10 Best History Books of Last 10 Years
This time of year produces a ton of "Best of..." or "Top ____ of the Year" lists, and they're usually pretty good. However, I always come away from such reads wishing they would have been deeper, or covered more ground, or had a bit more history to them. So, I thought I'd come up with a list of the best 10 history books over the last 10 years.
This list isn't about my favorites, or about the public's favorites, but is rather, simply, about the best of the best. Ten great books published over the last 10 years. Here we go:
1. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (2008), by William J Bernstein. Published in 2008, this book just barely makes the cut-off in terms of time, but despite its age, is well worth the effort. Bernstein, a financial theorist by day, hones in on the one thing that truly makes human beings stand out from the rest of the animal kingdom’s crowd: trade. More so than language, culture, symbols, or even the capacity for using tools, the ability to exchange goods or services for something you want (or want more of) has not only defined humanity but also shaped the world we live in today. A Splendid Exchange is not an economics book or even an overly annotated scholarly effort. It’s a breezy, fact-filled book filled with delicious maps, interesting anecdotes, and a quiet optimism in the human spirit. To give just one example of why this book is one of the decade’s best, Bernstein is in the middle of telling the story of how Europeans circumnavigated the globe in search of spices routes, when he seamlessly ceases the intra-European rivalry narrative to explain why Portugal’s fiercest rival in the Indian Ocean trade was not the Netherlands or Venice but a now little-known Muslim Sultanate called Aceh (located in present-day Indonesia). Aceh was so well-connected to established trans-Eurasian trade routes that the kingdom effectively knocked Portugal out of the East Indies spice trade. And Aceh’s biggest trading partner? Not neighbors China or India. Not fellow Muslims or the Ottomans. The European city-state of Venice! Chapter Nine (“The Coming of Corporations”) is alone worth the price of the book, as it is easily the clearest, most concise explanation for how corporations came into being that I have ever read.
2. The Arabs: A History (2009), by Eugene Rogan. In 2012, I was assigned this book for a political science course at UCLA. I had already taken a number of Middle Eastern history courses with James Gelvin and was a little baffled as to why I was being assigned an unknown history book for a political science course. It quickly became apparent to me that Rogan’s book was a little different from the books I had been assigned to read for history courses. The Arabs: A History is long on modern (1500-present) political history and short on cultural intimacies or philosophical insights. Rogan, who teaches at Oxford, starts off with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt instead of, say, the founding of Islam, and proceeds to explain how and why Arabs have, since that conquest (although the Ottomans were Muslims, they were not Arabs, they were Turks), ended up on the ass end of so many international affairs. The Arabs: A History’s best virtue is being able to explain the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the most objective of terms, all while still being able to pinpoint which parties are largely responsible for that debacle. Chapter 13 (“The Power of Islam”) is alone makes the book worth reading, as Rogan spells out in rigorous, plain logic the history behind the rise of Islamism (as opposed to Islam).
3. Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (2014), by Frederick Cooper. This is a book about an idea that got lost in the public sphere of debate. Once upon a time in post-war France, there were calls for the metropole (European France) to federate a la the United States with its colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. Cooper, a historian at Columbia, digs deep into the diplomatic archives of several African countries, as well as those of France, to give readers an intellectual history of an idea worth reintroducing into the public. This book is the hardest to read of all 10, but also the most rewarding. Why did France reject African offers to federate? Why did Africans reject offers from France to federate? Citizenship Between Empire and Nation answers these questions by highlighting factions, explaining political sore spots in various parts of the empire, and delving into the more theoretical issues associated with concepts like citizenship, constitutional rights, and republicanism. Chapter 1 (“From French Empire to French Union”) is alone worth the price of the book, as Cooper does an excellent job of setting the stage for explaining the debate he’s about to document throughout the book. Not only will you gain insight into tricky concepts, you’ll learn a lot of interesting historical tidbits about France and her Empire that are virtually unknown (at least in the United States).
