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Examining History

When the MHS created its History Book Group, its aim was to choose readable books on interesting topics, with a balanced mixture of themes throughout the year. We arranged for help from the librarians at Scranton Library to be sure that copies are available to borrow at no cost to our readers. And we agreed to meet monthly.

Favorite Authors & Themes

Most of the books are recommended by our participants, who have agreed to examine global as well as national and local history. We have explored battles and wars, social and political movements, and natural events (such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906). We have discovered biographies of key individuals, theories of social development, and the development of new technologies and inventions (such as the chronograph, which transformed shipping and our notion of time).

Among our favorite authors are noted historians Mary Beard, Eric Jay Dolin, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Barbara W. Tuchman, Isabel Wilkerson, and Simon Winchester, to name but a few, but we all are keen to read from a wide range of sources.

Deepening Understanding

Our broad range of topics has, we hope, been like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with links between facts and ideas gradually fitting together to create a clearer picture of how we have arrived at where we are today. We hope we have encouraged our participants to read notable books that fill in gaps of knowledge and deepen understanding. 

How to Join

At this time, new participants can contact Lucy Van Liew at ljstewartvanliew@gmail.com to add your email address to our book group email list and to request the Zoom link for the virtual meetings.

We invite all future participants to join our lively and convivial discussions.

The MHS offers its sincerest gratitude to Dr. Lyle Cubberly for his enthusiastic leadership during the past decade.

2022 History Book Group Titles

JANUARY 18
Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
by Laurence Bergreen

In this lively blend of history, biography, and travelogue, acclaimed author Laurence Bergreen has created the most authoritative account yet of Marco Polo's adventures in Asia. Marco Polo was the first European to travel extensively throughout Asia--and thus the earliest bridge between East and West. His journeys took him across the boundaries of the known world, along the dangerous Silk Road, and into the court of Kublai Khan, the most feared and reviled leader of his day. Polo introduced the cultural riches of China to Europe, spawning centuries of Western fascination with Asia. Written with a discerning eye for detail, Marco Polo is as riveting as the life it describes.

February 15
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson

In this revealing book, Wilkerson explores how America has been shaped by a powerful caste system that influences people’s behavior and the nation’s fate. Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations. She shows the ways that its insidious undertow is experienced daily. She documents how the Nazis studied racial systems in America to devise their plans to harm Europe's Jewish citizens; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires a bottom rung of society for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the health costs of caste; and she describes its effects on American culture and politics. Finally, she imagines ways we can move beyond destructive human divisions toward hope in our common humanity.

 

March 15
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David. W. Blight

As a young man, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, and went on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. With dignity and intelligence, he bore witness to the brutality of slavery, using his own story to condemn slavery. In this Pulitzer Prize winner, which The New York Times Book Review called “cinematic and deeply engaging” and The Wall Street Journal called "absorbing and even moving," Blight draws on materials few other historians consulted, including recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. This book won the Bancroft, Parkman, Lincoln, Plutarch, and Christopher awards and was named one of the Best Books of 2018 by The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Time.

April 19
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire
by Robin Waterfield

Alexander the Great conquered an empire that stretched from Greece to the Indian subcontinent, and his death triggered forty years of world-changing events, filled with high adventure, assassinations, dynastic marriages, treachery, shifting alliances, and mass slaughter. Dividing the Spoils provides a fast-paced narrative that captures the turbulent times of Alexander's successors and their contest for his empire. Waterfield shows how Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Seleucus, and Antigonus consolidated Alexander's gains and cleaned up the untamed areas within and bordering his empire. He also reveals their competing ambitions, their brutal battles, and the riveting story of the cultural flowering that emerged from the haze of war.

May 17
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire
by William Dalyrymple

The Anarchy tells the story of how, in 1765, the East India Company took over large swaths of Asia and set up, in place of the young Mughal emperor, a government run by English traders who collected taxes by means of a private army. The Mughal Empire―which had dominated world trade and manufacturing and possessed almost unlimited resources―fell apart and was replaced by a multinational corporation based thousands of miles overseas. Most of the company's shareholders had never even seen India and had no experience of the country whose wealth was providing their dividends. Using previously untapped sources, Dalrymple tells the story of the East India Company, providing a portrait of the devastating results of the company's abuse of corporate power.

June 21
Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice
by Bruce Levine

In this work, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine offers a compelling look at one of the most visionary statesmen of the nineteenth century. A forgotten champion for racial justice in America, Thaddeus Stevens saw the Civil War as a chance to remake the country as a genuine multiracial democracy. As one of the foremost abolitionists in Congress in the years before the war, he was a leader of the Republican Party’s radical wing, fighting for anti-slavery and anti-racist policies long before colleagues like Abraham Lincoln. These policies—including welcoming black men into Union armies—proved crucial to the Union war effort. During Reconstruction, Stevens demanded equal civil and political rights for Black Americans—rights eventually embodied in the 14th and 15th amendments.

