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.
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.
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 Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.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.
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 Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date.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.