What is the best book about each country?

I believe it was Dan Wang who loved the Robert Tombs book The English and Their History and asked for more books of that nature.  Another reader wrote in and wanted to know what was the best book about each country.

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance, nor is Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s splendid Wittgenstein’s Vienna.  I thought I would start with a list of some nominees, solicit your suggestions in the comments, and later produce a longer post with all the correct answers.

1. England/Britain: Robert Tombs, The English and Their History.  Here is MR coverage.

2. Germany: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.

3. Italy: Luigi Barzini, The Italians.  Or David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.

4. Spain: John Hooper, The Spaniards.

5. France: Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.

6. Portugal: Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.

7. Ireland: Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.

8. Russia: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians.  One of the very best books on this list.

9. Ukraine: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

10. The United States: Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America.  Or de Tocqueville?  John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A.?

11. Canada: ????.  Alex?

12. Mexico; Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans.  Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.

13. Caribbean: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

I’ll give South America further thought, Africa and the Middle East too.

14. Cambodia: Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

15. India: Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India.  Or India, by Michael Wood.

16. Pakistan: Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.

17. China: ????  I find this to be a tough call.

18. Singapore and Malaysia: Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.

19. Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date.  What else?

Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region gets tossed in somewhere too.

All of those are subject to revision.

Do leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point I’ll publish an expanded and updated version of this post, with additional countries too, or perhaps split into multiple posts by region.

Here 22 ambassadors recommend one book to read before visiting their country, mostly mediocre selections.   Here is a suggested list of the most iconic book from each country.  Don’t take me as endorsing those.


Oddly enough, for Australia it's still Year of the Angry Rabbit:


I suppose if you want something slightly more up to date on Australia you could get Bill Bryson's Down Under for a casual read on an outsider's perspective or Phillip Knightley's Australia: A Biography of a Nation (but I haven't actually read that one).

Manning Clark’s abridged History of Australia is a good start, despite its inaccuracies, though I would recommend Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend as the best intro to the Aussie aesthetic.

"inaccuracies" may be too kind to the old rogue.

For Australia: The Fatal Shore

It's by Robert Hughes. My great-grandparents kept a copy of the Sears catalog in the outhouse. Remaindered copies of anything by Hughes are properly put to such use.

Possibly the best book on Australian history, but its not a general survey.

The best book on Canadian history, in style and content, is Canada: A Story of Challenge by J. M. S. Careless. However, it only goes up to 1963, when it was written.

New Zealand: The Fellowship of the Ring

For the Philippines, either "In Our Image" by Karnow or "Touch Me Not" by Rizal

More seriously, Michael King's "A Penguin History of New Zealand" is a fine one-volume overview of NZ's history. He got the Māori history right, and was sensitive to being a Pākehā writing about Māori history. For scholarship that has a Māori lens, try "Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History". http://tangatawhenua.bwb.co.nz/

Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump

The Search for Modern China?

I can't say I have a wide enough knowledge to say if it's the best, but it's certainly a very good book.

Probably not up to your standards, but I found Peter Hesler's book a great intro to China for myself.

edit above... Books (plural :) )

But does 'The English and Their History' bring tears to the eyes of those who love liberty, even when they aren't landing at Heathrow and stepping off a British Airways flight? Though luckily, readers are not treated the same in 2018 as those who travelled to the UK in 2008 - 'This is no exaggeration or blog tease: I want to see you crying at Heathrow.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/01/john-edwards.html

You are literally the biggest douchebag on the internet

Thanks, god - shame that the odds are only a select few will read your contribution.

Besides, normally I provide a link to this crying passage from 2014 - 'Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/03/inventing-freedom.html - but the decade spread, and textual appropriateness, made the other passage more fitting.

Maybe we should have a Conversation about it?

Tyler's been crying about democracy for 14 months now, but probably not the way he envisioned in 2008.

Digging up 10 year old posts just to “get” Tyler? What a pathetic, miserable person you are.

That would be like digging up something from ten years ago on Roy Moore.

The fact that I have been reading Marginal Revolution for more than 10 years is much better proof of what a pathetic, miserable person I am, don't you think?

Well, you do supply proof on a consistent basis, in one way or another.

Yes. Hanging out in a place you don’t like for 10+ years is the meta-proof of what an awful human you are. Then there are the individual proof points which can be ranked beneath that. In fact, why don’t you do a stack ranking of your 1,000 most miserable comments? Then report back in a few months when you’ve completed your work. Who knows? Maybe Tyle will even feature it as a post.

Jonathan Steinberg's "Why Switzerland" is the obvious and maybe the only one in English.

Good God, it's decades since I read that. My memory is that it was pretty good.

Ireland: Dubliners

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy.

There are problems with this book including economic analysis with origins in Chalmer Johnson's 1982 MITI book and von Wolferen's 1989 book "The Enigma of Japanese Power" - a political scientist and a journalist. (von Wolferen is an example of a Western who lived in Japan for decades and never learned the language.) Too much of the book is a list of economic cliches about that political scientists and journalists have assumed to be true since the 1980s but most economists understand not to be.

Economist David Flath's 2000 text "The Japanese Economy" corrects these misconceptions from the Tokugawa period up to the 1997 Asian Financial crisis. A second edition was published in 2005 (an inexpensive edition) and a third edition was released in 2014.