July 19
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester

"The greatest enterprise of its kind in history," was the verdict of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin in June 1928 when The Oxford English Dictionary was published. With 15,490 pages and nearly two million quotations, it was a monumental achievement, gleaned from the efforts of hundreds of people who made it their mission to catalogue the English language in its entirety. Celebrated author Simon Winchester celebrates this remarkable feat in his enthralling account of the creation of the world's greatest dictionary and the fascinating characters who played vital roles in the execution of this massive project. 

August  16
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine 
by Janice P. Nimura

Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of "ordinary" womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849 she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, and author Stacy Schiff remarks that "Janice P. Nimura has resurrected Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell in all their feisty, thrilling, trailblazing splendor." Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies, and enduring partnership, Nimura presents a richly researched story of trial and triumph. Both sisters were tenacious and visionary, and their convictions did not always align with the emergence of women’s rights―or with each other. Nevertheless, this new biography celebrates two complicated pioneers who exploded the limits of possibility for women in medicine.

September  20
I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford
by Richard Snow

From the acclaimed historian Richard Snow, who “writes with verve and a keen eye” (The New York Times Book Review), comes an entertaining account of Henry Ford and his invention of the Model T—the ugly, cranky, invincible machine that defined twentieth-century America. Relentlessly industrious, Henry Ford was born the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg and died two years after the atomic bombs fell--and his life personified the tremendous technological achievements of that period. Resourceful and fearless, Ford built his first gasoline engine out of scavenged industrial scraps, using his innate mechanical abilities and radical imagination as he transformed American industry. Snow weaves together a fascinating narrative of Ford’s rise to fame through his invention of the Model T. Filled with incidents from Ford’s life and stories of his secretive competition with other early car manufacturers, I Invented the Modern Age reclaims Henry Ford--the man who indeed invented the modern world.

October 18
The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes
by Zachary D. Carter

In this riveting biography, veteran journalist Zachary D. Carter unearths the lost legacy of one of history’s most fascinating minds. The Price of Peace revives a forgotten set of ideas about democracy, money, and the good life with transformative implications for today’s debates over inequality and the power politics that shape the global order.  As a moral philosopher, political theorist, economist, and statesman, Keynes also was an anti-authoritarian thinker who devoted his life to the belief that art and ideas could conquer war and deprivation. His extraordinary life took him from turn-of-the-century parties in London’s Bloomsbury art scene to negotiations that shaped the Treaty of Versailles, and from stock market crashes on two continents to diplomatic breakthroughs in New Hampshire and wartime ballet openings at London’s Covent Garden. Along the way, Keynes reinvented Enlightenment liberalism to meet the crises of the twentieth century. In the United States, his ideas became a flashpoint in the political struggle of the Cold War, as Keynesian acolytes faced off against conservatives in an intellectual battle for the future of the country—and the world.

November 15
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
by Yuval Levin

In The Great Debate, Levin explores the roots of the left/right political divide in America by examining the views of the men who best represented each side at its origin: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Striving to forge a new political path in the tumultuous age of the American and French revolutions, these two ideological titans sparred over moral and philosophical questions about the nature of political life and the best approach to social change: radical and swift, or gradual and incremental. The division they articulated continues to shape our political life today. Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the basis of our political order and Washington's acrimonious rifts today, The Great Debate offers a profound examination of conservatism, progressivism, and the debate between them.

December 20
The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom
by H.
W. Brands

From an acclaimed historian comes a thrilling account of the struggle over slavery as embodied by John Brown and Abraham Lincoln—two men moved to radically different acts to confront our nation’s gravest sin. John Brown was a charismatic man who heard the voice of God telling him to destroy slavery by any means. When Congress opened Kansas territory to slavery in 1854, Brown raised a band of followers to wage war--an effort that culminated in an assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. There, Brown hoped to arm slaves with weapons for a race war to cleanse the nation of slavery. Ambitious Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln had a different solution to slavery: politics. Lincoln spoke cautiously and dreamed big, plotting his path to Washington and perhaps to the White House. While some people in the North saw Brown as a martyr to liberty, Southerners responded with anger that a terrorist was being made into a saint. Lincoln threaded the needle between the opposing voices and won election as president. But the time for moderation had passed, and Lincoln’s belief that democracy could resolve its moral crises peacefully faced its ultimate test in a war for freedom.

2021 Titles

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

In this beautifully written and award-winning masterwork, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South, particularly from 1915 through 1970, for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. This definitive and vividly dramatic account tells how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a remarkable and riveting work, superbly revealing the “unrecognized immigration” within our own land.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

At the height of World War I, a lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. More people perished in twenty-four months than died from AIDS in twenty-four years; more died in one year than the Black Death killed in a century. This devastating assault on human life in 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Described as "magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research," this book provides a "precise and sobering model" as we confront the pandemic of our own experience. Barry concludes, "The final lesson of 1918...is that...those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart." 

