Surprising and Fun History Reads!

Think history books are dry, academic and boring?  If so, you may be surprised by the books on this list that will get you to think otherwise.  They all have a lighthearted, easy or a new take on history–whether it be social, political, cultural, military, and others- that won’t bore you to tears.  In fact, they promise to make for engaging and informative reads, and are all available with your Livingston Library card.

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez

Scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez examines eight inventions–clocks, steel rails, copper communication cables, photographic film, light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips–and reveals how they shaped the human experience. Ramirez tells the stories of the woman who sold time, the inventor who inspired Edison, and the hotheaded undertaker whose invention pointed the way to the computer. She describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway’s writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid’s cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa. These fascinating and inspiring stories offer new perspectives on our relationships with technologies.

Artcurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History by Jennifer Dasal

From the host of the ArtCurious podcast, this book looks at the world of art history, revealing some of the strangest, funniest, and most fascinating stories behind the world’s great artists and masterpieces. It demonstrates why art history is, and continues to be, a riveting and relevant world to explore.

Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year by Michael Farquhar

National Geographic author Farquhar uncovers an instance of bad luck, epic misfortune, and unadulterated mayhem tied to every day of the year. From Caligula’s blood-soaked end to hotelier Steve Wynn’s unfortunate run-in with a priceless Picasso, these 365 tales of misery include lost fortunes (like the would-be Apple investor who pulled out in 1977 and missed out on a $30 billion-dollar windfall), romance gone wrong (like the 16th-century Shah who experimented with an early form of Viagra with empire-changing results), and truly bizarre moments (like the Great Molasses Flood of 1919). Think you’re having a bad day? Trust us, it gets worse.

Between Hope and Fear: A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity by Michael Kinch

The remarkable story of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases and their social and political implications. While detailing the history of vaccine invention, Kinch reveals the ominous reality that our victories against vaccine-preventable diseases are not permanent–and could easily be undone.

Figuring by Maria Popova

The ever-curious thinker behind the celebrated website Brain Pickings, Popova brings her hunger for facts and zeal for biography to this exhilarating and omnivorous inquiry into the lives of geniuses who bridged the scientific and poetic. At the start of this passionate and erudite pursuit of truth and beauty, Popova describes the strange sight of a small red leaf twirling in midair, a gravity-defying mystery solved when she discerns the fine-spun spider’s web holding it aloft. This image cues the reader to the structure of this many-threaded net connecting such barrier-breakers as the brilliant astronomer Maria Mitchell; radical writers Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson; and the too-little-known sculptor Harriet Hosmer, most of them women-loving women. 

The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 Tales From History to Astonish, Bewilder & Stupefy by Rick Beyer

This is history candy — the good stuff. Here are 100 tales to astonish, bewilder, and stupefy: more than two thousand years of history filled with courage, cowardice, hope, triumph, sex, intrigue, folly, humor, and ambition. It’s a historical delight and a visual feast with hundreds of photographs, drawings, and maps that bring each story to life. 

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis

A comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico and its identity as a region marked by hurricanes, oil fields, and debates about population growth and the environment demonstrates how its picturesque ecosystems have inspired and reflected key historical events.

Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history — the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness. Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln’s own blood relics, this is a fully documented work, but it is also a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you’ve never read it before.

No Beast so Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History by Dane Huckelbridge

One part pulse-pounding thriller, one part soulful natural history of the endangered Royal Bengal tiger, this is the gripping, true account of the Champawat Tiger, which terrified northern India and Nepal from 1900 to 1907, and Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter who pursued it. Huckelbridge’s masterful telling also reveals that the tiger, Corbett, and the forces that brought them together are far more complex and fascinating than a simple man-versus-beast tale.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution, that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human”. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas. Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because over the last few decades humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bryson, a noted science writer, has prepared a history book for every reader. He weaves scientific discoveries and events into a story with this plot: how the world came to be. Names of comets, constants, laws, and theories become real human beings complete with quirky personalities. This is not a dry history of science but a tale of our universe, discovered through the eyes and experiments of those men and women who dared to search for answers. On his travels through space and time, Bryson encounters a splendid gallery of the most fascinating, eccentric, competitive, and foolish personalities ever to ask a hard question. 

An Uncommon History of Common Things by  Bethanne Patrick, & John Thompson

Pop culture fans and trivia lovers will delight in National Geographic’s highly browsable, freewheeling compendium of customs, notions and inventions that reflect human ingenuity throughout history. Dip into any page and discover extraordinary hidden details in the everyday that will inform, amuse, astonish, and surprise. From hand tools to holidays to weapons to washing machines, this book features hundreds of colorful illustrations, timelines, sidebars, and more as it explores just about every subject under the sun.

The United States of Absurdity: Untold Stories from American History by Dave Anthony & Gareth Reynolds

The creators of the comedy/history podcast The Dollop, present short, informative, and hilarious stories of the most outlandish (but true) people, events, and more from United States history. Comedians Anthony and Reynolds cover the weird stories you didn’t learn in history class, such as 10-Cent Beer Night, the Jackson Cheese, and the Kentucky Meat Shower, accompanied by full-page illustrations that bring each historical “milestone” to life in full-color”

-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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