Stuck at home? Looking for an informative book to read? Read below for recommendations!
The beauty of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor, Ireland, on a summer day. Perfect place for some semi-isolated reading.
Here are Liam H. Dooley’s top 10 non-fiction books that might help pass the time, in approximate order of favorite to less favorite, with a brief explanation of why I love the book. Clearly weighted towards history. Amazon links in the hyperlinks.
1 – Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. This book somewhat helped project me on my career path and history hobbyism, including visits to many of World War II’s great battlefields and sites. There are no lack of books about Nazi Germany. It’s probably one of, if not the, most written-about historical subject in the English language. This is one of the first books that I read on this chapter of history. And though a) the book is very long and b) you know how it ends (spoiler alert: Hitler dies and the Germans lose) – the narrative, story-telling style is engaging and, honestly, page-turning especially if you only have the vaguest knowledge of this aspect of world history. Yes, there are some questionable historical analyses and statements – but the broader outlines of this book by a non-historian hold true, and it is a much more engaging read than a heavy, academic tome.
2 – Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book really impressed me with formulating a clear theory of why the world is the way it is, from the perspective of civilizations and development. This is a well-known book which is a meta-history looking at a combination of civilizations and their technologies, military technologies, diseases, and natural resources. As the author states in the book’s introduction, why in the Battle of Otumba (in modern-day Mexico) of 1520 did Spanish Conquistador Herman Cortes defeat a vastly, numerically superior (about 500 versus 10,000 to 20,000) Aztec army – and why wasn’t it the case that an inferior Aztec – or Mayan or even Central African army – defeated a numerically superior French, Spanish, or English army on their native lands? What gave the Spanish and the Europeans the ships and guns (and yes, germs) – not to say a host of other tools and knowledge – to so decisively defeat the Aztecs? And as we know, it was not a stroke of luck. The Europeans went on to conquer all of Africa and the Americas because of the same imbalances. One thing that struck me was that it is clear that it wasn’t a question of race or culture or genes – but fortunes and misfortunes of geography, which determined available crops, livestock, and beasts of burden among many other things, destined Europeans to conquer the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific islands and not the other way around.
3 – The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge. I loved this book because it gave a great, balanced overview of this period which everyone seems to mention at some point, usually in regards to both Middle East policy and conflict, and the Global War on Terror. But most people really don’t know anything about the Crusades. The Crusades is balanced, impartial history of the Crusades in the Middle East (it’s a bit forgotten that there were other Crusades – particularly in the Iberian Peninsula and in Northeastern Europe).
I was initially inspired to learn more about the Crusades by a Swedish fictional trilogy on the subject – the Arn series by Jan Guillou. This book by Asbridge covers all of the epoch’s highlights: the seizure and sack of Jerusalem, the Templars, the Assassins, the sacking of Constantinople, the Leper King, the Hospitaller Knights, Saladin, and so much more. The book is long – but the history reads like a saga of great men amidst an almost non-stop series of armed conflict – because that is exactly what it is. The book (and any in-depth knowledge of the topic) should shatter some of the stereotypes and generalizations politicians and pundits throw about on the subject.
4 –Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. This book helped me reconsider the nature of Christianity and my personal religion. This is a fascinating historical exploration of the life of Jesus – asking from a historian’s point of view did Jesus exist, what was that part of the world like in that period, who was Jesus in reality, and what proof is there? You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the book (and it’s written by a Muslim). It is not a spiritual book but a perfectly credible historical book. One of the big questions it poses that makes me think is: of all the “Messiahs” why is it that Jesus the Christ (obviously shortened later to just Jesus Christ) became within just a few years of his death the Jewish Messiah when a) there had been other Messiahs who had come and gone; and b) Christ’s promise of delivery of the holy land from the Romans and/or the end of days were not realized?
5 – Lost to the West by Lars Brownworth. This is a history of the Byzantine Empire, mostly told through the lives of its various Emperors. Doubtless, the empire provided some inspiration for various parts of Game of Thrones, for example – such as the stadium fight between the two factions, as well as the overall atmosphere of Constantinople being similar to King’s Landing. The “Byzantine” Empire – more accurately called the Eastern Roman Empire, maintained European civilization during the Latin European “Dark Ages”. But aside from the importance of the empire to the West, the history reads like a millennium-long dramatic saga worthy of the GoT it partly inspired.
6 – Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret Macmillan and Richard Holbrooke. Everyone loves to criticize the post-World War 1 order – it sort of made all of those warring countries in the Balkans, the Middle East, it created the seeds of the next World War. You might almost ask – what didn’t they do wrong? But when you learn more about the challenges, and the legitimate and honest efforts world leaders made to meet those challenges – one should come away humbled and impressed. A simple question: how to deal with a collapsed empire that no one expected to collapse, and that had no interest in remaining an empire (Ottomans)? Or, when considering self-determination, who decides it and on what basis? Does each town get to decide if it wants to be a nation? What if the population has a majority vote for a “nation” – but that majority is concentrated in a small area? And then who can legitimately claim to rule the new countries? On top of that, how does one balance the arguments of countries who actively contributed to countries versus those that had fought against the Allies?
7 – Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. Nuclear weapons. What can go wrong? This book shows not just what can go wrong, it shows what has gone wrong. Nuclear weapons accidents, sensor errors, and near-nuclear wars. How are we still alive, one wonders after reading this book. This book should make the most enthusiastic supporter of nuclear weapons ask – is it really worth the risk? It’s one thing to annihilate half of humanity to win a war – it’s another to do because of a mistake in a computer or because of a plane crashed.
8 – Takedown: The 3rd Infantry Division’s Twenty-One Day Assault on Baghdad by James G. Lacey. I have read a lot of “modern war” (post-WW2) books – biographies, studies, stories, etc. About snipers, SEALS, Blackhawk Down, fighter pilots, about the Arab-Israeli Wars, Falkland Islands War, Desert Storm, etc. So to pick one book in particular is not easy – but this book struck me because it is relatively recent, with a number of relevant lessons about modern warfare, armored warfare, public perceptions (everyone thought the US was going to be quagmire; and if you were in an infantry company or in Washington it looked that way – but the author noted that if you were at the division level everything made sense and the US was on the road to seizing Baghdad – which it did). This is a book, and a history, about how a relatively small but very modern and well-trained military conquered a country in short order – despite enormous strategic warning. The US Coalition had only some 3-4 divisions. Wikipedia puts the number of Coalition troops at approximately 225,000 troops versus at least 1.5 million Iraqi troops. The US defeated the Iraqi army in just over a month, with minimal casualties – no small accomplishment. What happened after was, of course, a bit of a rolling disaster but that is another part of history. Whether one agrees or not with the 2003 invasion, one cannot downplay the significance of the military victory.
9 – Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff. I’m not actually sure what I liked about this book, but it was interesting and questions some principles that most people hold as basic assumptions. First, this is an interesting history of the Cold War and issues of nuclear war. But most of all, this book poses the questions: who controls nuclear weapons, how does the line of Presidential succession work in a major crisis, and ultimately – what is the nature of government and from where does it derive its legitimacy?
10 – Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. I wouldn’t say this book transformed my life in any way – but since it was a topic of which I knew little about and it has such enormous relevance today, it is worth mentioning. I have to proudly admit that I read this well before Covid-19 was a thing. There are probably any number of similar books that talk about where some infectious diseases come from, how they spread, and how they are researched. This book won’t make you an epidemiologist overnight, but it might give you more insight than Twitter.