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan

For six months in 1919, after the end of “the war to end all wars,” the Big Three—President Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau—met in Paris to shape a lasting peace. In her landmark work of narrative history, MacMillan gives a dramatic and intimate view of those fateful days, which saw new political entities—Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Palestine, among them—born out of the ruins of bankrupt empires, and the borders of the modern world redrawn. The history of the 1919 Paris peace talks following World War I is a blueprint of the political and social upheavals bedeviling the planet now. In these pages, a wealth of colorful detail and a concentration on the strange characters of these statesmen keep the narrative lively.

Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers by Doug J. Swanson

Swanson punctures the myth of the Texas Rangers as 'quiet, deliberate, gentle men', describing them instead as 'the violent instruments of repression.’ Cult of Glory will thus surely discomfit some of those who pick it up, even as it confirms for others their sense that the Rangers frequently served as anything but impartial arbiters of justice.

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World by Chris Wallace

Going beyond our history lessons, this book tells moving, personal stories of Americans who played pivotal roles in one of our most important moments as a nation. From scientists at the top of their field to heroic members of our military to everyday Americans, it’s an incredible story of how our country came together with a determined spirit to end a war and save countless lives.

Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History by Richard Snow

In this "utterly absorbing"' account, richly illustrated with photos, maps, and engravings, historian Snow shows that no single sea battle has had more far-reaching consequences than the one fought in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1862. With no fleet of its own, the Confederacy took a radical step to combat the Union blockade, building an iron fort containing ten heavy guns on the hull of a captured Union frigate named the Merrimack. In panicky desperation, the North commissioned an eccentric inventor named John Ericsson to build an entirely revolutionary iron warship. Rushed to completion in one hundred days, the Monitor had two guns housed in a shot-proof revolving turret. When the ship arrived in Virginia, its crew discovered that the Merrimack had already sunk half the Union fleet—and aimed to finish the job. But the Monitor fought the Merrimack to a standstill. Many believe it saved the Union cause.

Revolver: Sam Colt and the Six-Shooter That Changed America by Jim Rasenberger

Brilliantly told, this story offers a sweeping, definitive biography of Samuel Colt—the inventor of the legendary Colt revolver. Colt’s gun had a profound effect on American history. Its most immediate impact was on the expansionism of the American west, where white emigrants and US soldiers came to depend on it, and where Native Americans came to dread it. The six-shooter became the iconic weapon of gun-slingers, outlaws, and cowboys. In making the revolver, Colt also changed American manufacturing—his factory revolutionized industry in the United States. Revolver also brings the ambitious and innovative industrialist and leader Samuel Colt to vivid life. Colt lived during an age of promise and progress, but also of slavery, corruption, and unbridled greed, and he both embodied and helped to create this America. By the time he died in 1862 in Hartford, Connecticut, he was one of the richest and most famous men in the nation, during an era of extraordinary transformation.

 

 

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and 100 Years of German History by Thomas Harding

In 1993 Harding traveled to Germany with his grandmother to visit a holiday home that had once belonged to the family. Abandoned in the 1930s as the Nazis swept to power, it had become government property and was now slated for demolition. Harding wondered: Could it be saved? And should it? His inquiries unearthed secrets  about the lives of the families who had lived there: a wealthy landowner, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned composer, a widow and her children, and a Stasi informant. This site of domestic bliss and contentment also had a history of grief and tragedy. As its story began to take shape, Harding realized there was a chance to save the house, resolve his family’s feelings toward their former homeland―and alter a hatred handed down for generations.

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett

Follett became an expert on medieval cathedrals when he studied the building of the great Parisian edifice that is inarguably an architectural wonder. In this spellbinding book, he describes the emotions that gripped him when he learned about the fire that threatened to destroy the cathedral—and continues on to tell the story of the cathedral, from its construction to the role it has played across time and history. He reveals the influence that the Notre-Dame had upon cathedrals around the world and on the writing of one of his most famous novels, The Pillars of the Earth.

The End is Always Near by Dan Carlin

The creator of the award-winning podcast Hardcore History looks at some of the apocalyptic moments from the past as a way to frame the challenges of the future. Combining his trademark mix of storytelling, history, and weirdness, Carlin connects the past and future in fascinating ways. At the same time the questions he asks us to consider involve the most important issue imaginable: human survival. He looks at historical events in ways that force us to consider what sounds like fantasy; that we might suffer the same fate that all previous eras did. “A master of storytelling, Dan Carlin uses vivid detail and intuitive empathy to ... ponder the rise and fall of civilizations and ask where we are headed."

Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America by Michael Hiltzik

In 1869, when the final spike was driven into the Transcontinental Railroad, few were prepared for its seismic aftershocks. Once a hodgepodge of short, squabbling lines, America’s railways exploded into a titanic industry helmed by speculators, crooks, and visionaries. The vicious competition between such empire builders as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and E. H. Harriman sparked stock market frenzies, provoked strikes, transformed the nation’s geography, and culminated in a ferocious battle that shook the nation’s financial markets. Spanning four decades and featuring some of the most iconic figures of the Gilded Age, Iron Empires reveals how the robber barons drove the country into the twentieth century—and almost sent it off the rails.

