The Best History Books to Read in 2023

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Are you a history buff? What are the best history books to read?

History is full of rich and fascinating events. Even if you feel like you’ve learned it all, there are always more events from the past to dive into.

We’ve compiled a list of the best history books to read, from prehistoric times to the modern day.

Prehistory to Ancient History

Many books detail the beginning of civilization and the concept of evolution. We may not know everything about what happened in prehistoric and ancient times, but these must-read history books give us a good understanding.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Have you always wanted to understand the natural world but found science classes tedious and science textbooks challenging to understand? Author Bill Bryson can relate—that was his motivation for researching and writing A Short History of Nearly Everything. The book is an accessible overview of the natural sciences that describes not only the important discoveries but also the unknowns and controversies that still exist in the sciences.


In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari uses concepts from biology, history, and economics to tell the story of us, Homo sapiens. Harari takes us on a journey that starts 2.5 million years ago, when Sapiens make their historical entrance, and ends in the future, when the creation of an artificially created superhuman race may mark the end of the Sapiens species. Along the way, you’ll learn how our ability to create imagined realities led to our dominance over other species.

The Lessons of History

What can you learn from 5,000 years of history? Are we in truly novel times, or do we face the same problems that the Romans and Egyptians faced 2,000 years ago? Will & Ariel Durant, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians compiled the most important recurring patterns of time in this insightful history book to read, The Lessons of History. Learn how human nature hasn’t changed over thousands of years, how societies cycle between inequality and redistribution like a heartbeat, and why eventually all civilizations fall.

The Origins of Political Order

To understand the pressures on democracy in the 21st century, it’s important to understand what modern democracy is and where it came from. In The Origins of Political Order, political economist Francis Fukuyama explores the development of political systems from prehistory to the eve of the American and French revolutions to show how and why modern democracies evolved.

The Mother Tongue

Around 1.5 billion people around the world speak English—roughly 20 percent of the human population. How has our language achieved this global status? How did English evolve into the language we speak and write today? The Mother Tongue takes us on a journey through the history of the English language, exploring its richness and variety, and pointing the way toward what the future might have in store for it.

The Immortality Key

What was the secret that kept ancient Greeks and early Christians from fearing death? In The Immortality Key, attorney and scholar Brian Muraresku argues that the origins of Christianity are rooted in the psychedelic rituals of ancient Greek life and that these rituals allowed people to embrace their mortality. Presenting a decade’s worth of research and evidence, Muraresku delves into the origins of Christianity, its overlap with pre-existing pagan customs, and its eventual diversion. 


Salt is one of the cheapest, most commonplace items: It sells for less than a loaf of bread, and during winter, we scatter it liberally on roads and sidewalks. However, there was once a time when salt was considered rare and valuable. In Salt, Mark Kurlansky argues that throughout much of human history, salt was a precious commodity—one that significantly shaped civilizations. 

16th to 18th Centuries

From the 16th to 18th century, sweeping changes transformed cultures and political systems. Two examples of these changes include the institution of slavery and the signing of the Constitution of the United States. Below are the history books to read for those interested in early American history and the European Enlightenment era.

The Prince

In his 16th-century political treatise The Prince, Italian diplomat, poet, and historian Niccolò Machiavelli describes how authoritarian leaders, or “princes,” should rule their states—with daring, cruelty, and manipulation. At various points in history, the book has been read as both a sincere attempt to advise would-be tyrants and as a pro-democracy satire. Whatever its intent, The Prince has become known as an unapologetic depiction of the “real truth” of politics, where states and leaders are motivated by ambition as much as by their ideals. 


In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson argues that the current social and political landscapes in America derive from the infrastructure of human hierarchy developed 400 years ago when Europeans first came to this land. Wilkerson examines the different caste systems around the world and how they damage the lives of everyone involved, even those at the top.

The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is an anthology of essays edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones and co-created with the New York Times that seeks to reframe American history with the institution of slavery at its core. The book asserts that American history began in 1619 with the arrival of the first ship of enslaved Africans, one year before the Mayflower arrived. It also argues that American democracy and the prosperous nation we know today were largely built by enslaved Black Americans.

Enlightenment Now

Do you ever get the sense that the world is getting worse over time? In Enlightenment Now, psychologist Steven Pinker says you might be falling prey to psychological biases that are distorting your perception. Because he argues things are getting better by every measure. Pinker says the driving forces of human progress are reason, science, and humanism—values that are derived from the European Enlightenment.

Stamped From the Beginning

Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning argues that contrary to common wisdom, racism doesn’t begin with prejudice and hatred—it begins with self-serving policies whose proponents justify their actions by inventing racist ideas. Kendi, an African American Studies scholar, develops this claim by analyzing the history of racist ideas in the United States and offering readers a better understanding of how to combat contemporary racism. 

