Michael Wood: I think the best that I’ve come across is Winters in the World by Eleanor Parker. Some people might think that it’s a rather niche subject: it covers the year in Anglo-Saxon England, taking you through the months and the festivals. But when we study history, we really hope to hear the voices of the people of the past. And Parker gives us those voices here – providing a very moving projection into their world. It’s also a very ecological book, in some ways, because of course it’s about the seasons and those people’s conviction that things would never change – that this is the unchanging rhythm of life on Earth. As a portrait of the psychology of our ancestors 1,000 years ago, I found it really touching.


Rana Mitter: I’ve been really impressed by Horizons: A Global History of Science by James Poskett, who’s an associate professor at Warwick University. The book is exactly what it says on the cover: it’s a way of looking at the world of science and the development of technology from a genuinely global perspective. The narrative starts with the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan [on the site of modern-day Mexico City] and the engineering marvels that were present there, built long before the Spanish turned up during their conquest in the early modern era. Poskett also discusses Arab science, Chinese science and the story of science in the west, which is better known. So it’s a truly global and really well-written and engaging account.

Catherine Nixey: I’d put forward Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf. It’s about a small German town called Jena, which became the intellectual heart of Enlightenment Europe when large numbers of German intellectuals turned up there. They started making friends with each other and having affairs; falling out with each other catastrophically and at length; and, above all, furiously writing to each other. There are figures such as the scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who was electrocuting frogs’ legs, and Goethe, who was writing plays.

At the same time, the French Revolution was lapping at the edges of the town, creating this enormous tension. It reminds you of the way that intellectual movements arise and develop. You typically think of a single person beavering away in their study, but in fact it’s a group effort – various people coming together and sparking off each other.

Are there any books in your specialist areas that you’d highlight as being particularly impressive?

RM: I’m going to nominate a book in my field – Chinese history – by a very brilliant young historian called Julian Gewirtz. His new book, Never Turn Back, is about the era of Zhao Ziyang – a name that used to be at the centre of what you might call the contemporary era of Chinese history, the 1980s. When leader of China, he stood with the students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989, and he gave them a rather bleak message: “I’ve come too late.” He was then whisked off and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life. He died in 2005.

Gewirtz has taken a whole variety of materials – which were shared through “underground sources”, you might say, and then made public – that look at the contribution of Zhao Ziyang to the creation of China’s market economy in the 1980s.

This might sound like a dry subject but, first of all, Gewirtz really brings to life the intellectual atmosphere of China in the 1980s. This was a time when the free-market economist Milton Friedman visited China; he was literally barricaded into his hotel room because so many communists were outraged by what he was trying to do. Zhao Ziyang walked a path between being a very dedicated member of the Communist Party and also seeing how markets could be brought back into the way that China operated.

These days, people say that Deng Xiaoping – perhaps one of the most famous names of modern China – was the person who brought market economics back to China after the era of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and there’s some truth to that. But the name that everyone’s forgetting, because he was purged, is Zhao Ziyang. Gewirtz’s book brings him back to proper historical prominence.

MW: It’s a really fantastic story, isn’t it? It does make you wonder whether there were other paths possible for China at that point – and whether there still are other paths possible.

RM: Certainly, Zhao Ziyang himself – though not someone who believed in a multi-party type of liberal democracy – was absolutely an advocate of a more open China in which anything could be debated, including democratic systems. Today’s China has provided a much narrower space for that kind of intellectual debate.

On the podcast | Rhiannon Davies is joined by historians Michael Wood, Rana Mitter and Catherine Nixey to discuss some of their top picks:

Listen to an ad-free version

We’ve witnessed some huge news events during 2022: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ongoing climate emergency, to give just a few examples. How can this year’s history books help us make sense of our modern world?

CN: I write about the royals for The Economist, and one book I’m interested to read is Valentine Low’s Courtiers. It’s about one central question: who is behind this family? Around the royal carriage there are fleets of people trying to guide everything, which actually makes the mistakes that get made all the more surprising.

RM: Catherine’s mention of the royals reminds me of emperors. I think that Dominic Lieven’s In the Shadow of the Gods is a really interesting way into some of those questions about Russia, Ukraine and China. Lieven is a specialist on Russia, based at the London School of Economics, but his book has a wider sweep. It looks at Russian tsars, Chinese emperors and the wider imperial mindset.

