Michael Wood’s 10 favourite history books
We asked BBC History Magazine columnist Michael Wood to choose ten of his favourite history books from the past two decades...
I've chosen 10 books, all published since 2000, among many I have enjoyed. Of course I'm not saying they are the best (who can say that?), but they are all full of insight, made me think, and gave real pleasure...
Who Will Write Our History? – by Samuel Kassow
The amazing story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his efforts to record the history of his community while facing death during the Warsaw Ghetto. One of the most moving of all books about the value and meaning of history.
The Lesser Evil: Diaries 1945–59 – by Victor Klemperer
The third volume of one of the greatest diaries of modern times.
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century – by Jurgen Osterhammel
This is no beach read, but wow! True world history.
The Great Sea – by David Abulafia
A fabulously rich account of the Mediterranean from prehistory to the Arab Spring. Full of stories, this is definitely a holiday read for all historians, but especially if sitting by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea.
The Man Awakened from Dreams – by Henrietta Harrison
China: where to start? There have been so many great books these past few years, grand sweep and close-up. One I particularly loved while working on my BBC Two series The Story of China was Henrietta Harrison’s The Man Awakened from Dreams – the diary of an ordinary man, Liu Dapeng, who lived in a north Chinese village from 1857–1942. The world of Confucian values on the eve of the fall. Full of his hopes, fears and dreams, this book takes you as closely as you could hope into the mind of someone from another world and time.
Witnesses to a World Crisis – by James Howard-Johnston
Deeply scholarly, and again not beach reading, but a richly satisfying look at the rise of Islam drawn from non-Muslim sources. Can the same ever be done from the Muslim material?
An End to Suffering – by Pankaj Mishra
History as contemporary journalism: a wonderfully readable meditation on the meaning of Buddhism in the modern world interwoven with travels on the ground tracking the real man in the c5th century BC.
Women in Dark Times – by Jacqueline Rose
From Rosa Luxemburg to Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Rose’s recent essays on the new feminism were disliked by some for their dense and taxing style, but for me were full of typically eye-opening insights.
Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy – by John Gurney
A readable, accessible biography of the 17th-century digger and radical pamphleteer who fought against the ‘power of property’; one of the great prose writers in our literature and a forgotten ‘Great Briton’. The author, John Gurney, died tragically young in 2014.
Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin
Black History – where to start? The history of slavery still awaits its great historian, though our own James Walvin has written some terrific studies. My favourite, though, is the autobiography of John Hope Franklin, the greatest modern Afro-American historian, who died in 2009.
Franklin was the author back in 1947 of the path-breaking and best-selling From Slavery to Freedom. If you want to understand why slavery and race are still at America’s troubled heart, with brilliant wider reflections on what makes a historian, read his Mirror to America – by a great historian, and a great man.
Charlemagne – by Janet Nelson
As a postscript, anyone who is interested in medieval history, European history and the history of Britain’s relation to Europe will be eagerly awaiting Janet Nelson’s upcoming Charlemagne, the fruit of a lifetime’s reflection by one of our greatest modern historians!
Michael Wood is a professor of public history at the University of Manchester.