Books·My Life in Books

Margaret MacMillan: My life in books

The acclaimed historian and 2015 Massey Lecturer shares five of her favourite books.
Margaret MacMillan's book Paris 1919 won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction in 2003. (Associated Press)

If you're tight on time, don't start asking Margaret MacMillan about books. When the acclaimed historian isn't churning out award-winning titles like Paris 1919 or delivering the 2015 Massey Lectures, History's People, she's devouring several books at a time.

From weighty YA to escapist faux-memoir (and one very surprising real memoir), here are eight books that have shaped Margaret MacMillan's life and work.

Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch

"As a child, I read quite a few adventure books, and I remember loving Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch - it's a wonderful read. It's about the Crusader kingdom in Palestine, and it's very good on the hybrid civilization there, and very good on the politics and how the kingdom began to be defeated. It had one of the best descriptions I've read to this day of what it was like to put on armour and how to fight in armour. I gave it to one of my nephews, and he loved it as much as I did."

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

"I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was at a boarding school in England and would read them under the covers after lights out with a flashlight. I must have gone through a lot of batteries, and no wonder I'm short-sighted!"

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

"My publisher in London sent me André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs and said he thought I'd love it, and I did. I don't have a dog, but we always had them as children. The writing was so imaginative, and it's funny and thoughtful, sad - it's a wonderful, well-rounded book."

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

"One book that I have loved and re-read several times is Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. There are some books that make you see the world slightly differently. Some you read and enjoy, but they don't change the way you see things. The Master and Margarita does. It's this tremendous mix of Communist Moscow, Jerusalem... it's an extraordinary work."

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

"I don't cry that easily, but A Tale of Two Cities can make me tear up. With Dickens, you're always seeing evil do its work and you're hoping that good will triumph. I find the end so moving when Sydney Carton sacrifices himself. I came to Dickens late - I didn't like him that much at first and found him too sentimental - then I came to him again in my thirties and realized that for all of his sentimentality, he is a great writer. And he deals with big human emotions, which are timeless."

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

"E.M. Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a great daydream read. My grandmother had a copy and I just picked it up one day. It's a series of sketches of a woman living in the country in the 1930s, written as a fictional journal. It's funny and charming and its own little world. It plays an escapist role for me. It's very rooted in daily events, but quite pointed. It's like comfort food, I suppose. You don't want to read Dostoyevsky when you're going through a difficult time. You want something slightly distracting."

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

"When I was at university, reading Proust was very in fashion, and people would go around saying they were Proustian. I thought the whole thing was insufferable. Finally I picked up Remembrance of Things Past in my mid-twenties and I had time to actually focus on it. It was between writing my thesis and starting my job. It was extraordinary and funny and riveting, and it's on my list to re-read."

Life by Keith Richards

"I really liked the autobiography of Keith Richards, called Life. It's very good, I recommend it! A couple of people told me about it and I was surprised they had read it, and I picked it up and just loved it. I thought it would be all sex, drugs and rock and roll - and of course, there is that, but there's also a lot about growing up in London, about his family and about history. He's a history buff, it turns out. It was really a fun book."

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