First, a few words of caution:
(a) We will break our own rules very often, and instead of talking about history books, we will talk about historians themselves
(b) There is some overlap between this post and the book tag post
(c) We tend to be somewhat biased towards military affairs, unfortunately. Forgive us.
(d) We are talking strictly of narrative (mostly non-academic) history books. We do not have the grey matter or attention span necessary for venturing into and partaking of proper textbooks.
And the nominees are:
- John Keay - You must've seen this coming, no? He is the flavour of the era. We like his stuff (a lot), and have written copiously about him here and here and here. Enough said.
- The Second Creation (Robert P. Crease, Charles C. Mann) - "Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics". Amma had this lying at home and we read it by and by. We still haven't quite understood a decent chunk of it (on account of it being particle physics and muons and so on), but if you're interested in the history of science, this one is worth the money.
- Battle Cry Of Freedom (James McPherson) - This single volume history of the American Civil War is quite possibly the best single volume history book on any broad historical subject. An amazing book, learned yet accesible. Don't take it from the choultry, read a review. If you're a history buff, and are even moderately interested in US history, please go and buy this book. Why don't all historians get together and draw chits on which various topics are written, and go off and quietly write a book like this one?
- Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman - They aren't historians, and between them, they've written mostly books on Dravidian literature and poetry, but more than their analysis of the art, we've come to like their prefaces and afterwords, where they talk about the evolution of their pet subjects. A Poem At The Right Moment: Remembered Verses From Premodern South India and (with Sanjay Subrahmanyam) Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600-1800 (this is a more proper historiographical book) are particularly noteworthy.
- The War Against Hannibal (Titus Livius) - Surely an unexpected entry in the list! Livy wrote some 142 books during his lifetime, of which 35 have survived. Books XXI-XXX (you can read them all, in Latin, here) deal with the Punic wars. The first part has to do with that peerless Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, and his European excursion, starting in modern-day Spain, into Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, and finally into the Italian peninsula proper. The second part has to do with the Roman riposite, in the form of Publius Cornelius Scipio and his expedition to North Africa, culminating in the landmark Battle of Zama.
Polybius also wrote about the Punic wars, but Livy is particularly enchanting because he identifies so closely with the "good guys", and only has grudging respect for the adversaries. Livy's history is unabashedly partisan, you find him cheering his team on here, defending Roman atrocities there, bad-mouthing Carthage and in general behaving like a Tom Clancy of yore.
- A Short History of World War I (James L. Stokesbury) - A long time back, when our M.S. was dragging on ad infinitum, and we had momentarily tired of civil and uncivil engineering, we signed up for a World War I course and this was the prescribed textbook. Short, yet catholic (inasmuch as WWI is concerned); witty, yet poignant; abominable snowman, yet i. (Heh! Gotcha!!) We have tried to lay our paws on other books by the same author and failed.
- The Conquest of the Incas (John Hemming) - This was (is?) the "standard" book on the antics of the conquistadores in Peru, and perhaps still is. Good reference value...
- America: A Narrative History (George Tindall, David E. Shi) - The single volume version of this (even if it is 1000+ pages) could quite possibly compete with "Battle Cry of Freedom" for the top spot in the single volume stakes. Lucidly written, covers a lot of ground, with excellent and timely digressions into the American zeitgeist of whichever period they happen to be dealing with.
- Alberuni's India (Al-Biruni) - Haven't read the whole thing (it is a bit boring and nitpicky), but Al-Biruni's foreword or preface to the book is memorable. This guy must have been quite something. Nearly a millenium back, he expresses his concern at how biased the book he is about to write might turn out to be, on account of his being an outsider to his subject (India). Several remarks on the pitfalls of writing history, on the notion of the disinterested observer, and on the notion of cultural prisms refracting history (not in so many words, but close 'nuff :)
- Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (Jason Goodwin) - A most charming tome written in a fairly unique style; part whimsical brooding - part historical narrative. A fortunate and serendipitous "MacIntyre and Moore" discovery.
- Assorted - Some random interesting ones: Stillwell and the American Experience in China (Barbara W. Tuchman) is a good read about the China-Burma-India theater of WWII; Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (Lawrence James) was interesting, but might also controversial; The Proudest Day: India's Long Road To Independence (Anthony Read, David Fisher) is also interesting and controversial.