What’s the Best History Book Ever?

By September 3, 2010

My vote for best historical work ever is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. I first read chunks of the book as an undergrad and have used it as a reference up till now, all the while becoming more convinced that it was worthy of this title. Recently I made sure to get the whole thing read and am now more convinced than ever and wanted to put a post. Thomas’s book became the starting point for an extensive array of subjects and Thomas was highly innovative in the types of sources he used. I had long been impressed with the massive amounts of information that Thomas had gone through but on this reading I’m particularly impressed with the depth of Thomas’s analysis. What’s most impressive about the book is that it was published when Thomas was only 38. Sir Keith Thomas certainly deserved his knighting.

Thus 40 year later, Religion and the Decline of Magic is still highly relevant, forming the groundwork for an abundance of scholarship including studies of Mormon folk practices (Richard Bushman once told me that he had been troubled by JS’s activities until he read Thomas and decided it was pretty normal).

So I tend to view any critiques of Thomas as off base. People tend to ding him for his second sentence “Astrology, witchcraft, ancient prophecies, ghosts, and fairies, are now rightly disdained by intelligent persons” (ix). Historians aren’t supposed to say such things nowadays. But I take this as a kind of apology for his fascination with the topic. Thomas concludes the book with the following, ?What is certain about the various beliefs discussed in this book is that today they have either disappeared or at least greatly decayed in prestige. This is why they are easier to isolate and to analyze. But it does not mean that they are intrinsically less worthy of respect than some of those which we ourselves continue to hold? (668).

That said, my one critique is that it ultimately supports there being an ontological difference between religion and magic. Thomas admits that the categories can be murky but ultimately uphold the categories. Yet since that is still a commonly held attitude (I think I’ll put up a post on that pretty soon), Thomas gets a pass. It is the best history book every written after all.

So what would your pick for best history book ever, Mormon or otherwise? [And tell us why.]

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. I thought Schmidt, Hearing Things was wonderful. I like Thomas as well.

    Comment by smb — September 3, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  2. Is this open to any book on history? Because I highly recommend Klondike Fever. Fantastic book.

    Comment by Dan — September 3, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  3. That’s an almost impossible task – and you have picked an excellent book that would be on my shortlist.

    But I’ll have to go old, old school – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede.

    Comment by Dallas Robbins — September 3, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

  4. Some that come to mind:

    Jacob Burckhardt – The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

    Johan Huizinga – The Waning of the Middle Ages

    C.V. Wedgwood – The Thirty Years War

    Edward Gibbon – Decline and Fall…

    Comment by Bill — September 3, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  5. I am rather partial to the Prescott histories about the conquest of Mexico and Peru. Hard to choose one of them. They’re amazing examples of how history can be written.

    Comment by Researcher — September 3, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

  6. I might be fun to give a sentence or two of justification to make the conversation more interesting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 3, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  7. Almost anything by David Hackett Fischer. Albion’s Seed is extraordinary–whether he succeeds in proving his thesis, the audacity of it all is remarkable, the scope huge and the research exhaustive.

    His Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing and Champlain’s Gift are all terrific additions to the canon, too.

    James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is the best one-volume history of the Civil War.

    Allen Overy has done some seminal work on World War II, including Why the Allies Won. That and his recent social history of the interwar era in England, The Twilight Years, are important contributions.

    But choosing the best is impossible. If forced to, I’d choose Fischer. Exhaustive research, extraordinary imagination, eminently readable.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 3, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  8. Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. The man knows how to write. (He began as a novelist.)

    Comment by Brandon — September 3, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  9. My all time favorite and nomination for best history book ever is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s, A Midwife’s Tale. I think it represents a perfect fusion of brilliant historical inquiry and analysis with even better writing. In my mind there isn’t a better example of what historians should do.

    If I were to choose another book, I would probably nominate David Blight’s Race and Reunion, which although it has its flaws, opens up a completely new way of understanding the importance of the Civil War in American History. He also completely demonstrates the importance of taking the fickle nature of memory into account as we write history. It is also quite readable.Which is rare for a book that is so analytical.

    Comment by Joel — September 3, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  10. I have to question Gibbon upon the basis that his writing style is awful eventhough his analysis might be insightful and his work voluminous.

    Comment by Aaron R. — September 4, 2010 @ 4:09 am

  11. I’d like to second Joel’s vote for Race and Reunion. It’s fantastic, combining sophisticated argument regarding the ways that white Northerners and Southerners reconciled after the Civil War, at the cost of denying blacks civil rights. The book deserved the Bancroft it received.

    Comment by David G. — September 4, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  12. I’ll second Mark B. on anything by Fischer. Albion’s Seed is a fascinating read, as are his other books.

    I am all for correct footnoting and attribution and use of documents and sources, but if a history is as dull as dishwater, not many people will want to read it. The narrative structure should be as important to a good history as the facts. And that’s why I like Prescott.

    Comment by Researcher — September 4, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  13. My favorite history books of all time are a tie.

