What were the best history books of 2016? Everybody will have their own personal favourites, of course. The new Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History magazine invited some leading historians and other experts to choose what they think are some of the best history books to have appeared over the last year.
Some very interesting books were nominated, making – as the magazine’s editor notes – an ‘eclectic mix’, but which will hopefully offer inspiration to readers, whatever their interests. The historians and leading experts approached by the magazine were asked to choose the titles that, in their personal estimation, stood out in their specialist field this year. Categories included Ancient history, 20th century, Social history, Military history, Tudor and Medieval, Global history, and Historical fiction.
Here’s just a few of the highlights (and some of them would make great Christmas presents!).
Peter Jones, who specialises in the Ancient World, chose 5 books, including Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). According to Jones, the book explains clearly and persuasively how Rome was able to maintain peace across Europe for such a long period of time, despite it being such a time of war.
Dominic Sandbrook, who has become something of a celebrity TV historian in Britain in recent years, chose 6 books for the ’20th century’ category, including Simon Hall’s 1956: The World in Revolt (Faber), which Sandbrook calls a ‘spirited, panoramic look back at the dramatic events that convulsed the world 60 years ago, such the Hungarian uprising, the rise of Fidel Castro and Suez’. Sandbrook’s selection also includes Kevin Ruane’s Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War (Bloomsbury), which Sandbrook reckons has new things to say about Churchill himself and about the diplomatic climate of the 1940s.
In the social history category, the best-selling Birkbeck College historian Joanna Bourke has identified 4 books as her books of the year. These include Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 (Allen Lane), which Bourke calls a ‘monumental achievement’, noting that it looks at power during this period in all its forms. Another of her favourite books of 2016 is Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (Allen Lane), which Bourke calls ‘magisterial’ in its scope.
In the Tudor and Medieval category, the historian Tracy Boorman has nominated 5 books, including Christopher Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane), which Boorman describes as a ‘brilliant book’, which explores 12 of the most famous manuscripts in existence and what they tell us about medieval history. Another of her favourite books of 2016 is Sarah Gristwood’s Game of Queens: The Women Who made 16th-century Europe (Oneworld). According to Boorman, this ‘highly readable’ book interweaves the stories of an extraordinary group of women whose struggles for power ‘left an indelible mark on 16th-century Europe’.
The writer and historian Pankaj Mishra’s nominations for the ‘Global history’ category include Ian Cobain’s The History Thieves (Portobello Books), which reveals the dramatic story of the world-wide obliteration of British imperial records and ‘how much skulduggery has gone into feel-good notions about the British empire’. Archives that could have revealed the darker aspects of British policy in the colonies ‘were systematically destroyed or hidden’, creating space for fantasies about British imperial benevolence that are still central in British society.
And if you are looking for a good work of historical fiction to help you survive the Christmas period and all those turkey sandwiches and mince pies, some of Imogen Robertson’s nominations might be worth looking out for. As chair of the Historical Writer’s Association, Robertson’s choice of 5 books from 2016 includes The Ornatrix (Duckworth), by Kate Howard, which – according to Robertson – luxuriates in the physicality of its 16th-century Italian setting and the ‘poisonous quest for beauty’. Sounds truly intriguing.
The Christmas, 2016, issue of BBC History magazine is on sale now, priced £4.99.