In the wake of 24 February 2022 [the day when Russia invaded Ukraine], understanding that imperial mindset has become much more important. One of the things that empires do is find ways to incorporate land, and to legitimise and justify themselves in that incorporation in a way that is different from the world of nation states.

We’ve got used to the idea that you have bounded territories – you have essentially republican forms or constitutional monarchies. But it’s notable that in attempting to justify the invasion of Ukraine, one of the arguments that Russia has used very strongly is the idea that, culturally, people in eastern Ukraine, who speak Russian, should be considered part of a Russian empire – even though, in national terms, recognised boundaries mean that they’re not in Russia. Lieven’s book gives a fantastic historical perspective on why emperors have been so important in the context of broader Eurasia.

More like this

Continuing to think about empires, ahead of this conversation both Rana and Michael nominated Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. What was it that drew you both to this book?

MW: There’s a huge debate over the British empire, slavery and the violence of the empire, into which Elkins’ book taps. I’m one of many people who, for more than 20 years, have been arguing that the British empire should be put at the heart of the curriculum in schools, because it is the thing that unifies us. Whatever your background, wherever your ancestors came from – that’s the thing that binds us together. And, as a society, we have really failed to acknowledge what the empire did.

Everywhere the empire went, violence determined the nature of things. Indian historians are now looking seriously at this, and many British historians are, too. People are starting to face up to the fact that the British empire was, like all empires, essentially violent. We have lived for so long with the idea that, although things sometimes went wrong – such as in the case of the Amritsar massacre [when troops under British command opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian people in 1919, killing several hundred and wounding hundreds more] – essentially, the British empire was benign. We haven’t faced up to its reality, and that’s now what people such as Elkins are looking at. It’s proving a very difficult conversation, isn’t it?

RM: Legacy of Violence is a pretty comprehensive history – it goes all the way back to the 18th century, although it mostly concentrates on the 20th century. But it should be considered as part of a spectrum of reading that looks at the centrality of violence and coercion in understanding how the empire worked. So I’d add another book that is not so much a history book as a book of historical significance.

This title, which provides an interesting contrast and which perhaps shows another side of the story, is The Hong Kong Diaries by Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of that territory. His diaries make for a wickedly witty read, because he seems not to have censored himself too much in terms of what he thinks of both the Chinese – with whom he was interacting during negotiations about the future of Hong Kong at the time he wrote them – and also his own British parliamentary colleagues.

Another clear part of that legacy is the very difficult interaction between the reality of being a colonial governor and recognising the need for things such as free media and holding debates in schools about the legacy of colonialism. Patten is absolutely clear that the violence through which Hong Kong was obtained in 1842 is not something that should be forgiven or forgotten. In the end, Patten’s central point is that the freedoms that were evident in Hong Kong for about 20 years before the handover and 20 years afterwards were the products of Chinese people’s interactions – they were not just a gift from the British.

These books might all be considered examples of the genre of hidden histories. As well as stories connected to colonialism, we’ve also seen books highlighting the lives of women lost in the historical record. What books on this theme would you recommend?

CN: I’d say Selby Wynn Schwartz’s novel After Sappho. I love Sappho [an ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, who had female lovers]. Reading her poetry is like walking past a door that’s just slightly ajar. Most of Sappho’s work has been lost – it was considered pretty racy by centuries of people, and generally wasn’t copied out with the care that it deserved. So if you look at a Sappho poem, it mainly looks like a page sprinkled with pepper: it’s dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, word, dot, dot, dot.

Her poetry makes for a very fast read, but it’s incredibly beautiful – the bits that are there, at least. You can see why everybody loved Sappho, and why [the Roman poet] Catullus imitated her, taking her poems and working them into his. For centuries, she was respected in a way that was quite unusual for a woman from the ancient Greek world.

After Sappho looks at the lives of various women, particularly writers and artists. It starts in Italy in the late 19th century, then moves into the 20th century, when it touches on Virginia Woolf. It shares these women’s stories in a sapphic way – in both senses. Lots of them had relationships with women, but it’s also sapphic in the sense that it shows snippets of these women’s lives, just as we only have fragments of Sappho’s poetry today.

