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The Best American History Book

Last updated on August 19, 2020

We looked at the top 6 American History Books and dug through the reviews from 34 of the most popular review sites including Good Reads, Washington Independent Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Post and Courier, Daily Kos and more. The result is a ranking of the best American History Books.

Best American History Book

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Our Picks For The Top American History Books

Show Contents
Our Take
Experts Included
Pros
Cons
  The Best Overall

Howard Zinn A People’s History of the United States

Howard Zinn

A People's History of the United States

Overall Take

A Unique PerspectiveThis classic tells the story you didn't hear in school, giving the perspectives of Native Americans, factory workers, Black Americans and more.

Experts Included
DWYM Education Experts plus The Atlantic, Kirkus Reviews, Los Angeles Times, Project Muse, Stanford News, In These Times and 2 more. Along with user reviews from Amazon.
Pros
" Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities -- Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual..."
Cons
"To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption..."

DK Smithsonian American History: A Visual Encyclopedia

DK Smithsonian

American History: A Visual Encyclopedia

Overall Take

Visual EncyclopediaThis encyclopedia engages children while they learn, using colorful photos, maps and charts along with informative text.

Experts Included
DWYM Education Experts plus Best Reviews Guide. Along with user reviews from Amazon.
  The Best Value

Jill Lepore These Truths: A History Of The United States

Jill Lepore

These Truths: A History Of The United States

Overall Take

An Insightful Look at AmericaThis book tells the history of America in a way intended to be both reflective and insightful.

Experts Included
DWYM Education Experts plus The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Reads, NPR, NY Books and 1 more. Along with user reviews from Amazon.
Pros
" Harvard professor Jill Lepore chooses to begin her history of the United States with that quotation, and much of the worst of America, from lynching to brutality to Native Americans, is rightly here. But her true purpose is much broader:..."
Cons
"Lepore panders a little to liberal sensibilities. And so in her account, Communism was no real threat at all."

Colin Woodward American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

Colin Woodward

American Nations

Overall Take

Studies America's DivisionsThis book suggests that America is divided into 11 distinct regions, each with its unique cultural differences.

Experts Included
DWYM Education Experts plus Good Reads, The Washington Post, Business Insider, History Net, A Peek at the Peak, Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation and 1 more. Along with user reviews from Amazon.
Pros
" A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America pulls off the unlikely feat of both offering the tools for just such a broader, deeper understanding—and demonstrates why, in a larger sense, that effort is doomed. He compellingly..."
Cons
"In any synthesis as sweeping as this, there are bound to be holes. Woodard skirts some inconvenient facts (for instance, New York became the commercial capital not only because of its Dutch roots, but because of the Erie Canal)."
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Expert Reviews Included

In addition to our expert reviews, we also incorporate feedback and analysis of some of the most respected sources including: Good Reads, Washington Independent Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Post and Courier.

8,697

User Opinions Analyzed

We also incorporate user reviews from the leading retailers including Amazon.

Our experts reviewed the top 6 American History Books and also dug through the reviews from 34 of the most popular review sites including Good Reads, Washington Independent Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Post and Courier, Daily Kos and more. The result is a ranking of the best of the best American History Books.

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The Best Overall

Howard Zinn A People’s History of the United States

Our Expert Score
0.0
8 expert reviews
User Summarized Score
9.0
3,212 user reviews
Our Take

America's history is filled with people fighting for rights, and this book chronicles those stories, among many others. It starts with Columbus's arrival and takes the reader all the way through Clinton's first term. It's been updated with an introduction that discusses the book's 35-year history.

