Today’s book review is more a review of a series of books: the “Brief History” series. The Brief History series offers quick surveys of a specific event, place, or time period throughout history.
If you want to become familiar with a specific subject, the Brief History books are a good way to do it. You could say these fall somewhere between reading the Wikipedia article on a subject and reading a 4-volume history.
Subjects covered include the Crusades, the Anglo-Saxons, the Nazis, the Celts, Christianity, China, Islam, the Middle East, medicine, misogyny, mutiny, painting, science, the vikings, the druids, and the Tudor Age. I’m sure I’m leaving out tons of other books that I don’t know about, but you get the idea.
Here are some of my favorites from the collection. As you can see, you can pick and choose the subjects you are interested in, but which you don’t know much about. That’s exactly what I did with the following four books.
A Brief History of the Crimean War: History’s Most Unnecessary Struggle by Alexis Troubetzkoy – I’ve read A.J.P. Taylor’s A Struggle For Mastery in Europe and knew how pivotal this conflict was for 19th century European history, but I didn’t know many details of how it happened and what it was like for the soldiers. Now I know. This was a much bigger conflict than I gave it credit for, giving rise to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale, among other things.
A Brief History of the Cold War: The Hidden Truth About How We Came Close to Nuclear Conflict by Colonel John Hughes-Wilson – As a first-rate short account of the Cold War, I found this book gripping. John Hughes-Wilson is a good writer with a background in British Intelligence. My one warning is that his politics are all over his writing. The conservative politicians are portrayed as geniuses, while the liberals (besides Truman) are seen as naive or stupid. John F. Kennedy was given particularly low marks. I’m not saying you can’t trust the guy (maybe he’s right), but it’s important to know perspective going in.
A Brief History of the Moguls: India’s Most Flamboyant Rulers by Bamber Gasciogne – I know next to nothing about India, but I wanted to learn a little bit. The Moguls were Muslim invaders of India who imprinted Islam into the Indian sub-continent. They were descended from Timur the Lame or Tamerlane, one of the great conquerors of all time (and I use the term “great” to mean big or grand–not good). I still don’t think I know enough about Hindi culture and India, but I know a little bit more about the Mogul era.
A Brief History of Painting by Roy Bolton and Matthew Collings – This book contains a one-page essay on a painter and a color depiction of one of their paintings. That’s not much to go on, but this is supposed to be an introduction to as many essential painters as possible. I’m certain people who knew more about the subject would quibble with the artists covered, especially in the 20th century or modern art era, but this book gave me exactly what I wanted: a gateway into the world of painting.
I do want to make one qualification on why I can’t recommend any of these books higher, and why I only have a limited few. I can’t find the Brief Series of history in hardback, which is a real disappointment. I guess these are considered light reading, so the publishers never put out a real volume. It should tell you my enthusiasm for the books themselves that I’m willing to make an exception.