Jason Goodwin: Forget what you were told at school — history is simply a cracking story that happens to be true

The education system did its best to put Jason Goodwin off history, but he came through unscathed — and thank goodness too, otherwise he might not have been able to recommend these summer reads.

Years ago, anyone wanting to study history at university used to be given a prophylactic called What Is History? by Professor E. H. Carr. History, he taught, was what anyone said it was. Nobody could ever be properly objective and any historian claiming to be fair-minded was either a liar or a fool.

Carr had been a Nazi sympathiser at the outbreak of the Second World War, but transferred his admiration from Hitler to Stalin. The engine of progress, he claimed, was class struggle, leading to the workers’ triumph and the overthrow of bourgeois individualism.

The master pattern had been set out in excruciatingly vague detail by 19th-century German philosophy, so it only required the evidence to be clinically assembled by intellectuals like Prof Carr. Otherwise, like the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács, he agreed that ‘history becomes a collection of exotic anecdotes’.

I sincerely hope so. A few of us have been reading the latest history books for The Historical Writers’ Association Crown Awards and many of them contain splendid exotic anecdotes. Last year’s winner, Leanda de Lisle’s White King, reconsidered Charles I by drawing on loving letters from his wife, Henrietta Maria.

This year, just in time for your late-August holiday, we have a long list of 12 books; absorbing stories that illuminate places and periods we might wish to know better.

Sue Prideaux’s biography I Am Dynamite! shows Friedrich Nietzsche as an original and even amusing thinker, who later sank into madness and whose writings were repackaged by his virulently anti-Semitic little sister.

Helen Rappaport’s The Race to Save the Romanovs addresses a nagging question: why, given every warning, did the Tsar and his family stay in Russia, to be brutally murdered in the cellar at Yekaterinburg? Did George V really let them down and could more have been done to save them?

Fast forward 60-odd years and Oleg Gordievsky is losing faith in the system that has brought him to the Soviet embassy in Copenhagen as a KGB agent. Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor tells how he becomes a British double agent and of his hair-raising escape.

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The Spy and the Traitor – If anyone could be considered a Russian counterpart to the infamous British double-agent Kim Philby, it was Oleg Gordievsky. The son of two KGB agents and the product of the best Soviet institutions, the savvy, sophisticated Gordievsky grew to see his nation's communism as both criminal and philistine. He took his first posting for Russian intelligence in 1968 and eventually became the Soviet Union's top man in London, but from 1973 on he was secretly working for MI6. For nearly a decade, as the Cold War reached its twilight, Gordievsky helped the West turn the tables on the KGB, exposing Russian spies and helping to foil countless intelligence plots, as the Soviet leadership grew increasingly paranoid at the United States's nuclear first-strike capabilities and brought the world closer to the brink of war. Desperate to keep the circle of trust close, MI6 never revealed Gordievsky's name to its counterparts in the CIA, which in turn grew obsessed with figuring out the identity of Britain's obviously top-level source. Their obsession ultimately doomed Gordievsky: the CIA officer assigned to identify him was none other than Aldrich Ames, the man who would become infamous for secretly spying for the Soviets. #thespyandthetraitor #benmacintyre #russia #Россия #kgb #mi6 #olegGordievsky #Spying #spy #espionage #undercover #secretservice #secretagent #thespyinggame

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Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham is another nail-biter: a forensic investigation into the nuclear disaster that epitomised the shortcomings of the Soviet empire and hastened its end. Eleanor Herman’s witty and gruesome The Royal Art of Poison ends with some hair-raising anecdotes about Russian state assassination today.

Secrets are kept across the ideological divide, too, in Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. Secrecy turns sleazy in The Real Lolita, brilliant sleuthing by Sarah Weinman.

Two books we loved are about Japan. The title says it all in Naoko Abe’s ‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms. Between the wars, Ingram single-mindedly rekindled Japan’s reverence for cherry trees. How the Japanese came to lose it in the first place might concern Christopher Harding, whose Japan Story deals with that country’s unexpected responses to westernisation and the modern world.

Some of our books describe another island. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold takes a fresh line on the Whitechapel murders. Nick Barratt writes a lively portrait of medieval England in The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown and Kate Hubbard’s fascinating Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England deals with an astonishing Yorkshirewoman, her mania for construction, marriage and the Elizabethan Wonder House.

Rather than a scientific treatise that distorts the evidence to fit a theory, I prefer a good story that also happens to be true. That, I think, is history.