People often ask me for history books on a very specific topics often, assuming I’ve read something on an issue because I exhibit some fluency discussing something that might seem abstruse or arcane. The thing is that I haven’t always read a monograph on a singular topic even if I know a fair amount on it. It’s just that I’ve read a larger number of history books, so the union of my knowledge set is quite wide and expansive.
For example, in reading The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise the author recounts with some tinge of outrage that North Africa, which is had been predominantly Christian since the early 4th century, was conquered by the Muslims in the late 7th century as a prequel to the conquest of the Visigothic kingdom in Iberia (I knew the loss of Carthage occurred between Justinian II’s two reigns thanks for the fine historical novel Justinian!). First, the tinge of taking sides is kind of adolescent in my opinion and detracts from the narrative, though that’s a matter of personal taste. Second, North Africa was not majority Christian in the early 4th century.
No, I’ve not read specifically about North Africa Christianity (aside from a few books here and there about St. Augustine, who was North African and a Christian). Rather, I have read The Making of the Christian Aristocracy, which addresses the religious change in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, as well as works such as Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, where religious change is a theme if not a central one (I would say that really it is a book with a greater focus on material culture and politics and economics than religion as such). Additionally, it is clear that many people confuse Constantine’s toleration and then later espousal of Christianity under a united Roman Empire in 325 as the point at which Christianity became the official religion of the state. An “official state religion” in a modern sense is an anachronism. It took decades for the customary subsidies to the pre-Christian traditional cults to cease (that really occurred in earnest under Gratian in the 380s), with elite public paganism’s coup de grace occurring under Theodosius in the 390s (paganism persisted as a counter-culture down to the early 6th century, and it seems very likely that some pagan philosophers were still present in Alexandria up to the Arab conquest, while the Syrian city of Haran maintained a pagan religious culture with an appreciation for Hellenic religious values down to the 10th century A.D.).
In any case, what books should you read? It’s useful to read big general surveys because they allow you to frame and interpret narrower monographs. Long-time readers are aware that I am a big fan of Warren Treadgold’s History of Byzantine State and Society. This survey is expansive. And, it touches upon many of the different peoples who interacted with Byzantium. You should read it.
Next I would recommend Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. To a great extent this is a history of Islamic civilization. If you want more specificity on early Islam, try Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. For later Islam, Osman’s Dream. But really should read some survey first before drilling down to a specific epoch or region.
For China it has to be John King Fairbank and his China: A New History. If you want something more accessible, John Keay’s China: A History is where you want to go. Division by periods is important in China though. For a little more specificity, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is good. Obviously there are books which cover the later dynasties, but the Qin and Han are really the hinges of Chinese history, and essential supplements to any survey. For a book which explores how China related to the rest of the world with a light theoretical touch I’d suggest Adshead’s China in World History.
For India I would recommend Romilla Thapar’s A History of India: v. 1. This recommendation will raise many peoples’ hackles because Thapar is accused of being biased and ideological, and she probably is. But if you keep that in mind usually you will survive. John Keay also has a book on this Asian civilization, India: A History. Again, it is really aimed at the general lay reader at a very middle-brow level. But if that’s where you think you need to start, that’s how it goes. If you want a very dramatic narrative focused on biography then The Peacock Throne does an OK job in relation to Mughal India, which is to a great extent a formative period to understanding modern India.
For Southeast Asia I don’t have any suggestion aside from Strange Parallels. This will leave a lacunae for maritime Southeast Asia, which is a pretty big blind spot. I did read The History of Indonesia about 10 years ago, but that book was strongly biased toward modern periods. Reader suggestions welcome.
At some point we need to loop back to Europe, and Rome before Byzantium. For this Michael Grant is really a good resource for surveys. His History of Rome is an A-Z review from legendary times to the fall. It’s old and probably out of print, but usually you can find library copies, or paperback used versions somewhere.
Speaking of the fall though, if you haven’t read The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, please do so. I know many of you have already read this book, but it’s really a major work. I can’t emphasize this enough. It makes history more than just interpretation because of its utilization to material metrics.
When it comes to Greece, I’m in a peculiar position. Much of my reading of ancient Greece was done in my elementary school years. So a lot of it is fuzzy and I don’t recall specific books, though I know enough about the travesty of the Sicilian expedition or the futile resistance against Philip of Macedon to follow broad sketches. Honestly I need to read something about this topic, in fact several books, as a grown ass adult.
I’ll recommend Grant again, with The Classical Greeks.