I read Woferen's book around the time it came out and found it adorable. Thank you very much for sullying that memory. Truthfully I know nothing about Japan so I can't offer any sort of defense of the book but I'm hoping my hurt feelings will dissuade you from future acts of cruelty.

+1. I can't comment on Todd K's analysis, but having read quite a few books on Japan, I think Japan and the Shackles of the Past is very good. David Pilling's Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival" is good as well, but too focused on contemporary issues.

Please, a list for fiction too!


Lebanon: Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk

no, Fisk is one of most overrated journalist, he spent 20 years in Lebanon without speaking arabic.

Add to this that he's also a verb: to be Fisked.

The link for the Hosking book is mixed up.

On the book on Ukraine, from the Amazon description it looks like it's attributing a lot of Russian history to "Ukraine", so whatever else its virtues may be, expect it to be a partisan volume arguing about the past from nationalist perspectives of today.

Russians have been attributing Ukrainian history for themselves since the XVI century, when monks from Kyiv went there to sell them the idea of the Third Rome.

*The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran* by Roy Mottahedeh

India : Although Luce is very readable , would suggest

Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree

For Brazil:
"Brazil - The Troubled Rise of a Global Power" by Michael Reid - http://amzn.to/2CFGYax

I still think of Zweig's "Pais do Futuro" (Country of the Future) as being the best, even if it is very dated now. I like Reid's book, but I think its way too arid, almost academic, to consider it "the best" book about Brazil.

Wouldn't the Old Testament be the best book concerning the nation of Israel?

Certainly no one of any influence lived in Bethlehem after the Old Testament took place.

Good point - though strangely enough, the current nation of Israel still bases a number of its territorial claims on the Old Testament. Almost as if the Old Testament has some mysterious power over the nation of Israel and the way it sees itself.

Next you'll be telling me The Communist Manifesto is still read on college campuses.

Only if it's available on a smartphone.

I'm not aware of any. Were you perhaps thinking of Jesus of Nazareth?


Early Christian traditions describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem: in one, a verse in the Book of Micah is interpreted as a prophecy that the Messiah would be born there.[87] The New Testament has two different accounts of the birth. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus' parents live in Nazareth and travel for the Census of Quirinius to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born, after which they return home.[19] The Gospel of Matthew mentions Bethlehem but not the census.[88] Told that a 'King of the Jews' has been born in the town, Herod orders the killing of all the boys aged two and under in the town and surrounding area. Joseph, warned of by an angel of the Lord, flees to Egypt with his family; the Holy Family later settles in Nazareth.

Right. They suggest he was born in Bethlehem. Nothing anywhere suggests he was from Bethlehem.

The UK -, Tough call, I would probably go for Simon Schama's A History Of Britain. Well-told across all 3 volumes.

China - Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos for a great picture of contemporary China.

Pakistan - The Anatol Lieven book is the current best, a strong second would be Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan of the Economist. Published in the late 80s but still very relevant.

Schama? His "Citizens" I thought excellent: since then I've not thought much of his stuff. On the telly he's become just a pantomime dame.


Two books:

- Wax and Gold by Donald Levine
- Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier)

And, if I may be so bold:

Ethiopia through writers' eyes by... Yves-Marie Stranger

Ethiopia reading list: https://uthiopia.com/books-to-understand-ethiopia/

'course you may be so bold. My only contact with Ethiopia comes from flying on Ethiopian Air Lines, so forgive me if I don't dash off a review of your book.


1. India - A million mutinies now, VS Naipaul
2. The Wonder that was India, AL Basham

1. is a brilliant travelogue written in 1990

2. is a conventional history book of pre Islamic India.

An interesting point about 1.

It is a book written in 1990 at the cusp of the Economic reforms which were announced in 1991.

And Naipaul strongly believes this is a country on the cusp of a momentous change. Something is afoot, in his view. And he captures this change in the offing by talking to people. Very prescient in that sense.

It's not just a very great book on India. But also one of the finest books written by Naipaul, which is high praise given the very high quality of his ouevre.

His book 'The Middle Passage' would have to qualify as one of the best books on the Caribbean.

Edward Luce on India? Really! I remember a book full of niggling faults, i.e. mixing up vsrna and casre so as to call Rajputs a subcaste.

The very title of the book is problematic. As it presupposes religion to be a problem. A bug rather than a feature.

I haven't read it. But the title is very condescending. And I was disappointed with his interview with Tyler

It iused to be funny how Indians want to be patted at their backs again and gain. Now, it is just tiresome and annoying. Somehow, Indin culture has nothing to do wih Indin's humanitarian disaster. While India has gone from Maoist disaster area to a contender for world domination, India remains India.

One wishes to be informed by books. Not subject to rants.

The title "Inspite of the Gods" suggests that Gods are somehow a problem. Maybe they are. Maybe they are not. But it is highly tendentious to insinuate so strongly in the title of the book.

And Luce's rants on Modi in his interview with Tyler were bitterly disappointing. He is supposed to be an India expert and has no feel for what the Hindu nationalist movement is about. And why it found favor. Sure, you can still be a critic of Modi or his movement. But as an expert journalist, I expect him to understand why this movement has its appeal. There is no empathy there. Except a snobbish liberal condescension towards "Hindu fascists".

"The title 'Inspite of the Gods' suggests that Gods are somehow a problem. Maybe they are. Maybe they are not. But it is highly tendentious to insinuate so strongly in the title of the book."

