The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Richard Popkin – This deeply philosophical book covers the modern emergence of skepticism following Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, and the reformation as it flows through to the enlightenment philosophers who tried to provide—once and for all—philosophical grounding for our knowledge. With figures like Hume and Kant, the period from the reformation through the rise of modern philosophy is one unbroken narrative set in a time and place where questions of what we know and how can we know it dominated intellectual debates. This is one of my all-time favorite books simply because it pulls together so many different threads of world history and weaves them into a tapestry that makes this period of time come alive.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Margaret McMilla
n – This national bestseller by 20th century historian Margaret McMillan does a wonderful job of bringing to life the story of how WWI ended, the scramble for postwar influence and the re-making of the modern world in its aftermath. WWI arguably re-shaped the global map more than any other modern historical event. I’ve found that we know many parts of this story but not as being connected to each other in a single, unfolding drama—much of which play
ed out during the Paris peace talks at Versailles during the winter and spring of 1919. It is a large—coming in at 624 pages—and ambitious book but, for any lover of history, it delivers from beginning to end.
e, Martin Meredith – Another ambitious and extremely large work of history, The Fate of Africa tells the history of the African continent beginning with the independence movements of the late 1950s up through the present. Meredith employs a unique storytelling device of following a timeline of key events while moving from one country and region to another. The overall effect is a rather thorough, clear and compelling recounting of much of 20th century Africa. Meredith is a British journalist and historian who has spent much of his life studying and writing about Africa and brings alive the key figures and events that shaped the history of modern African countries. With Cold War politics, colonialism and it’s after effects, apartheid in South Africa, genocide, civil wars, dictators and more, Meredith’s book is a superb introductory book to modern Africa, its intricacies, issues and development since independence.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menard – For many years this was far and away my favorite book. I happen to love American history around the time of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, and in philosophy, I’ve been intrigued by the American philosophical figures who brought us pragmatism and was early on enamored with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James—key 19th century writers and thinkers. The Metaphysical Club brings many threads together: American politics, Civil War, slavery and abolition, the Boston Transcendentalists, the advent of the uniquely American way of pursuing truth and understanding, and ties them all into broader concepts such as the debates on creation vs. evolution, the growth and significance of paleontology, the increased growth in travel, speed of communication, and transference of global ideas and conversations. This Pulitzer Prize winner is well worth the time and effort to understand the development of ideas in a post-Darwinian world, as well as how ideas both shaped and were shaped by the American experience of the Civil War.
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner – This is one of the hundreds of books on Lincoln, but has a unique angle in examining the development of his views on slavery and race. This incredibly well-researched and honest portrayal of Lincoln tells a rather different story than the picture cemented in our minds of Lincoln at Gettysburg or issuing his second inaugural address. Showing how Lincoln’s views on slavery and race evolved against the backdrop of 19th Century American culture humanizes Lincoln and, in my mind, makes him more admirable. The Fiery Trial is a must read for students of Lincoln, American slavery, the Civil War, or how race relations in America have developed over time via key thinkers of twentieth century American politics. Side note: The Fiery Trial is an easy gift to give to any history lover on your Christmas list!