The Mark of a Good History Book

I always enjoyed history as a kid, but was also underwhelmed with the way history is generally taught. While I understand that it makes for an easy grade measurement, memorizing names and dates gave me no real feel for the vast drama of human history. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to read history books that emphasized more than names and dates, and much like my experience with science, most of what I learned about history came after graduating from college.

A few weeks ago, I re-read David McCullough’s outstanding biography John Adams, and now I’m about halfway through George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Until now, I’ve never read a biography of Washington before, and I am enjoying it immensely.

When I first read John Adams, back in the summer of 2001, part of my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I knew so little about Adams to begin with. In school–and consider that I spent 2nd through 5th grades at a school in New England–the most I ever learned about the second president was that he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre, and that he died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To see what an incredible life Adams lives, in all of its richness and detail, was eye-opening.

Of course, George Washington, being the first president of the United States, gets a lot more attention in the history books. My 2-years daughter knows the name George Washington. “George Washington is the first president!” she says, firmly.

That said, even when you think you know a lot about a famous figure like Washington, there is always much more in the details. At times, reading Chernow’s biography of Washington, I’ve found myself, quite literally, on the edge of my seat.

And it was through this, that I realized what specific element makes for a good history book, at least for me.

It is one thing for a book to be thrilling when you are new to the events that take place within it. But when you read a history of something so famous as, say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, and his assault on Trenton, knowing full-well the outcome, and you still find yourself on the edge of your seat… That, my friends, is the mark of a very good history book, indeed.


  1. Jamie…as a lifelong student of history and former social studies teacher I loved this post. As much as I love learning about history there are too few historians who are good storytellers. David McC. certainly ranks as my favorite. His biography of Harry Truman is without question my favorite biography. I would also recommend 1776! A fantastic book which as you mentioned in this post keepers you on the edge of your seat.

    1. Ben, 1776 is on my list, but thanks for the recommendation. When I finished John Adams back in 2001, I was driving back to upstate NY from Maine, and had to stop at a bookstore en route to pick up Truman, which I also devoured. 🙂

  2. History is, ultimately, a story. A story we tell about the past. So a well written History book needs to be a good story that engages the reader.

    Mccullough, especially, understands this. I haven’t read the Washington Biography, although I am now intrigued.

  3. It really jumps out to me that you refer to “his [singular] assault on Trenton,” as if history is just the story of The Great Man. Feeling excitement over Washington’s assault on Trenton might be the mark of good writing, but it’s not necessarily the mark of good history.

    McCullough’s biography of Adams is extraordinary in many ways, but arguably Adams’s greatest contribution to the young republic was his political thought, about which McCullough says almost nothing.

    1. Russ, point taken. I should have spoken of Washington’s army as opposed to just Washington. The book does an excellent job of making it clear who did what and where credit lies, and certainly not all of it lies with Washington. In my example, I was the one to chew that down to just Washington.


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