9 History Books To Read If You Think History Books Are Boring

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I have to be honest here: I’m a history buff. Anyone who has ever listened to me talk at length about the Heian period in Japan can attest to that (because it was a totally interesting period of time, when women blackened their teeth and did most of the writing – but I digress). I love an in-depth discussion of Catullus or Sappho, I always point out historical inaccuracies in movies, and I was crazy about American Girl back then. But I recently learned that some people don’t like the story. Or at least they think they don’t.

Look, everyone has the right to read what makes them happy. But if you’ve avoided history books and historical fiction like the plague, you might be surprised to know that there’s a lot of fascinating stuff out there. These are not just conferences on trade agreements. Even if you’re not a history buff, I promise you there’s at least a corner of the vast history of the world that can capture your imagination.

Because the real story is much more interesting than what we learned in high school. So if you think history isn’t really your thing, check out these nine books: from fiction to non-fiction to historical cartoon, they all have a startling new take on history that won’t bore you to tears.

1. The girl of time by Josephine Tey

This one’s for all the mystery lovers out there. OK, so this book isn’t as action-packed as some of the others on this list – it’s a detective story where the detective in question stays in bed during the the whole whole book. But it’s so cleverly written that you too will be completely absorbed in the age-old mystery of King Richard III. I don’t want to spoil anything, but The girl of time will make you think twice before taking anything in a history book at face value.

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2. Assassination Holiday by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell just has a knack for finding the wit, the hypocrisy and the hilarity in American history. In Assassination Holiday, Vowell takes it upon herself to scour the country for political murder sites. But this book goes beyond a historical travelogue: Vowell examines how death and murder have been manipulated by the media to hundreds of years. And as always, she fills her book with gruesome true stories, political criticism and plenty of irreverent humor.

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3. Manhunt by James L. Swanson

Speaking of assassination, Manhunt is one of the most compelling true crime stories out there. You probably know some of the general facts about Lincoln’s assassination, but you might not know the details of the 12-day manhunt that tore the country apart immediately after. This book is a detailed account of John Wilkes Booth’s escape and wild pursuit through swamps and forests to bring him to justice. Swanson manages to make one of history’s best-known events into a gripping and dramatic tale with a thrilling climax.

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4. The king must die by Marie Renault

If you’ve always been unsure about historical fiction, Mary Renault is a great place to start. She takes classic Greek myths and finds the possible truth behind them: perhaps instead of dealing with a half-bull, half-man monster, the hero Theseus was actually sentenced to death in an ancient ritual. bull dancing (think a very messed up rodeo). Renault does not just give you historical theories: The king must die is a book full of adventure and passion, violence and orgies, and all the action and sex any reader could want.

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5. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Yes, it’s a fictional comic that might actually teach you something about Chinese history. These two volumes tell two parallel stories: that of little Bao, whose hometown is looted by so-called missionaries. So he joins the Boxer Rebellion to reclaim his culture from Western intruders. But then in Saints, Yang gives us the other side of the conflict: a young girl finds refuge in Christianity, and her new home is threatened by the growing rebellion. The two children are guided by visions of their heroes, as they attempt to find justice on opposite sides of a complex war.

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6. A Brief History of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson

This is by far the most delightful history “textbook” you will ever read. Don’t be intimidated by the length or breadth of this book, because Bill Bryson can turn any topic into a humorous game. A Brief History of Almost Everything really covers almost all, from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. But Bryson is more of a writer than a scientist, and he makes natural history extremely accessible (even if he occasionally makes mistakes). He’s the cool teacher you wish you had in college.

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seven. The pillow book by Sei Shonagon

OK, I’m just staying a Heian era book in Japan. And yes, it is written by a woman who was born in the year 966 CE. But don’t let that scare you: the translation is modern and the whole book reads like a Twitter feed. Seriously. Shonagon’s “memoirs” are basically lists, with titles like “Things that Quicken the Heart” or “Annoying Things”. And Shonagon is a salty broad. The list of “deeply irritating things”, for example, includes the point, “A man you had to hide in an unsatisfactory hiding place, who then starts snoring.”

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8. Lies my teacher told me by James W. Loewen

Were you the kid who regularly fell asleep during history class? Or who rolled their eyes at the whitewashed and cleaned up version of history that is being taught in school? Well, this book is for you. Loewen runs through American history and completely destroys the school version of everything from Christopher Columbus to the civil rights movement. Loewen is candid about the systematic biases that have existed since the beginning of the United States, and this book is a huge eye-opener for even the most informed citizen. Plus, it’s just way more interesting than your average history class.

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9. Step aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

If Kate Beaton can’t make you love history, then I don’t know who can. His comics are nothing short of comic genius. She draws from history, literature and pop culture and turns it all into hilarious gold. Where else can you find a Ben Franklin hipster? Or a little Hermione Granger? Or a humorous and inspirational version of activist Ida B. Wells? His comics are funny and quirky, but they’re also deeply intelligent and witty. It takes a lot of intelligence to make Napoleon and Nancy Drew so hysterical.

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Images: Fotolia

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