LIFE

Let These 10 Esteemed History Books Explain 2017 To You

"History is part of the toolbox of democracy."

29/09/2017 3:00 AM AEST | Updated 29/09/2017 3:28 AM AEST
Cundill History Prize

Non-fiction book lovers have a slew of new tomes to add to their wish lists after the longlist for the Cundill History Prize, which carries with it a hefty US$75,000 reward, was announced this week.

The McGill University-based prize is in its 10th year, and according to jury chair Margaret MacMillan, is more relevant than ever.

We live in a challenging world and it is more important than ever to understand ourselves and others.Margaret MacMillan

"History — good, readable, evidence-based history — is part of the toolbox of democracy. We live in a challenging world and it is more important than ever to understand ourselves and others, where we came from and where we might be going, and only history can provide those insights."

In short, if looking at the daily headlines feels all too real, these books can help you gain perspective and remind you that the world has come through many difficult times.

Take a look at the 10 books on the Cundill prize longlist, and stay tuned for the winner to be announced on Nov. 16, 2017.

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars by Daniel Beer

Penguin Random House

Country: U.K.

The blurb: "A new history of how the 19th century Tsars turned Siberia into a vast, brutal prison-camp."

What it can teach us: For those who don't know about this chapter in Russia's history, the book reveals an ugly past of imprisonment under horrifying conditions. But more relevantly to 2017, as Donald Rayfield in the Guardian points out, it also depicts how that country's penal system leans toward detaining its citizens for various reasons, with today's Russian prison population far exceeding that of the time depicted.

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue

W.W. Norton & Company

Country: U.S.A.

The blurb: "A revelatory and game-changing narrative that rewrites everything we thought we knew about the modern history of the Islamic world."

What it can teach us: There's no question that discussions about Islam have increased over the last decade, but there's still a massive amount of ignorance and obtuseness when it comes to this religion. This book not only breaks down those inaccurate depictions, but also shines a light on how religion and modern ideals can co-exist.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel

Indigo

Country: U.K.

The blurb: "Part travel book, part detective story, part conversation with the reader, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts conveys the fascination and excitement of encountering some of the greatest works of art in our culture which, in the originals, are to most people completely inaccessible.

What it can teach us: So much of our information comes from other sources these days, whether it's social media, gossip or otherwise. This book goes back to source material in a truly ingenious way, partially creating a story out of these works themselves, while also allowing readers to access the original documents.

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald

Simon and Schuster

Country: U.S.A.

The blurb: "[The] crucial story of how the Christian evangelical movement has come to play such an influential role in our national culture and politics, from the eighteenth century to the 2016 election."

What it can teach us: Very simply, religion matters, and it might matter more in America than anywhere else. This narrative charts evangelicals' place in U.S. politics, and raises the possibility of a bipartisan future where they aren't tied to a party, but instead, working with liberals for social justice.

Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha

Amazon.ca

Country: Canada

The blurb: "The country's extraordinary diversity is the legacy of centuries of imperial collisions and ever-shifting political configurations. A major achievement, Vietnam offers the grand narrative of the country's complex past and the creation of the modern state of Vietnam."

What it can teach us: As armed forces continue to be deployed to countries like Afghanistan, it's worthwhile to look at nations that have been occupied in the past. Like so many nations, Vietnam has had to work with its own culture, as well as those of its colonizers and find its own footing.

Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary by Joe Jackson

Indigo

Country: U.S.A.

The blurb: "Jackson has crafted a true American epic, restoring to its subject the richness of his times and gorgeously portraying a life of heroism and tragedy, adaptation and endurance, in an era of permanent crisis on the Great Plains."

What it can teach us: The lives of Indigenous North Americans provide the very basis for life on this continent, and zeroing in on one man who saw so many of the changes in the American West come to pass brings this home in great detail. It also highlights just how many of the issues encountered by their ancestors continue to afflict Indigenous people today.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper

Penguin Random House

Country: U.K.

The blurb: "Reveals the often contradictory psychological forces that drove Luther forward and the dynamics they unleashed, which turned a small act of protest into a battle against the power of the Church."

What it can teach us: Every earth-shattering idea starts with a person, and at a time when larger-than-life personalities dominate headlines and airwaves, it's worthwhile to remember that even those who seem so sure of themselves are conflicted and challenged.

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel

Amazon.ca

Country: U.S.A.

The blurb: "Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully."

What it can teach us: Based on social media, it would be easy to think that inequality is at an all-time high — and this book would concur. As it notes, "Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return." But it also demonstrates why that's the case, instead of merely bemoaning its existence.

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 by S. A. Smith

Amazon

Country: U.K.

The blurb: "[Historian] Steve Smith presents a panoramic account of the history of the Russian empire, from the last years of the nineteenth century, through the First World War and the revolutions of 1917 and the establishment of the Bolshevik regime, to the end of the 1920s, when Stalin simultaneously unleashed violent collectivization of agriculture and crash industrialization upon Russian society."

What it can teach us: Straight talk: Russia is important right now, whether it's because of the U.S. election or simply because it continues to be a growing world power. Either way, it's a good idea to know about its historic roots, ideals and philosophies.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy by Heather Thompson

Amazon.ca

Country: U.S.A.

The blurb: "Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice."

What it can teach us: "History is written by the victors" goes the popular expression, but fortunately, that doesn't have to be the case anymore. When it comes to tales of Attica, so much of the prison uprising was reported from the staff's point of view, but this book reminds us how many sides there are to each story.

Also on HuffPost:

Audiobooks By Canadian Authors

More On This Topic