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Recommended Reading for History Buffs #1

 In Recent Articles, Blog, Fun Learning

Sometimes while introducing an event or moment in history, I’ll throw out a quick book recommendation to students who might want to dig into the day’s topic after the webinar is over. Most commonly, because I have several classes that touch on the topic of World War One  (Horrible Great War, as one example, but also both Advanced History classes, A History of US: 1900-Present, and World History Through Movies), I’ll recommend without reservation, Barbara Tuchman’s classic The Guns of August to learners who want to know more about the causes and first crucial weeks of the Great War. It’s one of my two or three favorite history books of all time and gloriously written (in fact, I have a sudden desire to re-read it this Fall). My copy also has a preface written by Robert K. Massie, author of my favorite history book of all time, which I’ll talk about below and is also, completely coincidentally, about the causes of the Great War. Weird, that. Generally, I am far more interested in World War Two, so it speaks to the power of these works that they are at the top of my list. 

Now, everybody’s heard of The Guns of August (he said, hoping it is true), so I thought I would start this series of blogs by recommending three books you probably haven’t heard of. For the moment, let’s stick to World War One.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie

Massie, one of my favorite history authors, won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Peter the Great (which I definitely recommend to learners who want to know more about the modernization of Russia under Peter – it’s excellent). This book, on the arms race that drove a crucial wedge between Britain and Germany ahead of World War One, is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. Massie brings the key figures of this economic pre-war competition to life in a way that most biographers could only dream of. It helps, of course, to have true visionaries and eccentrics (like Admiral Jackie Fisher) as a focal point of the text. But I digress. If you are interested in the development of 20th century naval warfare or in understanding how two deeply-intermarried royal families could end up on opposite sides in the first major war of the 20th century, this book will fascinate you.

Also, if you end up liking it, the follow-up, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Seais quite good. Just not as good.

Moving on to a different kind of race, my next book recommendation concerns the Space Race. 

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

In 1998, HBO and Tom Hanks collaborated on a mini-series that recreated events and moments from various efforts and missions that comprised the Apollo Program, a show called From the Earth to the Moon. I loved it. It’s just started streaming again for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and if you’ve never seen it and have HBO…stop reading this blog right now and go watch it. See you in about 12 hours.

… [12 hours pass]

Okay, want to know even more about the Apollo Program after that? Because I sure did! Chaikin’s book was the basis for HBO’s miniseries, but more than that it’s a stellar work of history on it’s own. Chaikin did his homework, interviewing many of the surviving astronauts for this tale and the authenticity of the narrative resonates because of it. Additionally, without the constraints of a 60 minute running time, this book gets further into the nitty gritty details of every mission that was part of the Apollo effort. If you have a learner interested at all in the Space Race or man’s first steps on another world, I can’t recommend  this book enough. It’s thorough, engaging, and well-researched. 

The final book I’m going to recommend today is going to sound like the driest possible lecture given by a visiting economics fellow at your local college. I promise you, it is far more than that.

America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein.

I know. Who cares, right? Except the story of the birth of the Federal Reserve is FASCINATING and hugely entertaining. The battle over the form, the structure, and even the existence of an American national bank goes back to figures like Alexander Hamilton (who created one) and Andrew Jackson (who killed the second one dead). The story of the repeated, periodic economic panics caused by America’s primitive banking system (thanks President Jackson) is an important one to know for any history student who wants to understand the American economy, whether we’re talking about past, present or future. The story of how the system got fixed is fun, fascinating, and filled with colorful figures, sometimes working against their own parties. It’s a lesson in how things can get done in American politics, if people just work together (or sometimes, accidentally, at cross purposes but still with compatible end goals). Lowenstein brings the basically unknown figures of the era to life in a way that completely blew me away. It’s so well-written, the participants so well-realized, that I have to say this might be my favorite history that I’ve read in the last two years. It’s only competition is Ron Chernow’s Grant biography, which I’m still plowing through.

Next time: I’ll recommend a couple books written by members of the media on their own contemporary times. 

Benjamin Smith is also known as Headmaster Galahad at  He teaches history, science, computer science, and social science at G3.

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