If it is his conclusion, what is the problem? Oh, maybe it should buried somewhere people won't see it.
"There is no empathy there. "
Maybe one should not be expect to have empathy for fascists.

I used the word fascist in quotes.

Modi is no more fascist than Trump is. Probably much less so.

Hindu fascists are hunting down Christians with Modi's blesings.


For the United States I plan to get started soon on the Daniel Boorstin trilogy.

America the colonial experience, America the national experience, America the democratic experience

Tom Sowell recommends them very highly. I have never seen them mentioned on MR though.

Curious to hear some thoughts.

new to me - thanks for the tip S, sounds interesting, have ordered volume 1.

Yes. I have read a good portion of 1. And it is a very high class work in my book.

But I am a little surprised why it is not acknowledged as essential reading or a classic as yet.

Boorstin is a giant in my view. His books on world history - The Discoverers, The Creators and The Seekers are very good too. But the American books seem a few notches better

For the United States, how about the Oxford History of the United States series?

I started them when I was younger but could not sustain my interest.

For Russia I find Richard Pipes very good. Got started on the first book of his trilogy.

that book is more like a carefully crafted caricature of russia. The book starts from assertion that russians were not agriculturalists, but turned to agriculture much later. Now if it is true and was it quite a well known fact that slavs turned to agriculture long before expansion to east? take Lynn White works from 60s ( a decade before Pipes wrote his book ) - we see, that all slav languages share great deal of agricultural vocabulary, and due the fact, that slavs were split by invaders in hungarian planes - we could know that they all had very intensive agricultural knowledge prior to starting to form what we know now as russia and ukraine, Lynn White and others even credit slavs for horse collar invention which transformed whole northern europe (such as Germans borrowed horse collar around start of ix century). But for Pipes - russian slavs are just hunter gatherers. And such fact cherry picking is all over his book.

Yes, not everything is really bad, the book has a good point that climate played a role in how russia developed, but it's effects are so exaggerated that lead Pipes to make 'fatal conclusions', which some might argue turned true - but there were other reasons than climate why it turned such as we have now, and exactly those other historical features are completely omitted from his book

Which features? take fur trade which provided quite a bit of state income from Ivan the Terrible till beginning of XIX century and which explains why russia moved to Siberia - the whole industry was quite small in people involved and provided rulers to be less dependent on people fortunes (a modern close analogy are forces supporting contemporary totalitarian petrostates ) )

One of Pipes's points early in the book is to emphasize the Scandinavian roots of the Russian state. The very word "Russia" is Scandinavian and not Slavic.

Is this point of his much contested in Russia today (which no doubt is proudly Slavic).

as for roots there are few things to argue now. Genetic studies find close relations between slavic people, so in Russia - scandinavian influence might be through elite domination, but underlying population was largerly slavic ( unless you would imagine, that mongols exterminated those scandinavian russians and replaced people with some other genes ;) ),

so that is a picture which Pipes tries to prove - russians were extremely primitive people who did not have state and even had no agriculture. as for state - it is for sure was imported from scandinavians ( not very modern state though, but the fact it was imported is what is written in oldest russian chronicles, so scandinavian roots maybe contested by some - but almost no one argues, that russian rules were of scandinavian stock ), but still, painting russians to be more primitive, than they could look if the story was more close to facts, is essential feature of Pipes writings

You are confusing the Russians with Slavs in general. The Muscovites, the founders of the modern Russian State, were very much a fringe population at the edge of the Slavic world. While the Western Slavs became agriculturalists and started building towns, the ancestors of the Russians stayed in the forests or raised horses on the steppes. There is also certainly quite a lot of Eurasian Finno-Ugric and Mongolian/Turkic admixture in the Russian nation, which make the Russian people very different in character and culture from the European Slavs.

"While the Western Slavs became agriculturalists" look, slavs became agriculturalists well before 6the century when they started to spread to area beyond Pripyat river.

"the ancestors of the Russians stayed in the forests or raised horses on the steppes" so they forgot agriculture when moved to forests? hehe. Not that fast.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is quite efficient if there are a lot of forests. that is why slavic population prevailed over locals - because they had more food and could support more children ( it is just a fact that slash and burn agriculture can support two three times more people than hunter gathering/ horse rising could support in the same conditions )

'There is also certainly quite a lot of Eurasian Finno-Ugric and Mongolian/Turkic admixture in the Russian nation' certainly yes. That is where genetic admixture analysis comes handy.
there is less than 1% of Mongolian/Turkik admixture in russians and ~7% Finno Ugric ( on average - 15% for those in arhangel region and ~3% for southern russia ), not that much, and no Norse genetic signal at all.

"The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation" by Mark Kurlansky is a great book about the Basque country, may be THE best.

Anyone got any good recommendations for Korea ?

Daniel Tudor's "Korea: The Impossible Country" is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends "The Koreans," since updated as "The New Koreans," by Michael Breen, and "The Two Koreas" by Robert Carlin as "two foundational texts." Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy" is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.

I second the Daniel Tudor book, but the updated Michael Breen book does look good.

Tudor's book is very good, another suggestion would be "The birth of Korean cool" by Euny Hong.

For Canada, read "A Fair Country" by John Ralston Saul, "Clearing the Plains" by James William Daschuk, and pretty much any of Pierre Berton's books.

Also: not a book, but consider watching the documentary "Dancing Around the Table", which you can watch for free on the National Film Board website: https://www.nfb.ca/film/dancing_around_the_table_1/

I recommend "Right Honourable Men" by Michael Bliss for Canad.

