelle 

    Member
    July 25, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Wonderful comments on all the above, not to mention some great book suggestions to tack on to my reading list. I only have a couple of tidbits to add and both are nothing more than a rehash of what has already be written. First, I read historical fiction for pleasure–it allows me to “time travel” to another era, see how they were dressed, what their social standards and morals were, their modes of transportation, etc. It doesn’t really matter to me if every historical “fact” is documented and footnoted because I read it for what it is…fiction. With that being said, after finishing the book I almost always end up researching some of the historical events & names in the book because they have piqued my curiosity. Just as you pointed out Stil, with the information highway now at our fingertips we’re able to expand our knowledge about historical events all because we happened to be reading about them in a good fictional novel.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 27, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Noelle and everyone,
    That’s a good point you make, Noelle, about historical novels giving a feeling of the colour and the look of any particular period in history. I also agree with you that one can by-pass whether all the facts are as precise as they might be, and just enjoy the book simply because it is a story well written. However, it isn’t unusual for actual opinions to be made, based purely on an author’s fictional representation of the facts as s/he sees them, and this isn’t always a positive thing.
    As to non-fictional history, this is often tweaked, not necessarily by wanton addition of hypothetical “facts”, but rather by the omission of genuine ones. This may not have disastrous consequences where information is readily available, and a lot is already known, or is easily verifiable, as to what happened to whom and where. However, where sources are more difficult to come by, or still considered “Top Secret” (and there are documents which are destined to remain secret for a very long time, if not forever) then, by judicious tweaking, history can be completely altered; those who know the truth may be ridiculed, their reputations ruined, entire nations’ reputations ruined, leading to feelings of resentment which could mushroom completely out of control with, Heaven knows, what dire results.
    Take the case of the USA, back in the 50s, for example: I shouldn’t think that the real history of the McCarthy Witch Hunt will ever cause anyone any more sleepless nights, but it now appears that McCarthy was right. FBI documents have finally surfaced which prove that the man wasn’t in cloud-cuckoo land, looking for imaginary “reds under the bed”, but that they were actually there. For some reason, at the time, politics got in the way, and McCarthy was forbidden to name his sources. Without these acknowledged sources, his was deemed to be pure ranting.
    All that is left, in the McCarthy case, is to ask how many fictional books were written about the Witch Hunt, how many films were made, and how many people formed, what they considered to be valid, rock-solid opinions about this matter based entirely on hearsay and the movies, swearing that the only truthful one, McCarthy, was the liar, while the many liars were honest citizens, wrongfully accused.
    True, many years have passed, history has moved on, the terrible USSR is now the saintly Mother Russia, and if there are any spies, they are certainly spying on different targets. In the meantime, McCarthy, ridiculed, drank himself to death. Tweaking history always brings bad things with it.
    It wouldn’t be so harmful if everyone read historical fiction and took it for what it is, a pleasant pastime, but unfortunately this is often not the case.
    Oops! That’s a bit long, but bear with me….:)

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    As always, Stil, some excellent points, especially about McCarthy and his witch hunt-a whole new story can grow around some event which has been slanted and facts can be manipulated. The movies are so influential in forming public opinion! Kids at school seemed to accept everything they saw on the silver screen and had their own version of history…”But miss, you’re wrong, cos I saw a film about it!”
    I wonder which figure from the past has interested people, after reading about them in fiction? Ever wondered what they were really like?

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 28, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Here’s another good book:
    “The Mummy Congress”, by Heather Pringle.
    There are critiques of this book debating its scientific worth yet it never struck me that Pringle was into science as much as she was into history, the history of mummies and mummification. True, I find the topic somewhat disgusting; there’s something about the preservation of the dead, even attempting to make corpses look as alive as possible, “for posterity,” that I find repulsive, especially as I firmly believe that once life is over, the earthly remains of everyone and anyone deserve respect and very permanent burial.
    Yet such is Pringle’s talent that she draws the reader on, albeit shuddering, through a tale spanning thousands of years, recounting the rituals surrounding mummification, from that of the great and the good, in preparation for yet more pomp in some hoped-for afterlife (as with the pharaohs) to the accidental mummification of the poor and ordinary (as with some unfortunate wanderer engulfed by the Danish bogs many, many centuries ago) who eventually resurface, again by pure chance.
    What science there is in the book is really incidental and just sufficient to understand a little “something” about the process of the battle with decomposing flesh, but the real essence lies in the aura surrounding mummies. In fact, one of the most enthralling parts concerns the Roman Catholic Church and its belief that dead flesh, uncorrupted by decay, was an unquestionable sign of sainthood. Those who have visited Italy will, undoubtedly, have noticed church altars built over glass boxes containing the remains of some of these saints in various states of preservation. Some, indeed, look remarkably fresh, while many others look decidedly green. Though their state was attributed to other-worldly causes, they apparently all underwent a process of secret mummification.
    Not that mummification is a phenomenon we can relegate to the distant or medieval past: the mummified remains of Lenin are very much a part of the 20th Century. In fact another engrossing chapter of the book is dedicated to the antics and toils of the scientists who were occupied with the preservation of his “lively” looks, failure of which might have led to their own untimely demise and unceremonious burial in a gulag cemetery.
    The book also contains a number of photographs, one of which is that of a pretty blonde, blue-eyed girl who looks somewhat out of place alongside the grizzly remains of so many corpses, at least until one discovers that she too is a mummy. Needless to say, that was just too much information for me. I took a pair of scissors and cut all the ‘photos out, my theory being that once you’ve seen one mummy, you’ve really seen them all. Reading about them, however, proved surprisingly alluring.

  • Anonymous

    Member
    July 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Hi, Stil! Yet another book added to my ever growing list of things to read. I shall go onto the Amazon site ASAP! This sounds fascinating-mummification is a nasty subject, but school kids really enjoy learning about it and repeat the details with great relish!
    I’ve seen several of the saints in their glass coffins in Italian churches-it never crossed my mind they’d been mummified-just goes to show how deep the teachings of Mother Church go, that you simply accepted these things.Ages ago I read a book about the preservation of the body of Eva Peron, can’t remember much about it but it was nasty.
    Yuk!

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