13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

13 Best David McCullough Books, Ranked by Renown

In Reading Lists by Lanie Pemberton

13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

There are American history buffs and scholars, and then there’s writer David McCullough. The acclaimed historian’s accolades include two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, along with receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

Books by David McCullough mine some of the most pivotal people and moments from America’s past, including biographing presidents like Truman and chronicling the creation of the Panama Canal in The Path Between the Seas

McCullough passed away in 2022 at the age of 89, but his legacy lives on through his outstanding collection of nonfiction books, which reveal little-known details about defining events. McCullough’s works have been a staple on the bookshelves of grandparents, dads, and teachers for decades for a reason.

Ready to discover these works for yourself? Keep reading to explore the best McCullough books, beginning with his lauded Pulitzer Prize-winners.

13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

Founding Father John Adams became the second president of the United States in 1797, and over two centuries later, the recipient of luscious treatment from one of the greatest historians of our time. McCollough expertly weaves humanizing details of his subject’s life and legacy throughout this biography, including excerpts from letters and diary entries written by Adams. 

It may be a tome, but as Kirkus says, “Despite the whopping length, there's not a wasted word in this superb, swiftly moving narrative.”

John Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2002, and it later inspired a 2008 HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti.

Start READING
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

Harry S. Truman’s presidency was eventful, to say the least — most notably (and regrettably), his was the administration that ordered the atomic bombing of Japan at the end World War II. Despite the fact that Truman faced numerous challenges at home and abroad, McCullough reveals the portrait of a figure fondly remembered for his honesty, humility, and integrity (traits modern voters would welcome back into American politics).

Though this is another lengthy read, McCullough keeps the pace moving quickly and the narrative gripping, so you may just find yourself surprised when you reach the final page.

Truman won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Start READING

Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully achieved the first powered flight on a mid-December day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But it was a long road to get to that point, and who better to tell the tale of their unlikely achievements than McCullough? 

As he chronicles their childhoods, many failed experiments, and eventual success, the author’s affection and respect for his subjects — who revolutionized aviation despite no formal education or family wealth — shines through.

Start Listening

The creation of the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama, was undeniably a feat of engineering. But in this National Book Award-winning account, McCullough reveals the geopolitical, cultural, economical, and even medical complexities that made this feat all the more impressive.

Above all, The Path Between the Seas (the longest audiobook on this list at 31 hours) is a story of human determination, collaboration, and resilience — one that forever changed our world.

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

5. 1776

Meticulous is an understatement when considering the research McCullough conducted to write 1776, in which he masterfully captures America's tumultuous fight for independence. Drawing on archives from both sides of the conflict, this tale digs into the gritty, day-to-day realities faced by George Washington and his fledgling Continental Army, along with British commanders and the Redcoats.

This book takes readers beyond the battlefield, highlighting the courage and perseverance that laid the foundation for a new nation and thereby breathing life into the people at the heart of history.

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

McCullough earned his second National Book Award in 1982 with this vivid, moving portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. 

The author enlightens readers with fascinating details about Roosevelt’s upbringing and the challenges that strengthened his character, tracing his journey from sickly child to a robust man, shaped by family, illnesses, and a love of the outdoors. In short, Mornings on Horseback is a complete picture of Roosevelt as a person, not just a president.

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

With verve and vitality, McCullough tells the amazing story of a modern marvel: The Brooklyn Bridge. From dangerous working conditions and corrupt bargains to heroic feats, this is the story of the iconic bridge from conception to completion, and the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced along the way. 

The book pays special homage to the Roebling family, including Washington Roebling, chief engineer over the project, and his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who became instrumental during the bridge’s construction after her husband fell ill. (I first learned of her by watching the second season of The Gilded Age on HBO Max, but this book paints a fuller picture of her accomplishments.)

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

If you prefer to read David McCullough’s books in order of publication, start here. Though he first wanted to be a playwright, and then worked as a journalist, McCullough’s 1968 debut was so well-received that he turned his attention to writing nonfiction books (and we’re forever glad he did).

This devastating story — brought to life in audiobook format by the late Edward Herrmann (Gilmore Girls) — tells of an avoidable disaster: The Johnstown Flood. 

In May of 1889, the South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, ruptured, releasing an unstoppable flood that killed over 2,000 people and caused millions of dollars in damages. Prior to the disaster, there had been concerns over the clay dam’s structural integrity, but since it was built to create a lake for an upper-crust resort, nothing was done — a choice that ultimately had catastrophic consequences. 

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

In another audiobook narrated by Edward Herrmann, which won an Audiofile Earphones Award, McCullough discusses the 19th-century American artists, writers, and thinkers who ventured to Paris to explore new ideas, expand their knowledge, and witness the cultural epicenter of the era first-hand.

You’ll recognize many of the figures who braved the dangerous journey across the Atlantic, from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Blackwell to Mark Twain. Along with telling their stories, McCullough explores how their experiences helped to enrich American culture.

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

Brave Companions is a collection of essays that profile the lives of the extraordinary men and women who shaped modern history, from scientists and writers to aviators and educators (some are featured in the author’s other works, like Teddy Roosevelt and the Roebling family, while others are fresh subjects). 

McCullough’s storytelling is as impressive as always, and his format of concise portraits — rather than a lengthy single narrative — makes this an accessible read if you’re interested in history but short on time.

Start Listening
13 best David McCullough books, ranked by renown

In another work mining America’s past, learn about the settlers who journeyed from New England to the Northwest Territory surrounding the Ohio River. Many of his subjects are little-known in history, but in McCullough’s talented hands, their bravery, fortitude, and vision comes to life, ensuring readers won’t soon forget their achievements. 

Detailed, rich, and as engaging as any novel, The Pioneers was McCullough’s final book, published in 2019. I’ve put it lower on the list because of some pushback it’s received over its lack of acknowledgement of Native American perspectives and experiences.

Start Listening

The last two entries on this list aren’t works McCullough wrote as books, but are worthy of your reading time. Along with being an esteemed author and historian, McCullough was also an engaging public speaker who presented at the White House, the U.S. Capitol, numerous college graduations, and more. 

The American Spirit is a collection of those addresses given over several decades. While he covers a wide array of historical topics and figures, all the speeches in this volume prove McCullough’s enduring appreciation for American ideals, and his hope that the nation and its citizens will continue to make progress toward those ideals.

Start Listening

The final title on this list isn’t a lengthy nonfiction narrative, but a single short lecture given by McCullough in Washington D.C. in 2003 as part of The Jefferson Lecture series established by the National Endowment for the Humanities — an honor given to those who have made a significant impact in the humanities. 

This author’s love and respect for history shines brightly in The Course of Human Events, an inspirational ode to the power of learning and curiosity, and history’s ability to teach us valuable life lessons.

Start Listening

Ready to start reading these books? Sign up for a free 30 day trial to Everand, your home for stories and knowledge with millions of ebooks, audiobooks, podcasts, magazines, newspapers, sheet music, and so much more.

Image

About the Author: Lanie Pemberton

Lanie is a San Diego-based freelance writer who loves reading crime thrillers and nonfiction about animals and the natural world. When not writing and reading (or writing about what to read), Lanie spends as much time as possible at the beach with her husband and pampered pittie, Peach.