The best history books of the year

Chris Schluep on December 11, 2020

The best history books of the year

For a variety of reasons, this year has been a memorable one. And in many ways, it will stand out in history. But it's also understandable if, for any number of reasons, you would rather pick up a book and read about a different time in history, at least until 2021 rolls around. Below are five of our favorite history books from 2020. Be sure to check out the full list, where you will find Erik Larsen's big hit, as well as the most recent National Book Award winner, which is destined to be a classic. You can see all of our favorites here.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

It has been ten years since Wilkerson’s award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns was published. While that book pointed to the great migration of Black people to the north as an “unrecognized migration,” this new book points to our entire social structure as an unrecognized caste system. Most people see America as racist, and Wilkerson agrees that it is indeed racist. She points out that we tend to refer to slavery as a “sad, dark chapter” in America when in fact it lasted for hundreds of years—but in order to maintain a social order and an “economy whose bottom gear was torture” (as Wilkerson quotes the historian Edward Baptist), it was necessary to give blacks the lowest possible status. Whites in turn got top status. In between came the middle castes of “Asians, Latinos, indigenous people, and immigrants of African descent” to fill out the originally bipolar hierarchy. Such a caste system allowed generations of whites to live under the same assumptions of inequality—these “distorted rules of engagement”—whether their ancestors were slave owners or abolitionists. And the unspoken caste system encouraged all to accept their roles. As Wilkerson develops her argument, she brings in historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Satchel Paige. She even looks at the Nazis, who turned to us when they were seeking ways to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich. As I read this book, I finally had to consciously stop myself from highlighting passages. Because I was highlighting most of the book.

A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper

Amazon's Al Woodworth had this to say: "This is a story about triumphing over adversity, of mentorship and personal investment, of sports and endurance, and of faith—in yourself, in others, and your team. Arshay Cooper was part of the first all-Black high school rowing team, a feat that landed him on the cover of the Chicago Tribune. It would also catapult his life that at one time seemed destined for destruction—'it takes a village to raise a child, and our village is gang members, drug dealers, drug addicts, and prostitutes. It’s easy to become a product of this'—to higher education and the professional world. At first the very thought of a Black rowing crew was laughable to Cooper and his friends: 'you ain’t gonna get black people rowing down the lake like slaves.' But the discipline and commitment of the coaches and the opportunities they promised drew him in. “I am done with my old life. I choose rowing. I choose a future.” And so begins the pursuit of rowing in unison, which would expose Cooper and his teammates to college campuses, different states, internships and jobs. In some ways this is a memoir of underdogs fighting their way to the top, but it’s also about how an entire population is left out of the opportunity loop and how a seemingly small thing like sports can change lives."

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism by Susan Berfield

Bloomberg investigative reporter Susan Berfield’s The Hour of Fate is the story of two American titans moving inexorably toward a collision that would change history. Although they came from similar social strata, Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan held nearly opposite views on society. Morgan, perhaps the richest man in the world, commanded Wall Street and believed that society should be stewarded from the top down. Roosevelt grew into a progressive, becoming President after the assassination of McKinley and eventually taking on the fight against the industrialists. Author Berfield employs a series of alternating chapters to paint rich portraits of the two men before they even meet. By the time we reach 1902, when President Roosevelt’s government sues the Northern Securities railroad trust, which was organized by Morgan to control the railroads, we feel we know both men well. The basis of the suit is the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the moment is complicated by the massive United Mine Workers Strike. It was a moment that might tip either way. Reading The Hour of Fate feels like looking backward and forward at the same time: the Gilded Age comes to life, as do the historical figures and their individual priorities; but the collision of labor and management, of the rich and the working class, is even now still a work in progress. 

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War--a Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans is a deeply-researched history that reads like a character driven novel. At the end of World War II, the United States began turning its attention to the Soviet Union, and the relatively new CIA became integral to the covert effort to confront the Soviets. Much as he did in his epic Lawrence in Arabia, Anderson focuses on the experiences of a handful of men in order to tell the wider story. The result is both intimate and sweeping. Anderson follows four agents whose work was spread across the globe, initially directed at maintaining American ideals, but eventually decaying under the weight of politics, myopia, and overreach. Each of these men bore great costs for the work they did in the CIA. As they were altering the course of world events, the work was altering—sometimes quite severely—the courses of their lives.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee

Amazon's Adrian Liang had this to say: "Paradise, California, is aptly named. Nestled in the gorgeous Sierra Nevada mountains, its residents prized the nature that surrounded them. While Paradise had been threatened by fire before and had an evacuation plan complete with robocalls, the inferno of November 8, 2018—known as the Camp Fire—was unlike anything the town had seen before. The fire surged through chimney-like canyons and leapfrogged over rivers and firebreaks, bearing down on residents just waking. Pulling on eyewitness accounts from firefighters, fleeing citizens, police, and medical personnel, Fire in Paradise does not sensationalize. It doesn’t have to. The first sighting of the fire, the chaotic emptying of the town, a boy swimming across a lake to safety with a cat in a cage on his shoulder, a woman giving birth in the middle of a hospital’s evacuation…all these moments, and more, are extraordinary enough. The humanity and bravery exposed in the middle of unexpected catastrophe shine in this narration, even as tragedy destroys families and 85 people perish in the deadliest wildfire in California history. As wildfire season looms again, Fire in Paradise sounds a warning call we’d do well to heed."

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