Best History Titles of 2008

Brace yourself for this shocker:  a distinct political theme runs through the top history books of 2008.  Five presidents (and one presidential candidate) dominate our Editors' Top 10, while customers looked back at the birth of liberalism, our founding mothers, and the political blunders surrounding World War II.

Interestingly, only Rick Perlstein's Nixonland and Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign were tabbed as Top 10 reads by both editors and customers.  Although Kennedy and Nixon were distinctly different characters, both titles depict a common struggle to calm a confused (and often violent) America in search of answers.  The Last Campaign was my Best of June pick in large part to Clarke's aching ability to reveal the wounds of RFK's America, while Nixonland was my colleague Tom's choice for May due to Perlstein's true-to-the-era style that is "equal parts Walter Winchell and Hunter S. Thompson."

Check out the full lists below and be sure to visit our Best of 2008 Store for more of the year's top books.


Editors' Top 10 Picks in History
1) Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
2) The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America
3) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
4) The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
5) The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
6) The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer
7) One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
8) Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World
9) American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
10) Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Customers' Top 10 Picks in History
1) Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
2) Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
3) This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
4) Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution
5) Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
6) The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America
7) Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
8) Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World
9) Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
10) The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

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Comments (15)

Jonah Goldberg has certainly struck a nerve with his excellent book. When over half the posters refer to him or his book, and it isn't even referred to in the article (just #1 among actual readers), he must be doing something right.

Posted by: wingnutz | Tuesday November 18, 2008 at 11:33 AM

chi wrote, re: "Liberal Fascism", by Jonah Goldberg: "But the book is not a serious history - too many pieces of evidence are left un-discussed and too many contradictory aspects of history are either dismissed or ignored for it to be considered useful as a work of study."

Examples? I thought the book extremely well researched and quite thorough.

Seems to me a very useful work of study. At least that's what I did with it.

Posted by: Lucas Cato | Tuesday November 18, 2008 at 10:33 AM

Serious history? Goldberg's observations are saddly too unique, there are far too few works, serious or frivilous, that expose the absurdity of equating what we call an American conservative with a German National Socialist, primarily because Stalin wanted good communists to call all ideological oponnents fascists regardless of degree or applicability. An anti-communist was therefore Fascist, even if he happened to be an even greater and more dedicated anti-fascist, such as an American conservative (what Friedman called a "classical liberal")has most often been. History can explore narrowly focussed ideas and does not have to be all inclusive. Any one who has read the book would not conclude that "contradictory aspects" were dismissed, the discussion of those contradictions made up the majority of the book. As for the utility of study, that would depend upon what use you make of it would it not? As Goldberg's work could serve very well to prevent the fallacy of 'reductum ad hitlerium' that so often polutes and degrades the quality of intellectual dialogue - it seems quite useful for study.

Posted by: mw | Monday November 10, 2008 at 5:54 AM

Actually "Liberal Fascism" IS a polemic - it's the very definition of polemic. And that's fine, it's entertaining and probably a worthwhile piece of argument (whether or not the editors chose to leave it off their list for ideological reasons is, in my view, too broad of an assumption to make).
But the book is not a serious history - too many pieces of evidence are left un-discussed and too many contradictory aspects of history are either dismissed or ignored for it to be considered useful as a work of study.

Posted by: chl | Friday November 7, 2008 at 11:41 AM

The title of Goldberg's book "Liberal Fascism" is somewhat unfortunate. It is not a polemic (although Goldberg clearly has a point of view). It is a well researched tome dealing with political history, largely devoid of Goldberg's trademark snark, and is, in equal parts, history and cautionary tale. Because of the title, the people who would stand to benefit the most from the historical lessons contained within it, are the ones least likely to spend time absorbing those lessons which will, I fear, be learned the hard way in the coming years.

Posted by: GiantJellyFishKiller | Friday November 7, 2008 at 11:01 AM

Sorry- proper link here:

Posted by: gb/nyc | Friday November 7, 2008 at 7:55 AM

I surprised myself by recognizing two books from the lists I've read. May I recommend "Austerity Britain", a portion of a review on Amazon here:

" extraordinary panorama of Britain as it emerged from the tumult of war with a broken empire, a bankrupt economy and an ostensibly socialist government. Britain between 1945 and 1951 is an alien place. No washing machines, no highways, no supermarkets. Everything was heavy, from coins and suitcases to coats and shoes. Everything edible was rationed: tea, meat, butter, cheese, jam, eggs, candy. The awfulness of 1939–1945 still lingered, and any conversation tended to drift toward the war, like an animal licking a sore place. Yet, people assumed Britain was still best: that was so deeply part of how citizens thought, it was taken for granted. By combining astute political analysis with illustrative anecdotes brilliantly chosen from contemporary newspapers, popular culture and memoirs, Kynaston succeeds in recreating the lost world of austerity."

Posted by: gb/nyc | Friday November 7, 2008 at 7:52 AM

Liberal Fascism is awesome. I actually use it as a reference in my classroom, as it contains accurate information that students won't find anywhere else. Goldberg backs up all of his information with copious notes, so I can refer students to the original sources as well.

Posted by: Andrea C. | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 11:41 PM

Liberal Fascism is an excellent read. Goldberg writes how American Liberalism grew out of the progressive era, notably the Wilson Administrations liberal fascism of WWI and then how the FDR Administration picked up most of the people from the Wilson Admin in the 1930s. It compares FDRs strategies & policies and compares these with Hitler & Mussolini, noting the striking similarities.

Republic of Suffering was also excellent. It discussed how the appallingly high mortality rates in the American Civil War transformed how the US viewed death and how it coped with it.

Posted by: John T | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 8:27 PM

Yeah, that editors list is really balanced. The exclusion of "Liberal Fascism" is absurd. Hey Amazon, get a clue: since you a BUSINESS trying to SELL books, you might try adding a viewpoint or two from the other side of the aisle.

Posted by: Sean M | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 5:43 PM

Excellent book. For liberals who might get bent out of shape over the title - don't - the book is not red meat. Rather, its a comprehensive analysis of history with a solid defense of conservatism.

Posted by: Larry W | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 3:16 PM

"If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy" by George C. Daughan is a terrific read, written by an historian who loves his subject and writes well. Daughan wears his learning lightly and the story moves along easily, but by the end one has learned not only a great deal about the Navy and its doings up through 1815 or so; but also about the founding of the nation; the linkages (and not) between the land and sea campaigns against the British; the political cross-currents in our new government as they pertained to naval matters; naval architecture, strategy and tactics; insights into the British military predicament; and much much more. It is certainly one of my top ten.

Posted by: oMan | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 2:01 PM

Don't know most of the other books but Pat Buchanan's book is just nazi apologism. Don't bother with that one.

Posted by: A.W. | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 1:36 PM

Of the listed works, only "Liberal Fascism" adds anything significant to its historical subject.

I wonder why the editors chose to exclude it?

Let's hypothesize:

Anti-Nixon book.
Pro-Kennedy book.
Anti-social conservatism book.
Anti-Jefferson book.
Anti-British book.
Pro-soccer book.
Pro-Kennedy book.
Olympics book.
Pro-Jackson book.
Pro-Roosevelt book.

Hmmm, can't see any trends there...perhaps Jonah Goldberg hates soccer?

Posted by: Jeff Veyera | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 1:25 PM

"Liberal Fascism" is one of the best historical analysis books I've ever read. Read it with an open mind and you'll find your perception of a lot of things being altered, and perhaps a few of your cherished beliefs being challenged.

Posted by: Cookie the Dog's Owner | Thursday November 6, 2008 at 1:05 PM

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