100 Mistakes that Changed History: Backfires and Blunders That Collapsed Empires, Crashed Economies, and Altered the Course of Our World
by Bill Fawcett

In this engrossing volume, Fawcett explores backfires and blunders that collapsed empires, crashed economics, and altered the course of our world. From the Maginot Line to the Cuban Missile Crisis, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the overspending of the Caliphs of Baghdad and the Aztecs' disastrous welcoming of the Conquistadores, Fawcett retells these tipping points and other ideas that snowballed into disasters and unintended consequences.

2020 Titles

The Crowded Hour
by Clay Risen

In this brilliant narrative, the Rough Riders are brought gloriously to life. When America declared war on Spain in 1898, the US Army had just 26,000 soldiers. In desperation, the Rough Riders, led by Theodore Roosevelt, were born. Both a portrait of these men and of the Spanish-American War itself, The Crowded Hour dives into the lives and struggles of Roosevelt and this unique group of volunteers. In the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, Roosevelt called their charge his “crowded hour”—a turning point in his life that led him directly to the White House. As Risen reveals, it was a turning point for America as well, uniting the country and ushering in an era of global power.

The Saltwater Frontier
by Andrew Lipman

This fascinating perspective on the seventeenth-century American Northeast is the previously untold story of how the ocean became a “frontier” between colonists and Indians. When the English and Dutch both tried to claim the coast between the Hudson River and Cape Cod, the sea itself became the arena of contact and conflict. During the violent invasions, the region’s Natives were navigators, boat builders, fishermen, pirates, and merchants who became active players in the emergence of the Atlantic World. Looking past Europeans’ arbitrary land boundaries, Lipman uncovers a geography of Native America that incorporates seawater as well as soil.

Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Amand

The first comprehensive history of the Koh-i-Noor, which may be the most celebrated and mythologized jewel in the world. In 1849, the ten-year-old maharaja of the Punjab handed over, in a public ceremony, great swathes of land in a formal Act of Submission to the East India Company. He was also compelled to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. Perhaps the most valuable object on the subcontinent, this “Mountain of Light” was long enshrouded by a fog of mythology punctuated by greed, murder, torture, colonialism, and appropriation. It ends with the jewel in its current controversial setting: in the crown of Queen Elizabeth.

The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Stewart

The Summer of 1787 enters the sweltering room in which the founding fathers produced the Constitution: a flawed but enduring document that defined the nation then—and now. This book traces the struggles within the Philadelphia Convention as the delegates hammered out the charter for the world’s first constitutional democracy. Using the words of the delegates, Stewart reveals the passions and contradictions of the process of writing a document that could evolve with the nation. As we continually argue about the document’s original intent, it is fascinating to watch these powerful characters struggle toward consensus—often reluctantly.

The Pioneers by David McCullough

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian McCullough rediscovers the settling of the Northwest Territory by the dauntless pioneers who, in 1788, began to build a community based on ideals that came to define the nation. The immense Northwest Territory was a wilderness empire containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. As McCullough reveals, the pioneers let no obstacle deter or defeat their ambition and courage.

Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom by Christopher Wren

In this groundbreaking account, Wren overturns the myth of Ethan Allen as a hero of the American Revolution and offers another portrait of Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. The latter were hard-drinking ruffians who joined the rush for land on the northern frontier of the colonies before the Revolution, intending to establish an independent republic called Vermont. In a botched attempt to capture Montreal against George Washington’s specific orders, Allen was captured in 1775 and condemned to be hanged. Freed in 1778, he spent the rest of his life negotiating with the British to bring Vermont back under British rule.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

Crafted by another Pulitzer-winning author, this book explores the enduring story of humanity’s first parents. Tracking the characters of Adam and Eve into the deep past, Greenblatt uncovers the theological, artistic, and cultural investment that made them so resonant in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds. Greenblatt explores the intensely personal diversity of the rich allegory, vicious misogyny, deep moral insight, and artistic triumphs in image and literature. The biblical origin story, he argues, is a model for what the humanities have to offer: not the scientific nature of things, but rather a deep encounter with problems that have gripped us in the past and continue to fascinate and trouble us today.

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers

Using the personal archives of Napoleon himself, this is the first volume of a majestic two-part biography. Making full use of the great French emperor's personal correspondence, Broers' biography draws on the thoughts of Napoleon himself as his incomparable life unfolded. It reveals a man of intense emotion, iron self-discipline, acute intelligence, and immeasurable energy. It tells the story of the determination, ruthlessness, and calculation that won this brilliant and violent leader a precarious mastery of Europe by 1807.

Through the Eye of the Needle by Peter Brown

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world's foremost scholar of late antiquity. It also challenges the notion that Christianity's growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly

History remembers Attila, leader of the Huns, as the Romans perceived him: a savage barbarian brutally inflicting terror on whoever crossed his path. Kelly portrays Attila in a compelling new light, uncovering an unlikely marriage proposal, a long-standing relationship with a treacherous Roman general, and a thwarted assassination plot. Attila is explored as both a master warrior and an astute strategist whose rule was threatening but whose sudden loss of power was even more so. The End of Empire is a thoughtful and sophisticated exploration of the clash between empire and barbarity in the ancient world.

