“How should I start reading history?” was a question I saw posted on Quora, and I felt compelled to respond. I think many people out there have the same question.
I would suggest one of five approaches, and you should choose one according to which feels MOST INTERESTING to YOU.
Approach One. Start at the beginning. The book I’d suggest to start with is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s a very READABLE book that talks about many developments which took place around the world in prehistoric times, which laid the base for civilizations, and how and why those developments happened. It’s a book which will add greatly to anything you read subsequently. It deals with effects of geography and climate, with early technological developments such as how animals were domesticated and how developments like that spread from one part of the world to another.
Approach Two. Begin reading historical fiction about time periods which interest you. You can learn a lot about history from these novels. Some authors I’d suggest starting with are Mika Waltari (you’d only find him now in a library) who wrote many famous books such as The Egyptian. His books will immerse you in the ancient life of whichever culture you choose.
Mary Renault wrote novels about Ancient Greece and Rome. Ken Follett wrote several excellent books about the Middle Ages. One book I recall from Middle School about American Revolutionary times was Johnny Tremain (still in publication).
Approach Three. Begin reading biographies of admirable people. Sometimes these people are famous and sometimes they aren’t. Speaking as a teacher, there are many interesting biographies written for children and middle school students which aren’t so voluminous in detail, but which do contain the most relevant and interesting details, and it’s a way not to get overwhelmed. Some easy ones to start with are even children’s biographies of such people as John Hancock, Louis Braille, Helen Keller, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Benjamin Franklin. These suggestions apply to Americans, but if you are from another culture, there are many famous and INSPIRATIONAL people whose biographies you could read.
Approach Four. Start with any time period which interests YOU and begin reading nonfiction books. Two books I recently read which I can highly recommend are The Stolen Village by Des Ekin (very readable) and Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood (more detailed but still extremely interesting). If you’re not used to reading history I’d suggest starting with The Stolen Village. Both are about the Barbary Pirates raiding white slaves all over Europe for 400 years.
Approach Five. If you still have no idea where to start, begin by watching some various historical fiction tv series. Here are some I can personally recommend.
Turn—about the lives of people in George Washington’s Revolutionary War spy ring against the British.
Reign—about Mary, Queen of Scots, young adult years being Married to Francis, the young king of France.
Roots Miniseries—the OLD one from the 1980s (about slaves captured in Africa and brought to America and continues through the lives of their descendants).
North and South—1980s Miniseries about Civil War times, which follows intertwining families in both sides.
Watching tv series will give you an idea about time periods you enjoy and wish to pursue more.
The important thing is just to start.