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers are a unique window into the minds of the men who drafted the Constitution and founded the United States. This series of 85 essays, originally published at the time of the raging debate over ratification, make the case for a stronger national government and urge the adoption of the Constitution. This is one of the most important documents in American history, revealing what the Founding Fathers thought about human nature, civil society, and the relationship between government and liberty. 

19th to 21st Centuries

From the 19th to the 21st century, many dramatic changes took place, such as the rise of communism, World War II, and the question of democracy declining in America. It’s difficult to just pick a few, but here are some of the best history books to read about the 1800s to the 2000s.

The Communist Manifesto

Manifesto of the Communist Party, better known as The Communist Manifesto, outlines the beliefs of the Communists and the program of the Communist League, a worker’s party. The Communists were concerned about social and political inequality—conditions that still exist today—and via the manifesto, shared their concerns and proposed solutions.

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

In Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, Lincoln history buff James L. Swanson draws on archival material and trial transcripts to create a vivid account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the 12-day pursuit of killer John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators through Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The book evokes the unique time of political division, grievance, and danger that threatened the Union in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.


Orientalism is a study of the scholarly, intellectual, political, and ideological phenomenon known as Orientalism: the framework through which Western writers, policymakers, and the general public have interpreted and defined the Islamic societies of the Middle East as “the Orient.” Orientalism does not reflect objective truth about these societies or the people who live in them. Instead, it is an invention of the Western mind that posits a fundamentally different, exotic, dangerous, unchanging, and “other” East.

The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago is a work of historical nonfiction that describes life in Soviet prison labor camps, popularly known as gulags, in the USSR from the late 1910s to the mid-50s. Prisoners like author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were arrested on minor or even fabricated charges, tortured and robbed by security officials, and held in camps for decades, where many were worked to death. The book exposed human rights abuses by the Soviet Union to the world, counteracting decades of propaganda. 

Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is about the Osage Reign of Terror—the 1920s organized killings of members of the oil-rich Osage Indians. Powerful and bigoted whites systematically exploited and murdered the Osage people to confiscate their wealth, showing us the horrors that result when racism and greed align. The murders were also a major catalyst for the growth of the FBI, and the triumph of its rational and scientific vision of law enforcement.

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl is considered one of the best history books to read for people who are interested in the 20th century. Written by Anne Frank from 1942 to 1944, the diary reveals the humanity of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis during their occupation of the Netherlands. Anne wrote about her experiences with anger, love, puberty, and fear as she and her family hid from an occupying force that wished to see her and her Jewish counterparts dead.

The New Jim Crow

In this New York Times bestseller, Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs has created a new racial caste system, disproportionately punishing black people. A powerfully interlocking system of laws and policies targets black people for drug crime, punishes them more severely than white criminals, and makes life as an ex-felon extremely difficult. The result is effectively racial subjugation and disenfranchisement.

How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die explores some key questions that became paramount during Donald Trump’s presidency. Does the election of a figure like Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is backsliding? Are we doomed to suffer the fate of other 21st-century democracies, like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, where true democracy ceased to exist? By what processes was democracy killed in those and other countries—and how might we prevent it here? 

Historical Fiction Books

Who says the greatest history books have to be true stories? The books below take place during real events in history but are fictionalized retellings that inspire love and hardship during the most heartbreaking times. You’ll get a grounded perspective on these periods of history to immerse yourself in.

Fever 1793

Fever 1793 details the yellow fever plague in Philadelphia a decade after the Revolutionary War through the eyes of young 14-year-old Matilda Cook. With great respect for historical accuracy and a keen voice, Laurie Halse Anderson describes the fear and decay that destroyed the nation’s capital and killed thousands of people in three months. Anderson’s keen attention to human emotions and connections lifts this coming-of-age story from the depths of darkness to the light of courage and survival. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

During World War II, six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis—many at concentration camps. One of the worst camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews and other German enemies were imprisoned. Yet one man found a way to survive the camp. He became the tattooist, marking each arriving prisoner with a six-digit number that would become their new identity. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the fictionalized harrowing tale of love and perseverance in one of the darkest moments in history. 

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien tells the stories of a small company of American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. Through the narrative, the book blurs the line between autobiography and fiction, leaving the reader unsure as to what is fact and what is myth. In reading these stories, we explore the harrowing physical and psychological toll of warfare and the dehumanizing and brutalizing effects of combat on human beings. 

Final Words

These books don’t cover every moment in history, but they’re good starting points. After all, it takes years of research and consistent studying to become an expert in a specific time period. With a history book to read from almost every century, there’s something of interest for everyone to read.

What are other history books people should read? Let us know in the comments below!

The Best History Books to Read in 2023

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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