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The Best History Books of 2021

Illuminating tales of the past you won't want to miss.

best history books of 2021

2021 has been quite the year. As we near closer to the end of it, some of us are looking forward to a fresh start. But others are more interested in looking to the past. And while it may have been a rocky ride for many of throughout 2021, we can't deny that the year has given us some incredible history reads!

Related: 12 Best History Books of 2020

From books on ancient cities and technologies to different perspectives on warfare to the untold stories of some of history's greatest heroes, there's something on this list for everyone. Discover new depths to the world around us with 10 of the best history books of 2021.

about time

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

By David Rooney

The concept of clocks and timekeeping is taken for granted—we use them every day without a thought. But how much have these principles shaped the world around us?

For millennia all around the world, cultures have used clocks to organize their daily life. Sundials in ancient Rome. Water clocks in imperial China. Middle Age hourglasses. Amsterdam's Stock Exchange clock. The GPS satellites we've been using since the late 70s. These tools have developed, and inspired growth and power alongside them. They've dictated money making, government, and the division of daily labor. They've even been used in war.

In this gripping text, author David Rooney illuminates key points in history through the story of 12 clocks.

african europeans

African Europeans: An Untold History

By Olivette Otele

It's a well-known fact that the contributions of African Americans throughout history have gone under-appreciated or altogether unacknowledged. But what about African Europeans?

Related: 29 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know

Author Olivette Otele debunks the long-held myth that Europe has only recently seen an influx of Black migrants, diving into the long and detailed history of Europeans of African descent. From Egypt's Saint Maurice becoming the leader of a Roman legion in the third century to the first duke of Florence, Alessandro de Medici, to Europe's present day, Otele celebrates all the African Europeans whose accomplishments helped shape a vast region.

empire of pain

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

By Patrick Radden Keefe

Both a New York Times bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this book delves into the tale of three generations of the Sackler family, known first for their philanthropy, and then for their creation of a painkiller which sparked the opioid crisis.

The Sacklers are one of the world's richest families. Donating generously to the arts and sciences over the years, their name can be found at Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, and the Louvre. For a long time nobody knew where that wealth came from. And then it came to light that they were behind the making and marketing of Valium. 

Brothers Raymond, Mortimer, and Arthur Sackler were doctors. Having worked at a mental institution with barbaric treatments, Arthur began to search for better methods in drug treatments. With a keen eye for marketing as well, he bought a small ad firm. Valium was a hit, raking in a great deal of wealth for the family. But 40 years later, Arthur's method of co-opting doctors, influencing the FDA, and downplaying the drug’s addictiveness was used to launch Oxycontin—a drug which would kill hundreds of thousands of users.

the afghanistan papers

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

By Craig Whitlock

When it came to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the American public was greatly divided in their support for these endeavors. But the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan received public support that was almost unanimous. It seemed like a pretty upfront objective: take down the Taliban in order to diffuse terrorist threats and keep the tragedy of 9/11 from happening again. But once the Taliban was removed from power, United States officials seemed to veer off toward other goals.

The war began as a seemingly just cause, but over the course of three presidencies, no one wanted to take accountability for the entanglement in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict. More American troops were poured into Afghanistan, with reports insisting upon progress being made. But projections of clear victory were never viable.

Related: 7 Essential Books About Afghanistan

This illuminating book unravels the truth of this messy conflict from an array of people directly involved in the conflict, from White House and Pentagon leaders to soldiers and air workers in the thick of it. More than 1,000 accounts expose corruption and deceit that will change how readers view this massively bungled war.


Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory

By Heather Love

In the mid-20th century, the sociology of "social deviants" was a flourishing area of academia, taking a closer look at those considered outsiders, such as the LGBTQ community, Jews, disabled people, drug addicts, and political radicals. But as the decades passed, it was these very outsiders who would construct social movements and institutional revolts that would shape the future. In the late 1980s, queer theory was gaining traction as a humanities subfield, challenging gender, sexual and general societal norms.

Related: 11 Fascinating LGBT History Books to Read for Pride Month

In this book, author Heather Love details how queer theorists built their foundation not merely on early activists, butsurprisingly enoughon the sociological research that predated gay liberation.

upcoming history books 2021

The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen

By Linda Colley

This insightful text follows the global history of written constitutions, from the 1750s to the 20th century. With vital information and vivid illustrations, author Linda Colley reshapes the narrative of these documents, and exposes the link between constitutions and war.

With an eye on overlooked agreements, Colley dives into how some of these lesser-known constitutions shaped our modern world. While re-examining constitutions we know all too well, she also sheds lights on vital contributions made long before the Founding Fathers put pen to paper.

the spectre of war

The Spectre of War: International Communism and the Origins of World War II

By Jonathan Haslam

In Jonathan Haslam's The Spectre of War, readers are taken into new depths in the conversation surrounding the causes of World War II. Beyond the accepted causality of failures of diplomacy and aggressive Germany military power, Haslam presents the argument that the seed of war was planted by the collective fear of communism, even though we tend to think of it as an ideology that rose in popularity after the war. Using records from the Communist International and beyond, Haslam expertly delivers a complete view of Europe and northeast Asia in the 20s and 30s.

Related: 21 Essential World War II Books That Examine Every Angle of the Conflict

the light of days

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos

By Judy Batalion

Lauded as a bestseller across The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly, this exciting history dives into the courageous accomplishments of the Jewish women who stood as resistance fighters against Hitler's rule.

Related: Women in World War II Were Even Braver Than You Realize

They had to watch the brutal murders of their families and neighbors. They stood there as their homes and communities were reduced to ruins. But this group of Jewish women in Poland weren't going to to just take it lying down. Rallying youth groups into resistance cells, these women and girls—some of the only teenagers—stood up to the Nazis any way they could. Some paid off Gestapo guards. Some concealed weapons in bread loaves and marmalade jars. Others helped construct a system of underground bunkers. They even bribed, seduced, and killed German soldiers—or bombed train lines. And some gave aid to the sick, dying, and those in hiding.

All but forgotten to history, these women's vital contributions are told in their entirety for the very first time.

how the word is passed

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith

Clint Smith takes readers on a journey through America's monuments and landmarks—both those that are honest about the nation's past, and those that aren't. This textual tour unfolds an intergenerational tale of how slavery not only shaped our history, but shaped our culture. From Virginia's Monticello Plantation, where Thomas Jefferson's writings on liberty ignored his ownership of hundreds of people, to Angola, the maximum security prison that was once a Louisiana plantation, Smith delivers a deep exploration of slavery's legacy, which has left its mark on centuries of American history.

Related: 12 Essential Books About Slavery in America

four lost cities

Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

By Annalee Newitz

This book by science journalist Annalee Newitz was named NPR's Best Book of the Year. Exploring four ancient cities that experienced a rise and fall, Newitz seeks to find the reason why people abandoned them. These cities span time and location: the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Central Turkey, Pompeii on Italy’s southern coast, the medieval megacity of Angkor in Cambodia, and the Native American city of Cahokia, located along the Mississippi River where East St. Louis is today.

Taking a look at these incredible sites, Newitz sheds light on the environmental and political factors that led to the doom of such settlements. She also brings attention to the contributions of inhabitants who were often overlooked—such as slaves, women, immigrants, and manual laborers. By taking a look into these decayed civilizations, we may gain insight into the future of the cities we're living in today.