I also enjoyed the Pierre Berton two-volume history of the War of 1812 but it does really fit within Tyler's criteria.

My impression of John Ralston Saul is that he is wildly overrated and, related but distinct, would fail Economics 101.

Yeah, Vimy is the standard "coming of a nation" book for Canadians - although too oversentimental. The underappreciated element of that book is some weird attempt to recover Hughes' tarnished image as a proto-Canadian.

Definitenly recommend it to non-Canadians to get a sense of common denominator Canadian "nationalism"

I would second "A Fair Country" but suggest it as part of a field entry with Saul's "Louis-Hippolyte- Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin". Though neither works are above criticism, taken together they represent the best attempt available to answer the questions "Why, and how is Canada different from the United States (and western Europe).

Saul's work is influenced by Harold Innis, particularly "The Fur Trade in Canada" (1930). This also remains worthwhile, if you feel robust enough to handle Innis' drier-than-the-Sahara prose, and the fact that it is literally a history of the fur trade in Canada.

My thoughts on Ralston Saul are similar to how I felt about The Economist. When I was a student, The Economist was a hyper intelligent source of information about the world. But when I started visiting countries and doing work that the magazine wrote about, I realized they often talked a lot of bollocks.

Same with Ralston Saul. He sounds wonderfully intelligent when discussing something you don’t know, but listen to him comment on current events, economics etc and he sounds conventional, naive and emotive. His recent silliness on the minimum wage a case in point.

Like I said, Saul isn't above criticism, particularly how his analysis of Canadian history often conveniently corresponds to his left-of-centre political views. Maybe something better will come along, but until then those two books offer a compelling explanation as to how Canada evolved (as a country and society) differently from other western nation-states.

With respect to the comments below from J.J. and Art Deco- Canada as "one of the toadstools of history", and that French and English patriotism are possible, but Canada-as-a-whole patriotism is a contrivance: These are the sort of assumptions that Saul addresses. Reading his book it becomes clear that this is not how Lafontaine and Baldwin saw Canada- in the 1840's. I don't believe there is another book that addresses this.

"For the United States I plan to get started soon on the Daniel Boorstin trilogy."

Those are good. They aren't very concerned with political history. They have a lot about business and consumerism. E.g., a marketing research company I worked at gets several pages in the third volume.

Thanks. Good to hear your thoughts.

Barzini's "The Italians" and Riding's "Distant Neighbors: Mexico" are both good but old.

"Midnight in Sicily" by Peter Robb on the more sinister Southern Italian aspects of recent Italian history is good. Lots on the mafia and Operation Gladio.

Jorge Castaneda "Manana Forever" on 21st Century Mexico isn't as polished but it's pretty informative.

For the US, might I suggest the almost unknown trilogy of Mark David Ledbetter, “America’s forgotten history”? The first two volumes especially, from Revolution to Reconstruction, are splendid. The third, until the Progressive era, loses focus a bit. The author promised it will cover in the short future the period from Wilson to today, although he did not publish anything for the last 3-4 years.

“Distant neighboroods” on Mexico is splendid, but too much transformational Mexican history is not covered. For example, the Monterrey of the book is still a sleepy 2 millons people town, not the 8 millons+ effervescent powerhouse of today. The two most important drivers of Mexico of the last 20 years, Nafta and drugs, are not discussed.

I found “Midnight in Sicily” boring, and it is anyway very specific.

For the U.S., A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn

To be avoided.

I tried to read that to learn how the socialists were teaching history in America. I was so nauseated by the righteous tone backed by anedoctes only that I had to stop at half of it. I enjoyed the chapter on Wobblies, though.

A "righteous tone backed by anecdotes" is surely standard in histories of the US?

"I was so nauseated by the righteous tone backed by anedoctes only that I had to stop at half of it"..... What a snowflake. May be you need some trigger warnings next time?

No. I believe in personal responsibility. I decided to read that bullshit.
I do believe in freedom of expression, differently from many in the left (and in the statist right as well)

Even liberal historians consider Zinn's book to be garbage.

Howard Zinn, no thanks. I wish to be informed, not to be lectured by a tendentious socialist.

Zinn ca. 1947 was a card-carrying two-meetings-a-week member of the Communist Party and known to the FBI as such. He was later employed on the staff of the old American Labor Party, which had started out as the electoral vehicle of the garment unions in New York but had by it's last years decayed into a collecting pools of red-haze types. He had academic positions from 1959 until his death and his dissertation was published as a university press book. He published many books, but all but only three were works of original historical research. The rest were extended opinion pieces. The People's History is a polemic. His life (and Felix Browder's) make an interesting counterpoint to the contention that such people were mistreated in postwar America.

The fact that John Birch society members were treated better than the Communists says all you need to know about the state of the U.S. in the 20th century.

They were? When? By whom?

Birchers are becoming one of the default villains of the ignorant left. There were unsavory characters among them, and they were way too obsessed by the Soviets, but their fundamental tenet, limited government, was sound. Just like the American First members, members of the Old Right or everybody in the North that opposed Lincoln’s dictatorship, they are now treated like unidimensional cartoon figures. It’s the usual leftish paintbrushing of history.

Greatly interested in a key book on Hungary

great book on Hungary, novel, ironically named Prague.
Good Novel, and excellent coverage of Hungarian History.