    The first book is The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff, by Vicki Jo Anderson. It may the worst edited writing I have ever seen, and some of the worst research (some of it is just plain wrong). However, it opened my eyes to those men who appeared to Pres. Woodruff in the St. George Temple in 1877; as well as other witnesses who also saw the vision and participated in the temple work. Along with the Founding Fathers, these men came from America, Europe and Mexico, and lived during the Enlightenment, Romantic and Victorian eras. It’s not so much the book that was so important to me, as it is a reference point to so many other wonderful biographies. I was especially drawn to Romantic poets Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Wordsworth, and Goethe. I did my senior paper on Lord Byron.

    The other tie is Eph Hanks, Pioneer Scout, by Richard K. Hanks. For sheer entertainment value this biography has no peer for me. Did you enjoy Parley P. Pratt’s autobiography, or George Q. Cannon’s and Woodruff’s autobiographies? Or for that matter, for historical romance did you enjoy Dantes’ escape in The Count of Monte Cristo? This is simply more interesting than even those for me. He was a scout and mountaineer, sailor, fisherman, and a healer and prophet (he prophesied). This book, as far as I know, is found only as a Master’s Thesis at BYU library by Richard K. Hanks; but there is a 1990 publication by Ivan Barrett I have not yet read. I have thoroughly enjoyed other LDS history books like Rough Stone Rolling, Joseph Smith’s Kirtland, Mormon Enigma and They Knew the Prophet, but I like this the best.

    Comment by cadams — September 4, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

  14. I have not a book, but a set: “The Story Of Civilization”, ( Will Durant). What a life’s work!
    #8: Did you know it took Foote 20 years to write those books, and he use only a ‘dip pen’ (three words per dip)?

    Comment by Bob — September 5, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  15. I’ve hesitated on commenting all weekend as I’ve tried to resolve in my mind which history book I consider to be the “best.” And I still remain unsure (though LTU’s A Midwife’s Tale may indeed be what I ultimately conclude). Part of this, I suppose, depends on how we each define “best.” Is it the book I most enjoyed? That which has most fundamentally shaped my own approach to historical research and writing? A book with the most significant impact on the field? The best-written book? All of the above? I’ll give it some more thought and try and come up with a more solid answer, but put me down tentatively for A Midwife’s Tale for now.

    Joel and David, I agree that Blight’s Race and Reunion is a fantastic book, but I find it curious that on a blog devoted to the history of (a) religion, a book that so blatantly ignores/downplays the crucial role of religion in post-Civil War reconciliation and memory is being hyped as the best history book ever written. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — September 5, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  16. Like Chris, I have actually been wrestling with this for a few days. This is like trying to decide which of my children I love most. For the sake of the thread, I have chosen Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith. Early in my graduate school career, this book had a profound impact on my own self-perception as a developing (even embryonic) historian of religion. I recognized myself, or, rather, what I wanted my scholarly self to be,in Butler’s audacity and aggressiveness. His work provided a model for me to follow that eventually led to finding my own authentic scholarly voice.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 5, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  17. Hmm, I didn’t realize that when Steve asked the question that he really meant “only books that deal with religion” or that because we normally discuss a religion here that we therefore could only nominate books that have a religious component. Good to know.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

  18. Christopher,

    Touche. I think that your criticism of Race and Reunion‘s treatment of the role of religion is absolutely valid. I think a similar critique could be proffered about most academicaly written book on the Civil War. Nevertheless, I wanted to share why I still would defend the book by sharing the reasons why I like it. First, the book is methodologically brilliant in the way it innovatively reads monuments, genres of writing, rhetoric, and organizations to unpack the ways that the memory of the Civil War changed over time and what that meant for the Nation. It also provides the most convincing thesis, in my opinion, for postwar North/South reconciliation. I have my own critiques. For example, it does not make a sufficient attempt to delve into the voices of African Americans besides Frederick Douglass. But it is the best book written using the methodology of memory studies. Blight’s prose is also infinitely readable, both for historians and the general public. His argument that the mutual re-commitment to white supremacy in both the North and the South led to reconciliation in years following the war has yet to be overturned.

    On the other hand, I still believe Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale to be the superior book primarily because I would give my left arm to write a book half as innovative, insightful, moving, and beautiful. It has taken my breath away from the very first time that I read it. I am baffled that I could learn so much about early America, Women’s history, and writing in a book drawn from a nearly incomprehensible diary from a part-time midwife in Pre-Revolutionary Maine.

    I wanted to also concur that Butler’s book is brilliant. I am going to check out Steve’s recommendation of Thomas’s book. As for some of the other suggestions, I think that Prescott and Foote were incredible story-tellers, but what separates these books from the three mentioned above is a lack of analysis, contextualization, and sometimes even accuracy.