Bible and the Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour by Barbara W. Tuchman

From yet another Pulitzer-winning author comes a fascinating chronicle of Britain’s relationship with Palestine and the Middle East, from the ancient world to the twentieth century. Historically, the British were drawn to the Holy Land first to translate the Bible into English and, later, to control the road to India and access to the oil of the Middle East. With lucid detail, Tuchman follows these twin motives—the Bible and the sword—to their seemingly inevitable endpoint, when Britain conquered Palestine at the end of World War I. At that moment, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 established a British-sponsored mandate for a national home for the Jewish people. Tuchman demonstrates that the seeds of conflict were planted in the Middle East long before the official founding of the modern state of Israel.

Constantine the Great by Michael Grant

Since the day of his death, Constantine has been the subject of conflicting appreciations. On the one hand, pious Christians routinely overstated his virtues. They admired his support of the church, his civil building programs, and his military successes. They ignored his predatory taxation, his enlargement of the imperial bureaucracy, his reckless wars, his extravagant pomp, and his murders of perceived enemies. On the other hand, pagan and secular historians routinely exaggerated his faults and scanted his achievements. In this examination of Constantine’s life, noted classicist Grant has pruned away the exaggerations in a readable evaluation that also makes clear that the emperor's belief that he was constantly in touch with God made him difficult and dangerous.

2019 Titles

Jerusalem the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore
This gripping New York Times Notable Book is the epic history of 3,000 years of faith, fanaticism, bloodshed, and coexistence--from the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict. How did this small, remote town become the Holy City, the "center of the world," and now the key to peace in the Middle East? Montefiore bring the holy city blazingly to life with a cast that varies from Solomon, Saladin, and Suleiman to Cleopatra, Caligula, and Churchill; from Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad; from Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, and Nero to Disraeli, Rasputin, Lawrence of Arabia, and Moshe Dayan.

The Templars by Dan Jones

In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the first Knights Templar decided to set up a new order to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Over the next 200 years, they became the most powerful religious order of the medieval world--until a vindictive King of France contrived a plan to seize their fortune, and, in 1307, hundreds of brothers were imprisoned, tortured, and tried as heretics by the Pope in secret proceedings. In this groundbreaking and compulsively readable history, Jones draws on original sources to build a gripping account of holy warriors whose heroism and alleged depravity have been shrouded in myth. Were they heretics or victims of a ruthlessly repressive state? 

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

More than a history of the Silk Roads, this book is a revelatory new history of the world, from the Middle East, to China, and through the vast region stretching from the Balkans to South Asia. Frankopan reveals the astounding pasts of the cities and nations built on intricate trade routes--and what is at stake for them today. It was on the Silk Roads that East and West met each other through trade and conquest, leading to the spread of ideas, cultures and religions. From the rise and fall of empires to the spread of Buddhism and the advent of Christianity and Islam, right up to the wars of the twentieth century, this book shows how the fate of the West has always been inextricably linked to the East.

A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally

In this spirited history of the remarkable and improbable first four years of the convict settlement of Australia, Keneally offers us a fascinating inside view of this unprecedented experiment. Written from the perspective of the new penal colony’s governor, Arthur Phillips, Keneally uses personal journals and documents to re-create the hellish overseas voyage and the challenges Phillips faced upon arrival: unruly convicts, disgruntled officers, bewildered and hostile Aborigine natives, food shortages, and disease.  

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson

With dazzling wit and astonishing insight, Bryson brilliantly explores the remarkable history, eccentricities, resilience and sheer fun of the English language. From the first descent of the larynx into the throat to the fine lost art of swearing, Bryson tells the fascinating, often uproarious story of an inadequate, second-rate tongue of peasants that developed into one of the world's largest growth industries.

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

Named a "best book" by the New York Times and the Chicago Public Library, this biography is a stunning portrait of love, heartbreak, devotion, grief, strength, and resilience that reveals the bold, glamorous, and unbreakable queen behind the myth. The New York Times Book Review says, “Victoria the Queen, Julia Baird’s exquisitely wrought and meticulously researched biography, brushes the dusty myth off this extraordinary monarch."

Boone: A Biography
by Robert Morgan

The story of Daniel Boone is the story of America—its ideals, its promise, its romance, and its destiny. Critically acclaimed author Robert Morgan reveals the complex character of a frontiersman whose heroic life was far stranger and more fascinating than the myths that surround him.  This authoritative biography offers a new perspective on an American icon—a hero as important to American history as his more political contemporaries, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Cultural and historical background material, maps, and illustrations underscore the scope of this immensely entertaining work.

