9 page-turning history books

Bill Bryson
Category: Reading

In our latest Book Talk discussion, we take a look at Bill Bryson’s addictive new book America: Summer 1927. Chronicling an extraordinarily eventful five months at the end of the Roaring 20’s, the book proves that history doesn’t have to be dry and dull. For anyone who wants to banish bad memories of snooze-inducing texts and lessons, here are a few more histories worthy of being called page turners.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

An excellent read for fans of Downton Abbey, Nicholson (the granddaughter of scandalous socialite Vita Sackville-West) beautifully encapsulates the long, unusually hot summer of 1911, which found Britain on the edge of seismic changes. While the aristocracy played, workers went on strike and suffragettes sought the vote, World War I shimmered just on the horizon. A fascinating portrait of all levels of society blissfully unaware of what lay just ahead.


Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Salt cover

The intertwining stories of one of America’s first documented serial killers, H. H. Holmes, and Daniel H Burnham, the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair, is written and reads like a taunt thriller. As macabre as it is fascinating, it’s also filled with little titbits of information to file away and impress your friends with later.


Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Once upon a time, that flavouring we all take for granted was so prized that wars were fought over it and it was used as currency (hence the term ‘worth his salt’). Mark Kurlansky gives an entertaining account of how this once-precious commodity influenced the world.


Persian Fire by Tom Holland

In the 5th century BC, Xerxes, King of Persia, decided to enlarge his already enormous empire by invading mainland Greece. It did not go well. The Greeks managed to hold off his massive armies, ensuring the future survival of the Western world. Tom Holland turned to ancient sources to create a narrative that’s anything but stuffy.


Persian Fire cover

Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead

Harry Gordon Selfridge and the remarkable times he lived in are brought vividly to life in this entertaining read, which traces the retail impresario from his grim childhood through his fabulously wealthy heyday and to his nearly impoverished end. It’s both the story of a man and the heady world of Edwardian London and is strewn with titillating gossipy bits about scandals, fashions and innovations that’ll keep you turning the pages.


A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Books about the Titanic disaster are many, but Walter Lord’s account of that fateful voyage stands out. Lord tracked down and interviewed 60 survivors and crafted a story that’s tense, detailed and harrowing.


The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton

History is littered with oddball moments and anecdotes, and from this book it seems that quite a lot of them relate to 17th century France. Viewed now as The Age of Enlightenment, Darnton’s collection of essays reveals it to also have been a time of very bizarre people and attitudes.


Band of Brigands by Christy Campbell
Band of Brigands cover

World War I saw the invention of a number of new ways to slaughter people, including the tank. Campbell’s book details the stories of the first men brave enough to climb inside stifling boxes packed with ammunition and explosives and become the first ones in during some of the most horrific battles of the modern age.


Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning

What makes ordinary people willing to commit genocide? This fascinating history delves into the lives of a unit of middle-aged Germans who had every appearance of being perfectly ordinary but were capable of killing remorselessly on an industrial scale. A chilling book that carries a message of warning for all of us.

What’s your favourite history book? Share it in the comments below!

Want more? Check out some of our lists of non-fiction books and listen to the podcast now!


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