Prague, Arthur Phillip, 2002. Thanks, that sounds good.

Any other contenders?

As a Canadian, I'd like to know an answer to this question. Growing up, history seemed to be a series of microaggresions (e.g. Boer war, endless fur trade disputes). It would be nice to read a more overarching narrative!

Be fair, the Boers were sorely provoked.

Spain: I read Hooper's the Spaniards back in the 90's before I left for a year there in college. I remember enjoying it- there was a bit about the hyper-caffeinated coffee everyone drank that got me excited- but I think it's pretty dated by now as it deals a lot with the political situation at the time in the 90's.

My choice would be Iberia by Michener. It's non-fiction unlike most of his books. I discovered it in the used books pile at my library and it took my interest in the country to a whole other level. I learned so much about Spain from reading this book, and it covers all facets- music (I had never heard of zarzuela until reading this one), history (from Seneca and the Romans all the way through the Civil War), art (my favorite sections are those when he seeks out Goya, El Greco and Velazquez paintings), festivals (especially the feria in Sevilla), food (a funny story discussing with a British traveler at a restaurant in Toledo how the Spaniards like their partridge gamy), and a lot more. Whenever I'm bored and miss Spain, I pick up this book, read a random chapter and I'm good again. It's very dated, but that's part of it's charm.

Japan: Donald Richie is the best author to read. Nobody writes better on what it's like to be a foreigner in Japan. He loved the country and although he lived there the majority of his life after the war, he was very clear that he was not Japanese and firmly believed believed it was impossible for a foreigner to ever lose their outsider status. Hard to pick one book, but I personally adore The Inland Sea. He wrote a lot of film criticism including bios of Ozu and Kurosawa and those will give you a very good background on Japanese culture but you probably need to have some interest in the subject to keep reading.

There is also a Donald Richie reader that will give you a good overview of his work.

Korea: I read Bruce Cuming's "Korea's place in the sun" before my first visit and enjoyed it immensely. Great concise history of the country with some informed personal opinions thrown in to keep it lively.

Also, Japan through the looking glass, by Alan Macfarlane

While Richie is *the* famous foreign voice on Japan, Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" is, to use Tyler's favorite word, underrated and worth a read.

Yes, alan booth is very good as well although hIs travelogue is more of a daily journal than Richie's Inland Sea which goes off on wife tangents about Japanese history, culture, etc. Booths book is very funny though which has that going for it. I never read his other book,

I believe they were both acquaintances and had good things to say about each other's books.

That generation of writers living in Japan wrote some phenomenal stuff. Seidensticker, Pico Iyer, Ian Buruma just to name a few. I have wonderful memories of reasing all these books during my first few years living there.

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West Paperback – March 28, 2000
by T.R. Reid

Good book about Japan by the WaPo correspondent. Funny.

I heard Reid discuss his book on NPR in 2000 and was surprised how much he thought Japan could do know wrong. Reid's anecdotes are funny but overall someone who has lived in Japan a few years and speaks the language will wonder where the other half of the book is.

For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It's shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!

From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier

Definitely not John Gunther's Inside U.S.A. It's interest is mostly historic, part of the development of the post-war (1947) consensus that a mixed economy guided by benevolent technocrats was the only way to go. The book is partly a commercial for Harold Stassen!

Indonesia...etc. for... Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)

I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.

Yes, a vote for the Pisani book. I recommend this as well.

The Bible in Spain by George Borrow. Very old, very good.

Patrick Leigh Fermor on Greece, Crete - Mani...etc.

Germany. From the Amazon summary at the link: "The German Genius is a lively and accessible review of over 250 years of German intellectual history. In the process, it explains the devastating effects of World War II, which transformed a vibrant and brilliantly artistic culture into a vehicle of warfare and destruction, and it shows how the German culture advanced in the war’s aftermath." I can understand why Germans pretend that WWII is something that happened to Germany, as opposed to something Germans inflicted on the rest of the world, but even Amazon falls for it.

Cowen: "To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country." "[W]hat the country is"? That's a strange way to put it. In any case, I understand the point of including only survey books ("to cover much of the history of the country"), but they usually don't reveal much; indeed, they can be highly misleading, often confusing myths with history. On the other hand, a book that covers the arc of a country's history might reveal in the arc the traits that explain such things as Bach or WWII or Kleptocracy or social media or Donald Trump.

I enjoyed MacGregor's recent book.

Israel: Start-up Nation – The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.

I liked Hugh Pope's Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World

The Tombs book on England is excellent. You realize that England is perhaps the most successful country of the post-classical era.

While I suspect each of the lists have merit my take is before making a recommendation on "best" one must fist define the criteria for the assessment of "best". I suspect what these list will all be best for is allowing a reader to infer what the criteria the recommendor had in mind but not necessarily be the best book for the reader.

I would love to read some suggestions for best books on the Netherlands, since I might be moving there soon. And given the country's central place in the development of the modern free-market economy and global trade (among other things), I'd think it would be a pretty important country to include on this list.

Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)

Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke

Germany(/Netherlands): Because they are close neighbors and just different enough, the Dutch tend to be very good observers of Germany. So maybe try these books https://duitslandinstituut.nl/artikel/15017/boekenweek-nieuwe-non-fictie-over-duitsland or this list of books on the relationship between the two countries: https://dirkzwagerbibliotheek.nl/boekenweek-16-boekentips-over-relatie-nederland-duitsland/

Excellent, thank you!

