The Best History Books of 2014?

It’s time for our annual holiday tradition: picking through some prominent lists of the best books of the past year to suggest potential gifts for the history buff in your life. This year we’ll cull suggestions from the New York Times (NYT), the Guardian (G), the Washington Post (WP), and Christianity Today (CT).

Croke, Elephant CompanyJessie Childs, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England

“…conjures a John le Carré-like underworld of political double-dealing and ‘spiery’ (as the Elizabethans called it)…recreates a world of heroism and holiness in Tudor England” (G)

Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma: A Journey into Legend

“With first-rate scholarship, an archaeologist reinterprets the Parthenon frieze in this exciting and revelatory history” (NYT)

Vicki Constantine Croke, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

“A rich portrait of a fascinating Englishman in extraordinary times” (NYT)

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

“The Pulitzer Prize-winning author focuses on the terrible question he has pondered for half a century: What does it mean to dehumanize a human being?” (WP)

Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

“…evokes the imagination, perseverance and daring it took to create and deploy the birth control pill” (WP)

Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhoodtrans. Martin Chalmers

“The author’s father’s opposition to Hitler brought his family into danger” (NYT)

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

“Finn… and Couvée have created an intellectual thriller out of the release and reception of Pasternak’s ‘Dr. Zhivago'” (WP)

Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

“…probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever…” (NYT)

“Gates sorts through the anger, frustration, sadness and guilt he held inside during his tenure” (WP)

Gobetti, Partisan DiaryCarrie Gibson, Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day

“With rare narrative verve and a gift for synthesis, Gibson compresses the islands’ histories into a wide-ranging, vivid narrative” (G)

Ada Gobetti, Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistancetrans. Jomarie Alano

“The act of keeping an anti-fascist diary of this sort during the German occupation of Italy carried an automatic death penalty… [Gobetti’s] diary, a key historical document, is thrilling and unforgettable” (G)

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

“…a lively, personality-driven survey of the public education system…” (NYT)

Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi Before India

“It was as a young lawyer in South Africa that Gandhi forged the philosophy and strategies later put to such effect in India” (NYT)

Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolutiontrans. David Fernbach

“The combination of bottom-up testimony with quick authorial intelligence lends the history a vivid immediacy” (G)

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

“…weaves together the rise of computing and the Internet from the 1830s to today through the life stories of more than 60 individuals, partnerships and teams” (WP)

Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary

“…a sympathetic but unromanticized portrait of the sadly underrated sixth president…” (WP)

Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

“…sweeping yet carefully researched… persuasively argues that the Great War is better understood as a holy war in which several crusading nations competed to advance their millennial goals” (CT)

Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

“Weird and amusing examples fill this chronicle of six kinds of innovation — glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light” (WP)

Steven Levingston, Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris

“…explores an 1889 murder in which a young female accomplice claimed she was hypnotized into committing the crime, sparking a Paris sensation and an impassioned debate over the power of suggestion” (WP)

Marsh, Strange GloryBen Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends; Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

“Macintyre portrays the traitor Kim Philby as a spectacularly gifted and fearless liar and a supremely perverse antihero” (WP)

“…reads like John le Carré but is a solidly researched true story” (NYT)

Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“…the best book in English on Bonhoeffer… yields a rare combination of delight and moral urgency” (CT)

James M. McPherson, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

“The Confederate president as ‘a product of his time and circumstances'” (NYT)

James Oakes, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War

“…Abraham Lincoln and fellow Republicans… called it the Scorpion’s Sting because they believed slavery, like a cornered scorpion stinging itself to death, would inevitably self-destruct” (WP)

Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

“…touches on just about everything interesting that happened in the United States between 1973 and 1976” (WP)

Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

“…a compelling portrait of a woman committed to love God with her heart, soul, mind, and strength—a woman who changed the world around her” (CT)

David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century

“…takes the study of World War I out of the trenches… and looks at its effects upon nations, democracy, empire, capitalism, civilization and peace” (WP)

Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act

“…[highlights] the lesser-known Democrats and Republicans who overcame mutual mistrust to change the social fabric of the nation” (WP)

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life

“…brilliantly conveys the sheer energy of this military and organizational whirlwind” (NYT)

Saval, CubedJames Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

“A classicist tries to unravel the enigma of the Stoic philosopher who was the Roman emperor Nero’s adviser” (NYT)

Niki Saval, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

“This account of office design and technology since the Civil War offers insights into the changing nature of work” (NYT)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

“After the USS Jeannette got stuck in ice in 1879, the crew set off on a 1,000-mile journey to the Siberian mainland — and that’s where the real trouble began” (WP)

Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderertrans. Ruth Martin

“The Eichmann of this study is a much more motivated Nazi than in Arendt’s version” (NYT)

Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Secret World: Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War

“The essays… radiate a waspish elegance” (G)

David Van Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People, trans. Sam Garrett

“…chronicles the slave labor, murder, mutilation and exploitation of Congo’s copper, diamond and uranium riches under Belgium’s empire, and the repeated plundering of Congo since independence” (WP)

Wright, Thirteen Days in SeptemberJerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

“…portrays the British capital as a teeming nerve centre of the allied war effort… deploys sources ranging from unpublished memoirs to diaries and interviews to write a first-rate social history” (G)

Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

“Wohlraich traces the Republicans’ swift loss of power in the early 20th century in what he calls ‘the greatest period of political change in American history'” (WP)

Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

“How marathon sessions of bare-knuckle diplomacy forged a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978” (NYT)

“…masterfully paints psychological portraits of three leaders at a pivotal moment…” (WP)


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