Viewing History through a New Lens

Viewing History through a New Lens

I love reading books that help me see history from a fresh angle.  Of course, the narrative has to be interesting, gripping and well-written (no dry textbooks, please).  These days, there are so many great nonfiction history books that fit the bill.  Here are some of my favorites:

A Voyage Long and StrangeA Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz

Many accounts of U.S. history start with the landing of English colonists in Jamestown in the early 1600s.  Horwitz unearths the stories of America’s very early European explorers ranging from the Vikings 1,000  years ago to the French, Italian and Spanish explorers of the 1500s.  Horwitz focuses particularly on the “lost century” between the arrival of Columbus and the influx of the Pilgrims.  What is truly surprising, to me at least, is the extent to which this land of ours was explored by Europeans – not just touching down on the coastal shores – prior to the landing of the Mayflower.  As Horwitz shows us, Europeans had traveled through half of the current-day contiguous 48 states before the 1600s.

 Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

The kinder, gentler side of Genghis Khan?  In this literary page-turner, an anthropology professor takes a fresh look at the notorious ruler of the vast Mongol Empire of the 1200s, exploring Khan’s lesser-known role as a farsighted ruler who helped bridge European and Asian cultures.  Although Khan was certainly a fierce conqueror he was also in some ways quite progressive and tolerant as a ruler.  He abolished torture and passed a law guaranteeing religious freedom for everyone.  He created a vast system of public schools which were the first of their kind in many of the territories he ruled. Within government administrative positions, the Mongols used ethnic quotas to ensure that each government official was surrounded by men of different cultures.  He sponsored debates on the comparative philosophies of different religions. After reading this book, you will see both Eastern and Western history in a new way.

14911491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann

Recent research upends our previously held notions, showing that the pre-Columbian Americas were far more densely populated and the Native cultures and governments more “advanced” than we had imagined.  Many native peoples were not nomadic, but rather significantly altered the landscape, and built huge, sophisticated urban centers.  However, disease decimated their numbers very shortly before the influx of European conquerors who had little concept of what had existed before their arrival.

MayflowerMayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Philbrick takes a piece of American history that we think we know well – the arrival of the Pilgrims and the settlement of Plymouth Colony – and looks at in a new light by focusing on the interplay of personalities that led to the war between the European settlers and the Native Americans.  As Philbrick says in the introduction, “Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know.”

What about you – do you have any “history from a new angle” books to recommend?

One thought on “Viewing History through a New Lens”

  1. I am half-way through “Edith Wharton”, a 869-page biography by Hermoine Lee. I never knew that Wharton has been considered as having a significant role in starting the interior design movement in the United States in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Living from 1862-1937, one would think that Wharton would have led to a focus on intricate and ornate furniture, moldings, curtains, and more … but she actually advocated for the simple, non-cluttered decor and look. With Ogden Codman, Jr., she co-authored “The Decoration of Houses” in 1897. I have plans to visit The Mount in Lenox, MA, later this year which Edith and her husband designed and landscaped in 1902.

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