Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My Favorite Historians

Last weekend Claire and I attended a delightful graduation celebration held in honor of our friend and colleague, Andrew Denekas. Before we left, Andrew showed us his library, an impressive collection by any standard, but especially so for such a young man. The library was strong on Reformed theology with plenty of Calvin, Sproul, Schaeffer, Piper, Rushdoony, and so on but there were also Bible study tools, apologetics, commentaries and school books. Again, it was a particularly consequential library given Andrew's youth -- did I mention the party was for his high school graduation?

At any rate, I complimented him on his collection and told him how truly remarkable it was to have someone invite me to view their library...instead of, say, their car or stereo system or collection of Precious Moments figurines. I encouraged him to be sure and make use of it; books are to be read, studied and utilized not merely stacked on shelves. I also jokingly suggested that for balance he should make sure he seasoned his library with a bit of history and dispensational theology.

Well, as devoted a Presbyterian as he is, I don't expect Andrew to be scurrying to pick up dispensational titles anytime soon, but I was honored to get this e-mail note from him a couple of days ago.

I was wondering if you could recommend some of the best books on history that I should read.

Here was my reply:


You raise an interesting question and it's been kinda' fun for me to think about. A key element would be the type of history you're looking for. The fellows interested in, respectively, the history of philosophy or ancient Rome or World War II are, most likely, going to be reading different historians. Thus, my favorite guys will tend to cover the areas of history I'm most interested in.

Another factor is that some of my favorite history books are not written by professional historians at all. A conservative speech writer (Peggy Noonan) wrote my favorite history of the Reagan administration; a soldier wrote my favorite history of the American Civil War (Ulysses Grant, pictured at right); and my favorite histories of the U.S. space program were written by two scientists and a novelist (Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Tom Wolfe).

Another category similar to the above is the autobiography. Those can certainly be classified as history but few are penned by professional historians.

Novelists and playwrights can also serve as excellent chroniclers of history, usu
ally of their own times, but certain writers dip expertly into other eras and write historical fiction that is of immense value. Especially appreciated in this latter category are Dickens, Scott, Tolstoy, Dumas, Hugo, Cooper, Austen, Dostoevsky, Waugh, and the Brontes.

So, if you can keep all of these things in mind, I will mention a few "professional" historians that have made the top rank for my interests and purposes. I'm quite sure I'll leave a couple out, but here's some names I'm thinking of right now (without classifying them as to time or subject): Shelby Foote, Samuel Eliot Morison, Walter Lord, John Toland, David McCullough, Antonia Fraser [shown at left about the time she published her biography of Cromwell], Roland Bainton, Winston Churchill, Paul Johnson, Stephen Ambrose, Bruce Catton, William Prescott, Basil Liddell Hart, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Among these Solzhenitsyn, Foote, Morison and Toland are my favorites.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to talk over than this quick list including YOUR input about topics, people, periods of history you're most interested in. So, why not give me a call or zip along an e-mail telling me what day next week would be best for lunch where we can discuss it further? I'll look forward to it.