There are two good and readable historical books on Amsterdam (and, by extension, The Netherlands)---one by Russell Shorto and the other by Geert Mak. Both are available in English. A bit more highbrow than the other books mentioned.

I'm going to try the Shorto book first. Thanks for this.

The History of Canada: "We are not Americans, eh. Sorry!"

I was expecting My Struggle by Knausgård for Norway from professor Cowen, but perhaps the list was only for significant countries?


PS, Portugal and Ireland are on the list, so scratch the significant country hypothesis!

Maybe because a lot of My Struggle is set in Sweden. Knausgard is also too idiosyncratic to be a good guide to Norway in general.

Like a Norwegian Woody Allen!

What is important country when it comes to history? I'd guess Portugal's global impact for about 4 centuries makes it top 5 country in Europe when it comes to influence in global affairs and shaping of the modern world, don't let the present distract you from facts.

Best book on Russia:

Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes

Beware. Figes has a well-earned reputation for underhand behaviour.

Canada is a hard one, esp because of the French/English duality -- there's by definition no single overarching narrative. There's also no single overarching meta-narrative. But to get the sense of what's up with English Canada, you could do worse than read George Grant's Lament for a Nation, particularly the 40th anniversary edition with intro by, er, me. The issue isn't that Grant got it right, it's that the ways in which he was wrong, and why he remains so wrong influential, are crucial to understanding the anxieties of English speaking Canada. https://www.amazon.ca/Lament-Nation-Canadian-Nationalism-Anniversary/dp/077353010X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515422833&sr=8-1&keywords=lament+for+a+nation

"Lament for a Nation" is an odd book that has not aged well. Grant is deeply anti-American, and sees anti-Americanism, or as he might put it, preserving Canadian "sovereignty" from America, as the defining purpose of the Canadian nation. Which is fine, most Canadians probably agree with that. Yet he argues this through a very idiosyncratic prism, as a sort of populist conservative, in which he posits the fall of the very anti-American, Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at — as Grant sees it — the hands of a hostile media, bureaucracy, big business, etc. — as the defining case study of the battle for the soul of Canada. In other words, Diefenbaker was the last true patriot while the entire Canadian establishment were sellouts/American collaborators of one form or another.

In reality, Canadian anti-American nationalism is now an overwhelmingly leftist thing. The forces Grant identified as being most hostile to Canadian sovereignty, including the press, bureaucracy, and progressives in general, are now its most ardent defenders, while conservative Canadians, and their institutions, are the most pro-American. It's for this reason I don't believe his book is terrible relevant, useful, or even, frankly, coherent to most readers today. Grand fundamentally misunderstood the postwar, post-colonial shifts in Canadian power and politics, and how the ideological force he claimed to care so much about — anti-Americanism — would mutate, not decline, as Canadian realities changed.

I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.

Bangladesh: A History of Bangladesh by Willem Schendel

Here's a few I haven't seen mentioned:

On Australia: Robert Hughes' "The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding"

On Bulgaria: "Border" by Kapka Kassabova

On Guyana: "Wild Coast" by John Gimlette

On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews' "Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong"

On Mexico: Enrique Krauze's book "Mexico: Biography of Power" has the reputation of "best book about [modern] Mexico," but I've struggled to read it.

On Myanmar: "Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma" by Richard Cockett

On Nicaragua: Stephen Kinzer's "Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua"

On Romania: "Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania" by William Blacker or perhaps Robert D. Kaplan's "In Europe's Shadow". I also liked Kaplan's portrait of Oman in "Monsoon".

Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux's book about the South Pacific, "The Happy Isles of Oceania"? And Michael Reid's "Forgotten Continent" is a useful book about South America.

And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground" J. Anthony Lukas

I thought Hughes's book was a stinker. Writing of the early fleets he even managed to muddle up Portsmouth with Plymouth.

Hughes commanded a certain attention in the book buying market, could write, and could turn in copy on time. What he couldn't do was draw on a knowledge of history or social relations which might improve on that to be offered by an energetic and precocious undergraduate. The book was testament to his grotesque self-esteem.

“To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is...”
Mexico: Riding, Distant Neighbors, -- definitely. Being up to date is not that relevant for attempting to show “what the country is...”. As good or better: Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) (1950) and Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico! (1908)

El Laberinto also came to my mind as a better candidate on Mexico. And then there is Understanding Mexicans and Americans: Cultural Perspectives in Conflict (Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero and Lorand B. Szalay) originally published in 1991.


El Nicaragüense by Pablo Antonio Cuadra (for Nicaragua)

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb - new insights in the very old genre of A-Book-on-France-by-an-Englishman. Not easy to pull off (or to lay down).

The Government of Ethiopia - Margery Perham's Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict's Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.

On Robb: entirely agree. Riveting.

Absolutely. I now read his books as they are released.

Michela Wrong's We didn't do it for You, on Eritrea.

- Not without its flaws, but still a good book on a relatively unknown country.

Also by M. Wrong, on the DRC: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold's ghost on the DRC.

For Canada, I'd suggest "The Patriot Game" by Peter Brimelow or "Lament for a Nation" by George Grant.