4. The Comanche Empire (2008), by Pekka Hamalainen. This is an awesome book that sets out give Native Americans an active, engaging role in the history of the Americas. It follows a long line of scholarship that has sought to redefine the indigenous peoples of the Americas as intelligent, dignified human beings who had all the skills - and faults - that Europeans, Africans, and Asians had. Hamalainen, a Finnish historian, argues that the Comanche Indians of what is now mostly Texas (I am simplifying for brevity’s sake) were actually the makers of an empire that played the game of global geopolitics with the best of them: the Spanish, the British, the Americans, other Native tribes, and the Mexicans, to name a few. From their homeland in Comancheria, the Comanches built a much-feared “empire” of influence that drove geopolitics in the region for 120 years. The Comanche Empire’s other important feat is to illustrate the sheer power that maps have over the human mind’s imagination. Hamalainen’s book is revisionist history at its finest – it changes the very idea of how we think about something we thought we already knew. At times it reaches. The Comanche territory was hardly an empire, but Hamalainen does such a good job at restoring agency to the Native actor that you can’t help but be convinced by his more subtle findings. Chapter 7 (“Hunger”) is alone worth the read, as the last-gasp efforts of the Comanches to stem the tide of European machinations are told by a pen so eloquent that only a non-American could do it.
5. The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (2016), by Mostafa Minawi. I haven’t been able to find a single book that gives me a great picture of the Ottoman Empire. Rogan’s book does a good job, as does James Gelvin’s, but both focus on the Arab world and up until I happened across Minawi’s little treasure I hadn’t found a deep, luscious treasure trove of a book about the Ottoman Empire’s true self. There are some contenders. Salih Özbaran’s Ottoman Expansion Towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century is excellent, but far too narrow and lacks theoretical sophistication, while Cihan Artunç’s work is theoretically and economically robust, but lacks a certain zest. This is where Minawi’s excellent little book comes into play. The maps alone are incredible, but The Ottoman Scramble for Africa does much more than argue that Istanbul wasn’t the sick man of Europe it’s often made out to be. Diplomatic histories are my favorite sub-genre, but they are hard slogging and you often need some sort of a basic historical background to really learn anything from them. Not so with Minawi’s account of Ottoman dealings in Africa. In it, you will find sufficient background to explain the Ottoman Empire’s foreign policy in regards to its vassals in North and East Africa, but also Central Africa, all the way down into Lake Chad. I had no idea that the Ottomans had so far a reach in Africa, and Minawi’s explanations for Istanbul’s dealings with the kingdoms was just a pleasure to read. Chapter 3 (“The Diplomatic Fight for Ottoman Africa”) is alone worth the price of admission. There, you will find not only how British and French diplomats were able to isolate the Ottomans, but also how Istanbul engaged in foreign affairs with kingdoms in central Africa that have long since disappeared from the map.
6. Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (2011), by Anne F Hyde. Winner of the 2012 Bancroft Prize, Hyde’s work is a must-read book for American history buffs. Eschewing the east coast for the supposed wilds of the west, Empires, Nations, and Families explains that the common understanding of Americans moving west to tame an untapped wilderness is a myth, plain and simple. Under Hyde’s careful scholarship, the city of Saint Louis moves from an urbanizing area on the frontier to the center of a vast and prosperous trading network, with its hands in China and the Pacific trade and feet in Indian territory, the livestock trade and the still-lucrative fur trade of the Rockies. From Mormon efforts at state-building in Deseret to Native American conceptions of private property rights, Hyde’s command of relevant theory is so masterful that you don’t even realize you are being taught important concepts as you breeze through her historical narrative. Empires, Nations, and Families is a true paean to the idea that history is the highest form of art. Chapter 7 (“Border Wars: Disorder & Disaster in the 1850s”) is alone worth the price of admission, as the question of who was “civilizing” who begins to be answered.
7. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011), by Charles C Mann. Mann’s 2005 work, 1491, is one the most influential books I’ve ever read. I remember quite clearly reading about the Iroquois confederacy being a libertarian’s dream society while doing ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana, and thinking to myself: I need to re-evaluate my interest in Africa and the Americas. Mann’s sequel is just as good, if not better. Although Mann turns his focus away from reporting on research dedicated solely to the Americas before Columbus, he does not lose his talent for finding just the right angles to paint his fascinating portrait of world history. With Mann’s keen journalistic eye, slaves in Africa become, like Hemalainen’s Comanche, active and engaging participants in not only the New World, but the opening up of the entire world to commerce and conquest. Mann tells one story of an African slave who leads a successful rebellion in New World where Europeans are absolutely crushed in battle with escaped slaves and Native allies. The slave who led the war on the side of the downtrodden was a powerful general in Africa who had been captured in a battle and sold off into slavery. Once he arrived in the New World, he set about building up his network until he was able to flee his captors and launch his powerful rebellion. The entire book is chock full of interesting anecdotes like this. Chapter 9 (“Forests of Fugitives”) is alone worth the price of admission. The title is self-explanatory...or is it?
8. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber. First published in 2011, Debt is one of those rare books about world history that only an anthropologist could write. Graeber, who earned his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, takes a long hard look at the one of the most basic assumptions found in the work of economists (anthropology’s Other): the origins of money. That’s reason alone to check out the book, but for those of you who are tired of academic turf wars and just want some good ol’ fashioned engaging history, Graeber’s anecdotes in defense of Debt’s thesis will take you from the small, provincial comforts of European or Chinese history and into a world where the massive continents of Eurasian and the Americas are used to get his points across. Did you know, for example, that around the time of the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, northern India also harbored a constellation of democratic city-states (“Ksatriya republics”) that birthed the founder of Buddhism? Like the ancient Greeks, these democracies succumbed to empire (there was even a famous treatise written on how to subvert and destroy democratic institutions), but not without deeply influencing the teachings of major religious prophets. Have you ever given pause to think through the argument that Islam had long been considered the core of Western civilization? Graeber’s argument is just this, and when viewed under the lens of Debt, this notion goes from absurd on its face to believable to most likely true, at least during the Middle Ages. Chapter 6 (“Games with Sex and Death”) alone is worth the price of admission, as Graeber takes the reader from Neil Bush’s penchant for prostitutes to the old African slave trade and a number of ethnographic detours in between, always taking clear pains to remind you that debt, right-wing politics, and violence are intricately and explicably linked.
9. Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War (2012), by RM Douglas. There has been a ton of great research on the Eastern Front of World War II since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This scholarship may well be put on the back burner again as geopolitics once again get a little more heated in that part of the world. In the meantime, books such as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Tara Zahra’s Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War 2 are some of the essentials in this regard, but for my money Colgate historian RM Douglas’s 2012 book is the best of them all, at least from an Anglo-American standpoint. The subject matter is brutal and self-explanatory, so if light-hearted histories are your thing, skip this book. If you are more of a rationalist and skeptic of power, you’ll find much to enjoy about Douglas’s well-written history, including the turning of a blind eye by Allied forces as non-Germans ruthlessly purged German-speaking women and children from the lands they had lived in for decades or centuries. Lebensraum wasn’t conceived of by Nazis as a space that needed to be cleared for Germans, it was a place already occupied by German-speaking peoples - again, sometimes for centuries - that needed to be cleared of the German speaker’s neighbors. Chapter 10 (“The International Reaction”) is alone worth the price of admission, as it details quite explicitly how the victorious democracies of World War II allowed one of the largest ethnic cleansing campaigns to happen right under their noses.
10. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014), by Jurgen Osterhammel. This massive book by the German historian requires patience to finish, though this is not to say you can’t read it easily. Osterhammel does a masterful job explaining the 19th century to history buffs, intelligent laymen, and fellow specialists alike. His chapters on “Labor” and “Energy & Industry” are just what you’d expect from a man who occupies a seat on the left side of the German political aisle, but the rest of this 919-page book (not including endnotes and the bibliography) is delightfully surprising as well as engaging. Osterhammel, for example, ends up on the right-wing side of the American political aisle in regards to “American Exceptionalism” after exploring the US’s expansion from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean. Using his comparative analysis, he shows exactly how and why the United States is indeed an exceptional case when it comes to expanding its empire from coast-to-coast in the 19th century. Canada had much more in common with Argentina than the US in its expansion westward, while Brazil, Russia, and South Africa all displayed common traits unfamiliar to the American experience (like powerful indigenous actors and ecologies). Chapter 7 (“Frontiers”), at 53 pages, is alone worth the price of admission, as Osterhammel demonstrates his grasp of important historical concepts that are now on the forefront of scholarship: frontiers, borderlands, and mestizo logics.