Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (Oxford, $20). The finest single-volume work on the Civil War out there. Written with verve and panache, it's filled with rich character portraits and fresh interpretations of the key political, social, and military events. I loved this book when I wrote April 1865, and love it still.
Einstein by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, $20). The improbable story of a patent clerk who couldn't get a teaching job and ended up unlocking the mysteries of the universe. How can the reader not find Einstein's life captivating? Bravo to Isaacson.
The Creation of the American Republic by Gordon S. Wood (Univ. of North Carolina, $35). The 1790s were the critical first decade of the United States, but Wood's account of the years 1776–1789 deftly lays bare the underpinnings — the establishment of a distinctly American political system and a new enlightened age. A must-read for students of American history.
The Americans: The National Experience by Daniel J. Boorstin (Vintage, $18). This rich little book opens with the story of how the "City Upon a Hill" prospered because it was really a city on the sea. That marvelously evocative detail begins the voyage that is the story of America. Boorstin was the Librarian of Congress, and his quirky insights and erudition shine on every page. His prose sparkles.
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie (Random House, $20). Massie is a master story-teller, and this book is his finest. It is at once an epic human drama and a compelling tapestry depicting an empire crumbling in slow motion. Here is the fall of the Romanovs; here are the deaths of the well-meaning, often hapless royals; and here are the events that gave birth to Soviet communism.
A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester (Little Brown, $16). I am partial to William Manchester's books on Winston Churchill, but time and again I'm drawn to this elegantly crafted portrait of medieval Europe, a civilization on the verge of collapse that then experienced a remarkable rebirth. The book is filled with exquisite details as well as unforgettable heroes and villains.
—Historian Jay Winik is the best-selling author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval. In his new book, 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, he takes the measure of another fulcrum point in the story of Western civilization.