I’m a historian by education, so it should not surprise you that I read a fair number of history books. (I also read some historical fiction, as you might recall.) Here are the three I liked best from my readings this year:
Historical Non-Fiction I Enjoyed in 2018
Whenever I am on vacation in a new city, I make sure to visit at least the main church. I love sacred architecture – the solemnity, the grandeur, and all the meaning it carries for faith and history. Gottes Häuser (God’s Houses), written by a Lutheran pastor, sets out to explain how and why they were built over the centuries. Each chapter deals with one particular church which represents a specific era or type of churches. Some of the best chapters are those on the Hagia Sophia (for the churches of Eastern Christianity), the cathedral of Amiens (for Gothic churches), and the Frauenkirche in Dresden (for Protestant churches). Very recommendable if your interest in architecture goes beyond the technical into the historical and theological. Sadly, there is no English translation of it.
The third instalment in Hobsbawm’s trilogy on the 19th century, The Age of Empire deals with the era from the mid-1870s to the outbreak of World War I. It follows a thematic structure instead of a sequence of events and thereby frees itself from the history of Great Men Doing Great Things. The topics include imperialism, economic developments, nationalism, democracy, the beginning of women’s emancipation and many more – and often, you’ll find yourself marveling at how much the foundations of our current times were laid back then.
My favorite history book I read this year, however, is…
Beard is a classicist, which means she goes beyond the mere historical sources on antiquity, and also draws on the literary and archaeological evidence. Her account of the first thousand years of Roman history (so, up until roughly 200 CE) explores the politics, culture, and society of the Romans in breadth and depth. As it is written in clear and engaging prose, I’d recommend it as an ideal starting point into Roman history, but Beard’s insistence on not taking sources at face value and rather interpreting them in the context of their authors and their times makes for refreshing assessments for seasoned readers of Roman history just as well.