Titan by Ron Chernow

From the acclaimed author of Alexander Hamilton comes the engrossing biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., known as both a rapacious robber baron and a philanthropist who donated money lavishly. The terror of his competitors, the bogeyman of reformers, and the delight of caricaturists, this scion of the Standard Oil Company was nonetheless an utter enigma. Drawing on unprecedented access to Rockefeller’s private papers, Chernow reconstructs his subject's troubled origins and his single-minded pursuit of wealth. He also uncovers his devotion to his father, his wry sense of humor, and the profound religiosity that drove him “to give all I could.” Balanced, revelatory, and elegantly written, Titan is magnificent.

The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Last Stand, called "engrossing and tautly written" by the Los Angeles Times, is Philbrick's monumental reappraisal of the epochal clash at the Little Bighorn in 1876 that gave birth to the legend of Custer's Last Stand. With characteristic literary flair, Philbrick brings new information to his subject, detailing the collision between George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull--a battle that both parties wished to avoid. He brilliantly explains how the battle that ensued has been shaped and reshaped by national myth.

The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough

Winner of the National Book Award, this volume chronicles the creation of the Panama Canal, a brilliant engineering feat marked by both tragedy and triumph. It tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Complete with tales of medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures, this volume weaves the many strands of the momentous event into a comprehensive and captivating history.

Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga by William F. Fitzhugh and Elizabeth Ward

Replete with color photographs, drawings, and maps of Viking sites, artifacts, and landscapes, this book explores the Viking saga from the combined perspectives of history, archaeology, oral tradition, literature, and natural science. The book's contributors chart the spread of marauders and traders in Europe as well as the expansion of farmers and explorers throughout the North Atlantic and into the New World. They show that Norse contacts with Native American groups were more extensive than has previously been believed, but they also reveal that the outnumbered Europeans never established more than temporary settlements in North America.

Empire's End by John Keay

Researched and written in the period when the British prepared to disengage themselves from Hong Kong, this study of the involvement of Europe and America in the Far East explores more than five hundred years of Western colonial presence in Asia and speculates about the future of the region's political and economic geography.

2018 Titles

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck

As its publisher notes, this “marvelous narrative about a little-known man and the science he founded…” is “…also a parable about the power of books to shape the history of ideas.” Unlike Copernicus and Darwin, who also “helped free science from the straitjacket of theology,” Hutton never received similar recognition for his discoveries, in part because he did not express his ideas well in their written form.  His ideas, though, profoundly changed our understanding of the earth and its dynamic forces. Hutton proved that the earth was—and is—“continuously shaped and re-shaped by myriad everyday forces rather than one cataclysmic event. “ Repcheck reveals the story of the observations this Scottish gentleman-farmer made on his small tract, which led him to a theory that challenged the Bible’s interpretation of Earth’s geological timeline and provided the scientific proof that sparked Darwin's theory of evolution.

The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

A member of the Fifth Corps recounts the dramatic final acts of the Civil War, describing Sheridan's rise, Warren's fall, and the slow, inexorable stalking of Lee's forces across the battle-scarred countryside. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Maine college professor who entered the Union Army in 1862. He fought with the Twentieth Maine at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role at Little Round Top. In the campaigns described here, Chamberlain commanded a brigade in the Fifth Corps in the Army of the Potomac during the final days of the war. His eyewitness account takes us past Lee’s surrender to show the beginnings of Reconstruction.

Lords of the Atlas by Garvin Maxwell

Set in the medieval city of Marrakesh and the majestic kasbahs of the High Atlas mountains, this book tells the extraordinary story of the Madani and T'hami el Glaoui, warlord brothers who carved out a feudal fiefdom in southern Morocco in the early twentieth century. Quislings of the French colonial administration, they combined the aggression of gangland mobsters with the opulence of hereditary Indian princes and ruled with a mixture of flamboyance and terror. On returning from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, T'hami ordered the severed heads of his enemies to be mounted on his gates. Yet in 1956, when the French left Morocco, the regime toppled like a pack of cards.

1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth

One of the most important dates in the history of the western world, 1066 is the year William the Conqueror defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings and changed England and the English forever.  The events leading to and following this turning point are shrouded in mystery. Distorted by biased accounts written by a subjugated people, many believe the English ultimately won the battle since the Normans became assimilated into the English way of life. Drawing on a wealth of sources, Howarth offers memorable portraits of the kings Edward the Confessor, Harold of England, and William of Normandy, as well as of the leading political figures of the time. He describes how the English commoners worked, fought, and died—and how, from their isolated shires, they perceived the overthrow of their world.

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

In this biography, John Muir's sense of himself is as fully explored as is his extraordinary ability, then and now, to help others to see the sacred beauty of the natural world.  This account of the great conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club is based on Muir's private correspondence, uncovering the complex inner life behind the legend of the solitary mountain man. It traces Muir from his boyhood in Scotland and in frontier Wisconsin to his adult life in California right after the Civil War up to his death on the eve of World War I. It explores his marriage, family relationships, and friendships, including those with Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It explores his role in founding the modern American conservation movement and his life as a fruit-grower, a scientist, a world traveler, a doting father and husband, a self-made man of wealth and political influence, and a man passionate about the beauty and value of the natural world.