    Comment by Joel — September 6, 2010 @ 1:01 am

  19. I was mostly kidding, David, though we’ve (rightly, IMO) criticized other award-winning books on this blog before for their lack of attention to religion (see what appears to be a general preference among bloggers here at JI for Howe’s What Hath God Wrought over Sean Willentz’s The Rise of American Democracy largely on the grounds that Willentz’s narrative downplays the central role of religion in the early American republic and antebellum eras whereas Howe is closely attuned to both the shifting dynamics of religion in the era and their role in shaping the larger society). Because I believe religion was indeed central to the white supremacist and reconciliationist visions triumphing over the emancipationist vision in the half century following the Civil War, and because Blight altogether downplays that crucial factor, I find it difficult to label his book the “best.” This takes us back, though, to how we each define “best.” For myself, Blight’s omission of religion is enough for me to not grant it the title of “best history book ever,” despite all of the well-deserved praise Joel accurately points out—it’s general brilliance, methodological insight, convincing thesis, and readable and engaging prose (it is among the best written scholarly books I’ve ever read, to be sure). You and Joel could (or did) certainly each make the case of why Blight is at or near the top of your respective lists. I was merely pointing out the reasons why it was not at the top of mine.

    Joel, I don’t disagree at all with Blight’s thesis—he is right on the mark. I merely disagree with the details of how the United States got from the positive potential for racial harmony of the years immediately following the war’s end to the segregated society of the Jim Crow era and beyond. Blight’s book should be read alongside Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic, which arrives at essentially the same conclusions as Blight, but grants religion the place it rightly deserves in the story of post-Civil War America and closely analyzes (the sometimes conflicting) African American voices during the period. I concur completely on your praise for A Midwife’s Tale. Part of the reason I’ve tentatively labeled it the best on my list is because, in addition to the many reasons you list, I can’t think of a major quibble/critique I have of it like I can with Blight’s otherwise excellent book.

    Taysom, Butler is nothing if not provocative, huh? Awash in a Sea of Faith intimidates me in a way few other books do, because of its “aggressiveness” in asserting its thesis—a thesis that did nothing less than attempt to overturn the standard narrative of American religious history.

    Comment by Christopher — September 6, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  20. With regard to Mormon History, I nominate:

    1. Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner

    2. The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship by David John Buerger

    3. Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
    4. No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie

    All essential reads for LDS historians

    Comment by JP — September 6, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  21. I was gonna go with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but volume 5 of the Work and the Glory might have it beat.

    Comment by BHodges — September 7, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

  22. It is really difficult to answer this type of question since the “best” and “my favorite” are not the same thing. I actually know little religious history (my favorite was Arrington’s intellectual biography). My favorite history books are by Richard Hofstadter. While they are not the greatest reads, his Social Darwinism, the American Political Tradition, and his book on American Intellectualism are as relevant to American thought today as they were when written decades ago.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 7, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

  23. Chris – thanks for mentioning Hofstadter, who usually comes in near the top of these sorts of lists. It’s funny – most scholars I know think that Hofstadter is a great writer, but he’s such an icon now that young political historians try to make their names taking him down. His arguments about the (unfortunate, to him) dominance of the liberal tradition (and the pathological nature of other traditions) in America don’t satisfy a lot of people anymore, but that his fifty year old books are still read and discussed is surely to his credit.

    Comment by matt b. — September 8, 2010 @ 12:07 am

  24. I am not sure how they rate as good history, but they are still insightful as analysis of American political ideology.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 8, 2010 @ 12:44 am

  25. Chris, check out this article: “The Originality Trap: Richard Hofstadter on Populism,” Journal of American History (1989. Available on jstor here

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 8, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  26. Taysom:

    Thanks for the link (love JSTOR, keeps me from ever going tot he Library).

    Age of Reform is one of his works that I am least familiar with, though I tend to agree with his approach to Populism…particularly his treatment of William Jennings Bryan in American Political Tradition.

    What are your thoughts on Hofstadter?

    Comment by Chris H. — September 8, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  27. One of my favorite history books is actually a book about Richard Hofstadter. David Brown’s Richard Hofstadter’s An Intellectual Biography. For intellectual history, it was very accessible and gave me a renewed appreciation of Hofstadter.

    Comment by Bill B — September 8, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  28. Bill B,

    A review of that book in The New Republic back in 2006 sparked my interest in Hofstadter, though I was already familiar with his student Eric Foner.


    Sorry for the threadjack of sorts.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 9, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  29. Thanks for all the recommendations. For me Religion and the Decline of Magic has always stood out, so I was curious if anyone else had a book they felt that way about.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 9, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  30. What do I think is the best history book? Robert Remini’s 3 volume biography of Andrew Jackson!

    Comment by GB1232 — September 10, 2010 @ 9:14 am

  31. […] First of all, seeing Duffy go after Thomas gives me some consternation because as mentioned in a previous post, I consider Religion and the Decline of Magic the best history book ever written; and I would […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Magic in the Middle Ages: Eamon Duffy’s Critique of Keith Thomas — October 15, 2010 @ 2:44 pm


Recent Comments

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”