9 History Books For People Who Hate History Books

by Charlotte Ahlin

I have to be honest here: I'm a full-on history nerd. Anyone who's ever listened to me talk at length about the Heian Period of Japan can attest to that (because it was a totally interesting period of time, when women blacked out their teeth and did the majority of the writing — but I digress). I love an in-depth discussion of Catullus or Sappho, I always point out historical inaccuracies in movies, and I was nuts for the American Girl series back in the day. But, it's recently come to my attention that some people don't like history. Or at least, they think they don't.

Look, everyone is entitled to read what makes them happy. But if you've been avoiding history books and historical fiction like the plague, you might be surprised to know that there's a lot of fascinating stuff out there. It's not all lectures on trade agreements. Even if you're not remotely a history buff, I promise that there's at least one corner of the vast history of the world that can capture your imagination.

Because real history is a lot more interesting than what we learned in high school. So if you think that history is not so much your thing, check out these nine books: from fiction to nonfiction to historical cartoon, they all have a surprising new take on history that won't bore you to tears.

1. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

This one's for all the mystery lovers out there. OK, so this book isn't as action-packed as some of the others on this list — it's a detective story where the detective in question stays in bed for the whole entire book. But, it's so smartly written that you, too, will be completely consumed by the centuries-old mystery of King Richard III. I don't want to spoil anything, but The Daughter of Time will make you think twice before taking anything in a history book at face value.

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2. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell just has a knack for finding the wit, hypocrisy, and hilarity in American history. In Assassination Vacation, Vowell takes it upon herself to travel across the country in search of sites of political murder. But this book goes beyond a historical travelogue: Vowell looks at the way that death and murder have been manipulated by the media for hundreds of years. And as always, she fills her book with grisly true stories, political criticism, and a whole lot of irreverent humor.

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3. Manhunt by James L. Swanson

Speaking of assassination, Manhunt is one of the most compelling true crime stories out there. You probably know some of the general facts about the Lincoln assassination, but you might not know the details of the 12-day manhunt that tore the country apart immediately after. This book is a blow-by-blow account of John Wilkes Booth's escape, and the wild chase across swamps and forests to bring him to justice. Swanson manages to make one of the most well-known events of history a gripping, dramatic tale with a heart-pounding climax.

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4. The King Must Die by Mary Renault

If you've always been iffy on historical fiction, Mary Renault is a great place to start. She takes classic Greek myths and finds the possible truth behind them: maybe instead of dealing with a half-bull, half-man monster, the hero Theseus was actually condemned to death in an ancient bull dancing ritual (think a very messed up rodeo). Renault doesn't just give you historical theories, though: The King Must Die is a book full of adventure and passion, violence and orgies, and all the action and sex any reader could want.

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5. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Yes, this is a fictional comic that might actually teach you something about Chinese history. These two volumes tell two parallel stories: one of little Bao, whose hometown is pillaged by so-called missionaries. So he joins the Boxer Rebellion to reclaim his culture from Western intruders. But then in Saints, Yang gives us the other side of the conflict: a young girl finds refuge in Christianity, and her newfound home is threatened by the growing rebellion. Both children are guided by visions of their heroes, as they try to find justice on either side of a complex war.

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6. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This is easily the most delightful history "textbook" you'll ever read. Don't be intimidated by the length or breadth of this book, because Bill Bryson can make any subject a humorous romp. A Short History of Nearly Everything really does cover nearly everything, from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. But Bryson is more of a writer than a scientist, and he makes natural history extremely accessible (even if he does make the occasional mistake). He's the cool teacher you'll wish you had in middle school.

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7. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

OK, I'm only sticking in one book from Heian Era Japan. And yes, it is written by a woman who was born in the year 966 CE. But don't let that scare you off: the translation is modern, and the whole book reads like a Twitter feed. Seriously. Shonagon's "memoir" is just basically lists, with titles like "Things that Quicken the Heart," or "Annoying Things." And Shonagon is one salty broad. The list of "Deeply Irritating Things," for instance, includes the point, "A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore."

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8. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

Were you the kid who regularly fell asleep during history class? Or who rolled your eyes at the whitewashed, cleaned up version of history that gets taught in school? Well, this book is for you. Loewen goes through American history, and completely wrecks the grade school version of everything from Christopher Columbus to the Civil Rights Movement. Loewen is candid about the systematic prejudices that have been around since the beginning of the USA, and this book is a huge eye-opener for even the most informed citizen. Plus, it's just way more interesting than your average history class.

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9. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton

If Kate Beaton can't make you love history, then I don't know who can. Her comics are nothing short of comedic genius. She pulls from history, literature, and pop culture, and spins it all into hilarious gold. Where else can you find a hipster Ben Franklin? Or a Tiny Hermione Granger? Or a humorous, inspiring take on activist Ida B. Wells? Her comics are off-the-wall funny, but they're also deeply intelligent and witty. It takes a lot of smarts to make Napoleon and Nancy Drew this hysterical.

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Images: Fotolia