Tuesday, July 21, 2015


I posted this over at TheRPGsite, but thought it may be of interest to the blog readers. This is just a two-part list, the first describes some of my favorite History books. Not necessarily the ones I would use as sources for research now, but ones I enjoyed reading and that shaped my love of history in a significant way. The second list are some of my favorite books from my research on Chinese History while doing Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Again these are not necessarily the ones I found most useful, but the ones I enjoyed reading the most. That isn't to say some of the books on the list are not useful, just that utility wasn't the main criteria for inclusion. If it had been the primary criteria, then I would also have included books like The Destruction of the Chinese Aristocracy, Civil Service in Early Sung China and a few others.  


The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon): This was written in the late 18th century. It is a classic that every history student usually reads at some point. One of the first history papers I wrote for college was on the first three volumes of this series. While many of Gibbon's analysis have been rejected over time, the book is still important, in particular for its emphasis on primary sources. It is also a pleasure to read, and notable for its scathing attack on Christianity. Don't read this alone and think you know everything about the fall of Rome, but include it if you are reading books on the subject so you can see how the subject has been treated over the years. 

Caesar and Christ (Will and Ariel Durant--part of the Story of Civilization series): This is history written for the broader audience. It is also slightly out of date because it was written in 1944. This wouldn't be good as a sole secondary source on the subject but it is a must read if you are at all interested in the history of Rome. It is very much a popular history book. I like this because it is beautifully written and engaging. If you don't like reading history books because you find them boring, this is a great place to start. 

The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Steven Runciman): This was written in 1965 by the guy who wrote A History of the Crusades. It focuses on the city of Constantinople and its fall to the Turks in 1453. I had to read this years ago as part of a course on the Byzantine Empire and it has always stuck with me. The analysis is strong but it is also quite gripping in the telling of events. 

The Night Battles (Carlo Ginzburg): This is a micro-history of the Benandanti. The book is a bit controversial but important. By the time Ginzburg was writing, the ideas of Margaret Murray that witches executed during the medieval witch craze were part of an unbroken line of belief from pre-christian paganism, was thoroughly discredited and rejected by historians. But the Benandanti in Ginzburg's view are a somewhat unusual exceptional case of fertility rite that may have survived in some form, where the practitioners believed themselves to fight witches in dreams. Not saying Ginzburg is right, just that this is an interesting read and with an intensely thorough amount of research. Again it is somewhat controversial but still scholarly and not fringe like Murray. This isn't Ginzburg's most well known book, Cheese and the Worms is more famous, but I enjoyed this much more. It has been about ten years since I read it, so my details here may be off or out of date. 

A History of the Arab Peoples (Albert Hourani): This is also a classic, and a very good overview of Arabic history. Hourani is really good at broad strokes and intellectual history. It covers Arabic history from the dawn of Islam to present day (at least until the time it was published). 

Structures of Everyday Life (Fernand Braudel-volume 1 of Civilization and Capitalism): This is a great book but a bit difficult to read cover to cover. If you have the stamina to do so, by all means read it straight through. If not, use it as a reference or selectively read the chapters that interest you. Braudel represents the annales school of history (made famous by Marc Bloch) before it embraced postmodernism. The book is great because it has whole chapters devoted to the important but small details of everyday life, like the production and consumption of bread, then rice, etc. 

Memory and the Mediterranean (Fernand Braudel): This is a history of the mediterranean region. It is worthwhile reading because it is a good example of Braudel's notion of the longue duree, which is a view of history that looks at structures over long periods of time. Rather than emphasize change int he short term, it emphasizes sameness in the short term and slow change in the long term. It is an interesting point of view and gives some primacy to forces like geography, things that are powerful enough to assert themselves over the development of human culture. 


Because of Ogre Gate I've mostly been reading about Imperial China. These are some of the books I've really enjoyed. 

The Age of Confucian Rule (Dieter Kuhn): This one is part of the History of Imperial China series and in my view the best volume. It is fairly short, just under three hundred pages but manages to give a clear overview of the history Song China while also going into great detail of different aspects of the culture. Very clear, well written. 

Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion (Jacques Gernet): This is actually primarily a look at daily life in Hangchow (Hangzhou) from 1250-1276. I was written in french in 1959 then translated into English in the 60s. It is considered a standard and has a lot of useful information. Gernet does draw on the accounts of Marco Polo, which can be iffy, but he makes a point of only using accounts that can be verified by Chinese sources (and the book is based mainly on Chinese Primary Sources). So while he quotes Marco Polo plenty, if you follow the chapter endnotes, the actual sources for his assertions are almost all Chinese. 

Emperor Huizong (Patricia Buckley Ebrey): This is a very recent book, a biography of Song Emperor Huizong. It is quite thick, being over 500 pages of actual text (coming in at 661 pages when you include the endnotes, appendices and index. It is a very pleasurable read, but there are times where it lulls a bit (if only because it is so lengthy). Ebrey is a prominent Historian of China (I remember her name appearing on countless textbooks in college). The aim of the book really seems to be to try to get at who Emperor Huizong was really as a person, and she is very cautious about this, acknowledging the difficulty and mainly allowing for broad areas of speculation rather than confident assertions. What is great about the way she does this is it requires a close examination of life in the imperial palace and the demands this places on the emperor. He existed in a very complicated context, which Ebrey does a good job of exploring. It gives a real glimpse into the institutions surrounding imperial authority. 

The Silk Road in World History (Xinru Liu): Part of the New World Oxford History Series this is what it sounds like, an overview of the silk road from its early evolution to its decline. It is interesting in its approach because it examines the the importance of the Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. It is an interesting and easy read, but scholarly. Xinru Liu chooses her examples well, giving a clear picture of the trade routes complexity. I really enjoyed this book.

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