Wellington: The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes

Acclaimed as a military historian, Holmes superbly tells the exhilarating story of Britain’s greatest-ever soldier, the man who posed the most serious threat to Napoleon. Wellington is a brilliant figure, idealistic in politics, cynical in love, a wit, a beau, a man of enormous courage often sickened by war. Holmes charts his progress from a shy, indolent boy to commander-in-chief of the allied forces and exposes the Iron Duke as a philanderer and a man who sometimes despised the men that he led and was not always in control of his soldiers. This beautiful book includes stunning illustrations and color plates.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

This page-turner is the little-known story of how a newly independent nation was challenged by four Muslim powers and what happened when America's third president decided to stand up to intimidation. When Jefferson became president in 1801, America was deeply in debt and needed its economy to grow quickly, but its merchant ships were under attack. Pirates from North Africa routinely captured and enslaved American sailors, demanding ransom and tribute far beyond the new country’s means. Jefferson found it impossible to negotiate with the leaders of the Barbary states, who showed no mercy, so he decided to send warships and a detachment of Marines to blockade Tripoli, launching the Barbary Wars and beginning America's journey toward future superpower status.

The Aztecs:  The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Serge Gruinski

This engaging volume explores the complex aspects of the ancient Aztec civilization, its artistic and cultural achievements, its bloody religion, and its history from its earliest times to its collapse with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World.

Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

This view of Germany is like no other. For the past 140 years, Germany has been the central power in continental Europe. Twenty-five years ago, a new German state came into being. MacGregor argues that no over-arching narrative of Germany's history can be constructed, for in Germany both geography and history have always been unstable. For most of the five hundred years covered by this book Germany has been composed of many separate political units, each with a distinct history. And any comfortable national story Germans might have told themselves before 1914 was destroyed by the events of the following thirty years. Beginning with the invention of modern printing by Gutenberg, MacGregor chooses objects, ideas, people, and places that resonate in the new Germany and reveal its collective imagination.

Hannibal: The Enemy of Rome by Leonard Cottrell

In 216 BCE, Hannibal of Carthage faced an opposing Roman army twice the size of his own and outwitted the enemy at Cannae by means of his famous double-pincer maneuver. In that battle, seventy thousand Roman soldiers died within a few hours on a field the size of New York's Central Park. As devastating as Cannae was, it was only one of Hannibal’s incredible feats. His 1,000-mile march across the Alps from Spain to Italy, for instance, was one of the wonders of ancient times. Blending biography and military adventure, Hannibal is a portrait of a military genius who harbored a deep hatred for the Roman Republic and a fierce determination to subdue it forever. Cottrell traveled Hannibal’s entire route took across the Alps, thus amassing firsthand knowledge of his subject. With drama and authenticity Cottrell describes Hannibal's amazing campaign—a saga of victory after victory that fell just short of its goal: the annihilation of Rome.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The author of the acclaimed bestsellers Steve JobsEinstein, and Benjamin Franklin brings Leonardo da Vinci to life in this exciting new biography. Based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work, Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science. He shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and a playful imagination that flirts with fantasy.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire by William Fitzhugh, Morris Rossabi, and William Honeychurch

This illustrated volume presents the untold story of Mongolia and its people, utilizing the latest research in archaeology, forensics, history, art, and literature. Rossabi presents a portrait of Genghis that goes far beyond the stereotype of the barbarian conqueror to reveal the sophisticated administrative structure, religious and economic freedom, and social precepts that were his lasting legacy. Other historians describe the western expansion of the empire and reveal recent archaeological discoveries. Fitzhugh is director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution. Rossabi is Distinguished Professor of history at the City University of New York and Columbia University. Honeychurch is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University.

2017 Titles

1415: Agincourt by Anne Curry

As night fell in Picardy on Thursday October 24, 1415, Henry V and his English troops, worn down by their long march after the taking of Harfleur and diminished by the dysentery they had suffered there, can little have dreamt that the battle of the next day would give them one of the most complete victories ever won. Anne Curry’s startling history recreates the campaign and battle from the perspectives of the English and the French. One of the best battle accounts ever published, Anne Curry has updated this classic work in honor of 600th anniversary of Agincourt.

February 21
The Concise History of Ireland
(NEW edition)
Sean Duffy

This one-volume survey is complemented by maps, photographs, and diagrams. Duffy has written a text of exceptional clarity, stressing the enduring themes of Ireland's long cultural continuity; the central importance of its relationships with Britain and mainland Europe; and the intractability of the ethnic and national divisions in modern Ulster.

March 21
Mohawk Baronet - Sir William Johnson

James Thomas Flexner

In this "scholarly, stirring, and brightly written study," Flexner writes an in-depth biography of one of the most interesting figures in eighteenth-century America. Full of color and incident, it illuminates Indian life, the colonial frontier, the wars with the French, the economic forces based on furtrading and land speculation, and the tangled relations of the crown, royal governors, and New World assemblies. The personality of the indomitable Johnson, has" never before been so effectively depicted."

