“Books can show you the world” is the kind of adage you might see on a poster in your old elementary school library. But those cheerful posters were definitely onto something—reading really can be world-expanding, as it broadens our perspectives of different societies, cultures, and more.
The following top-notch world history books will give you a new view of important places, people, and objects of the past. From Ancient Greece to the Mongol Empire, they reveal a side to human history that you may have not considered...
When Cynthia Stokes Brown says "Big History," she means all of history. This book takes the largest possible view of our universe, beginning at the Big Bang and working towards the present day. It's a fascinating way to learn the story our planet and how we humans, once just stardust, have helped create it.
When we think about years that have greatly influenced our modern world, we often think of 1776 or 1492. But 1759 should also be on that list—a year that marks a string of pivotal victories for England. Frank McLynn recounts this 12-month period in his book, revealing how the country’s success on the battlefield set the stage for the growth of the British Empire. Thanks, in part, to the events of 1759, English is now a global language.
Greek philosophy laid the foundation for religion and science in the West and beyond—but our appreciation for Greeks philosophers wasn't always so uncomplicated. When Aristotle’s ideas were rediscovered in the Middle Ages, religious and government officials felt threatened by the his views on reason and the natural world. Rubenstein studies these controversies, and more, to reveal how Aristotle’s philosophies—and the ways in which they were interpreted—helped shape our modern world and ways of thinking.
The World of Patrick O'Brian
Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books—a series of maritime novels featuring a Royal Navy captain and his ship’s surgeon—took readers on twenty sea-faring adventures. Dean King prolongs the journey in his four companion books, which take a deep dive into the world O’Brian created. That world is actually our own in the early 1880s, so King’s collection includes maps, insights into life at sea, diaries entries of real Royal Navy men, and other historical studies that are relevant to the Aubrey-Maturin series.
Mary Beard is a celebrated professor of classics at Cambridge University, but her work doesn’t have the stuffy or academic tone you might expect. SPQR is a prime example: It’s a smart and complex history of Ancient Rome—Beard never “dumbs down” her subject—but it’s also an extremely readable and relatively succinct one (considering she’s covering thousands of years). You’ll learn and have a great time while doing it.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of humanity, focusing on how historic civilizations—and their relative levels of power—came to be. Diamond argues that the first societies to master food production were also the first to develop powerful weapons and means of travel. Thus, the shape of the colonial and modern worlds, he says, can be traced back to geographic factors that influenced early human diets. He expands upon this theory in Gun, Germs, and Steel, drawing from his extensive knowledge of biology, anthropology, medicine, and more to reveal eye-opening insights into human history.
The Ascent of Money
It doesn't take an economist or a historian to know that money and finance have played a major role in developing our world. Niall Ferguson charts this longstanding (and ongoing) relationship in his compelling book, The Ascent of Money. In fact, Ferguson argues that money shaped history itself, contributing as much to the rise and fall of civilizations and world powers as did technology, population, and other important factors.
The Silk Roads
The Silk Road connected the East and West, but it has largely been viewed from a Western perspective. Frankopan's book reorients us, placing us in the Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations that thrived (and eventually fell) along this famous network of trade routes—from the Persians to the Mongols. To fully understand our world today, we must try to understand how the histories of these overlooked cities and nations are so closely intertwined with that of the Silk Road.
People love to trace history through our relationship with objects—drinking glasses, for instance, or clothes. Mark Kurlansky takes that approach in this thought-provoking book, choosing salt as his subject. It has a little-known but significant place in the course of history, as its ability to season and preserve food contributed to the rise of civilization.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Genghis Khan—the founder of the Mongol Empire—was one of history's greatest conquerors, but his bloodthirsty reputation in the West vastly oversimplifies his impact on the world. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford shows how Khan brought Europe into contact with Eastern civilizations, which then opened trade routes that ushered in a more modern era. By dispelling myths and telling the true story behind the legendary leader, Weatherford shines a new light on Mongol rule and its far-reaching legacy.