“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. So said George Santayana, and good advice it is too. We've had our noses in the best history books of 2015, trying to make good on Santayana's incisive quote, in order to give you a rundown of how best to spend your reading sessions before you, too, are relegated to the annals of time.
So why not spend some time curling up with a good book this Christmas, and learn about how humans managed to reach the point where it is possible to read about their previous adventures on a magical glowing slate that contains all of the world’s information.
The Best History Books of 2015
Mary Beard is one of the country’s most well known historical scholars, and with good reason. In SPQR she charts the entire history of the Romans up to 212AD and makes it funny, easy to understand and insightful.
Though it is positioned as an accessible book for normal people like you and me (while admittedly a 500+ page tome), Beard doesn’t skimp on the historical analysis, explaining her sources and why they might be biased, and so on. There are also portraits of individual Romans, such as a bloke called Barates, who was a soldier from Palmyra in Syria (the city that ISIS is currently wreaking havoc in). Amazingly, such was the extent of the Roman Empire that he ended up serving on the very fringes at Hadrian’s Wall, and while there he created a stone monument to his wife, who was a former slave. Fascinating stuff. [Buy it Here]
If you’d like to zoom in on a particular slice of Roman history then check out Dynasty by Tom Holland (not that one - this wasn’t written in between web-slinging). The book tells the story of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, which featured characters like Caligula, Nero and Augustus. [Buy it Here]
If you want more recent history, and are looking to understand what the hell is going on in the world at the moment, then Patrick Cockburn’s guide to ISIS is a must-read. Cockburn has spent time in and around Iraq and Syria, and charts the rise of the group, adding insight into what it is that makes them so damn evil. Better still, the book is a breezy 200 pages, so it won’t take too long to get all of the essential facts. [Buy it Here]
If ever there was a must-read history book to understand British politics in 2015… you need to read this one, which was written in 2007. Republished this year following the astonishing rise of Jeremy Corbyn, What’s Left? is part history, part searing critique of the individuals and movements that have sat on the fringes of the Left. In the book, Cohen explores what he views as the hypocrisies of the far Left, and exposes how many of Corbyn’s fellow travellers have previous history with some decidedly odd political bedfellows. [Buy it Here]
A century ago women were still fighting for the right to vote and (amazingly, considering her own complicated social position) one of the key figures in the fight was an Indian princess called Sophia Duleep Singh. She was god-daughter to Queen Victoria and was raised as an aristocrat in England. At a critical point in her life, she became a revolutionary and fought for a number of causes including Indian independence and the welfare of Indian soldiers - as well as the vote for women. In Sophia, Anita Anand (of BBC fame) uncovers her story. [Buy it Here]
This is, by a country mile, the nerdiest book on the list. Swing is so niche, that it is only available on Kindle and is self-published. It isn’t even particularly well written. But if you’re the sort of person who always enjoys staying up late on election night and following the counts early into the morning (I’m not the only one, surely), then you’ll love this potted history of how election night was televised.
The author goes through and describes all of the key moments and innovations from decades of political broadcasting, including the first appearance of the all important swingometer. Perfect for that ultra-political nerd in your life. [Buy it Here]
Another more recent book. This time, a history of David Cameron. Find out where our Prime Minister came from and what makes him tick. And as you’ll remember from the huge controversy in the autumn, the book is fully of juicy claims that really paint a picture of the man with his finger on our nuclear button. [Buy it Here]
Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre - Jonathan Israel
Without doubt the weightiest tome on this list. I you really want to understand the evolution of ideas from the French Revolution, and why the consequences are still reverberating today then, look no further than Revolutionary Ideas. If you were to be knocked around the head with this hardback, there would be a severe risk of head injury. But the paper isn’t anywhere near as dense as the prose - as in evidence by the book starting not with, say, the fun story of the storming of the Bastile, but instead with exhaustive discussion of the historiography. One for the hardcore nerds only. [Buy it Here]
Okay, so this perhaps isn’t your average history book but this graphic novel takes the Victorian pair responsible for the birth of computing - Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage - and imagines an alternative history where they successfully manage to engineer a Difference Engine and fight injustice. The artwork is beautiful, and would make a great gift for anyone who is into history, comics, or computing. [Buy it Here]
And finally, perhaps the most important history book of the year. A concise history of The Legend of Zelda, complete with concept art, and details on how the games were developed courtesy of Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto. The book also contains a full chronology of the Zelda games, and even a Zelda comic story. A must-have for any fan of the series. [Buy it Here]