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Four Historical Reads for Winter

If you’re like me, you may find that there seems to be more time for reading during the holiday season. I’m not sure if there’s any specific reason for this, but I suppose wanting to spend more time inside and the appeal of curling up with a cozy blanket are enough to get me to open up a few books. For this reason, I sometimes like to use the season to delve into things I might not always take the time for. It’s a nice time to set aside the page turners, genre fiction, and popular series, and instead dive into something a little deeper or a little outside my typical area of focus.

For me, that sometimes means finding an engaging look at history. A well-written historical book can read like an engaging thrill or adventure novel, and teach you something in the process. If that sounds like a good way to spend a few hours during the coming holiday season, here are four of my recommendations.

“The Immortal Irishman” by Timothy Egan

One of the most well known universities over in the United States is Notre Dame. It’s a Catholic university located in the state of Indiana, known for equally prestigious traditions in academics and athletics, and famous around the world because of the sports film Rudy. The school also has a very interesting tie to history, however. Its mascot – the Fighting Irish – is a term that was first coined by the Irish immigrant soldiers who comprised the so-called Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War. This was a group of fearsome soldiers who fled turmoil and famine (or were in many cases banished) in Ireland and wound up fighting another country’s war.

It’s actually a fascinating history, and one that links the British Isles with the United States in a particularly intimate and surprising way. And nowhere is it better documented than in this book by Timothy Egan. Specifically chronicling the astounding life of a man named Thomas Francis Meagher, it tells of the early-19th century struggles in Ireland and how they ultimately drove an invaluable population of immigrants to the U.S., where they would help to decide the Civil War.

“Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed The World” by Paul Cartledge

The story of the 480 BC battle between the Persians and the Spartans has been heavily morphed and fictionalized over the years. Most of us know the film 300, but you may not realize that there are other modern examples of the tale as well. There is for instance a popular game online called Leonidas: King Of The Spartans. Using some similar aesthetics to those in the movie, it’s structured as a digital slot machine in which you can join the fight while Spartans defend themselves against a Persian attack in the background. There was also a (somewhat disastrous) sequel to the 300 film, and there have been some smaller video games as well.

All of these adaptations touch on the idea of the battle, or a romanticized version of it. But this book by Paul Cartledge delves into the true history, or at least does so as well as can be done some 2500 years after the fact. The book is rich on detail, and does a particularly fine job of framing the battle in historical context, as a struggle between early Western civilization and the rest of the known world. And rest assured, while there is no Gerard Butler flexing his muscles and jabbing his spear, the book is still a thrilling read.

“The Proud Tower” by Barbara Tuchman

The world wars of the 20th century are perhaps the most popularly covered historical events in the world. Students learn about them, films are made about them, video games explore their biggest battles, and virtually everyone in the developed world can quote at least a few important facts about them. They are the most consequential wars of modern human history, if not the most consequential events period. But what receives shockingly little coverage when we look back upon and study the world wars is the era that paved the way for them.

This is what Barbara Tuchman explores in this deep and fascinating history. Covering events and attitudes that shaped the world between 1890 and 1914, Tuchman paints a picture of a world caught between progress and uncertainty, and between prestige and ruin. With everything from class struggles and the rise of socialism to events surrounding important individual figures, The Proud Tower deftly navigates this entire era, and provides perhaps unrivaled context for how the first world war (and eventually the second world war) was ever allowed to happen in the first place.

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

I have less to say about this one because truth be told, I haven’t read it yet! But if anyone were to ask me what I plan on reading this holiday season, this would be the first book that comes to mind. Written by the same man who famously chronicled the life of Apple visionary Steve Jobs, it sounds as if it may just be the most comprehensive look back at, arguably, history’s greatest genius. One early review described it as being colorful and exuberant, which is just what you want from an Isaacson profile. This is a monster of a history – about 600 dense pages – but it seems as if there’s no end to what we can learn about, and learn from, this particular man.