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7 Books to Read if You're a History Student

By Chloe Lane

Updated April 8, 2021 Updated April 8, 2021

Are you a history student, or someone who just finds the past more interesting to read about than the present? If you’re looking for some great books to read, then you’ve come to the right place. Whatever era of history you’re interested in, from Nazi Germany to Ancient Rome, to the entire 70,000 year history of human existence, there should definitely be something to suit everyone here.

Read on for seven of the best history books to read if you’re a history student. (Warning: non-history students may want to steal these off you when you’re done!)

1.Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Noah Yuval Harari

Many of your history modules may cover only a specific period of history; an individual event that happened, or a certain period of time. Sapiens definitely does not do this. Spanning the entirety of human history, from the first humans to walk the earth to scientific, cognitive and agricultural breakthroughs, revolutions, religion and wars, Harari, an Israeli historian, manages to cover the last 70,000 years of human existence into less than 500 pages. With an insightful and clear voice, Harari offers a thought-provoking insight into some of the biggest breakthroughs in human history, and explains how it came to be that humans dominated the earth. Thought provoking and entrancing, you will not be able to put this book down. Recommended for all homo sapiens, history students or otherwise.

2. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a novel based on the incredible true story of Lale Sokolov, who is sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and is put to work as Tätowierer – the tattooist to mark his fellow prisoners with numbers on their arms. One day, when Lale tattoos new prisoner, Gita, he resolves to survive the concentration camp and marry her one day. The novel is based on years of interviews that the author, Heather Morris, conducted with Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov about his time in the concentration camp. In an interview with the Guardian last year, Morris explained that “ninety-five per cent of it is as it happened; researched and confirmed,” and “what has been fictionalized is where I’ve put Lale and Gita into events where really they weren’t.” The novel gives an excellent insight into the devastating and hard life inside a concentration camp as well as telling the shocking and heartwarming love story of Gita and Lale.

3. 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak
24 Hours in Ancient Rome

Whether or not you’ve studied Roman history, this is one book about Ancient Rome you don’t want to miss out on! Step into the shoes of those who lived in ancient Rome, as each hour of the day transports you into the world of another person who lived and worked there; 24 hours, 24 different perspectives of Ancient Rome. From the emperor to the slave girl, the medicine woman to the astrologer, the gladiator to the baker, you can find out about the details of each character’s day to day lives. 24 Hours in Ancient Rome is one of the best history books for showing how everyday Ancient Roman society operated and gives an interesting cross section into the societal hierarchy in Ancient Rome, whilst also being an entertaining and accessible read for history and non-history students alike.

4. Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire; the Inside Story of Europe’s Last War by Tim Marshall
Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire

At the time of writing this book, Tim Marshall was a diplomatic editor at Sky News and on the ground covering the Kosovo War. A personal, journalistic account of the Kosovo War, Tim Marshall’s Shadowplay gives a fascinating firsthand account of the Kosovo War and how the events unfolded, using his own experiences, eyewitness accounts and interviews with intelligence officials, reporting from one of the main targets of NATO bombing raids in Belgrade. 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Kosovo war, so those who would like to learn more about modern history would really benefit from reading this.

5. Summer of Blood: The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 by Dan Jones
Summer of Blood: The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381

For those with an interest in the Middle Ages, Dan Jones’ novel, Summer of Blood, explores village life and the failings of government from the perspective of the peasants. Capturing the feeling of unrest felt by the upper and lower classes, Jones explains the causes and difficulties of the peasant’s revolt and goes into the detail of this, carefully treading the line between factual reporting and novelization. As one review of the book accurately describes; Jones takes the potentially unexciting facts and figures of the event and weaves a fantastic story into them. If you like this book, you may want to check out some of Dan Jones’ other great books on historical literature; Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty, Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors and Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England.

6. The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham
The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912

In The Scramble For Africa, Thomas Pakenham, a Anglo-Irish historian and arborist (and also the 8th Earl of Longford) describes the European division and conquest of African territory by five rival nations; the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain which occurred from 1876 to 1912. Pakenham covers the proposed and actual motivations behind the colonization; religion, politics, racism, competition and greed. This is one of the best history books for history students interested in Africa and the New Imperialism period.  Although this is quite a lengthy novel, with around 700 pages, Packenham goes into great depth in order to maintain factual accuracy and despite its length, the book remains and interesting and eye-opening read.

7. Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II by Ben Macintyre
The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912

Using private documents, photographs, memories, letters, diaries and newly released material from the intelligence files of MI5 and Naval Intelligence, Ben Macintyre tells the full story of Operation Mincemeat, one of the boldest and successful deceptions of the Second World War. The true story features a wide range of fascinating but unlikely characters and is based around the life of a made up man who never existed, a dead homeless Welsh man found floating in the sea, who became the fictitious Captain William Martin, and whose invented life sent German troops in the wrong direction and saved thousands of lives, changing the course of World War II. This book is a thrilling and gripping read for anyone interested in World War II history, or spy books.

Image credit: goodreads.com

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This article was originally published in September 2019 . It was last updated in April 2021

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As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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