History Book Recommendations

I usually alternate reading fiction and non-fiction. I have quite a few fiction books in the pipeline since I don’t care much about its standards if it’s interesting reading. However, I need to replenish the non-fiction books I plan to read this year. My current theme is history.

  1. Something about the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. I have read quite a lot of books on Indo-Pak history all of which focus on the politics of independence and partition. What I am looking for is a book that details the human cost of partition: the riots, massacres and the migration. May be something along the line of Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.
  2. A good book about modern Japanese history. By modern, I mean 19th century and later.
  3. Books about slavery. I am interested in all aspects of it. Experiences of slaves, details about the slave trade, the politics of slavery in the Americas, Europe or the Middle East. Here are a few books I found while searching. Any comments about them will be appreciated. Also feel free to suggest other books.
  4. Some good books about African history: from precolonial times to the present. I know this is a really ambiguous. But I don’t know anything about sub-saharan Africa. I am looking for somewhat scholarly but not extremely dry books and not some pop-history. It’s not necessary that one book cover the whole continent; a history of one region would be fine as well. I found a couple of books from Tacitus:

I don’t like short history books written with some dimwitted ignoramus with a short attention span in mind. Details are good. Length is not a problem. However, the book has to be a somewhat interesting read and be accessible to a layman like me.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. On Slavery:

    1) Paul Lovejoy, “Transformations in slavery : a history of slavery in Africa” —- is probably one of the best overall introductions to the subject. Most undergrads have it as a set text on African history courses, I read it some time ago and I found it a great overview of the different aspects of the phenomenon, if a lit bit too general.

    2) Patrick Manning “Slavery and African life : occidental, oriental and African slave trades”. Manning, is a bit to PC for my tastes and he got into some controversy for some of his figures on the mortality rates amongst transported populations, but he is a favourite with many.

    3) Suzanne Miers “Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa”. Good read and expostion of the interconnections between the two social phenomena.

    4) Robert Harms “River of wealth, river of sorrow : the central Zaire basin in the era of the slave and ivory trade, 1500-1891” Brilliant book, can?t recommend it enough. Very specific in its selction of area but a masterly overview of the society in question backed up with in-depth fieldwork and theory. Heavily infleunced my own thinking.

    On African history:

    Bit difficult at the general level, as most of the best work I know has been done on a more subject and country specific level

    1) John Illife’s “Africans: the history of a Continent” is probably the single best introduction and an easy read.

    2) William Beinart: “Twentieth century South Africa” Good comprehensive look at the subject combining economic and social aspects with the more familiar political narratives.

    3)Wunyabari Maloba “Mau Mau and Kenya : an analysis of a peasant revolt”. Great survey and dispassionate look at one of the most contentious rebellions in the continent.

  2. Ehud R. Toledano is the historian to read on Ottoman slavery, which is a fascinating subject. His cv: http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/faculty/toledano.htm

    Don’t laugh, but I think the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an amazing book. Not as a novel, but as a document of the time. It blazes with indignation against the institution of slavery; let’s not forget that most people then just thought it was the way of the world. James Baldwin read UTC frequently and thought it great literature.

  3. On African history, clearly the best thing to read is The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life, in which the African history for the 17th and 18th centuries was written by yours truly. Starting in March 2004, it can be yours for the low, low price of just $599.95.

    On a more serious note, UNESCO did a General History of Africa which you can find at any good bookstore in these abridged versions. There are also two usable general textbook-style surveys, here and another just called African History with several co-authors which I can’t find at the moment. Like Conrad, however, I think the best stuff is all contry or issue-specific…the place is just too diverse to cover comprehensively, and even most of these books will treat everything regionally until the colonial period.

  4. Thanks, razib, zackq, Conrad, Diana, Brian and KO. Now, I have to see if any of these are available in the library at my school. Not many would be since I go to a stupid engineering focussed one. So I’ll have to decide which ones I want to buy. (Yes, I spend a lot of money on books!) All these books seem pretty good right now.

    zackq, KO: “Freedom at Midnight” seems familiar. I think I might have read it in an earlier life (like in the 1980s). If I recall correctly, it covers the massacres and migrations in a chapter or so. I am looking for more detail. I’ll check the book at the library.

    Conrad, Brian: I know African history is too broad a category, but right now I don’t know a lot about Africa. (There are exceptions: I lived in Libya as a kid, long before Qaddafi became a pariah, and am generally familiar with North African history. Somehow, I have also been exposed to some South African history and spent Christmas in Pretoria/Johannesberg 7 years ago.) Without some general outline of the rest of the continent, I am not sure which specific countries/regions I want to know more about.

    Diana: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is good, I agree. I read it a long time ago. Should read it again one of these days. That reminds I should burn a DVD of Project Gutenberg books.

    Brian: I might buy your encyclopedia when I strike it rich. I am an encyclopedia-buying kinda guy.

  5. Try the Strand bookstore first. I think they are even computerized now.

    You know, maybe you found your life’s work. You should write that good popular history of Africa. A complex, but doable task.

