Has it only been 112 years since George Santayana wrote, in The Life of Reason, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"?
A well-written, engrossing history can bring the past to life and make it feel like the present, where we still have choices, as opposed to their consequences. While the past as described in these riveting reads cannot be changed, the histories they detail can inform every decision in your future.
'Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom
by Thomas E. Ricks
We remember World War II as a victory for the good guy -- a parable of parades and power. But that certainly wasn't how Churchill saw it. While those in authority tried to negotiate with Germany, he knew that Britain was in peril. Churchill viewed the war as a battle of the supremacy of the state versus the autonomy of the individual. From a very different political perspective – fighting alongside Socialists in Spain – George Orwell also twigged to the import of this battle. He was a fan of Churchill's and even named the main character in his most important work, 1984, Winston Smith. It was no coincidence, writes Thomas E. Ricks, in Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. Ricks finds the story of an idea -- individual freedom at an atomic level -- in the page-turning story of a world at peril, both immediately and in implication. Churchill saw what might happen tomorrow; Orwell, the day after. Neither was content to live without acting on what they understood to be true. You won't either.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die
by Garrett M. Graff
Remember the good old days, when a movie like The Day After, which offered a hyper-realistic look at the aftereffects of a nuclear strike, could terrify the nation? Alas, those days are back. How did we get to the point where bringing about the end of all life on earth seemed to be a reasonable plan? Garrett M. Graff brings back "duck and cover" with a vengeance in Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die. As soon as Hiroshima was destroyed with a single bomb, we realized that the same thing could happen to Washington, D.C. What started out as a means of keeping the government and the populace alive soon abandoned the latter as un-savable and focused the former. Every decision made seems reasonable in the moment. We're not done with this past; nor, alas, is it done with us.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and People's Temple
by Jeff Guinn
Power does not simply corrupt, it perverts. The best intentions get bent in the effort to preserve power, ostensibly so that those good intentions can be carried out. In The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and People's Temple, biographer Jeff Guinn points out that Jones might have been hailed as a minor hero in the fight for Civil Rights in the 1960s, had he not been carried down the path that ended in Jonestown. Guinn's powerful psychological portrait shows Jones as he slowly twisted into a narcissistic madman who tested the loyalty of his followers by asking them to drink poison, even before the end. (It was not poison the first time.) Jones created an alternate reality, where he spoke absolute truth and the rest of the world was wrong. The idea of a "cult" may seem like a relic from the 1970s, but the means by which Jones killed his followers are evergreen. This history feel unpleasantly current, a terrifying work of non-fiction horror.
The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program
by Jeremy Scahill
It would be nice to think there's an easy answer, a simple, somehow safe solution to the very real threats posed by those whom we choose to call terrorists. Should we be surprised, and even relieved such a solution has presented itself in the form of drones? It's a weaponized wish come true. From the safety of an underground bunker on American soil, we're able to target and kill those who would harm us half a world away. In The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept contemplate the history and the moral calculus used to turn brutal assassinations into almost-anonymous battlefield casualties. Scahill offers a scathing, precise vision of just what is being done, and why it is happening. This is compelling reading for any citizen who wants to trust their government, written with understated power. It's not simple by any means. It is, by any measure, riveting and important.
The White Donkey
by Maximilian Uriarte
We are pretty damn good, too damn good, at sending young men and women to die in a war. Why is that? We even get them to sign up. Obviously something is wrong with this picture. And it is the pictures, the art as well as the stories of Maximilian Uriarte's graphic novel The White Donkey that conjure for readers a recent history that one simply cannot know unless one has been there. Yes, this is a graphic novel, but Uriarte has been there, and the ring of truth is long and crystal clear. Not a lot happens here, and that's the point. War is boring, demeaning scut work interrupted by flashes of violence. This is not the career most of us would choose. It's going on right now, so technically, it's not history. But we're so good at shunting it aside and ignoring it, it might well be. Care to immerse yourself in history as it unfolds?
And now a bit of positive history:
The Genius of Birds
by Jennifer Ackerman
Each of the titles above looks at the past in a manner that will change your vision of the present. For a different literary feeling, pick up Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds. Delving into the nascent neuroscience of birds, Ackerman's book will utterly transform your vision of the world around you. It turns out that birds are much smarter than we ever gave them credit for. Those tiny brains are densely packed with neurons, and they operate in a manner that is fundamentally alien. Crows make complicated tools with hooks and keep them if they work well; chickadees stash seeds and other foods in thousands of hiding places that they can remember for months. We are surrounded in this world, not just by humans and their history, but by beautiful, flying aliens, whose intelligence we ourselves are not smart enough to understand.