5 People Who Should Get a History Book for Christmas

It’s Cyber Monday tomorrow! Time to hit the online stores for book orders. Sure, it’s easy to head for the nonfiction titles when shopping for a history nerd. Giving your dad another book about the Civil War is a slow pitch over home plate if he spends his summers at reenactments and touring battlefields. But, if you’re the shopper targeting a moderately priced gift, and you want a chance to give something unexpected (that isn’t a novelty item!), consider a book for some other folks, too. I can help you with five of them. The links in each case go to a more complete review of a given title.

5. The Artist…Or Not

Among my all-time favorite books, Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell recounts the true story of the “starving artist” who fooled the snottiest experts in art – and Nazis you’ve heard of! – with his forgeries of Old Master artist Vermeer.

Honestly, this book is great fun for someone who finds art museums and galleries dull, too. In fact, if you’ve dragged someone to an art exhibit and watched their eyes glaze over, you might owe them this one.

Runner-up: Edsel and Witter’s Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, which was, I promise, better as a book than as a film.

4. The True Crime Junkie

Oh, where to start? There are some great ones that will get your true crime junkie to turn off the “20/20” reruns.

My personal favorite “true crime” story offers less bloody detail and more creepy, suspenseful mood in a setting less typical than one finds in the cable crime shows: 1930s China, where the daughter of a British judge has been gruesomely murdered. Author Paul French gives us both foreign and Chinese Beijing of that era in his Midnight in Peking. Yes, there’s some history in there, but meant to create a mood and further the story. No textbook-y moments here.

The sickest story is a toss-up between Paul Collins’ The Murder of the Century and Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. Larson’s book disappointed me a bit because the author tried too hard to marry his story of the concurrent Chicago World’s Fair with the story of a mass murderer. However, the “devil” in the title was definitely one sick puppy, if the gross-out is your cup of tea. By contrast, Collins’ book may be a bit too heavy on the history of journalism in New York City to hold a crime junkie’s attention (although the newspaper magnates in this story are fascinating figures).

3. The Foodie

Any foodie will agree that the smells and flavors associated with familiar foods strongly evoke some of our most powerful memories. In her book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya von Bremzen uses foods as metaphors for her childhood experiences of life in the Soviet Union. Yes, there are recipes, too, but they are consolidated in the back to avoid breaking up the narrative.

2. The Science Geek

History and science overlap in some interesting ways, as these books indicate. If your science geek hasn’t already read it, then Sean Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon is a frolic through the periodic table. Even the non-geeky will appreciate many of the tales attached to each element.

Among my all-time favorites, Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red connects the famous names from the high school chemstry book with the high school history book into much more compelling stories than anyone gets in either class (Hint: the chemists you’ve heard of made a lot of discoveries because there was money involved).

Finally, another favorite of mine since starting the History Reading Challenge has a scientific lean: Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent. What I love about this book is that Walker describes researchers from various fields at each of the bases that would host her. She experiences a culture among these scientists and writes about their living and working conditions without drifting so far into the technical that one loses the personal aspects of her story. It’s a little like reading an Omnimax film at the local science center, a great wintertime accompaniment to that blanket and cup of tea.

1. The Know-It-All Teenage Son/Grandson/Nephew

You may have wanted to throw some books at the smart-alec teenage kid, but consider offering one of a few books instead. For example, J. Grigsby Crawford’s The Gringo tells it like it was for one twenty-something Peace Corps volunteer in South America. This story is like a real-life version of Uris’ Ugly American and even has some thematic overlap with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It will only affirm that adults aren’t necessarily as in charge as they want you to think, but it is still a great read.

Image by Ina Hall of Berlin, courtesy Pixabay.com.


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