Reading about history is important. It helps us to better understand the complex and nuanced world we traverse today. That, in turn helps us to better understand ourselves and our own place in the world.
This list – in no particular order – contains only a fraction of the most important and noteworthy history books, but it’s a start. Intentions were to be diverse with the stories and histories on the list. So here we go.
1. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome – Susan Wise Bauer
The first volume in a series that tells the stories of many peoples from the ancient world. It explores connections with events from the Middle East to Europe and China. Bauer provides immaculate attention to individual lives that gave birth to many of the historical theories and ideas we have today.
2. Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe
Pascoe sets out compelling evidence that argues against the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag assigned to pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. His thorough research finds Aboriginal people across the country were sowing, harvesting, irrigating, and engaging in behaviours completely inconsistent with this conceived notion of the ‘hunter-gatherer.’
3. The Second Sex – Simone De Beauvoir
The Second Sex was a ground-breaking and highly influential book upon its publication in 1949. The French existentialist reflects on the treatment of women throughout history in revolutionary fashion. A highly important text of the 20th century considered by many to be a staple publication in feminist philosophy.
4. Four Hundred Souls: A community history of African America, 1619-2019 – Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
A remarkable collection of African American stories spanning 400 years, 1619-2019. Kendi and Blain collated stories from 90 different writers, each covering a five-year period, and the result is a truly powerful and impactful work of art.
5. Night – Ellie Wiesel
Night is Wiesel’s highly personal account of the Holocaust and experiences as a teenager with his father at the German concentration camps is an essential work of the 20th century. Recollections are as profound and memorable as they are emotional, and his work considered a staple text in Holocaust literature.
6. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang
Jung brilliantly sets out the lives of three generations of women in 20th century China. The bestseller, translated into thirty languages, is an inspirational and extraordinary true life record of the female experience in modern China and the time of Mao’s presidency.
7. Iran: A Modern History – Abbas Amanat
Amanat explores the dynasties, civil wars, revolutions, foreign occupation, and events that had lasting implications for modern Iran. Rooted in decades of research in political history, this book addresses all manner of topics from music and the arts to literature, ideology, and cultural identity.
8. Embracing Defeat – John W. Dower
Dower offers his readers a thorough analysis of post-war Japan and the six years of US military occupation that had a lasting effect on Japanese society. In this well-researched book, Dower attempts to understand the visions, dreams and hopelessness of a defeated Japan seeking to rebuild its identity in the aftermath of war.
9. Talking To My Country – Stan Grant
A more recent publication, Grant’s first-hand perspective helpfully highlights all aspects of Indigenous-Australian life in the modern world. It explores the obstacles and oppression experienced both institutionally and beyond.
10. A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn
In clear prose, historian Howard Zinn tells the story of the US in the words and views of the unheard. The poor working class, immigrant labourers, Native Americans, African Americans, America’s women, and many others are the subject of this insightful analysis on some of the USA’s greatest battles.