I don’t read non-fiction that often; I’ll admit I love losing myself in a good story. But when I do find myself interested in something more educational, it’s very likely going to be world history.
I adore how history informs us of what is going on right now. So much of ongoing global conflict can be informed and has been predicted by the past.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, by Tim Marshall
In no book is this more clear than in Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. The first chapters go deep into Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Russia and China’s strategic realignment as allies, stuff that is happening in real time 2023. Only … this book had been purchased at a used bookstore about 5 years ago. I had to double-check when it was written. Sure enough, I was reading Marshall’s 2016 edition of the book, and he was referring to the annexation of Crimea. But everything that has happened in Ukraine since then, he basically predicted. He posited then if Ukraine doesn’t stop flirting with NATO, Russia’s going to increase aggression, up to entering into a conflict to take Ukraine by force. It’s all based on Russia’s geography (no natural barriers between itself and Ukraine, and no warm-water ports, which has always been Russia’s greatest weakness as a world power). The whole thing is gd fascinating.
Prisoners of Geography has been updated in 2019, but I’m waiting for the next edition. Where Marshall can point at the world and say: See? See! A very worthy read for anyone who follows politics and world affairs.
The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey
And in keeping with my theme of books about maps, The Island of Lost Maps has long been one of my favourite weird little historical books. It’s about maps and those who love them so much they are driven to crime. I myself adore old maps, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. There is a sense of lost history, of adventure, and the piquant joy of wanderlust, sometimes so strong it squeezes my heart. Dusty old maps, no matter how inaccurate, harken back to a time when there was so much we didn’t know – and had all the adventure ahead of us to explore the far reaches of this blue planet.
I’m not the only one who feels this way about maps. In Miles Harvey’s investigative book, he reports on the activities of Gilbert Bland, who was caught stealing a precious map, while carrying a notebook full of priceless others from rare bookrooms around the United States.
In The Island of Lost Maps, Miles explores the world of cartography, the passion that causes those to become map thieves, and tries to express his own inscrutable desire for old maps. Alluring and intriguing, the world of exploration and cartography comes alive in this book.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens is a book about humanity. It is intelligent and well-written, a remarkably easy read for the subject matter that it delves into. This is pop science at its finest. It is witty, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and especially in the first part where it details how homo sapiens came about, it is thoroughly delightful.
But as the full picture emerges of what homo sapiens are, and what humanity really means, well, I found it to be like rubbernecking a car wreck – I couldn’t look away even though I wanted to. We are fascinating and horrifying animals, of that there is no doubt. If there ever was intelligent design, we humans are surely not the result because we are absolutely the worst. This book makes me want to go live in a cave in the woods.
Which is where we were about 70,000 years ago when our place in the food chain changed dramatically, and so did the course of our planet. And all these changes were brought on by something near and dear to my heart: the first cognitive leap in homo sapiens was the ability to gossip, hah!
Basically, from this point on humans took over the world with such terrifying speed that our psyche is still feeling the sting. As opposed to the majestic lion who long sat at the top of the food chain and feels confident in it’s evolutionary right to be there, we still think and feel like a species somewhere in the middle, looking nervously over our shoulders as we head out, clutching a rock in our hands in hopes of bringing home dinner before we are mauled by a leopard. The changes to our species since the cognitive revolution took place did not happen by evolution, over millenia. We discovered a way to change our behaviour dramatically, and to transmit this behaviour on to future generations through communication, bypassing DNA.
The resulting clash between our natural biology and created culture is part of what makes us so maddening and interesting.
This book is fascinating anthropology, but at its heart, it is about philosophy. While it does give us some of the what, it really comes down to the why of humanity. I consider this book a must-read, but beware we don’t come out looking awesome as a species.
One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson
There was such a sense of glorious darkness in America during the 1920s. It really was a fascinating era. Glamourous, yet seedy at the same time, which must have made it an exciting time to live in. So much was changing, with one world war behind them, but another one hovering on the horizon. Bill Bryson captures the glitz and horror of that tumultuous time perfectly in One Summer: America 1927.