It’s a fractured history: you get a shaft of light illuminating one bit of someone’s life, then it’s gone; there’s another, then that, too, is gone. The writing is just wonderful – it has these heavenly, soaring moments when you think: “That’s an absolutely lovely phrase.”

MW: I wrote a book 40 years ago called In Search of the Dark Ages, which was a series of biographies from the Anglo-Saxon past – and I confess guiltily that it featured only one woman, I think. I published a new version this year, including five more chapters that are about women. I saw it as a challenge, because a recent bestseller on the Anglo-Saxons said that it’s not possible to write the biographies of women in the Dark Ages. But it is. It requires a lot of effort, and a lot of scrutiny of the sources in different ways, but you can do it.

CN: One of the things I’ve noticed is a trend for books that concentrate on groups. I mentioned Magnificent Rebels, looking at a group of people in Germany. But there are lots of other books diving into a world that was exciting at the time. Daisy Dunn – another classicist – has written one, Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars. It looks at the period when Evelyn Waugh [the author of the 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited] was in the city, as well as lots of the great classical scholars. You can pick out characters who then turn up in Brideshead – there’s somebody who carries a teddy bear, rampant misbehaviour, the drinking societies. In historical periods, there are moments when you get this flowering of really interesting people all in one place. You wonder: was that just chance, or were they stimulating other people to think better, write better, do more?

RM: There are always books of this sort, but in 2022 I’ve seen a bit of a trend for people writing big-scale re-examinations of topics that perhaps we thought we knew. Remember 1066 and All That, the parody of British history by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, published in 1930? Well, this year I really enjoyed Judith A Green’s The Normans, which also looks at “1066 and all that”. Her book explains it to people like me who could recite the year but, if pressed, would have to admit that perhaps their knowledge of the details of what happened were rather limited.

One of the interesting things is that Green places the Normans in a huge European context. In particular, she writes about the Normans in Sicily, which doesn’t necessarily link in the popular mind to that very
English story.

MW: I think people are taking a lot of different perspectives at the moment. The big trends are, as we’ve mentioned, the hidden histories – the people who never spoke. And a whole new historiography is erupting now. Take something like the history of Jamaica, and the rebellions of enslaved people there. For years our representation of these events has been conditioned by the victors telling us what happened, so it’s not the real story. But now the real voices are starting to come out, with different sources such as the amazing slave archive at UCL [the online Encyclopaedia of British Slave-ownership], which is a really brilliant resource.

Is there still an appetite for traditional blockbusters looking at topics such as the Second World War?

CN: Most definitely. Books on the Second World War still shoot right to the top of the bestseller lists. One of the titles I enjoyed this year was Ben Macintyre’s Colditz. It’s great fun – Macintyre’s books about the Second World War are always romps: they’re always entertaining, and he always describes the characters very deftly. Colditz is full of French prisoners spring-boarding over the castle walls and then walking for hundreds of miles.

But there’s also a much more sinister side to it. One of the things that you don’t hear about so much is the relationships between the prisoners, which could be pretty shocking. Many French prisoners said that they didn’t want to be billeted with the Jewish French prisoners. So even when revisiting these well-known tales, there’s a less-well-known tale underneath.

MW: There’s no end to Second World War books, is there? Friends of mine write them, and they’re incredibly successful. But there is this almost unhealthy obsession, I think, with the Second World War, and it seems like we lap it up because we can’t shake it off. Even at the Queen’s funeral, militarism and empire still shadowed that event. But maybe it’s true of all societies – maybe you need these stories to create cohesion and allegiance.

RM: It’s clear that the Second World War holds an extraordinarily dominant position. Having said that, I’m also guilty of having written the odd book on it myself, at least in the Asian context. But I was thinking of a recent book, Richard Overy’s Blood and Ruins [published in 2021], which does tie together some of the themes we’re talking about today, in that it looks at the Second World War as a war of empire and of empires. It looks at the Japanese empire in comparison with the European empires such as the British and French, which is one of the things that tends not to happen with the big overview books. So, though I think it’s becoming harder to do, even now blockbusters can offer new viewpoints.

So far, we’ve discussed books that you’ve admired. On the flip side, what topics or themes did you feel were under-represented this year?

