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The 18 Best History Books for Beginners

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I’ve always loved history, but it’s surprisingly hard to find accurate and non-biased information. Back when I was a history major at the University of Southern Mississippi, I was extremely lucky to be able to learn from a teaching staff that focused heavily on allowing students to think for themselves. As a rule, they had a consistent philosophy that you simply must “read everything” from every viewpoint possible in order to weed through the biases that pervade a wide swath of literature available.

But where to begin? How do we wade through those weeds?

In order to gain perspective and understand what “really” happened in the past, it is necessary to view the human experience from multiple perspectives. Therefore, you need to read works written from and about all the major regions.

I’ll briefly describe why each of these books is on the list and explain why they are great selections for those who want to know more about history.

1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is a great option for those who want a readable account of the whole of human history. In under five hundred pages, Harari manages to span notable moments in human history, including the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, the development of language, the rise of religion, and the evolution of money and capitalism. 

Sapiens is engaging, informative, and easy to understand. However, because it covers so many topics in a short number of pages, it isn’t as detailed as some other books on this list. If you’re seeking a general overview of history, though, this book will more than suffice. 

2. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

This book was originally a series of BBC radio broadcasts, but it works just as well in book format. MacGregor explores various objects from the past to illuminate how history connects these objects and, in doing so, educates readers on world and ancient history.

Readers will learn about multiple socioeconomic, military, and religious developments from the research and input of various experts, including historians, archaeologists, government officials, and more. 

Despite its educational and occasionally complex content, the book is easier to read than you might expect, as MacGregor maintains a humorous tone throughout. 

Additionally, the photos of the objects make this book seem less like dense historical text and more like going through a museum. 

3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

In this unique approach to historical writing, Standage tells the story of humanity through explanations of six crucial beverages: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. Standage argues that each drink is a catalyst for advancing culture and connecting different civilizations. 

4. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

Readers of The Silk Roads are educated on world history by following the networks that linked the East with the West. In this book, Frankopan argues that these connections were far more than simply trading routes, they were where religions took root, languages, and diseases spread, and ideas were shared. 

Frankopan uses a variety of sources in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, Chinese, and more to assess world history from antiquity to the present. 

5. Women in World History 1450 to the Present by Bonnie G. Smith

Many history books focus on the actions of men, but this book covers women’s relationship to world developments over five hundred years. 

Women have had an important influence on world events, and this book uses oral testimonials, personal papers, archival documents, religious teachings, and other documentation to tell their stories. 

6. Timelines of History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events That Shaped the World by D.K. Publishing

This detailed timeline constructs the history of the world into an understandable narrative using feature panels, spreads, photography, maps, and illustrations. The bite-sized information is easy to digest and provides insight into the nitty-gritty of key historical events. 

7. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Some beginners may find this book difficult to read, but it is still far from the complicated academic writing that often deters people from reading about history. 

This Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller is an account of the rise of civilization. Within the book, Diamond argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world and human societies. 

8. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

This account of the United States does not shy away from the cruelty and oppression in United States history, separating itself from other, more traditional accounts. 

It is written in grammar that is easy to understand. This makes it an ideal choice for beginners who want an honest account of American history from the perspective of those whose plight is usually omitted. 

It covers many groups that have historically disenfranchised, telling their stories and, by extension, the story of American history.

9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

This is a beautifully written account of the destruction of the American Indian in the second half of the nineteenth century. Brown uses council records and autobiographies to illuminate the stories of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Indian tribes to tell the history of how the West was won.  

10. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano

This text is a social and cultural narrative of the exploitation of Latin America. Galeano uses scientific analysis, accounts of Latin American people, and other materials to illuminate the region’s history and the effects of European and United States dominance. 

11. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America by John Charles Chasteen

This general history discusses the people, events, and factors that shaped Latin America, encompassing twenty countries and six centuries. Chasteen is an engaging writer, so the book is never dry or repetitive despite the dense historical subject. 

12. Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader

Those wanting a wealth of information on the continent of Africa should look no further than this book by photojournalist John Reader. Reader covers various topics, including Africa’s geology, environments, diversity, the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and politics. Furthermore, the book is written in simple prose that can be understood by beginners but still appreciated by experts. 

13. Africans: The History of a Continent by John Iliffe

This is a detailed and concise general history of important events in African history and studies the continent from the origins of mankind to the AIDS epidemic. Iliffe writes succinctly, so readers get a breadth of information in less than four hundred pages. 

14. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History by Milton Osborne

This is one of the most widely read books about the history of Southeast Asia due to its easily digestible language and thorough explanation of the political and geographical realities of the area. 

The book also illuminates the impact of religion, immigrant groups, and social change in Southeast Asia. The maps and photographs break up the text and contribute to a more thorough understanding. 

15. Europe: A History by Norman Davies

This isn’t the easiest book to read on this list. The length alone is extremely intimidating, and the content is ambitious and detailed. However, if you want a thorough understanding of the history of Europe, this one volume will provide that knowledge. 

The chapters span from prehistory to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and by the end, readers will have expanded their knowledge base significantly.

16. The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst

This quick overview of European civilization includes explanations of Christianity, German warrior culture, various historical figures, and folklore. It is an easily readable and incredibly humorous account that will give readers a general understanding of European history. 

17. The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the  Middle East by Patrick Cockburn

Readers seeking a modern history of the Middle East will be happy with The Age of Jihad, in which Cockburn charts the region’s turmoil and the consequences of the West’s involvement from 2001 to 2016. Cockburn explores the evolution of the wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, as well as the rise of the Islamic State. 

18. Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

This is a quick but thorough introduction to Islam, which will undoubtedly help readers understand the modern Middle East. Armstrong begins with the sixth-century days of Prophet Muhammad and follows the history of Islam to the present, where she discusses the consequences of modernization on the Islamic world.

Recap

Here are the 18 best history books for beginners: 

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  2. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor 
  3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage 
  4. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan 
  5. Women in World History 1450 to Present by Bonnie G. Smith 
  6. Timelines of History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events That Shaped the World by D.K. Publishing 
  7. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond 
  8. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn 
  9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown 
  10. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano 
  11. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America by John Charles Chasteen 
  12. Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader 
  13. Africans: The History of a Continent by John Iliffe 
  14. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History by Milton Osborne
  15. Europe: A History by Norman Davies 
  16. The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst 
  17. The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn 
  18. Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

I hope this article has been helpful!

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out 10 Good Examples of Survival of the Fittest in Nature.

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