  6. Zack

    On african history, make sure you pick up any book by Cheikh Anta Diop. Controversial but an interesting viewpoint nonetheless.

  7. Zack,

    I should have added Basil Davidson’s “Africa: A History” and his other general works on African history as a good way to enter the subject. Though some of his work is dated by now, his influence on many modern African historians and path-breaking approaches are still well worth reading. If you are interested in South Africa an excellent book is Charles Van Onselen’s “The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper” which tells the story of both an individual living under various forms of White rule and also the development of modern South African society, at the same time. Great read. On slavery you might also like to look at ML Bush’s “Servitude in Modern Times” it is a very good survey that brings up to date analysis of different forms of slavery from the Ancient period, through to European serfdom, Arabic and Ottoman slavery and the New World Plantation system in a very succinct comparative context. Lastly, I should not have forgotten to mention Robin Blackburn’s great work on the abolition of slavery in the New World, essential reading, if slightly evangelistic in its intentions.

    May be something along the line of Benny Morris? The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.

    I don’t think you will find such a work, because the problems in the 1947 partition are somewhat different, basically apportioning blame for the rioting and migrations isn’t a matter of contention; there is no doubt as to the mechanics and the dispersion of culpability here; the Palestinian case, is somewhat different given the insistence of one side to evade any responsibility. The controversy in the Indo-Pak case lies not in the creation of refugees or displacement of populations but in the politics leading up to the decision, the best general account is Patrick French’s “Liberty or Death”, Uniquely for most Western scholars, White is sympathetic to the Pakistani position but remains largely quite objective in my opinion.

    As far as the human costs go, a very illuminating book is Urvashi Butalia’s “the Other Side of Silence” a very sobering collection of transcribed oral narratives of the Partition from several different viewpoints, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, taking into account also differing non-communal perspectives such as that of Dalits, nomadic communities, children and women. Meshed in with the author’s own search for her ancestral home and relatives left on the other side of the border and the pains of reconciliation and finding them, comparisons with the Palestinian refugee experience are salient. The most disturbing chapter is by far that on ‘recovering abducted women’ whereby both states went through a process of ‘recovering’ women who had been taken/lost and had become integrated into the opposing community’s social system; it will shatter any illusions left as to the highly instrumental and indifferent nature of the state towards any respect for individual dignity or human rights.

  8. History of the Indian Subcontinent

    I’ve read many, many books on the history of the Indian subcontinent by now. In school, every year we had a mandatory subject called Pakistan Studies in which we went through the history of the subcontinent in its gory details….

  9. Diana:

    Strand bookstore

    That’s a NYC store, right? I’ll check it out. For now, I have found some of the books in my school library. So I am going to read those first.

    You know, maybe you found your life’s work. You should write that good popular history of Africa. A complex, but doable task.

    I think I am going to stick to computer vision.

    Libre: Cheikh Anta Diop

    Reading the reviews of his books on Amazon, he seems very controversial.

    Conrad: Thanks for the additional recommendations.

    About Indian partition book, you are right. The comparison with Benny Morris’s book is not quite right. What I meant was a book that goes in lots of detail into the migrations, riots, massacres and abductions. While presenting the human story from the perspective of different communities and regions, I would also like some analysis of local and national (emphasis on local) conditions that led to that catastrophe.

  10. What I meant was a book that goes in lots of detail into the migrations, riots, massacres and abductions. While presenting the human story from the perspective of different communities and regions, I would also like some analysis of local and national (emphasis on local) conditions that led to that catastrophe.

    I suppose one of the main reasons one hasn’t emerged from eht Indian perspective is because in so many ways this problem is seen less as part of the ‘there and then’ and more of the here and now and not as history so much as current politics. The prism of Indo-Pak relations from the domestic angle at a popular level is doomed I fear, for some time to be confined to be seen through Indian Hindu-Muslim lenses. Hence most of the work like that of Amrita Basu or Paul Brass, concentrates mostly on the production of contemporary Hindu-Muslim violence. I have come across some collections along the lines of what you have described but they have not been of a high quality, partial exceptions include Suvir Kaul’s (ed.) “Partitions of Memory” and Ahmad Salim’s “Lahore 1947” the latter containing some recounts from well-known political figures, but I have found them interesting but well below my expectations. The ICHR was meant to be undertaking a mammoth survey of the local, regional and personal narratives set in context with the macro-political framework and have published something lengthy volumes but problems have emerged about the methodology and scholarship used. Most personal accounts still tend to be that of either the departing colonial administrator or nascent nationalist civil servant —- two good if by now archaic ones usually cited in the literature include: Penderel Moon’s “Divide and Quit” and GD Khosla’s “Stern Reckoning”.

  11. Diana: Checking online, they seem to be on Broadway & 12th.

    Conrad: Thanks. How do you remember so much book info? Seems amazing.

  12. Liberty or Death

    Liberty or Death by Patrick French is one of the few books on Indian independence that is not anti-Jinnah. Its portrayal of Jinnah and Mountbatten is realistic. I recommend it to anyone interested in the partition of India and Pakistan.

Comments are closed.