In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy. With the trademark brio, wit and authority that have made him our favourite writer of narrative non-fiction, he rolls out an unforgettable cast of vivid and eccentric personalities to bring to life a forgotten summer when America came of age, took centre stage and changed the world forever.
Bill Bryson is a genius and has made his name by writing intriguing histories about specific, sometimes at first glance almost odd, topics. Reading anything by him is both entertaining, but you know you’re going to come away feeling smarter. One Summer is no different. His genius lies in taking all these random events that occurred within a five-month span and weaving a story that is both fascinating and coherent, tying each string together so that the reader really has a feel for the mood of America at that time. Everyone seemed to be riding high on something then. What a time to be alive, when the future seemed irresistibly yours. Bill Bryson once again captures a mood, a still frame in time, while downloading a ton of information.
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes
There is something about the Age of Exploration that I find fascinating and, yes, incredibly romantic. It has something to do with shaking off old Christian values and regaining interest in the world and scientific exploration. While I’m not saying Victorian times would be something I think we should return to, for many, many, many reasons, the idea of attending talks on these nascent principles, the sharing of new ideas and explorations, makes me spinny with desire to be there.
Of course, in my Victorian fantasies, I’m super rich and apparently male, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been included in the adventures. But just reading about these explorers, these astronomers, these scientists developing these wonderful inventions and ideas that went on to change the world … it’s heady stuff. At times the book is a bit dry, but for the most part, the subject matter is so rich you cannot help but get entirely wrapped up in it.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Humanities, by Jared Diamond
This Pulitzer-Prize-winning socio-historical book is fascinating, and essential reading to understand the nature of our society and how the world has developed the way it has, culturally. Diamond shows that Eurasian cultures, which have emerged dominant over the past millennia on the global scale, did not do so with moral or intellectual superiority, but rather quite accidentally based on differing geographies (akin to Prisoners of Geography).
Societies that developed agriculture since the last ice age, those who needed to farm to survive, developed tools in a way nomadic cultures did not. These advances led to booming populations that slowly (and painfully) developed natural immunity to diseases. It was with these tools and germs that Eurasian cultures could dominate and overtake other societies. It is so well-researched and gives a huge amount of information while being entirely engaging at the same time. This is an excellent companion read to Sapiens.
The History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage
One of my favourite types of history books is ones that show the world through the prism of a narrow context, and that’s exactly what Standage does in this book. The History of the World in 6 Glasses shows the evolution of human society in relation to different types of beverages: beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee and soda.
The book covers most of human history since recorded civilization, starting with how Egyptians paid their workers in beer (it kept them fed and compliant, which I feel is everything you need to know about beer). It goes on to explore how trade in different beverages encouraged world exploration and the sharing of ideas. It was the move from wine to coffee as the trendy beverage that stirred the movement towards the French Revolution – young idealists hopped up on caffeine being decidedly less compliant than generations before them. And the commercialization of Coca-Cola has been the marketing dreamchild of capitalist forces.
An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage
Not to be outdone by himself, Standage went on to write An Edible History of Humanity, which explores the essential importance food has always had for humanity, beyond that of sustenance, of course. I particularly enjoyed his thesis that farming was actually an accident, something that happened gradually and potentially to humanity’s detriment. Farming is portrayed as the worst mistake in our history. Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did we begin to see a real improvement in life quality because of our heavily industrialized society. And make no mistake about it – farming was the original industrial revolution.
How our societies perceive food and use it as technology, as power, as a weapon, is utterly fascinating. I couldn’t put his book down, and I encourage everyone who enjoys world history to pick this one up.
Let me know if you’ve read any of these excellent history books! Or if there’s one you adore and think I would like, there’s nothing I like more than a good book recommendation.
And speaking of book recommendations, I have lots of them. Check out some of the book lists I’ve already put together, figure out your reading mood, and dive in!
Books I Still Think About Years Later
And if you would like to read my very own horror short story anthology, Then She Said Hush, is available for free on my website! Don’t miss out on the offer, it’s for a limited time only.
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