Finding Good History Books: A Rough and Incomplete Guide for the Perplexed

a view of a bookstore sales area through a glass window

A friend recently asked me to recommend good history books for listening (on Audible). She’s outside of academia—a curious reader and homeschooling mother who has enough experience to be suspicious of what passes for history on the U.S. popular market. (“Perhaps what I also need,” she added, “is a list of which ‘historians’ not to read.”)

I thought it might be good—especially as the holiday season approaches—to expand on the advice I gave my friend, in hopes of helping other cautious readers, at least in the United States. Instead of naming specific titles or authors, I’ll recommend a method for doing research on one’s own.

Now, my recommendations are flawed at the outset. They’re flawed, first, because they are very conservative—if not in a political sense, then in the sense of playing things safe. You probably won’t find the most penetrating or controversial new interpretations of historical topics this way; my goal is to make it easy to identify books with mainstream recognition and wide respect among historians. These recommendations are also flawed because, quite frankly, there are countless magnificent works of history you’ll never find this way. And they’re flawed because they’re my recommendations, and other historians will give you different advice based on their experiences … and they’ll be right.

But I still think it’s worth offering this advice, if only because it’s advice I would have loved to have when I was a teenager sitting in a small-town public library, trying to figure out how to start studying history as an adult.

1. Look for prizes and other forms of public recognition.

One of the easiest ways to discover excellent work is to browse lists of prizewinners, as opposed to lists of bestsellers. Here are some places to look:

  • Smithsonian Magazine, a publication of the august Smithsonian Institution, releases an annual list of the editors’ favorite new history books. “The Ten Best History Books of 2019” was published a few days ago.
  • The Pulitzer Prizes honor a book of history and a biography every year. They also release the names of two other finalists in each category. (Note: Academic historians tend to make a firm distinction between history and biography, even though they overlap a great deal in subject matter. For the purposes of this post, I am minimizing the distinction.)
  • Among professional historians who study the western hemisphere or diplomacy, the Bancroft Prize may be an even more coveted honor than the Pulitzer. Each year, two or three distinguished works of history are granted his honor.
  • The National Book Award’s nonfiction prize often goes to a work of history, and lists of other nominated books are released along with the name of each year’s winner. (The National Book Foundation website includes a list of past winners that you can browse by category or search with a term of your own, although you may have to dig around a bit to find all the history and biography books.)
  • The Society of American Historians awards the Francis Parkman Prize each year to a work of history distinguished for its “literary merit,” and, starting in 2020, will award a Tony Horwitz Prize to books with “wide appeal and enduring public significance.”
  • The National Book Critics Circle gives an annual award to a distinguished work of biography, and its award for general nonfiction is often related to history.
  • The Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University in Canada, honors excellent history writing in English.

All of those awards tend to honor the work of professional historians or biographers who publish books designed for a wide audience of educated readers.

In addition to prizes, look for books that have been favorably reviewed by major nonpartisan (but not necessarily apolitical) journalistic publications like NPR (which is likely to release its annual “book concierge” very soon), the LA Times, and the New Yorker.  The “starred” reviews of Kirkus Reviews are also worth checking out.

Bear in mind, however, that major prizes are usually a better guide to quality than even very favorable reviews, which are often written by people with no historical training, and which may reward books more for being provocative and lively than for any signs of reliability.

In any case, you’ll want to evaluate well-reviewed books according to additional criteria as well. The following advice may help with that.

2. Look for a reputable publisher.

Certain “trade” publishers—who aim their books at fairly large audiences of readers—are widely respected by professional historians. That’s because these publishers may solicit the advice of historians; they may put the manuscripts they’d like to publish through at least a minimal peer-review process to ensure high quality; and their editors keep an eye on larger intellectual conversations and debates, seeking to publish books that are likely to make important contributions.

Which publishers (or imprints—see definition 2.1) you should seek out first may depend on the topics you’re interested in. But in general, here are some of the blue-chip names that tend to be good to see on title pages of English-language history books:

However, you should bear in mind that when historians do academic research in books, they tend to spend most of their time reading books published by university presses, not trade-book publishers.

A university press exists mostly to publish specialized new scholarship that will interest small audiences of professionals. Its books are not necessarily designed to be read by people outside of academia, and it usually operates at a financial loss, as a service to the academic community. (As a result, many of its books are very expensive; they’re priced for libraries, not individuals.)

But many university presses also publish excellent books designed for readers outside the academy. (In my field, for example, the university presses of Oxford and Harvard do a lot of that kind of business, but they’re hardly the only ones.) Some of their books may actually be published as trade books, appealing primarily to readers outside academia. Other books are designed as “crossover” titles: They’re meant to meet the highest scholarly standards while also appealing to non-academic readers.

In general, if you find a book published by a university press on the shelves of your local bookstore, or on a bestseller list of any kind, it probably falls into one of those two categories. The same tends to be true if the book has an especially stylish cover. Likewise if a university press book is reviewed widely by non-academic publications, like newspapers and magazines. If a university press publishes a book under those conditions, there’s a good chance it’s a high-quality option for a general reader.

3. Check on the author’s expertise and scholarly mindset.

One simple way to judge the likely reliability of a historian or biographer is to check where she works. Writers who work in universities, colleges, and major museums aren’t necessarily any smarter, wiser, or better at writing than others. But they do probably have scholarly reputations to uphold that political pundits or non-academic historians (and some journalists) may not have. Academic institutions are full of “gatekeepers” and safeguards, and scholars who work in them are expected to engage in constant critical reflection and discussion with their peers.

A simple web search will normally tell you when a historian or biographer is employed in an academic institution. If she is, that’s normally a good sign—assuming, of course, that you already think her book looks interesting. (Bear in mind that many academic historians also write books that are designed only for specialists in a topic.)

4. Timing matters.

This isn’t always obvious, but historians treat most scholarship as if it has an unwritten sell-by date. Over time, new sources of evidence will become available, new controversies will arise, and new interpretations will be formulated that render older history books obsolete and perhaps misleading. On the other hand, a small number of books endure as classics that historians will return to again and again.

As a non-specialist, you have no way to know which books have spoiled. But for the sake of a general rule—a very rough and somewhat arbitrary guideline—I’d say that history books published within about the last 12 years are much more likely to be current than books older than that are. Conversely, given the publishing cycle, you can probably treat a book published within the last four years as basically new (which is a good thing). But bear in mind that other historians might have very different opinions on this question.

What’s essential is that you avoid picking up books that are decades old and treating them as if they were timelessly true. Writing good history involves drawing conclusions from research and criticism, and that means historical knowledge changes over time.

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Image: Andrew Kuhn, photograph of the visitors center bookstore at Arches National Park, Grand County, Utah, 2012. National Park Service. Public domain.

 

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