Top History Book Recommendations for Everyone (Updated 2023)

1. Studying History

History is both fun and enlightening. It is fun because we love to hear other people’s stories, especially those we consider “great”. It is equally enlightening because it provides insights into human psychology and behaviour as individuals and groups.

For those reasons, we, as software professionals, might want to take an active interest in studying history, although probably not to the same extent as other disciplines in human sciences, such as cognitive psychology, organisational theory, or complexity science. This is where the books we will be discussing in the following sections step into the light.

2. What Can History Teach Software Developers?

The question of “What Can History Teach Software Developers?” is a legitimate one, especially when the central theme of this website is software development and operational excellence.

History provides ample material on interesting phenomena that occur in a variety of human systems (nations, communities, organisations, teams). Studying history with a specific emphasis on these phenomena might allow us to uncover recurring behavioural patterns (see strange attractors in Complexity in Natural and Human Systems — Why and When We Should Care) in human systems so that we can act in them.

More crucially, history will show us that:

  • The human element always introduces complexity in the form of uncertainty and unpredictability. History never fails to surprise us.
  • Reconstructing historical events is exceptionally tricky because people remember the same past differently and because of the fragmented nature of available information.
  • Similar interventions can have disparate effects in different contexts. For this reason, among others, history doesn’t repeat itself.
  • A common denominator exists in the structure and behaviour of all human systems, regardless of their size and nature. This common denominator includes hierarchy, power distribution, collaboration, survival, adaptation, and change.

All these phenomena more or less manifest themselves in organisations and teams and are, therefore, worthy of software professionals’ attention.

3. What Selection Criteria Were Applied to Construct the List?

In the below list, I have chosen a few history books which have left a mark on me. These books share the following characteristics:

  • They are written by master storytellers, gifted narrators who can breathe life into characters and events long gone.
  • They explore various sociological and cultural themes and avoid focusing too narrowly on the political or military narratives.
  • They show how unique circumstances (in addition to talent and skills, not just these two) determine how the histories unfold.

The second and third points are crucial for students of organisational theory as understanding human systems and their evolution requires a holistic approach based on systems thinking rather than a reductionist one, an approach that puts individual and group psychology, culture (religion, narratives, traditions), and natural phenomena (geography, famines, pandemics) on an equal footing with planning and management (politics and military activities).

3. Top History Books in 2023

In no particular order, the top history books we recommend are as follows, with a mini-review of each. We will continue to update the list, adding more

Early Japan

By Jonathan Norton Leonard, 1969

This short but thoroughly engaging book discusses the medieval history of Japan, steering away from the classical, exclusively samurai-focused narrative that others take.

Themes: warriors and art, samurai and monks, the imperial system, the structure of Japanese medieval society, Japanese relationship with China and the rest of the world.

Germany — Memories of a Nation

By Neil MacGregor, 2014

This brilliant, bold, and remarkable account of Germany’s history (or histories) examines the diverse culture, political organisations, and religious influences that Germany’s unique history produced during the late Middle Ages and until modern times.

Themes: German language, art, literature, architecture, engineering. The Reformation, Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic wars, and Germany’s relationship with France and the rest of Europe. Germany’s contribution to technology, science, and philosophy.

Les Croisades Vues par les Arabes –La Barbarie Franques en Terre Sainte

By Amin Maalouf, 1983
The world-renowned author recounts the story of the crusades from Arab eyes.

Themes: crusades, Arab and European medieval world, Saladin.

Ghost Empire

By Richard Fidler, 2016
A brilliant narrative of Constantinople through the eyes of its emperors, people, and neighbours. Fidler transports his readers centuries back in time to relive the struggle of Byzantium and its ultimate demise.

Themes: Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, Constantinople.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments or if you have any book suggestions worth discovering.

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