From the rise and fall of empires to scientific discoveries that rocked the world, one thing has always been clear: people are a mess. To know humanity is to shrug and say “what’re you gonna do?” We build nations only to have them break down over some sordid affair. We enslave each other whenever there’s work we don’t want to do, and we make terrible music which we later decide is much better than the music the kids today are making. If you want to comprehend this madness, here are 7 books that offer an (almost) complete understanding of human history.
What Is History?
Reading history is easy. Understanding it is nearly impossible. The problem with historical records is right in the name itself. You’re not really getting facts. You’re getting His, or if you want something with a more feminine bend, Her Story. Every historical document comes through a prism. It’s a tale. Being able to understand the context of that tale and thereby gain some measure of actual comprehension requires knowing how to read about the past. Which is what this book teaches. Before you start trying to grasp something as simple as the totality of human history, it helps to know how to get the most out of it. Thus, start here or you’re going to remain partially ignorant.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson doesn’t know a bloody thing. Which is precisely what makes his quick history of all the junk around us that much more compelling. Rather than being an expert on history or biology or some other -ology, like agnoiology whatever that is, he goes around annoying actual experts with a bunch of questions. He also gives himself an apprenticeship, whether anyone allows him to or not, in many varied fields. In so doing he gains a layman’s insight into how not only humanity works, but how humanity and the world came to work hand in hand, with each one changing the other at every stage of the game. This isn’t just about the partially hairless apes, but about all existence.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
One of the authors, David Graeber, also has an economic history entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which is pretty sexy too, for a book about bad credit. In The Dawn of Everything the duel Davids take on a couple of nobodies named ridiculous things like Hobbes and Rousseau. They also take aim at pretty much all the other books on this list by saying that how our societies went from forest tribes to folks who give liars power through ballots is totally wrong. This is a sweeping work that shows how we got smarter, and now seem to be getting stupider by arguing about big questions like “who wore it best?” No contrarian’s bookshelf should be without a copy of this.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
When you want to know about history, naturally you’re going to ask a biologist. Jared Diamond comes at the past from the outlook of a man who knows all about the human animal. He then learns about how that animal decided it was something special and needed to fight a bunch of wars over food and land, when it had more than enough of both. He discusses the rise of industry surrounding agriculture and how living near our waste brought about all kinds of nifty diseases that then forced us to fight even more wars. There’s no better example of how a historian’s own outlook influences the way she or he sees, parses, and interprets facts, or the fiction that is historical background.
Plagues and Peoples
Particularly useful in the age of Covid, Plagues and Peoples approaches history from the standpoint of where diseases altered the landscape, sometimes literally, of human beings. It looks at how various poxes of human, animal, and plant variety not only made us really sick, but forced us to start building societies to help protect ourselves. These then led to new diseases, which led us to build new societies where we can work in our pajamas. The book engages with concepts like the black death, which wasn’t as racist as it sounds, leading to an intellectual revolution like the Renaissance. It’s the ultimate cross-reference for the link between mind, body, food, and society.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Here’s another chronicle that starts from biology. This time, rather than seeing our history from the standpoint of agriculture or illness, Sapiens goes back to when modern people were just one of a group of sort of smart apes that could have taken over the world. Yuval Noah Harari tackles our background more from a concept of intelligence, starting with our ability to use tools, which led to being able to kill lots and lots of stuff much more easily. Then it led to asking questions, like how to kill even more stuff, but also why we kill stuff and how stuff might kill us. Then we start trying to tell everyone everything we know about killing, but also trying to figure out how to stop dying. Then he projects into the future, which is the history of tomorrow, where we’re probably going to create artificial beings that can’t die, but will kill the biological people.
Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity
Humans are comical creatures. They like to poison the very well from which they drink if it means they can get more pieces of funny paper. They then trade the paper for electronics that speak to them in a soothing female voice while they tell actual females to stop talking so much. Cataclysms is a history of people partly from the outlook of the Earth as it’s inhabited by silly locusts with thumbs that considers building tall blocks of glass more important than having land for food. If Big Yellow Taxi were a well-researched book, it’d read a lot like this. It’s a masterful manual for misanthropes who think people are the worst thing that ever happened.