Zimbabwe -
The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart

Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)

Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke

Germany(/Netherlands): Because they are close neighbors and just different enough, the Dutch tend to be very good observers of Germany. So maybe try these books https://duitslandinstituut.nl/artikel/15017/boekenweek-nieuwe-non-fictie-over-duitsland or this list of books on the relationship between the two countries: https://dirkzwagerbibliotheek.nl/boekenweek-16-boekentips-over-relatie-nederland-duitsland/

For Canada, I recommend "How to be Canadian" or binge watching TSN will suffice. Also check out, trailer park boys and corner gas.

P.S. I mean this genuinely.

Canada - "The Vertical Mosaic"

Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha? I know this looks like it fairly limited in scope for what the question asks but looks comparable to Luce's In Spite of the Gods.

It is not the worst book on the planet.

But Guha comes with a lot of baggage. He is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. A secularist. And nurses a very strong aversion towards the Hindu nationalist movement.

This prevents him from being objective and fair about the developments in India over the past 30 years.

...."prevents him from being objective."

Haven't read it so not fair to comment on the book , but the above remark would apply to a number of commentators oi this blog , may be to all of us ?

"I am firm , you are obstinate , he is pig-headed.: "(bertrand russell)

Haven't read it yet but am absolutely enthralled by Ramachandra Guha's " Gandhi before India"

"The Italians" - I inherited my grandmother-in-law's copy of that book. Didn't read it, but was amused by his "why are we so depraved?" theme. I am surprised to learn it is well-respected. Maybe I shouldn't have tossed it.

I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I'll propose "Games Without Rules" for Afghanistan.

There is no 'best'. There are books better or worse adapted for particular purposes, books more or less given to error, and books better or worse in their organization and composition.

"There is no ‘best’." I tend to agree. But quite often there is a 'worst'.

The best book about Canada is "The Patriot Game" by Peter Brimelow. Though Brimelow is now a mostly fringe figure associated with the alt-right and white nationalism, for many years he was a perfectly respected mainstream Canadian journalist who wrote for all the big newspapers and magazines up here. As a Brit, he saw Canada with a certain degree of aloof detachment, and "The Patriot Game" was his effort to write a "Unified Theory of Canada," that focuses heavily on how Canadian politics, and the "game" of manufacturing a sense of nationalism for a rather curious, anachronistic country (he famously called it "one of the toadstools of history" — that is, something that grew up unexpectedly) provides the essence of Canadian identity. Even as Brimelow's own reputation has declined, it is still a very widely-quoted book, and was particularly influential in the life of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The best book I've read about Japan, or at least modern Japan, is "Dogs and Demons" by Alex Kerr. It's a fairly pessimistic book about how various postwar obsessions — material comfort, social harmony, and clear class identities — have created a surprisingly unambitious, overly conservative, deeply sclerotic country that has seen its brief glimpse as one of the world's major powers unambiguously pass.

Alex Kerr is another great writer on Japan, but this one is a bit dated although definitely still worth a read. His Lost Japan is my favorite.

the “game” of manufacturing a sense of nationalism for a rather curious, anachronistic country

Curious? Anachronistic?

Here's a suggestion: Canada-as-a-whole is a contrivance maintained as such due to convention, inertia, and anxiety. A sense of patriotism for that whole was bound to be superficial and contrived. A sense of patriotism for each of the two major components might not be. Trouble is, the Quebecois ruined their unique culture and Anglophone Canada's elites make use of mass immigration and cultural propaganda to suppress theirs.

Why oh why in any case would "the best book about each country" NOT be (or be deemed) a volume produced in or by a native of each respective country? Sad commentary on any country lacking the resources or the initiative to account for itself.

Take a clue from (at least) one title you got right, TC: Luigi Barzini's The Italians.

(By this metric the best book on China might well remain the Zhuangzi.)

Looking up Barzini on Amazon, I noted that the next entry was Mario Puzo, lol. Anyway thanks, I will check it out.

Where are the books on:


Denmark / Sweden?

Poland: Norman Davies?

For Poland, yes, Norman Davies' God's Playground is the best book in English.

Poland: A History by Zamoyski is concise, but probably too concise for someone not already somewhat familiar with Polish history.

For Scandinavia - The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.

One of the best books for understanding any nation, ignoring much of the history and most of the politics, is 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox.

Is it possible the best book for "getting" France is the Larousse Gastronomique? Because I already have that one also.

Since Britain includes Scotland and Wales, the Scots or Welsh would not be too happy with "The English and Their History" as a representative text. I'm not sure what would be considered a representative text (and I'm Irish anyway), but pretty sure a book about the English isn't it.

I can't quite get the phrasing right, but surely the Scots and Welsh being slighted in favor of the English in a work of British history is exactly what you would expect. Something about the medium being the message? Or poetic justice, but with history instead of poetry?

Italy- how about John Hooper's The Italians? Its basically the same premise as his book on Spain, but moved to Italy. Haven't read it but imagine it's as good as the Spaniards based on Hooper's reputation.

Razib has a good similar post https://www.gnxp.com/WordPress/2017/06/12/books-i-suggest-you-read-so-you-wont-be-misled-as-often/

Czech Republic - "Gottland" by Mariusz Szczygiel. A description of the Czechs by a Pole. Will give you a lot of insight into the Czech character. I suppose a lot of Czechs will tell you The Good Soldier Swejk is the best book about Czechs, but that is self-serving.

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann is also very good.

This list made me realize I cannot think of one decent non-fiction book in English about post-war Austria or the modern Austrian national character. Not even a decent biography of Falco. Maybe I need to get writing. Or maybe no one really cares.

