A firm grasp of history is a very important part of a well-rounded education, as you might imagine. Understanding our collective past helps us to make sense of our present, and, in turn, it’ll allow us to make better decisions for our future.
We prepared this list of the best history books of all time to cover a wide variety of subjects and epochs, from the history of ancient civilizations to more specific topics, such as the history of Japan in the 20th century or the history of women who changed the course of science.
Unfortunately, this list will of course be incomplete, perhaps missing whole swaths of time or groups of people, and for that we sincerely apologize! However, we did our best to be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible, and we will continue to add to this list in an effort to make it more and more complete.
Anyway, let’s get to it, shall we?
Here are our picks for the best history books to read:
1. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
If you feel like you need to brush up on your knowledge of history, but feel intimidated or bored by thick textbooks with countless descriptions of battles, A History of the World in 100 Objects might just be your new best friend!
What started as a BBC broadcast quickly turned into a wonderful history book. Neil MacGregor talks about history in an entertaining and compelling way, using examples of objects people have created over our existence and how these objects have shaped our present.
2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a book by Yuval Noah Harari with a historical timeline of humanity from the “birth” of Homo sapiens to now in the twenty-first century.
As our guide, Harari walks us through our history as a species, but it also goes well beyond that. He argues that we may never be able to fully escape social biases, for one thing, as well as that many distinctly human inventions, such as trade, religion, and politics, owe their existence to our “distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction.”
Sapiens is a compelling book that is as much philosophy as it is science, history, and anthropology.
3. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle B. Freedman
This book offers an insightful introduction to the history of feminism, describing the lives of women around the world from before the Industrial Age and moving on to our days. If you want to learn more about how women’s rights have changed and how feminism developed with the passage of time, this historical book will be perfect for you!
4. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
If the impressive name itself did not convince you yet to add this book to your reading list, let me mention the fact that Guns, Germs, and Steel won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1998. And it was well-deserved, in my opinion!
This world history book explains how civilizations developed and why some of them turned out to be more fortunate than others (spoiler alert: to some extent it has to do with germs!). It is not the easiest history book to read which you can choose from our list, but it is far away from academic writing, also, so do not worry!
5. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn created one of the most important American history books of all time, and it should be read by anyone who wants to know the real history of the US from the point of view of real people, such as factory workers, immigrants, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other groups of people that were neglected and marginalized for years. A People’s History of the United States is an exceptional history book, but because it was one of the first books in the US to tell its history from a different perspective, it often stirs up controversy even today.
6. Europe: A History by Norman Davies
Europe: A History is unbelievably massive (the audiobook is almost 62 hours!), but don’t let that turn you off. If you can only read just one European history book in your life, it should be this one!
Norman Davies goes through the complete history of Europe, starting with the Ice Age all the way to the events of the 20th century. Despite its size, or because of it, it is a great read whether you have an extensive knowledge of the history of Europe or not. It will be perfect for advanced high school students, European history majors, or simply anyone wanting to expand their intellectual horizons.
7. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan wrote a book that recounts world history mostly from the perspective of Asia instead of Europe or North America. It covers the history of the countries belonging to the Silk Road area, a story that spans more than two millennia, from the times it was first used to the 20th century.
If you are looking for a comprehensive and engaging read on Asia and its influence on other continents and cultures, check out The Silk Roads!
8. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution was written for all those who are interested in history, politics, Russia, or simply curious about our world. It tells a story of nine months in 1917 that became a turning point in the history of Russia. It starts from February, when the Russian Empire was still a monarchy, and it culminates in October, with Russia becoming a socialist state.
If you read just one Russian history book (though it’s such a large and fascinating country, so don’t stop there!), make it this one. China Miéville is normally a talented fiction writer, so you will be certain not to get bored as you read this historical account.
9. Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe is not purely a history book, per se, but rather a compilation of history, memoirs, and travelogue entries, which makes it very personal and human. It tells honest stories of different people of African descent all around Europe, from the UK to Russia.
Read this book if you are searching for something more than a dry history textbook, as Johny Pitts has penned an incredible read which shows how important acceptance and kindness are, as well, of course, as the ever-shifting struggle for African descendants to create modern identities while maintaining ties with their past.
10. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson undertook a challenging task of covering as many subjects as possible in A Short History of Nearly Everything, which resulted in the creation of one of the best history books you can possibly find. It is full of fun facts about cosmology, chemistry, physics, and anthropology, and it manages to explain all this complicated stuff with ease. You’ll wish all your textbooks were written by Bryson!
After completing the last page of this book, you will definitely have a better understanding about both the world around you and you, yourself, and be left in a good mood after.
11. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
If you are looking for a book that will help you refresh (or learn for the first time) your knowledge of important events from ancient history, The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer will be your best companion! The author does not go into deep detail on each period, but rather gives exactly enough information to provide a necessary foundation to help you navigate these parts of history much easier in the future.
12. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
In this book, Charles C. Mann mostly focuses on just one thing: the Columbian exchange. However, by doing so, the book reveals how the whole future of humanity was forever changed and shaped after Columbus made his 1492 voyage, and how it influenced the economy, trade, agriculture, and even the landscape of our planet still today.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created is one of the best history books you can read and shows how just one event reshaped the whole world around us.
13. Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell
The name of the book basically speaks for itself: it connects the history of Maoism (Mao Zedong’s take on Marxism–Leninism), from its beginnings in the 1930s through to its connection with the world’s history. Through this prism, Julia Lovell analyzes many important events of the 20th century, both in China and outside of the country.
If you want to better understand the culture, history, and politics of the world’s most populous country, you should definitely add this book to your reading list!
14. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby
If you prefer to learn history through the lens of short stories and biographies of remarkable people, you must reach for this book! Written with much more simplicity than most other books you can find on our list, it features short biographies of 52 brilliant female scientists, women who were behind some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history.
Headstrong is definitely not what you expect your ordinary history book to be, but from it you can learn plenty of fascinating facts about the history of science and the often-overlooked or underrepresented stories of the inspiring women behind it.
15. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Another rightful Pulitzer winner which made its way to our list of best history books is The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. This book recounts the events which led to World War I, explaining why they happened and how it could have been prevented. This book also covers the first month of the war and compellingly illustrates the transition from the 19th to the 20th century.
First published in 1962, The Guns of August has become one of the classics of historical literature, and it remains a relevant and dramatic read today, well over 50 years later!
16. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
In his book, Steven Johnson takes his readers to Victorian London, telling a story of the worst cholera outbreak in history, its causes, and the course of events. The Ghost Map is one of the most relevant history books in our days during and after our own coronavirus crisis, as it shows a pandemic outbreak but also presents a history and account of the impact of urbanization, formation of cities, and the way they all have shaped our modern life.
It is a great interdisciplinary read, as it contains elements of history, sociology, epidemiology, civil engineering, and much more!
17. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
Have you noticed how many history books have peculiar names? SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is undoubtedly among them 🙂SPQR is an abbreviation for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, which translates in English to “The Roman Senate and People,” and this 4-letter abbreviation was found on Roman coins, documents, and monuments.
Here, Mary Beard has written one of the best Roman history books, dedicating all six hundred pages to the history, culture, and society of the Roman Empire. You should definitely add this book to your reading list if you want to learn more about world history or the development of our modern society, as, in many ways, Romans influenced the outlook of the world as we know it today.
18. The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich
E.H. Gombrich wrote a comprehensive guide which has become one of the best art history books you can find, perfect for anyone who wants to learn about art and its evolution throughout the ages. Starting with early cave paintings, The Story of Art takes you on a lengthy historical journey through a prism of spectacular art from all around the world. And, this book is written in simple language, so even art newbies need not worry!
19. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
You might be wondering how this behemothic work of fiction ended up on our list of best history books. In fact, War and Peace might be the best historical chronicle of Russia during the time of Napoleon’s invasion. It gives a perfect understanding of what provincial life in the country looked like during this period and is remarkably meticulous when it comes to describing historical events.
20. A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
A Black Women’s History of the United States is a very empowering and inspiring book which tells a story of our continuous fight against both racism and sexism. The authors created a detailed portrayal of African American women’s history, covering not only the most famous figures and events, but also describing the lives of lesser-known women who were vitally important to the development of the US.
Having just been published in 2020, it is a much-needed book, especially today. It has the potential to become one of the best African American history books of all time, and it is a powerful testament to the spirit of Black women all across the country.
Related Read: 25+ Books for College Students to Read in University
21. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
This book is a classic among other Latin America history books, so if you want to learn more about the history of this region, Open Veins of Latin America is a great place to start! Concentrating on Latin American history, Eduardo Galeano also covers many other topics, such as economy, culture, politics, and sociology, all in order to provide a comprehensive view on Latin America throughout the centuries.
22. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is another timeless book offering a look into the events which created and sustained Nazi Germany. It does not lose its relevance almost sixty years after it was first published, and, in fact, may be even more necessary in current years where nationalism and prejudice have increased once again. William L. Shirer goes into immense detail, reporting the full story of the formation, heyday, and demise of the Third Reich.
Despite the brutal and horrid topic this book is devoted to, it is considered to be one of the best history books of all time. Why? Especially in these times we live in, so that we would know about these tragic events, understand what went wrong, and never repeat our mistakes again.
23. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
The autobiography of Nelson Mandela is another tome on our list of best history books, though it isn’t a history book, per se. However, it can tell you surprisingly much about the history, culture, and anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Long Walk to Freedom is inspiring, eye-opening, and breathtaking, and the story will stay with you long after you complete the last page.
24. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
This book is one of the best Native American history books you can possibly find. It tells the complicated history of massacres and battles as they were seen by Native American tribes. This book by Dee Brown also gives us a better understanding of the horrifying sacrifices Native Americans had to make, from wars to forced relocations and beyond.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is not an easy read, and it will leave you heartbroken and devastated, mostly because it is so candid and truthful. Still, though, it is most certainly one of the most important books about history you could possibly consume.
25. The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman
The Gay Revolution unfolds from the early 1950s, recounting the story of the ongoing fight, including tragic defeats and important victories, for LGBTQ rights. Even though it is a massive book, it is very easy to read and full of both fascinating and heartbreaking stories. It should be read by anyone who wants to learn and better understand what it took, and what it still takes, for the LGBTQ community to receive and retain the civil rights and freedoms they deserve.
26. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix
If you are a lover of Asian history, you should immediately check out Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. This biography of the emperor Hirohito covers Japanese history during the 20th century, disclosing details of the China War and Asia-Pacific War. This book can help you broaden your world views and allow you to gain a new perspective on some important major events of the 20th century.
Well, that’s all for now on our list of the best history books to read, and we hope it helps make your next book choice much easier! Got any questions, feedback, or other books on world history (or specific histories) to add to our list? Let us know in the comments below, and thank you for reading!
This article on the best historical books to read was written by Mariia Kislitsyna, a master’s degree graduate in business strategy and a former IT recruiter. Mariia is an expert on topics related to employment, recruitment, education, and more, and she also frequently writes about culture and travel.