CN: Something I’d love to see more of – and this is pure selfishness – are nitty-gritty books about engineering and other practical aspects of the ancient world. For instance, I was trying to research Roman roads – and that’s one thing we all know about the Romans: that they had those long, straight roads. But actually finding good books on Roman roads, detailing how much they sped up the empire and how they facilitated travel – how the volumes of people and trade increased – is quite difficult.

I would love to see somebody quantitatively approach empires. You get so much from a numerical approach that just telling the stories doesn’t give you. For instance, somebody did a study on Roman emperors, and found that their life expectancy was quite a lot shorter than your average Roman, which was quite short anyway. These things can illuminate a period in a way that narrative history can’t.

MW: If I were thinking about my own interests, in the past 20 years there have been disappointingly few English-language titles on pre-Mughal India. Yet India is among the biggest countries in the world, and the region hosted probably the oldest civilisation, if you count back to the ancient towns in Balochistan. We get a lot of great stuff on the Mughals – on the art, the culture, the administration. But if I wanted to read a book about the Guptas or the Cholans, or even going right back to the Indus Valley, I’d struggle.

RM: It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the conditions needed for these books to exist. Outside the commercial aspect, you also need to be working in a culture that respects learning foreign languages, respects the academic craft of writing history, and then has enough people to pull the threads together to tell a bigger story. When we call for people to write more accessible history, having a bit of appreciation of the bits that have to come together to make that work is worth bearing in mind.

We’ve discussed books that have impressed you in 2022, but which history titles, that you’ve not yet read, will be on your Christmas lists?

CN: I’d like to get a copy of Ian Kershaw’s Personality and Power, which asks whether the “Great Man” view of history is accurate. How much is somebody just riding the wave of history, and then saying that they created it? How much are they actually shaping the world? It’s something you always wonder, particularly because our historical tradition has so often taken the “Great Man” view. From what I understand about the book, I don’t think that Kershaw comes down definitively on one side or the other, but I’m excited to read it.

MW: A book that I really want to read but haven’t yet bought – so I hope it goes into my Christmas stocking – is Otherlands: A World in the Making by Thomas Halliday. It sounds so amazing – a history of the world before history, before people. He’s trying to write the history of the organisms and the plants and the creatures and everything else as the world grows from protozoic slime or whatever we emerged from. It sounds like an absolutely incredible effort of imagination. I think that Christmas presents should be books that you can curl up with and get engrossed in and transported by – and Otherlands sounds like exactly that.

We’re now leaving 2022 behind and looking to the future. Which 2023 books are you most excited about?

CN: Again, mine’s a classical one. Emily Wilson is releasing a new translation of The Iliad, which I would love to read. She translated the Odyssey before, and it’s a real skill. You want to keep the sense that this is an old language, because the Iliad was probably written down in 800 BC, but the story dates back to maybe 400 years earlier than that. So it would have felt archaic even in its early days of being written down. To get that feeling of it being other but without feeling “ye olde” is something I think that Wilson does very well. She seasons the old with the modern.

RM: There are a couple of books I’m looking forward to, which I believe are forthcoming nearer the end of 2023. One is going to look in a big-scale way at modern Chinese history. It’s written by two really major historians of modern and contemporary China, Odd Arne Westad and Chen Jian. They’re going to examine the period from the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution all the way up to the late 1980s. They’ve had access to all sorts of material that other people haven’t had before, and it’s going to be a really big-think reassessment – not just of changes in China during that pivotal time, but also how that story fits into what we know about the Cold War world.

That puts in mind a second book, written by Sergey Radchenko, a brilliant historian of Russia, the Soviet Union and China, and Eurasia more broadly. His new book, which I think is going to be called The First Fiddle, is a really comprehensive history of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, drawn from Moscow archives that he knows like the back of his hand. There is a huge volume of material there that just hasn’t been seen before.

I, for one, can’t wait to see that in print, because I think it’s going to transform the way that we understand the Soviet Union and the centrality of its history in that period. Those of us who remember the Soviet Union remember what a big deal it was in the world. If you speak to people like my teenage daughter, though, it’s a historical phenomenon they’re aware of, but it’s a bit like the Babylonian empire – it’s something that existed a very long time ago. For those of us for whom it was a day-to-day reality – at least in the sense of the wider world – seeing it as a historical object is going to be fascinating.


This interview first appeared in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.