Up til, say, twenty years ago, if you'd heard of one historian, one history book, it would probably have been Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Written over 200 years ago, it's remained pertinent to the topic it covers, and while aspects are superseded by modern research, apparently (I can't vouch for this personally--I've read books on the book) it remains influential. And nobody's managed to produce a newer work of comparable length and breadth.
The first thing is: this is not a book I have read from cover to cover. Indeed, I haven't even read the abridged version from cover to cover--I imagine it would take about a year to get through the whole thing. It's enormous! One of those big, square books that you could quite happily use as a doorstop, or to make yourself look impressive. It covers about 1,500 years of history, dancing about across the provinces, taking in primarily political/military history but encompassing high culture, manners, society, social structure, law, and any number of other things that Gibbon felt pertinent to his wide-ranging organising principle of how the Roman Empire came to an end.
Despite being rather outdated in years, and in some places in content, it's surprisingly readable. If only I could have carried it around with me, and it didn't take a great effort to simply pick it up to read, I probably would have read significantly more. There are these brilliant footnotes scattered about through the text which are cynical, witty, or just amusingly acerbic. The text itself offers all the drama you might expect from court intrigues, military takeovers, and a memorable passage upon the girraffe (a gentle and useless animal, which has been described but not delineated), alongside occaisional steps back from the world of day to day happenings and a more detailed analysis of some aspect of society.
Despite its age then, this remains a classic historical work. Actually, it's probably a classic because of its age--when it first came out it was a bestseller. I'm going to horrify scholarly folk with my essay on it by comparing it to, say, Stephan Ambrose, or some other 'populist' historian. Maybe Max Hastings is a better comparison... Hmm. Does anyone else love those books?
Anyway. If you've a lot of time, it's worth reading this book. If you've a little, somebody must surely have published a 'selected exciting bits of Edward Gibbon'. Surely.