Reading Historians is important, to learn of events and see how they have been interpreted. However, understanding History also involves experience -- the student of history must place events into the context of his or her own life. Since one cannot experience time travel and see things first-hand, the next best thing is to do so second-hand. Learn from those who were there -- especially from those with the gift of expression. Music, Art and Literature can all transport us into the world of the past. This page is intended to provide suggestions for reading that I have found useful.
I have put the titles into categories, but have not alphabetized or ordered them particularly -- this is to make later insertions easier as I won't have to play around coordinating text and images. This is just a first start. I intend to add to this regularly.
Political Works that Must Be Read
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Written centuries ago, this work still informs decision makers today. Machiavelli says it is better to be effective than moral.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
A very short work. This booklet provides the philosophical underpinning of what has come to be known as Marxism or Communism.
Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler
This is an unbelievably difficult read -- and not just because most of us must read it in translation. This is Hitler's extended rant, allowing us to get inside the fascist dictator's head -- though one must remember that this was written long before he actually came to power.
Imperialism and the Colonial Experience
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Achebe tells of the arrival of imperialists from an African perspective. He sees the white arrival as horrendously destructive to his own Ibo (S.W. Nigeria) people.
Burmese Days by George Orwell
George Orwell was an Englishman who served in the British civil service in Burma. Orwell looks at the politics within an imperial province and notes that Europeans and natives alike scheme to further their personal interests. Status is much more complicated than just a matter or race.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
This is a very short piece. Like Burmese Days, it draws on Orwell's personal experience as a British official in Burma. A rogue elephant is loose in a remote Burmese village and the narrator, a British official, feels pressured to shoot it and placate public opinion. However, he feels the crisis has passed and the elephant handler can control matters and that killing the animal is not necessary and would only destroy the livelyhood of the handler. What does he do? The story is a parable of imperialism. Who is really calling the shots here? How does imperialism force both the colonizers and the colonized into unsavoury acts?
The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
Two ex-British soldiers set off to find their fortune in the remote Himalayan region of British India. Scruffy nobodies, they nonetheless come to be regarded as demi-Gods by the locals who they come to rule. They come to a bad end as they fail to honour local traditions and meet the expectations of those they ruled.
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The journey of a man sent to bring back a European ruling somewhere up the Congo River in the Belgian Congo -- but also a journey into the soul of the man being sent. Both are dark.
Mister Johnson by Joyce Carey
Mister Johnson is a black, serving as an assistant to a white administrator in a West African village in the 1920's. Johnson desperately wants to be like the whites, yet he really cannot hope to be accepted by them. Despite his best efforts, things go badly wrong for him.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Forster's novel is concerned with the relationships that existed between the whites and natives in British India. Doctor Aziz, an educated and personable local, wants to help and befriend, despite his frustration at his second class status. Some of the British also want to transcend the social gulf, but there is much to overcome. Is it even possible between rulers and the ruled?
Europe Before the Great War
Bridge on the River Drina by Ivo Andric
OK, this story goes back a bit -- from the early 20th century all the way back to the 16th century, as it traces the lives of people living on the banks of Bosnia's Drina River -- long the boundary between East and West in Europe. Andric's story explains the long history of racial and religious strife. This book is useful in unravelling the Balkan powder-keg of 1914 -- and of the 1990's and present, for that matter.
Social Conditions in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
Germinal by Emile Zola
Zola has been described as the social conscience of fin-de-siecle France, from his championing of the Jewish-French officer Dreyfus, to this expose of the lives of lower working class miners, who attempt to strike against oppression and impoverishment. The story clearly shows why so many turned to Socialism in the years before the Great War.
World War I
Be sure to read the great poets of the First World War. One cannot ignore: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Edward Thomas - to name just a few.
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Robert Graves' autobiographical account of his experiences in World War I.
All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque
The greatest novel about war ever written. Remarque, himself a veteran, takes us through the war with a group of boys who sign up in 1914, most of which do not survive the war.
The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek
A rather different view of what it takes to make a good solder. Schweik, a Czech in the Austro-Hungarian army, just wants to survive and to do it as safely and with as little effort as possible. Is he an imbecile or the craftiest soldier of them all?
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The story follows an American, serving in the Italian army as an ambulance officer, who is severely wounded and must try to make sense of it all. He recovers, only to have his personal life devastated by other events.