April 18
1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

Eric H. Cline

In this account of the causes of this "First Dark Ages," Cline tells the gripping story of interconnected failures, invasions revolts, earthquakes, drought, and the cutting of international trade routes. Bringing to life the vibrant multicultural world of great civilizations, he draws a sweeping panorama of the empires and globalized peoples of the Late Bronze Age and shows that it was their very interdependence that hastened their dramatic collapse and ushered in a dark age that lasted centuries. A compelling combination of narrative and scholarship, 1177 B.C. sheds new light on the complex ties that gave rise to and ultimately destroyed the flourishing civilizations of the Late Bronze Age--and set the stage for the emergence of classical Greece.

May 16
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

H. W. Brands

“I have found it.” These words, uttered by the man who first discovered gold on the American River in 1848, triggered the most astonishing mass movement of peoples since the Crusades. California’s gold drew fortune-seekers from the ends of the earth. It accelerated America’s imperial expansion and exacerbated the tensions that exploded in the Civil War. And, as H. W. Brands makes clear in this spellbinding book, the Gold Rush inspired a new American dream—the “dream of instant wealth, won by audacity and good luck.” He tells this epic story from the perspectives of adventurers, entrepreneurs, prospectors, soldiers, and scoundrels, imparting a visceral sense of the distances they traveled, the suffering they endured, and the fortunes they made and lost.

June 20
Jamestown, Quebec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings
James Kelly and Barbara Clark Smith

 

This illustrated volume published by the Smithsonian Institution in 2007 explores the then-400th anniversaries of the settlement of Quebec, Santa Fe, and Jamestown, which took place nearly simultaneously. A large-format treatment with vivid photographs of maps, paintings, and artifacts, this book, one reviewer said, “is thoughtful and accessible, and full of long neglected historical information."

July 18
Unlikely Allies: A Playwright and a Spy Saved the American Revolution
Joel Paul

Connecticut merchant Silas Deane was a member of the Continental Congress, and he traveled to France to persuade the king to support the colonists in their struggle with England. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was a playwright who had access to the arms and ammunition that Deane needed. And the Chevalier d'Éon was a diplomat and sometime spy for the French king who ignited a crisis that persuaded the French to arm the Americans. This is the true story of how three remarkable people lied, cheated, stole, and cross-dressed across Europe to gain France's aid as the War of American Independence hung in the balance.

August 22
The French-Canadian Heritage in New England
Gerald Brault

An American of French-Canadian descent, Brault weaves the dual history of French Canadians -- Acadians and Québécois -- into his account of the history and development of Franco-American culture and its contemporary situation. Drawing upon historical works and literature of the period, he provides detailed description of early life in Quebec and Acadia and analyzes the forces that led to migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His own family history provides insight into the experience of being Franco-American, offering a perspective that reveals how these people feel close to both Canada and France while also being solidly and patriotically American.

September 26
40 Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: An Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars
Don Rickey Jr.

With this engaging book, the enlisted men in the United States Army during the Indian Wars (1866-91) need no longer be mere shadows behind their commanding officers. Through their labors, combats, and endurance, these men created a framework of law and order that contributed to the settlement and development of the country. Psychologically and physically isolated their fellow Americans, many enlisted men were barely able to scribble their names, so Rickey asked more than three hundred living veterans to supply information about their army experiences through questionnaires, personal accounts, and personal interviews. Whether the soldier is speaking for himself or through the author in his role as commentator-historian, this is the first documented account of the mass personality of the rank and file during the Indian Wars,

October 17
When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs and Money in the Age of Sail
Eric Jay Dolin

Ancient China collides with newfangled America in this brilliant epic tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates, and dueling clipper ships. Dolin traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving seas that separated a rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. A “prescient fable for our time,” this book sheds light on our modern relationship with China. The furious trade in furs, and opium, might have catalyzed America’s emerging economy, but it also sparked an ecological and human rights catastrophe with reverberations still felt today. This page-turning saga of pirates and politicians, coolies and concubines, is a must-read for fans of Philbrick or Kurlansky.

November 21
Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
Eric Jay Dolin

Best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin chronicles the rise and fall of the fur trade of old, when the rallying cry was "get the furs while they last." Beavers, sea otters, and buffalos were slaughtered, and their precious pelts were made into extravagant hats, coats, and sleigh blankets. Read this history to understand how North America was explored, exploited, and settled, while its native people were alternately enriched and exploited by the trade. As Dolin demonstrates, fur was both an economic elixir and an agent of destruction and was inextricably linked to such key events in American history as the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the relentless pull of Manifest Destiny, and the opening of the West.

December 19
The Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

Candice Millard

This book is a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill's extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War. At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England, and he believed that to achieve his goal he must do something spectacular on the battlefield. Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899 to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. Just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape—and then traversed hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with little except his wits to guide him.
Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters with whom Churchill would later share the world stage.

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