These fascinating reads cover topics that range from Renaissance masters and revolutionary religious figures to a history-rich travelogue with "the best snake-decapitation scene of 2017." Get ready to disappear into the past. Here are the best history books of 2017.
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
Although it may seem that today the U.S. is more politically divided than ever, Gordon Wood argues that it was actually during the presidencies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that the divide between political parties was the most rigid. In Friends Divided, Wood explores Adams and Jefferson’s delicate friendship and the respect they shared for each other despite their overwhelming differences.
A key distinction between Jefferson and Adams was Jefferson’s celebrity status. In comparison to John Adams, Jefferson remains one of the most famous founding fathers to this day, regardless of his less positive quality: his approval of slavery and the necessarily nonconsensual relationship that led to his many children by a woman he owned. But at the core, their deepest issue was how Jefferson’s optimism and hopefulness dramatically clashed with Adams’ anxiety and skepticism of the future. Although they did agree on at least one thing: they both hated Alexander Hamilton.
Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine
In her account of Ukraine’s great famine of 1933, Anne Applebaum examines a small section of Ukraine’s long history with Russia, stories of which continue to occupy our newsfeeds today. The famine, which killed an estimated 3.9 million Ukrainians and over a million additional people from neighboring countries (primarily Kazakhstan), was caused by Stalin’s suppressions of private agriculture and unreasonable requisitions on Ukrainian farmers.
Applebaum focuses on Russia’s consistent desire to retain control of Ukraine—especially its fertile lands and Black Sea ports. But, she also maintains a dedicated, detailed story of the famine itself, including information from oral histories, archives and an account from the journal of a young Welsh journalist who travelled through Ukraine at the time. A quote in his journal from a local peasant reads simply: “Nechevo Kormit” [there’s nothing to feed them with].
Leonardo da Vinci
As far as comparisons go, that of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs may seem far-fetched. However, Walter Isaacson, who has now written books on both men, found one profound similarity. Both men maintained the importance of waiting to reveal a finished product until it is truly perfect. For Jobs, Isaacson is referencing the original Macintosh. For da Vinci? The Mona Lisa.
Isaacson’s biography emphasizes the humanity of da Vinci, his friendliness, obsessiveness, and infinite determination. The book also reveals new information about da Vinci’s mother, Caterina, who was rarely focused on in previous scholarship. Included in The Times of London’s “Ten Must Read Books of 2017,” da Vinci will be particularly interesting for those who are curious about one of the world’s most curious people.
Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
Although he became the head of Soviet Russia exactly 100 years ago, Lenin remains an incredibly significant political figure. Sebestyen’s new biography of him proves just how Stalin’s significance continues. The book is filled with echoes of today’s political discourse, particularly due to Lenin’s position as the “godfather of post-truth politics.”
Sebestyen’s extensive career as a journalist, which includes covering the wars in former Yugoslavia and the breakup of the Soviet Union, has equipped him with the necessary skills and knowledge to write such a relevant biography. The book, which is over 500 pages long, is incredibly detailed both about Lenin’s political career and personal life, including his ménage à trois with his wife and mistress. Juicy.
On Tyranny: Lessons from the Twentieth Century
In only 126 pages, Timothy Snyder provides an instruction manual on how to detect pre-fascism in the U.S. and around the world. Among Snyder’s suggestions to avoid a fascist regime in America are: participating in the real world rather than only interacting online, being resistant to the narrative of a simplified, unrealistic world, and defending our existing institutions.
Snyder is well equipped to proclaim these lessons as a Yale Historian who specializes in fascism, Communism and the Holocaust. This is his first book about America but, as he said in an NPR interview, “I feel compelled to do so because I'm afraid things can change here very fast.” He aims his lessons particularly at people in their 20s, whom he feels are necessary drivers of the resistance of tyranny.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Due to the unfortunately obscure topic of David Grann’s book, it is possible that it could be mistaken for historical fiction. Tragically, the book tells the painful, true story of the Osage Reign of Terror, a bloody conspiracy in the 1920s that sought to target and murder wealthy Native Americans who had earned their riches from oil on their land. In addition to telling the story of Mollie Burkhart, a woman whose family was at the nexus of the conspiracy, Grann also outlines a radical shift in the FBI after the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as its director in 1924.
Killers of the Flower Moon is an alarmingly relevant record of the U.S.’s horrific past, one that, when we consider Standing Rock, is perhaps not a chapter we have concluded.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
After the success of his 2015 book on the history of humankind, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari looks from yesterday to tomorrow in Homo Deus. This sequel, although bestselling and praised by critics, may take a little more time to digest than its predecessor. Harari argues in his book that the next phase of humanity is for us to seek immortality in both life and happiness, transforming humans into gods.