August 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
This is part of a series of huge novels called The Red Wheel by the author. Solzhenitsyn sees the war and the Bolshevik revolutions as disasters that traumatized his country. In this novel, Solzhenitsyn dramatizes the gross incompetence of Russian imperial leadership as entire armies are sent to the slaughter in the twin battles of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes. The book is not quite a modern War and Peace, though it is comparable in length and scope. Other novels in the cycle include November 1917, March 1917 and April 1917. To the best of my knowledge, the final two volumes are not published in English translations.
Life in the 1920's & 30's
The Road Back by Erich Marie Remarque
Remarque brings back the survivors of All Quiet on the Western Front and returns them home after the war. They left as boys and returned men, but now have to fit back into a devastated and chaotic Germany.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
This is a terrific account of upper class life. The book notes how Catholicism in England brought ostracism, in spite of wealth and status.
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
McCourt's riveting account of his early life in Ireland is a fascinating account of growing up poor. The story is told magnificently. Too bad McCourt falls into the rather Irish habit of blaming the English for conditions. The English, Welsh and Scottish poor had it no better.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
This is an autobiographical account of Orwell's own descent into penury after an attempt to make a living in Paris fails and he is unable to restore his fortunes in depression era London.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Fleeing the dust bowl conditions of the Dirty 30's in Oklahoma, the Joad family heads to California, along with countless other depression refugees. Taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen and harrassed by police, the Okies find life a constant struggle.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Smaller in scale, this novel also deals with the lives of migrant workers. One of them a simpleton. Once again we see the futility of life in the face of unrelenting poverty and an uncaring world.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand's family fled the new Soviet Union and her political philosophy is the opposite of Soviet ideals. Rand believes in unfettered free enterprise, part of a belief system she called "objectivism," utterly rejecting collective ideals. This novel looks at a heroic figure who saves a railway threatened by collapse during the Depression. Rand's popularity is linked to the rise of the New Right in American politics and in 1991 The Book of the Month Club rated this novel second only to the Bible in American readership.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Based on Waugh's own brief experience as a war correspondent in Abyssinia, the author attacks the newspaper industry and war journalism through this satirical tale of a nature reporter sent to cover an East African war for The Daily Beast -- great satire.
Communists and Fascists - the Totalitarians in the 1920's and 1930's
The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Russian Civil War rages as Red forces close in on the White enclave in the Ukraine. The Turbin family faces this test with the full range of human emotion --- from great courage to despondency and even courage. An age comes to a close and the future looks bleak.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
The doctor is swept along by events in early 20th century Russia. His life and loves play off against events such as the 1905 uprising, the First World War, the overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. This is a 20th century Russian novel that ranks alongside the great Russian literature of the previous century.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
A former communist, Arthur Koestler sets out to explain how the great men of the Bolshevik Revolution could become the abject figures seen at thStalin's Show Trials of the 1930's -- admitting to any charges, no matter how ridiculous.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
This is Orwell's autobiographical account of his time served with the Anarchist POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War. He describes fighting the fascists, but also how Republican infighting and Communist purges undermined the anti-fascist effort. Orwell joined the POUM partly by chance, but nearly lost his life for it as he was shot through the neck.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell described it as a "fairy tale" but it is so much more. While children read it as a simple tale of a barnyard revolution, it is really a satirical allegory of Soviet History. Idealism is betrayed and cynical tyranny installed. Orwell insists that it is not Socialism that failed in the USSR, but the brutal regime of Stalin that destroyed all that was good in the original dream.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil visits Moscow during the 1930's, and with him come several assistants, including a gun-toting cat. Bulgakov attacks the stifling repression of Stalin's Soviet Union and affirms that Soviet formalism destroys life.
Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone
A man returns to Mussolini's Italy hoping to spark resistance. Posing as a Priest, this Socialist revolutionary must come to terms with the impossibility of the task. This book is part of a trilogy that also includes the titles Fontamara and The Seed Beneath the Snow.
World War II
Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
These three novels are a fictionalized account of the author's own predicament at the end of the Second World War, when he and other Vichy French collaborators prepare for the reckoning that will follow the Axis defeat. Celine's allegiances were certainly wrong, but one has to admire his writing ability. One should always seek to understand the views of those one opposes.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
This is an exceptionally difficult story to describe as it is written in a style that only Vonnegut can pull off. Human exhibits in an interstellar zoo and the firebombing of Dresden in World War II somehow coexist in the same novel. Vonnegut was, like one of his characters, an American prisoner of war who helped to clean up the mess after the destruction of one of Germany's most beautiful cities. This is his coming to terms with what he saw.
