Why Read History?

Many American policymakers, leaders and the general public don’t appear to think knowledge of the historical record is important or useful.  For those who remember, Jay Leno famously illustrated the point on his late night show with funny but sad Jaywalking episodes.

I would like to believe that knowledge of the historical record can keep us from repeating the same mistakes.  It’s a refrain I often utter when answering the question, why should we read history?  But history does not seem to bear out this refrain.  The world seems doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

If this is true, then we are left to learn from history to serve our individual purposes.  What can the knowledge of history do for YOU?  The study of the stories of history can teach you about:

  • decision making,
  • leadership and management skills,
  • internal communication within a group,
  • external communication to the outside world,
  • the importance of clarity of goal and purpose,
  • focus on what matters to reach the end goal,
  • the power of influencing others,
  • the importance of gathering & assessing information,
  • the power of pivoting in a plan of action,
  • the power in telling a great story.

Perhaps most importantly for today’s world, knowledge of history can help you see the world more broadly and thus connect the dots in your immediate world differently.

These days I often get myself waded up in my knickers about the current political situation.  Dipping back into history often calms me down.  Reading history is a solid reminder that human drama seems inevitable in tribes. Since homo sapiens have gathered in groups, there’s been drama.

Yet, there are always some in the tribe who manage to create art, make scientific discoveries, move their community to a better place or show a simple kindness that makes a difference in another life.

Below are only a few bookbundles and other resources that will show you the historical record, take that record and tell the story through a new lens and provide historical lessons that will help you develop knowledge that moves you toward your next chapter.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you have a favorite period in history?   Why is that your favorite?
  • Do you think your interest in this period says something about you?  Can you learn something from that?
  • How can you incorporate your interest in this period of history into your work?

BookBundle: Renaissance Italy

Book Published 1974
Image: Sally Soames/Sunday Times
Book Published 2003
Image: SarahDunant.com


Christopher Hibbert’s book The House of Medici was first published in 1974.  It is still in print which is a testament to the text.  With extensive research, this land surveyor turned historian wrote several popular books in his lifetime.  Many of them about one of his favorite subjects, the Italian Renaissance.  This is a perfect companion for Sarah Dunant’s novel.  And, its nice to see it listed on her short bibliography found at the end of her book.


This may not be a perfect book, but it is a very good story about a private life that goes on while public turmoil rages.

The Birth of Venus is the story told in the first person by Alessandra Cecchi, the 15-year old daughter of a wealthy merchant living in 1490’s Florence.

The city’s cultural and political leader, Cosimo d’Medici has died leaving a power vacuum that is quickly being filled by the confident, fiery, insane but vocal Dominican monk, Savonarola whose charisma and rhetoric mobilize many including groups of young men, who nightly patrolled the streets to rid them of women, sexual ‘deviants’ and vice taking justice into their own hands.

Alessandra’s brother, a feckless but manipulative Sodomite, arranges to have his spirited and talented sister married off to his middle-aged lover to conceal the relationship.  Thus the story unfolds.

Claire Colvin in reviewing the book for The Independent writes,

There are echoes of the Taliban in the takeover by Savonarola’s followers. Gangs of vigilantes harass women on the streets, so that the tap of prostitutes’ heels is replaced by the click of rosary beads. The luxury-loving citizens begin to impose a voluntary curfew of the mind, dress dully, and voluntarily offer up household treasures to be destroyed on the Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s a lesson in how easily people succumb to self-righteous militancy.

I like her phrase “a voluntary curfew of the mind.”  It seems such an apt description for so much that’s happening today, not just in our political discourse but in culture generally.

Here is an NPR interview with Sarah Dunant and Liane Hansen.  Gives one food for thought in our current historical moment.

BookBundle: The Russian Revolution

Book Published 2016
Image: HelenRappaport.com
Book Published 1988
Image: Tara Heinemann/Camera Press/Redux


Post World War I Russia was a mess.  The poor froze in long bread lines while the aristocracy drank champagne by the fire.  It was a country many foreigners (notably John Reed who Warren Beatty immortalized in his mammoth film, Reds) found fascinating and compelling.  For many, Russia had become an adopted home. 

As the Bolshevik revolution brewed, they watched at once fascinated, hopeful and horrified as events unfolded.  Helen Rappaport unpacks the events through the eyes of these witnesses.  A specialist in Russian and Victorian history and author of multiple books on the Romanovs, she is a brilliant guide as she sifts through the public and private record to tell the story of the Russian Revolution from street level, as it were. 


Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel in 1977 at the age of 60.  She went on to win the prestigious Booker prize for Offshore in 1979 and this little gem, The Beginning of Spring was shortlisted in 1988.

Fitzgerald and her many jewels frequently appear on ‘best of…’ lists.  Frank McCrum of The Guardian named this novella to one of his lists.  He said,

The audacity of The Beginning of Spring, and its greatness, is its cheerful willingness to trespass on a literary terrain already made famous, and familiar, through the works of Turgenev, Chekhov and even late Tolstoy. With extraordinary and lyrical brevity, Fitzgerald creates a whole world, but from the inside out, so that all her English and Russian characters become united and universal in a shared humanity.

Enough said.

These two books, Caught in the Revolution and The Beginning of Spring are lovely counterpoints to each other and bring home the point that what we read as ‘history’ — is really the story of any one of us at a particular point in time.  The historical record is composed by all of us.

Additional Resources

Book Published 2011
Image: Daniel Naber

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

Brilliant.  Fantastic.  Wonderful.

If you have even a scintilla of interest in history or a desire to maximize your potential, please consider this book.

There is so much to learn from this book and its author, Yuval Noah Harari.  It’s a wonderful example of how books can teach us so much.  Here are three reasons I love this book:

First,  the publisher, Harper Collins created a heavy book.  Yes, the hardcover version is actually heavy — the paper is a beautiful matte stock making the physical object of the book noticeably heavy.   The book matches the ‘heavy’ topic, the history of humankind and the brilliant, bold, ‘heavy’ prose.  Congratulations to whomever at Harper Collins led the book design project — the presentation choices are brilliant.

Second, Harari has taken a seemingly impossibly large topic: the history of humankind and written an entertaining, fascinating history of the species.  His ability to tell story and teach is notable in a world addicted to the quick hit.

Third, Harari authentically marches to his own drum.  As I read Sapiens, I wanted to know more about Harari.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  How does he work?  What are his research methods and daily routines that allow for such high quality, interesting prose?  I want to learn about him to learn more from him.

I suspect, there is much to learn over and over from this book and author as we all move toward our next chapter.

If you want to accuse me of being a fan girl of Yuval Noah Harari, you would not be incorrect.   Below are a few links to additional media sources for more thought provoking conversations with this gifted historian.

A Conversation on Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up

A Conversation with Dan Ariely at the 92Y in NYC

The Guardian:  Questions for Yuval Noah Harari