2022 is finally here. And with the new year comes a list of books that any history buff should read – if you haven’t already. If you have, give them a reread. I know that I’m going to reread at least one of the books on this list and see how my thinking about it has evolved.
So grab a tea, coffee or snack, and get comfortable. Let’s dig into 8 books that’re sure to entertain and delight. And who knows, maybe you’ll even learn something along the way.
1: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humankind (David Graeber and David Wengrow)
So I’ll be upfront about this one: I haven’t read it.
But to anybody who’s ever read a history about humankind, it promises to be enlightening. I for one am very much looking forward to devouring it. (Beginning tomorrow.)
For one, it reframes the 95 % of human history that is usually presented as “noble savegery” or “chaotic anarchism”. Instead of telling a story where everybody spent the first 190,000 years of our history doing practically the same thing – living as hunter-gatherers and either killing each other or getting along splendidly – it draws on archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence to tell a dynamic story of different societies across time and space. Native Americans weren’t living the same as Aboriginals or Africans – and within the Americas, even North America, and even the great forests of New England, there were stark differences. Some were slave societies, others experimented with land cultivation, some had trade economies while others had dream economies. The rule was dynamic difference, not simple similarity.
And having read the first chapter, I can say that it is well-written as well. Which is definitely a plus. Even when engaging in a discussion of different historical traditions – a must in academic papers but seldom very fun to read – they manage to make it entertaining and engaging.
To be honest, the only real drawback I’ve seen thus far is the copious amount of footnotes. But if you’re just in it for the story, there’s literally nothing that’s easier to skip over.
So if you want an account of human history from two specialists (Graber was an anthropologist, Wengrow is an archaeologist), look no further.
2: It’s All Greek To Me (Charlotte Higgins)
Charlotte Higgins is all about those ancient Greeks. And she lets it show.
The pure enthusiasm for Pythagoras, Achilles and Socrates shines through every single page, which by itself makes this a must-read. And even if you’re not that into Ancient Greece (I know I’m not), it’s hard not to be pulled into Higgins’ narrative about the cradle of Europe.
I disagree with the importance of Greece to Western Civilization (and the concept itself). After all, Greece was way closer in thought, custom and politics to Persia, Egypt and the other Middle Eastern civilizations than it was to the early farmers and hunter-gatherers in Europe. So no, reading Homer is not essential to higher education. At least not on the grounds of making you a responsible, well-rounded and educated citizen in a modern, Western democracy.
But it is essential because it turns you into a well-rounded human being. As does plenty of other stories and poems, from Gilgamesh to Paradise Lost. Not because they’re from a certain place or time, but because they’re bloody well-written. (Or, in the case of epic poems, well-recited.)
Back to Higgins, that is exactly what her book is. And not only that, I closed it smarter than I opened it. I can hardly think of a better way to learn about love in Athens two and a half millenia ago nor the exquisite drama of Homer’s Illiad.
3: The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – And Globalization Began (Valerie Hansen)
Tired of being restricted to your home – again? Well, grab a copy of Hansen’s book and let yourself be transported to a world of Vikings and Aztecs, Mali goldmines and Chinese merchants.
The book takes the novel standpoint that globalization isn’t really that new. In fact, it’s been happening for a millenia. And while Hansen is technically correct that the world was interconnected in 1,000 CE – an ivory tusk could, hypothetically, travel from Mali to Denmark, and from there on to the Americas – it wasn’t, in effect, globalized. And that’s probably the weak point of the book: it oversells its premise.
Once you get to grips with Hansen overselling her point, this is a treasure trove of interesting insights though. I won’t spoil anything, simply recommend it that you grab a copy.
And, on a very technical note: her use of footnotes really impressed me. That’s probably more due to my obsession with footnotes (being a History student) than anything else, but dang it, she really blew my mind.
4: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)
Imagine a Hollywood blockbuster set during the last 2,000 years of Central Asian history. Then you’ve got this book.
There really isn’t much more to say.
Read it. Savor it. And remember. Hollywood blockbuster.
5: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
Lets end where we started: with an ambitious, sweeping narrative of how the world came to be the way that it is today.
This is the book that originally inspired me to study history. And it’s the book that I’m going to revisit this year. For several reasons.
- It’s well-written.
- It’s engaging.
- It’s original.
- And perhaps most importantly: it’s popular.
After I began reading dense, academic texts that spent 30 pages on a single sentence from some random 19th century peasant’s diary, I began bashing on this book. Hard. I mean, come on. Here I am reading 800 pages about the finer points of Danish foreign policy during the 30s, and some Israeli professor dares make sweeping generalizations about all of humanity in about 400 pages. Gasp. It is too much.
This is the kind of book that’s easy to pick apart. But, I’ve since come to realize, that’s missing its point. It’s not supposed to be a definitive history (I’m pretty sure he even acknowledges such quite early on in the book). Instead Harari wants to get your intellectual juices flowing.
And for my part, he succeeded. I wouldn’t be studying history or have set up a blog today if not for this book. So thank you, Harari.
And apologies for bashing on your book. It was immature.
What’s your top 5? And if you’ve read any of the books: what did you think about them? Let me know in the comments.
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