Reading History on the Beach: A Few Reasons to Read About the Past This Summer (or Any Other Time)

This time of year, you can’t throw the proverbial stick without hitting someone’s suggested summer reading list. Reading some of them makes me think that these people have a lot more vacation time than I do: the type of person that can use “summer” as a verb. But hey, summer’s not the only time you can pick up a book and I’m always looking for good suggestions. So in the spirit of the season, I’ll offer a list of my own.

But my list is a bit different. I want to suggest a few reasons why to read a particular type of book, namely good history/biography. This is not at all to say that history is the only kind of book to read (I’m a great believer in fiction!). It’s merely to point out some of the value that history can bring to the table. Here are five points in no particular order:

1. Good history is a good story. Good historical writing, whether the subject is big or small, is never a bare collection of dates and facts. It’s a compelling narrative, complete with elements of good story telling: character and plot, dramatic tension and resolution, tragedy and comedy, etc.

2. Good history provides healthy perspective. For example, it’s common for political pundits to bemoan the loss of bipartisanship amongst our nation’s political leaders. This might very well be a legitimate complaint. And yet, from what I’ve read of American political history, I’m not sure the “good old days” of congenial political accord ever existed. Likewise, when I find that Theodore Roosevelt, while president of the United States no less, once prepared for the pain of a leg operation by drinking whiskey, I become more thankful for modern medical advances that I’ve come to take for granted.

3. Good history illustrates the greatness, wretchedness, and complexity of man. Biblically speaking, mankind can be fairly described as a spoiled masterpiece. Skillfully created by a glorious God in his own image, we’re now marred by the effects of our sin. This means we’re capable of both astonishing acts of beauty, goodness, courage, and the like. But we’re also liable to great folly and evil. History yields endless examples of both, very often within the same person.

4. Good history spurs you to identify the blindness of our own age. Building on the two previous points: looking back, one can be astonished at how previous generations were oblivious to terrible prejudices and ignorant of or unwilling to accept important truths. Realizing that our descendents will likely do the same to us should introduce a bit more humility in our own lives and spur us to ask even now what our blind spots might be.

5. Good history defeats the lie that all true knowledge and wisdom is a modern discovery. Yes, our forbearers at times rightly deserve our criticism. But familiarizing ourselves with the past helps us to realize we often stand on the shoulders of giants. We may even find ourselves asking whether some of our “progress” is really a step back.

With that said, I’ll throw in a more traditional list. Here are a few of the better history volumes I’ve read of late, once again in no particular order (I don’t know what this says about me, but my tastes tend toward politics and military conflict—if those topics don’t suit you, you’ll need a different list):
1. Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
2. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
3. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by G. J. Meyer.
4. Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War by Terry Brighton.
5. Grant by Jean Edward Smith.

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