Best History Books Of All Time

55 History Books That Will Change Your Outlook On Life

Published November 8, 2021
Updated November 8, 2023

Missed out on the classics or looking for something new? Check out some of the best history books of all time, from ancient marvels to Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction.

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The holiday season is upon us — what would make a better gift than the gift of hindsight? From Ancient Rome philosophers to the gonzo journalists of the 1970s, these history books encompass the perils, the pitfalls, and the peculiarities of humanity's shared past.

"Historical nonfiction" is defined as a fact-based account as interpreted through the author's own imagination. In other words, it is the perfect synthesis of reality and one's interpretation of that reality. For this reason, historical nonfiction is an invaluable tool for interacting with and understanding our history.

Historical nonfiction has the power to transform what we think about the past, illuminating its relevance and meaning, and making it easier for us to grasp and remember.

A picture may say 1,000 words, but a memoir uses 1,000 words to achieve time travel.

The horrors of the Vietnam War are well documented, but imagine experiencing them through the eyes, the words, and the mind of a person who had endured it? That's what A Rumor of War, a memoir by Philip Caputo, does.

Some may know the story of Adolf Eichmann, the so-called Architect of the Holocaust, and how a teenage girl caught him after World War II hiding out in Venezuela.

His trial was then covered by a political theorist who was intimately affected by Eichmann's decisions, German-Jewish reporter Hannah Arendt, who was fortunate enough to flee Europe before the Holocaust. Her account of the Nazi official's trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, has made this list of best history books.

For more stories from courageous Jewish women, you should also check out The Diary of Anne Frank, a must-read for World War II and literary buffs alike.

Some of these titles are not so much retrospectives as they are thermometers for the climate of a given time. The Communist Manifesto and The Feminine Mystique, for instance, are treatises on the pitfalls of their respective eras and pose questions for future generations while making bold predictions. Reading them now can show us either how far we have come or what still needs to be done.

The best history books of all time have proven to be truly galvanizing to the present since their publication. As Erik Christiansen reasoned in his Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America, post-World War II Americans were drawn to historical nonfiction as a means of grappling with the horrors they'd just endured on the world stage. We sometimes have to use the lens of what was in order to see what is.

As the old adage goes, "history is written by the victors." That is, too often the historical canon is written by those who've come out on top — and who have a vested interest in justifying their victories as good and right.

In an effort to avoid this folly, we've included titles that contradict each other. We present the history of exploring the American West as told by Lewis and Clark, but then again as experienced by the Native Americans who were driven from their ancestral homes as the victims of so-called Manifest Destiny.

The story of history is a varied, complicated, and altogether messy one, so we won't pretend to have chosen books that create a neat chronicle of time. We do hope, however, that this list makes you view history with empathy.

See something missing from this list of the best history books of all time? Be sure to comment below.

After this look at the best history books of all time, read up on James Joyce's absolutely filthy letters to his wife (if you can stomach it). Then, take a closer look at the most horrifying arena in World War II, the Pacific Theater.

Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Silverman, Leah. "55 History Books That Will Change Your Outlook On Life.", November 8, 2021, Accessed June 16, 2024.