10 Books That Will Change How You Think About History

by Charlotte Ahlin

If you stayed awake through history class in high school, you probably remember learning a lot of dates and names. It's likely that you studied the rise and fall of governments, and that you zeroed in on a few Great Men. But history, as a subject, is too unimaginably vast to be entirely covered during third period, when everyone is already antsy for lunch. History is the study of everything that has ever happened leading up to this very moment in time—and that's quite a bit of ground to cover. So even if you think you have a pretty solid handle on the entirety of human history, here are few books on strange, forgotten, and overlooked moments in history that will change the way you look at the past.

After all, what's written down in history books is only a tiny sliver of historical truth. The people who write the history books are all too often the people in power, and they aren't particularly interested in giving a nuanced account of marginalized groups. Or they just don't have enough of a global perspective to understand how their mucking about in one corner of the Earth has huge ramifications for everybody else. These books won't cover everything that ever happened on the planet Earth, but they're a pretty solid start:

'1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' by Charles C. Mann

If you don't understand why people get so mad about Columbus Day, read this book. Before Columbus made his voyage, there were more people living in the Americas than in Europe. The city of Tenochtitlán was a technological marvel, with running water, gorgeous botanical gardens, and immaculate streets. Early genetic engineering of corn rivals modern science. 1491 is a revelation, exploring the achievements of Pre-Colombian America and debunking long-held historical myths.

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'The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration' by Isabel Wilkerson

From 1915 to 1970, almost six million black citizens left the American South for cities of the north and the west. The entire landscape and culture of the United States changed with this shift, and Wilkerson brings this enormous exodus to light with stunning detail. Through thousands of interviews, Wilkerson reconstructs the lives of three individuals who left home in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

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'At Home: A Short History of Private Life' by Bill Bryson

Usually, when we talk about history, we're looking at events that transpired on far off battlefields or in distant palaces... not necessarily in our own bathrooms. At Home is a fun, fascinating collection of micro-histories, analyzing the rooms in our homes and how they got that way. Your modern day kitchen and bedroom might seem innocuous, but they've been shaped by everything from the cholera epidemic to women's fashion to the economics of the spice trade.

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'Salt: A World History' by Mark Kurlansky

You know salt? That small rock we eat? Salt might seem like a simple condiment, but it has actually shaped quite a lot of human history as we know it. Salt has served as currency, financed wars, and inspired revolutions. Cities and trade routes have been founded because of salt. Long before anyone was trying to lower their sodium intake, salt was a precious resource that defined and helped to develop modern human society.

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'The Pillow Book' by Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book was written in 10th Century Japan, but it reads more like a Twitter feed. Court poet Sei Shōnagon writes lists of things that she enjoys, things that quicken her heart, and, mostly, things that annoy her (like when your lover gets up early to leave in the morning and bumps into a foot stool and wakes you up). She's witty, brassy, and unashamed about her love life, several centuries before any modern feminist movement. Read The Pillow Book for lovely poetry, laughs, and a reminder that humanity has always been a complex tapestry of sexual desire and Twitter shade.

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'How the Irish Became White' by Noel Ignatiev

Here's a spoiler for all of world history: race is a social construct. That's not to say that race doesn't have an enormous impact on all of our day to day lives—it clearly does. But, as Noel Ignatiev points out, many ethnic groups have "changed" races over the decades. How the Irish Became White investigates Irish and African-American relations, and how the Irish-American embrace of white supremacy contributed to their "success" in the United States.

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'Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy' by Hallie Lieberman

Here's a book that you definitely didn't read in high school. Buzz is not just a titillating overview of vibrators, though: Hallie Lieberman starts with the lubricant of Ancient Greece and the first condoms of the 1500's. Her history is both entertaining and very thorough, delving into the role of sex toys in feminist movements and LGBTQ culture, and how they reflect the changing attitudes towards human sexuality.

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'Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus' by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Rabies is the most fatal virus known to science. Not only has it terrorized humanity for centuries, it's informed many of our cultural myths, medicinal practices, and horror stories. Rabid is a gripping history of world culture through the lens of rabies, drawing on both biology and anthropology to explain this particular disease and its lasting impact on the human psyche.

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'Straight: The Surprisingly Short History Of Heterosexuality' by Hanne Blank

Heterosexuals were invented in the 1860's. What we think of as "normal" dating and romance between straight people is, in fact, a recent development. Of course, men and women have been getting married and having love affairs for years, but the straight identity has only become a factor in the last couple of centuries. Hanne Blank deconstructs the norms of heterosexuality from the perspective of a queer-identifying woman, challenging the idea that straight love is the default of human nature.

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'Black Tudors: The Untold Story' by Miranda Kaufmann

Euro-centric history tends to dominate history texts and historical fiction in America. But all too often, we see depictions of Ye Old Europe that look lily white... and that's just not historically accurate. Black Tudors tells the story of just a few of the Africans who lived freely in Tudor England. From retired pirates to wealthy princes to working class folk, this book pushes past stereotypes of English history to focus on the lives of free black people who lived, worked, married, and died in pre-industrial England.

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