My traditional cop-out: If you want to remain faithful to the usual fantasy ethos, don’t read these. But on the other hand, if you want a really exotic place, just use real places in history (or today), because our general understanding of what goes on (or went on) is so limited to what popular culture depicts.
All in all, these are just books I’ve found interesting for one reason or another. Not all of them are about history. Some are about our favorite subject: math. Can’t say how easy these are to get. Some of them are probably easily available, while others might have been out of print for a long, long time.
1. Jack Weatherford – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Mongols are generally depicted as barbarians, who destroyed everything they happened to come across on their epic conquest of most of Asia on their way to become the largest empire up to that point (by land area, British empire was at its peak larger, but only relatively little). However, the truth is, you don’t manage the largest empire the earth had ever known without some sophistication… and they had plenty of progressive ideas. Yes, they did burn down whole cities just because they didn’t lay down their arms immediately, but they also introduced the world to religious freedom and introduced the east and the west to each other.
2. Karen Armstrong – A History of God
As an atheist, I was a bit wary about reading a book on this subject by a nun, but it was actually very interesting. It did have a pro-religion message, but it was more about religion having a role rather than being an overencompassing teller of truth. She was more interested in mystical thinking than trying to eliminate scientific thinking. For the GM, the point of interest is how and why different forms of religion throughout history have come to be. Granted, it only talks about monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it is interesting nonetheless.
3. Neil Blandford and Bruce Jones – The World’s Most Evil Men
A very cheap peace of literature, but has plenty of ideas on what a villain in your campaign can do. Includes tyrants, serial killers, and so forth. Also has a lot of information on how much of evil in the world comes from power been given to stupid people.
4. Terry Jones – Medieval Lives
There was also a documentary series with Jones himself presenting. Although very English, it is still an interesting look at how people actually lived back in the day, including stuff like monks, who didn’t bother to live in their monasteries, because there was money to be made elsewhere, how the peasants actually lived, how nobility raided peasants, just because no-one could do anything about it. Terry Jones is also an excellent writer, so this isn’t as boring as other books might be.
5. John Allen Paulos – Innumeracy
No relation to the ex-pope, like he himself says in the book. There was actually a better book, but I can’t remember its name. It was about probability and understanding it. This is more about the importance of understanding math, including probability, but its more forceful in nature.
6. Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Öttchen (editors) – Shakespeare’s Insults
What it says on the tin. Just a compilation of insults by Shakespeare from pretty much all of his plays.
7. Niccolo Macchiavelli – The Prince
Whether you like to think its parody, subtly subversive, propaganda, an attempt to get to the better graces of the nobility of his hometown, or actual political theory, quite a few people in history have followed its message. Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to it, many characters probably should.
8. Tony Robinson – The Worst Jobs in History
Just like Medieval Lives, there was a TV-series of this, or actually two. There’s also a companion book about children’s jobs throughout history. Again, very English-centered, but that’s not a problem. Reading about all the shitty things (often very literally) people had to do throughout history to make ends meet, is interesting in its own right.
9. Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel
A very interesting book about basically why Europe has been such a powerhouse in the last 500 years or so. And no, the message isn’t about how whites are better (actually, often quite the opposite), but more about how geology and geography helped Europeans throughout history by keeping us competitive by necessity, providing us with just the perfect climate and providing us with the iron others didn’t have access to. A lot of interesting stuff on technology, disease, and so forth.
10. Dougal Dixon – After Man: A Zoology of the Future
Just ideas about where evolution could take nature after humans are gone. Basically just a bunch of strange animals.