Some of the most enjoyable reading I have done is in nonfiction history — when it's written well, it's compelling reading. The books here remain some of my favorite pieces of nonfiction history — what I'd love to know from you all is if you, too, enjoy nonfiction historical reading … and have you discovered any fascinating new history books?
~~Susan, on a very tight schedule at the moment, immersed in her own fiction on a deadline … and looking forward to curling up with some great historical reads soon … !!
I’m in a research phase, which means libraries and long hours at the computer…. A research phase also means poring through my own bookshelves to see what's there that's useful for writing the next novel. With bookcases grouped in several rooms, that’s a task in itself, and gives me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with books I’ve acquired and read (okay and some I haven’t!).
I learned to enjoy history through reading nonfiction history as well as novels, but not all nonfiction accounts are truly readable…. Great nonfiction writing is as much an art as fiction.
When I was in grad school, one esteemed but haughty professor once told a flailing, and failing, student in a seminar: If you can’t write, get out of art history. Harsh words, and we all ran for cover, but in essence, we knew he was right: good writing makes all the difference. Clarity, organization, accessible delivery and style are as important in writing nonfiction as in fiction. Otherwise, the reader ends up slogging through scholarly quicksand and a morass of dry prose just trying to absorb some necessary information.
Over the years some nonfiction books have stirred me to an interest in history-–and inspired me to become a better, stronger writer, regardless of the context. Pure writing skill, as much as history, catches my attention, and when the subject is only marginally interesting, it's the writing that keeps me reading, and the scholar’s voice on those pages that can keep me focused and awake.
Writing nonfiction history has its own challenges, including expertise, organization, detail, proof (footnotes, and the endless checking of facts), and of course keeping the goals of the piece in mind throughout. Writing historical accounts has another unique challenge. In the hands of a brilliant scholar but a lesser writer, the greatest subject can become deadly boring. Luckily for us, many scholarly writers are also gifted storytellers, no matter the subject, and they're often gifted wordsmiths with a gentle wit and an ear for language. These additional gifts help bring history to life, make it real and immediate, memorable and accessible, and equally as compelling as a great novel. These writers make history easy to comprehend and to love.
Here are a few of my favorites, some of the best of the historical reading, and writing, that I’ve encountered over the years. Of course it’s an incomplete list!!! There are many, MANY more. And since it’s my list, it’s weighted toward medieval and Scottish… but that doesn’t matter. Good history writing is good history writing. If you go for that, any of these books would appeal to you. What they have in common is not only brilliant scholarship, but sparkling prose, compelling style, and the gift of making any subject matter unforgettable and fascinating….
Sir Walter Scott, Tales Of A Grandfather – Scott wrote these volumes for his young grandson, Hugh…who unfortunately died only a couple of years later, which makes his grandfather’s effort all the more poignant. A bit stiff in Scott’s inimitable Romantic style, but he gives a face and a heart to every one of his historical subjects.
Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (now called in its newest edition The Autumn of the Middle Ages). One of the landmark books in medieval history writing, it will stick with me forever. “One sound rose ceaselessly above the noises of busy life and lifted all things unto a sphere of order and serenity: the sound of bells.”
Thomas B. Costain, The Conquerors, several volumes (which came out in paperback in 1949 as The Conquering Family, The Magnificent Century, The Last Plantagenets, etc.) – A novelist writes history. Very gossipy and not the best scholarly source, it gave immediacy to the English medieval period, making these obscure folks seem as familiar as your next-door neighbors.
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting. His study of medieval and Northern Renaissance art is indulgently readable–-the prose sparkles, and every subject he looks at takes on vivid life. A landmark, incredible study that can be read for its brilliant thinking, or the pure joy in the writing.
Amy Kelly, Eleanor Of Aquitaine And The Four Kings – Written in 1950, and even though our facts today are more exact, this remains a major source for understanding this remarkable, powerful, fascinating queen – and much of that is due to the author’s gift for understanding the character and motivations of Eleanor, and her time.
Anne Ross and Don Robins – Life and Death Of A Druid Prince – a slim little book about a bog find that (and pardon the pun!) fleshes out obscure archaeological skeletons. This prince comes to life as a sympathetic victim of his society and his time.
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return Of Martin Guerre. Not the movie with Gerard Depardieu, which was wonderful, but the book itself – one of the best examples of strong scholarship and scholarly writing that I’ve ever seen. It’s like reading a compelling mystery.
Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots. This was one I could not put down, sobbing my way through the ending as if it were a novel, and I still have not forgotten it – and in my line of work, I’ve frequently gone back to it. Fraser has an indisputable gift of making history come alive (besides, her husband's family might be distantly related to my own, so I wave that Fraser banner proudly!). She is certainly among the best nonfiction historical writers, and one of the founders of writing great accounts of women’s history.
Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII – another landmark in writing women’s history, and a very readable account of a very complex time. Weir is one of the best nonfiction historical writers around, and now she’s writing fiction – her newest, Innocent Traitor, is fascinating.
Carolly Erickson, Great Harry – just one example of a fine list of books by another author who has made history readable, accessible, and enjoyable.
Bella Bathurst, The Lighthouse Stevensons. I didn’t think a history of lighthouses or engineering could be very interesting, even with the family of Robert Louis Stevenson at its center–but this is another one that sucked me in and didn’t let go. An astonishing, fun, informative read.
Fred Anderson, The Crucible of War – a big, intense, fascinating book that examines the French and Indian War and the beginnings of the Revolution. If you want history that reads like a novel you can’t put down, this is it. He writes like a thriller novelist, and propels you deep into the book.
Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red – recommended to me by one of the other Wenches, this is a rich, lush read that combines perfect scholarship with gorgeous prose. Who’d a-thunk reading about a color could be so much fun?!
I could go on and on – but I have to get back to my research!
And now it’s your turn. I’d love to know which nonfiction history books have grabbed you with all the force of a master novelist crafting a great story!