10 unconventional “history books” that will change the way you think about everything


If you stayed awake during high school history class, you probably remember learning lots of dates and names. Chances are you’ve studied the rise and fall of governments and focused on a few great men. But the story, as a subject, is too unimaginably vast to fully cover during the third period, when everyone is already anxious for lunch. History is the study of everything that has happened up to this precise moment– and that’s quite a lot of ground to cover. So even if you think you have a good idea of ​​all of human history, here are some books about strange, forgotten, and overlooked moments in history that will change the way you look at the past.

After all, what is written in the history books is only a tiny fraction of the historical truth. The people who write the history books are too often people in power, and they are not particularly interested in giving a nuanced account of marginalized groups. Or they just don’t have enough global perspective to understand how their mess in one corner of the Earth has huge ramifications for everyone. These books won’t cover everything that happened on planet Earth, but they’re a good start:

‘1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Christopher Columbus’ by Charles C. Mann

If you don’t understand why people get so crazy about Columbus Day, read this book. Before Christopher Columbus made his voyage, there were more people living in the Americas than in Europe. The city of Tenochtitlán was a technological marvel, with running water, beautiful botanical gardens, and pristine streets. Early corn genetic engineering rivals modern science. 1491 is a revelation, exploring the achievements of pre-Columbian America and debunking long-held historical myths.

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“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson

From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million black citizens left the American South for northern and western cities. The entire landscape and culture of the United States has changed with this shift, and Wilkerson sheds light on this massive exodus in stunning detail. Through thousands of interviews, Wilkerson reconstructs the lives of three people who left their homes in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

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“At Home: A Brief History of Private Life” by Bill Bryson

Usually, when we talk about history, we look at events that took place on distant battlefields or in distant palaces…not necessarily in our own bathrooms. At home is a fun and fascinating collection of micro-stories, analyzing rooms in our homes and how they came to be. Your modern kitchen and bedroom may seem innocuous, but they’ve been shaped by everything from the cholera epidemic to women’s fashion to the spice trade economy.

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“Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky

Do you know salt? That little pebble we eat? Salt may seem like a simple condiment, but it has actually shaped much of human history as we know it. Salt has served as currency, financed wars and inspired revolutions. Cities and trade routes were founded because of salt. Long before anyone tried to reduce their sodium intake, salt was a precious resource that defined and contributed to the development of modern human society.

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“The Book of Pillows” by Sei Shōnagon

The pillow book was written in 10th century Japan, but it’s more like a Twitter feed. Court poet Sei Shōnagon writes lists of things she likes, things that make her heart race, and most importantly, things that annoy her (like when your lover gets up early to leave in the morning and bumps into a stool and wakes you up). She is witty, cheeky and unashamed of her love life, centuries before any modern feminist movement. Read The pillow book for beautiful poetry, laughter, and a reminder that humanity has always been an intricate tapestry of sexual desire and Twitter shadow.

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“How the Irish Went White” by Noel Ignatiev

Here’s a spoiler for the whole history of the world: race is a social construct. That’s not to say that race doesn’t have a huge impact on all of our daily lives – it clearly does. But, as Noel Ignatiev points out, many ethnic groups have “changed” their race over the decades. How the Irish became white investigates Irish and African-American relations, and how the Irish-American embrace of white supremacy contributed to their “success” in the United States.

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“Buzz: A stimulating history of the sex toy” by Hallie Lieberman

Here is a book that you definitively did not read in high school. buzz isn’t just a thrilling look at vibrators: Hallie Lieberman begins with lube from ancient Greece and the first condoms from the 1500s. Her story is both entertaining and very in-depth, exploring the role of sex toys in feminist movements and LGBTQ culture, and how they reflect changing attitudes towards human sexuality.

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‘Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus’ by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Rabies is the deadliest virus known to science. Not only has it terrorized mankind for centuries, but it has informed many of our cultural myths, medicinal practices, and horror stories. Enraged is a gripping story of world culture through the lens of rabies, drawing on both biology and anthropology to explain this particular disease and its lasting impact on the human psyche.

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‘Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality’ by Hanne Blank

Straight people were invented in the 1860s. What we think of as “normal” straight dating and romance is, in fact, a recent development. Sure, men and women have been marrying and dating for years, but straight identity has only become a factor in the last two centuries. Hanne Blank deconstructs the norms of heterosexuality from the perspective of a queer-identifying woman, challenging the idea that straight love is the flaw of human nature.

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‘Black Tudors: The Untold Story’ by Miranda Kaufmann

Eurocentric history tends to dominate history texts and historical fiction in America. But too often we see depictions of Ye Old Europe that look lily white…and that’s just not historically accurate. Black Tudors tells the story of some of the Africans who lived freely in Tudor England. From retired pirates to wealthy princes to working class people, this book pushes past stereotypes of English history to focus on the lives of free black people who lived, worked, married and died in pre-industrial England.

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