However, not all of us are destined to become gods. Harari argues that machines will take over the majority of labor, leaving a class of people who are both economically and militarily useless. What would remain? A class of, as The Guardian so eerily put it, “the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe.”
But the book does not claim to necessarily be an accurate prediction, and one must keep in mind the irony of the title: how can anyone be certain of tomorrow’s history today?
Included on The New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2017”, Grant is an exemplification of Ron Chernow’s skill in shedding both bright and significant light on well-known political figures. The biography (challenging Grant’s own memoir written the help of with Mark Twain) presents a defense of Grant, aiming to show his compassionate side and his support for racial equality under the law.
Grant’s story finds him serving in a time that echoes our own: The difficulty he faced during his presidency was partially born out of economic imbalance and pressure from white-supremacy groups, making equality a key issue in his administration.
Chernow’s previous subjects have included George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography of the latter was, of course, the inspiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 2016. Although the name Ulysses S. Grant may be a little less lyrically accessible, after reading this book, you’ll be ready for any iteration of Grant’s life—even a musical.
Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City
What is particularly historical about this illustrated tome is Julia Wertz’s obsession with tracing the remaining elements of things that are no longer what they used to be. Pointing out “patches of old slate sidewalk” and contrasting sketches of old and new street corners, Wertz shows us her New York and its history by documenting its shifting structures.
Wertz’s artistic style is distinctive: she creates clean outlines and fills them with simple shapes rather than using hatching or other techniques, which gives an indication of her interest and awareness of composition. As much as the book expresses Wertz’s love of New York, it also has a nostalgic, lamenting tone. She wrote it after she was priced out of New York and forced to move into her mom’s garage attic in California.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
In keeping with the explosion of political reflection in books this year, Robert Dallek’s new biography of FDR focuses on his political achievements, as well as his personal life. Although there have been countless biographies, Dallek’s serves as a broad compilation of its predecessors that is meant to inform today’s America of its distinguished past.
At the same time that Dallek paints FDR as the heroic and monumental American leader he was, he also discusses how he came to be president and who the person behind his achievements really was. One of the more emotional, human moments in the book is when FDR complains of “coughing & sneezing & feeling like a boiled owl,” toward the end of his life. A feeling we can probably all relate to.
Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
With this year marking the 500-year anniversary of the hammering of a piece of paper on a church door, Eric Metaxas marks the historic event with a biography of the man with the nail in his hand, Martin Luther. But, as Metaxas discusses, Luther produced much more than the 95 Theses and, by 1521, he “was the most-published author in the history of printing.”
The man behind the paper was also a fascinating individual, Metaxas makes clear, who was bold and determined even when facing off with popes and emperors. In addition to changing the world of religion forever, Luther shows us the enduring importance of the written word, even though only the first of the 95 Theses would fit in a tweet.
The Vietnam War: An Intimate History
Written as a companion to the hit documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War presents insight into the impact of the war on ordinary men and women through their personal stories. Ward and Burns have proved time and again through their joint works on the Civil War, baseball and jazz (to name a few) that they are the ideal team to tackle the history of the Vietnam War.
Funnily enough, one of the greatest achievements of the book are the remarkable photographs it includes, such as Nick Ut’s historic photo, “Napalm girl.”
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit
Thanks to the MSNBC Hardball host’s distinctive voice, it is easy to hear him in your head as you read his new biography illustrating the importance of recognizing the spirit of politicians. Matthews highlights social issues on which the younger Kennedy ferociously stuck to his convictions, many still relevant today. One example is a pro-gun control speech he gave to a room full of hunters holding pro-gun and anti-Kennedy signs.
Matthews’ book also asks a question that leaves readers with something to think about: “Do voters in the U.S. permit their politicians to change their minds, learn and grow throughout their lives?”
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
Preston’s book is an account of his travels on an archeological expedition for the mythical, lost city in the jungles of eastern Honduras. Rather than what could have been an over the top Indiana Jones-esque tale, Preston’s background as a National Geographic writer shaped his report as a fully-informed, scientific and historical work with a dash of risk and adventure.
When it was released, only three days into 2017, The New York Times’ Brendan I. Koerner declared that The Lost City of the Monkey God included “the best snake-decapitation scene of 2017.” As the year comes to an end, it may now be safe to say it has not been topped.
Featured photo: Andrew Neel / Unsplash