Because Turkey is the custodian of a past so densely packed with history's most critical eras, if you don't do your homework before you go, you'll wind up simply wandering through pretty piles of rocks and stone.
The definitive modern interpretive work on the history of Turkey is by the renowned Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, in The Emergence of Modern Turkey.
Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey, by Hugh and Nicole Pope, two journalists working for the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde, gives us insights into the most divisive issues of Turkey today. A more recent analysis of modern problems and trends in Turkey, written from a Western insider's point of view, is provided by Stephen Kinzer, former Istanbul bureau chief of the New York Times, in Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.
John Ash approaches the history of the city in Istanbul: The Imperial City by casting a lens on the more than 20 pivotal historical events or periods, beginning with the pre-classical era through to the present day.
Another great read on the Byzantine empire is A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich's condensed version of a three-volume epic about one of the most enduring empires on Earth.
Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, by Lord Kinross, has established itself as the definitive guidebook on Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. In a thoroughly readable prose, Kinross leads you through history while providing the contexts for understanding Turkey today.
Another book by Kinross is Atatürk, the Rebirth of a Nation (titled Atatürk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey in the U.S. and currently out of print), also respected as the handbook on the man who single-handedly reconstructed a nation. Also see Andrew Mango's more recent Atatürk.
Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924, by Philip Mansel, provides an accurate and colorful history of the Ottoman Empire while sprinkling the pages with attention-grabbing little morsels of lesser-known trivia.
Coverage of terrorist actions committed by militant Muslims has prejudiced much of the Western world against anything Islamic, causing many tourists to Turkey to be unnecessarily apprehensive. What Went Wrong, a balanced and scholarly work by Bernard Lewis, guides readers through the transformation of Islam from a cultural, scientific, and economic powerhouse to a significantly tarnished underdog. Follow this up with What's Right With Islam, in which Feisal Abdul Rauf argues how the violence perceived by the West to be at the heart of terrorism has, in fact, nothing to do with religion and everything to do with economics and politics.
Mary Lee Settle's Turkish Reflections and Jeremy Seal's A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat are two excellent travelogues that have established themselves as de facto reads for anyone interested in Turkey. Turkish Reflections, although accused of being outdated, succeeds in providing an accurate portrayal of the Turkish people and vivid images of the physical landscape. In A Fez of the Heart, Jeremy Seal succeeds in capturing the sights and smells of his destinations while ostensibly on the hunt for the legacy left by the fez. Seal tosses in bits of history while you're not looking and throws in unexpected episodes of hilarity that will garner you unwanted attention in public places.
For Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City is a (tedious) personal reflection on life growing up in the "melancholy" of an Istanbul in transition. Descriptions of faded apartment buildings, and the tension between tradition and convention are as much a self-portrait as a window into the city at the crossroads of civilization. The book also includes dozens of black-and-white photos of the city, allowing a glimpse of Istanbul before major investments in restoration.
For a modern woman's view of what it's like to work, live, and travel in Turkey, pick up the recently compiled and released Tales From the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. It's a compilation of essays, stories, and travelogues by various non-Turkish women.
In fiction, obviously, the most insightful reads will be those books written by native Turks, and in recent years, several Turkish authors have created mesmerizing works of fiction set within a vivid Turkish reality. Orhan Pamuk made quite a splash well before he won himself a Nobel Prize in 2006 for literature. Irfan Orga's Portrait of a Turkish Family is a poignant account of a simple Turkish family caught between the Ottoman Empire and Atatürk's Republic. Journalist and leading satirist Aziz Nesin spent much of his life in prison, where he penned a large portion of his highly biographical essays -- colorful images of growing up in a traditional Turkish family at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Turks rigorously resent the unfair characterization of Turkish people in the 1978 film Midnight Express, a movie that has been accused of encouraging prejudices in Westerners. They point out that the movie was financed by Greek cinema magnate Kirk Kerkorian and filmed using actors of predominantly Greek and Armenian origin -- two nations notorious for their bad blood with Turkey. Nevertheless, it's a movie classic, it did win an Oscar, and it was set in Istanbul.
Coming soon to a theater near you is Part II of The Thomas Crown Affair, with Angelina Jolie and Pierce Brosnan sparring over the disappearance of the illustrious Kasikçi (Spoonmaker's Diamond). Called The Topkapi Affair, the movie is based on the book Light of Day and adapted from Ustinov's 1964 film Topkapi.