The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Boll
Boll was an opponent of Nazism who suffered for it, but at least survived. The short novel deals with the thoughts of a German soldier who, convinced that he will soon die if he completes his train journey from Paris to the Eastern Front, nonetheless does not take advantage of opportunities to hop and run. This tale of fate helped Boll win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972.
Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass
Set in Danzig during the Second World War, this short novel deals with an unfortunate protagonist Mahlke (the mouse) and how he cannot survive societal pressures (the cat).
Obasan by Joy Kogawa
This Canadian novel deals with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. This book has found its way into a number of Canadian schools' reading lists.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
This is a rather different war novel. War is crazy and Heller demonstrates it with the craziest assortment of characters and plot developments that one can imagine.
The Holocaust (Shoah)
The Diary of Anne Frank
The diary of a young Dutch Jewish girl, written while she was in hiding. Anne did not survive the war. The miracle is that this document survived as all other papers were destroyed by the Nazis. Otto Frank, Anne's father, survived the death camps, returned to Amsterdam, was given the papers by two of their Dutch protectors, and had them published in memory of his beloved daughter
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
A young man, Stinto, befriends a Nathan, a Jew ,and his death-camp survivor wife. As their complicated relationship develops, Stingo gradually learns of Sophie's experiences at Auschwitz and of her terrible secret.
Night by Elie Wiessel
Wiessel is a witness to the Holocaust and a victim. As he puts it, "Not all victims were Jews; all Jews were victims." This book personalizes the experience of the Holocaust, just as Anne Frank's diary does. His activism and publications won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.
Eastern Europe and the USSR After WWII
The Cowards by Joseph Skvorecky
Danny is a happy-go-lucky, jazz-loving youth in post-war Czechoslovakia. He lives through the Nazi occupation and the Soviet liberation, but, like many, was more interested in girls than politics. Today Skvorecky lives and writes in Canada.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One day in the life of a zek (political prisoner) in Stalin's penal system, populated mostly with political prisoners. A survivor of the camps, Solzhenitsyn know of what he wrote. Read the Bantam edition, not the Penguin. Ralph Parker, translator of the Penguin edition, was married to a Soviet agent and his version's language is a little toned down.
The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Published in three very lengthy volumes, this is not a novel, but a collection of stories of the victims of Stalin's purges. While a zek himself, Solzhenitsyn set himself the task of remembering the stories of those who disappeared and who became non-persons during Stalin's murderous regime. Publishing their stories restored them to human memory.
The Trial Begins by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky)
Abram Tertz is really Andrei Sinyavsky, who published under a pseudonym to protect himself from the KGB. The story is about the "Doctor's Plot," the faked pretext for Stalin's last purge before his death. He wrote "So that prisons should vanish forever, we built new prisons. So that all frontiers should fall, we surrounded ourselves with a Chinese Wall. So that work should become a rest and a pleasure, we introduced forced labor. So that not one drop of blood should be shed any more, we killed and killed and killed." Great stuff, but Sinyavsky was arrested for his efforts, along with his friend Yuli Daniel, and was sentenced to 7 years.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
This is a bit racy to find its way into a high school reading list, but it is a fine piece of literature that covers the period of the Prague Spring wonderfully.
Jews and Arabs
Exodus by Leon Uris
This is an epic, and Uris' best work by far. It follows the lives of Jewish Holocaust survivors, from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to their illegal immigration to Israel, to the Arab/Israeli war following the British withdrawal from Palestine. Uris is hugely sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and this book did much to sway American public opinion in favour of Israel in its ongoing conflict with its neighbours and with the Palestinians.
Understanding the Third World
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Wonderful, terrible, and completely surreal. Rushdie is a marvelous story teller and this is about India's story in the 20th century, told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a pickle factory employee. Saleem shares the same birthdate and time of birth as the state of India and they seem to live parallel lives.
A Fine Balance by Rohan Mistry
This is a magically written book that describes the lives of India's poor during the rule of Indira Gandhi. The subject matter is terrible, but the telling so wonderful that one cannot put the book down. Some compare this work to the best of Charles Dickens. I agree.
A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
Naipaul is a Trinidadian Indian, part of a huge number of people who moved about the British Empire to fill economic needs during the Pax Brittanica. Naipaul's novel is set in Africa, where the departure of the British does not bring the promissed Nirvana. Instead, one racist master is replaced by another as Blacks assume control. Infrastructure collapses and the new regime can hardly be called an improvement on the old.