Any recommendations on Vietnam?

RE: #17 China

Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 "bluebook") or Fifth Editions (2015 "greenbook") by Endymion Wilkinson

I second this. Relatively easy to read and it is pretty comprehensive. Everything I was curious about regarding China from how hanzi was developed to naming practices, I have found in there.

Frankly, I wonder how much attention he was able to invest in his job as EU Ambassador to China if he did so much research. He probably ended up speaking to a lot of people in China, but the diplomatic corps couldn't have seen much of him.

Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum's Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum's lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion's work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.

Yo, ZZ, you're just trying to be a smartarsse. The Chinese History books you cite are comprehensive guides to sources and cultural considerations to support the craft of doing Chinese History. The books are mistitled. They should be called something like "Sourcebook of Chinese History," not "Chinese History". There's no real historical narrative in these volumes.

They are fantastic for what they are, though.

If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country - mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.

Roy Foster on Ireland.

Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.

James Hawes has just published what has been reviewed as an excellent short history of Germany. His previous book on Anglo-German relations before WW1 felt like a fresh and convincing re-interpretation of what is very well-trodden ground in political/diplomatic history.

I'm reading Simon Leys now. Excellent!

Just dug up a Leys quote that I enjoyed:

"We never cease to be astonished by the passing of time: "Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!". This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time. Nevertheless, it is in the bonds of time that man builds the cathedral of Chartres, paints the Sistine Chapel, plays the seven-stringed zither - which inspired William Blake's luminous intuition: "Eternity is in love with the productions of time".

Bit off topic that.

USA: Albion's Seed
Saudi Arabia: Destiny Disrupted

On the "Iconic books" list, "I served the King of England" for Czech Republic is wrong. It's clearly "The Good Soldier Svejk."

Tyler previously said "How China Became Capitalist" will become the standard history of reform period, which I hope is true.

I'm enjoying "The Hapsburgs" on pre-nation state nation building. Though I suppose that might be best seen as the history of a State that doesn't exist.

I thought I was the only one who knew about Graham Robb: The Discovery of France )) Also amusing: Sixty million Frenchmen can not be wrong by Jean Nadeau.

On Spanish recent history I enjoyed Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Specifically on Barcelona I'd recommend Robert Hughes' Barcelona. Inside into Catalan physcho.

On Scandinavia: The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth

On Eastern Europe - Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.

On the history of Russia you can't beat 'Internal Colonisation' by Alexander Etkind.

And on English - wonderful AA Gill, RIP, 'Angry Island: Hunting the English'

Second the comments calling for Greece recommendations.

France: Bel Ami by Maupassant.

For Thailand: “Thailand's Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by
B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.

Any suggestions for Cambodia pre-pre-genocide ?

Books I liked which gave me more than just history
Germany - Neil Ferguson is good ( germany through objects)
Simon Winder Germania is more amusing and refreshing for anyone more interested in pre WW2 germany

Spain - John Crow - Spain the Root and the Flower, Italy - Dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Not sure these are the best, but they give an interesting psychological insight for the occasional traveller

Russia - big country so 3 books, not histories - War and Peace (Tolstoy), Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman), Everything is possible (Pomerantsev),

If you are going to go with a dated option for Mexico, Paz' "Labyrinth of Solitude" is considerably better than "Distant Neighbors".

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For India, one of my favourite books is "India: A History" by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.

One should also be aware that Indian history is extremely diverse and there really is no single region that is representative of modern day India. For example, there are not many books which cover the history of South India. South India had a fairly distinct historical background for a large part of the time, but was heavily influenced by the events in North India. While I haven't found any properly good book that covers South India history, "A History of South India" by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and "A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations" by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.

Any good ones for Finland?

I was thinking about starting with a good book about the Winter War.

For Japan:

Modern: Bending Adversity by David Pilling is an excellent view on modern (deflation era) Japan.

Recent: Covering the Showa Period (1923-1989), the graphic novel "Showa" by Shigeru Mizuki is excellent. (I'm not usually a graphic novel reader, but this was amazing)-4 volumes.

Through 1867: A history of Japan by George Sansom (published 1958) is a three volume set covering -1334, 1334-1615 and 1615-1867.

There are a number of other enjoyable books as well (e.g., Road to Sata) but I would not say that they are representative or "must-reads", regardless of how pleasant reading it may be.

For Peru:

The textbook answer should be "The Peruvian Experiment Reconsidered" ed. Cynthia McClintock & Abraham F. Lowenthal.

My personal favorite is another book by McClintock (the aforementioned editor and GWU Professor of Political Science and International Affairs) titled "Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru." Unlike the broad surveys of political and economic history given in the McClintock and Lownthal edited book, "Peasant Cooperatives" gives a great case study of agrarian co-ops and the socio-economic horrors of military rule.


Afghanistan (not classic or scholarly, but highly entertaining)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Argentina (classic)
Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism

In my queue:

Haiti (classic)
The Black Jacobins

Iraq (scholarly)
The Old Social Classes & The Revolutionary Movement In Iraq

Does anyone have any recommendations for the Netherlands?

For a look at what it is like to live and visit in the South Pacific, I always recommend the travel/expat memoir books of J. Maarten Troost. Start with "Sex Lives of Cannibals" about Kiribati and go from there. The author is self-deprecating and funny, and there are very few books that spend as much time as Troost does on individual islands and listening to local residents.

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