What other experts liked
Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities -- Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual...
- The Atlantic
Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and...
- Kirkus Reviews
To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased.
- Los Angeles Times
Readers for whom the story of these strikes is new and unfamiliar perceive Zinn’s account as he intended it—as an exciting tale of heroic struggle. They come away inspired by the resistance, not demoralized by the outcome.
- Project Muse
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which A People's History has resonated with the American public. Although its perspective is unabashedly from the far left, its reach and influence extend far beyond that quarter with more than...
- Stanford News
Howard Zinn’s many contributions to the American Left make his sins as a scholar forgivable—such is the usual (and understandably sympathetic) critique of this icon of revisionist history.
- In These Times
He framed it as an anti-textbook, an antidote to the history books that serve the needs of the established order. Having participated in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, Zinn’s life-long goal was to give voice to the...
- Little Village
Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg, an expert on history education, says that it “has arguably had a greater influence on how Americans understand their past than any other single book.”
- The Nation
What other experts didn't like
Haven't just revised earlier scholarship; they have snuck up from behind and bludgeoned it. In the process, they have undermined the trust and sense of common purpose that is essential to understanding our past -- and to democratic life itself.
- The Atlantic
To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption...
- Kirkus Reviews
His view was that objectivity was neutrality, which I think is a formula for bad history. Objectivity is not neutrality; it is the deployment of evidence and building an argument based on historical logic. That’s how we engage in rational...
- Los Angeles Times
Judging by the History News Network’s online vote conducted in 2012, many American historians loathe Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. More than 600 historians who participated in this vote pronounced Zinn’s radical history the second “least...
- Project Muse
Wineburg's critique focuses on the part of Zinn's narrative that covers the mid-thirties to the Cold War. Among the subjects it delves into is Zinn's assertion that African Americans were largely indifferent to the outcome of World War II. That...
- Stanford News
The problem with Zinn’s work, however, is that it sometimes tries so hard to assault our complacency that it fails to offer an honest account of how political change actually happens.
- In These Times
It has also been attacked, both by historians, who complain of its dependence on secondary sources and anecdote, and by conservatives, who see it as an anti-American, corrupting influence on young minds.
- Little Village
Zinn’s book, perhaps the most successful single-volume history of the United States, also drove a stake through the heart of the enterprise. Seeing the country as divided between oppressors and oppressed, he made little room for common cause, for shared...
- The Nation

The Best Bang For Your Buck

Jill Lepore These Truths: A History Of The United States

Our Expert Score
8.8
7 expert reviews
User Summarized Score
9.2
874 user reviews
Our Take

Written by Harvard professor Jill Lepore, this book takes an introspective look at the history of America in an effort in an effort to reflect on where we've been. The chapters are organized in sections by both time and theme to make it easier for readers to absorb the information. This book focuses on the three truths "we hold to be self-evident:" political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people.

What other experts liked
Harvard professor Jill Lepore chooses to begin her history of the United States with that quotation, and much of the worst of America, from lynching to brutality to Native Americans, is rightly here. But her true purpose is much broader: as she writes, the constitution adopted in 1787 was meant...
- The Guardian
It encompasses interesting takes on democracy and technology, shifts in demographics, revolutions in economics and the very nature of modernity. It’s a big sweeping book, a way for us to take stock at this point in the journey, to look back, to remind us who we are and to point...
- The New York Times
Lepore generally lets her story tell itself. Where she renders judgments, they are usually sound. There’s not much historiography in Lepore’s book, which is another good thing; the history of history can be deadly dull.
- The Washington Post
I loved the book and hope lots of people read it. In keeping with its title, it’s the most honest account of the American story I’ve ever read, and one of the most beautifully written. Lepore comments in her conclusion that simplistic, feel-good accounts of our past undermine and belittle...
- Good Reads
The chapters of These Truths are organized by both time and theme; she has sections that center on industrialization, mass communication, modernism and so on. This allows her to focus on topics that have been covered before with a new angle, placing them in fresh, but always accurate, contexts. And...
- NPR
Lepore’s work for The New Yorker has allowed her to develop an engaging narrative style that relies heavily on exact detail and clever metaphors.
- NY Books
It’s been good, above all, because she is a superb storyteller. Her fans attest to weeping over These Truths, and I’ll confess to feeling a prelachrymal lump in my throat more than once while reading it.
- The Nation
What other experts didn't like
Lepore panders a little to liberal sensibilities. And so in her account, Communism was no real threat at all.
- The New York Times
But any reader who expects a primer on America’s political evolution is going to be at a loss at times. Lepore admits to paying little attention to military history, yet the short shrift she gives to the Civil War, as an episode in American political history even apart from the...
- The Washington Post
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof.' (c) Not too much of all that. A lot of posturing instead. 'Storytelling, and truth' have had a hard time in here. And 'truth' might have been lost in all the fantasy and conjecture.
- Good Reads
After These Truths appeared, historian Christine DeLucia and other critics noticed that Lepore had made little room in her story for Native Americans, especially in the latter half.
- The Nation

Our American History Book Findings

Howard Zinn A People’s History of the United States

What We Liked: America’s history is filled with people fighting for rights, and this book chronicles those stories, among many others. It starts with Columbus’s arrival and takes the reader all the way through Clinton’s first term. It’s been updated with an introduction that discusses the book’s 35-year history.

DK Smithsonian American History: A Visual Encyclopedia

What We Liked: Written for children, this encyclopedia chronicles such events as the Battle of Yorktown and the American Revolution. It starts with the first Native Americans and takes young readers all the way through to the present. But what really sets this encyclopedia apart is the colorful pictures used to bring history to life.

Jill Lepore These Truths: A History Of The United States

What We Liked: Written by Harvard professor Jill Lepore, this book takes an introspective look at the history of America in an effort in an effort to reflect on where we’ve been. The chapters are organized in sections by both time and theme to make it easier for readers to absorb the information. This book focuses on the three truths “we hold to be self-evident:” political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people.

Colin Woodward American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

What We Liked: This book looks at the cultural differences that mark various regions of the U.S., suggesting that America’s political history can be traced back to before it even began. It not only helps readers better understand the history of the country, but it can provide some context for the divisions that remain with us today.

Scheweikart & Allen A Patriot’s History Of The United States

What We Liked: This book attempts an in-depth look at American history, including chronicling the country’s involvement in both World Wars. It details economic policies and focuses on the values that have been an underlying theme throughout history. The book leans conservative, with the authors injecting their political opinions throughout, so if you’re looking for a book from that perspective, this one’s a great choice.

Our American History Book Buying Guide

In school, you were handed a history textbook and told to read it. It likely had a condensed history of America, covering wars, important political figures and big events.

For those interested in history, though, the thirst for information continues long after graduation. Even children may find school textbooks inadequate if they’re really interested in learning history. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of history books, especially if you want to study a particular event or era in depth.

But what if you just want a full telling of the history of America? There are books for that, as well. The key is to find one that covers the timeframe you’re interested in studying. Some start with Columbus’s arrival, while others include the history of Native Americans before settlers arrived.

Most American history books will focus on a certain theme. This is what makes each one unique. So before you start looking for a good book, think about what interests you most. Do you want to learn more about the political climate of America throughout history, or do wars and foreign relations interest you more? Are you interested in exploring a particular theme, or would you prefer to simply read the events in chronological order, pulled together with an interesting narrative?

For younger readers, images can be a great way to break up pages of text. Many children’s history books will use compelling photos, charts, maps and other imagery to both illustrate points and keep things interesting. Also look for text that’s engaging, rather than the more serious approach usually seen in textbooks. When children see that learning history can be fun, they’re more likely to continue to want to research as they grow into adults.

DWYM Fun Fact

It may seem hard to believe, but until the mid-1990s, the only way to look up a historical fact was through books, unless you could actually track down someone who could give you a firsthand account. That meant if a student was working on a paper for class, that student often had to log some after-school library hours to research.

There was one big exception to that. In many homes throughout the 1900s, there was a bookshelf stocked with multiple books called encyclopedias. These books were sold by salespeople who would knock on your door and give a sales pitch. Encyclopedia sales remained strong because almost as soon as a family bought a set, the information was outdated. When a child was working on a report or a family member wanted to look up something, that handy set of encyclopedias was available with the information they needed. As with Wikipedia today, though, the encyclopedia wasn’t meant as a be-all-end-all source. It simply served as a great way to get an overview on a topic you were studying.

The American History Book Tips and Advice

  • The structure of a history book is one of the most important aspects. If possible, take a quick look at the table of contents and pay close attention to whether the story is told chronologically or separated by themes. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but many readers find they prefer one over the other.
  • Even the best-written nonfiction book is useless if it isn’t based in fact. Look for books from authors with impressive backgrounds. A renowned historian or professor of history is better than an author with no connection to the field whatsoever. If you can, check how the author conducted research and whether information came from valid sources.
  • The publication date on the book comes into play, as well. A history of America that was published 20 years ago won’t just leave out a couple of decades of events. It may be missing the perspective that those two extra decades have brought. Some history books are updated to compensate for this lapse, but make sure the updates make the book as relevant as one published recently.
  • Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you may want an unbiased telling of historical events. There are plenty of American history books that sway conservative or liberal, though, if that’s what you prefer. You can often identify them by the themes they promote in the blurb. However, the review section will often include at least a couple of readers who found the book too political on one side or the other, so browsing those can help.
  • At one time, history books painted a rosy picture of historical events. But toward the end of the 20th century, documentarians and authors began digging into the reality of events that have happened. You can still find positive, upbeat takes on American history, but you’ll probably notice those are rarer than books that are more upfront and honest.

About The Author

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Stephanie Faris 

Stephanie Faris is a novelist and business writer whose work has appeared on numerous blogs. She worked for the State of Tennessee for 19 years, the latter six of which were spent as a supervisor. She has written content for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2011. In addition to her online content, she is also the author of eight novels for Simon & Schuster, including the Piper Morgan chapter book series.