For the Hellenistic period that spans the gap between the rise of Rome and the decline of Classical Greece, Alexander to Actium should do the trick. But that’s a long book, and the same author has more recently published The Hellenistic Age: A Short History. That’s probably a better bet for many readers.
One book I am somewhat partial to is Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World, which is a really broad work which has many topics it doesn’t touch. But Fox is a really great historical writer, so with consideration for its shortcomings (it’s not a straight ahead survey), I think some readers might enjoy it.
Since I’ve hit Athens, what about Jerusalem? Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain is a history of the Jewish people. I read it in 1995, so I don’t know exactly that it’s the most up to date work, but there is surely goodness in it still.
If you want to focus on the cultural tension between Jew and gentile, then Rome and Jerusalem might be of interest. It’s probably too narrow focus for what I’m recommending here…but it’s a good book so I thought I had to mention it.
In regards to post-Rome but the proto-West, Europe in the High Middle Ages is good. Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe is a bit too focused on the author’s materialist hobby-horses in my opinion for the naive reader (e.g., not enough about the Cluniac Reforms).
A little earlier than that, I think Peter Heather’s work is probably sufficient. First, Empires and Barbarians, and then the Restoration of Rome. Empires and Barbarians is easily the better book if you had to pick one.
Perhaps you want to jump back to the edge of history, A History of the Ancient Near East is pretty good. Then there is the The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, highly recommended. For later in the Bronze Age 1177 B.C. covers a lot of the states and the several centuries before the collapse.
Japan is pretty important in many ways to understanding the evolution of civilizations and cultural exchange. I would recommend A History of Japan by Mason and Caiger. But those who want a somewhat more contemporary skew might want to check out The Making of Modern Japan.
And as long as we’re going to talk about islands, readers know I’m a fan of The Isles. Norman Davies does not give short shrift to the Celtic fringe.
Moving back to the heart of Eurasia, Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia is old, but I think it’s a decent survey.
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is probably a little too in the weeds for many readers, but if you are interested in the topic I recommend it. Like Thapar this is an author with a perspective…just keep that in mind. Where Empires of the Silk Road is panoramic, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane takes a narrower focus, following a particular thread over seven hundred years.
Taking a 50,000 foot view again, Africa: biography of a continent is definitely worth your time. I read it twice.
We’re now venturing in territory where there is less history conventionally defined. That is, based on writing. But some parts of the world don’t really have that, but you should probably know something about them.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is not a survey like some of the ones above, but it does reflect what I think is the new orthodoxy (which is being subject to its own revisionism). I’m broadly persuaded that the revisionists-turned-mainstream viewpoint that is presented by Charles C. Man in 1491 has a lot going for it (ancient DNA adds broadly the likelihood in my opinion, perhaps more on that in some other post). Our knowledge of peoples like the Aztecs and Inca are to a great extent happenstance; they flourished when Europeans arrived. We don’t know the history of the peoples who came before. But we do know the history of the Maya because of the decipherment their hieroglyphs. In A Forest of Kings you’ll read about warlords like 18-Rabbit (a name I’ll never forget).
For Oceania all I’ve really only read is Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians. I don’t know of any primer, as such, about the history of Austronesians, though someone should write one. After all, these are a people who settled from Madagascar, off the coast of Mozambique, to Eastern Island to the west of Chile.
There are two nations which occupy roles in history which are somehow both liminal and central which like Japan, India, and China, deserve their own treatments. Russia is one. Gregory L. Freeze’s Russia: A History is pretty good. A history of Russia is essential because it is weird to see prominent pundits (I will not name, but it shocked me) not understand that Russia’s identification as a Western nation is substantively problematic.
There’s a whole historiography that covers the tension between Westernizers and Slavophiles (or their prototypes). Strangely this is another case where Western liberals and white nationalists are well aligned, they only see race, as the Russians are white, therefore they are Western (and another alignment, this racial essentialism to Western identity disappears for Southeast European Muslims like Albanians, Pomaks and Bonsiaks, who are often treated like “people of color”). The Russian Moment in World History is a short little book which outlines just now non-Western, and oppositional to the West, in many ways Russia has been.
Then we have Iran: Empire of the Mind. The conceit of the subtitle is a little annoying, but it reflects the role of Persian culture as hegemonic from Istanbul to Delhi to Samarkand. And, as you know if you read this weblog, a huge disproportionate number of scholars and intellectuals during the “Arab Islamic” intellectual Golden Age were ethno-linguistically of Iranian background (although many hailed from Turan, the Central Asian Iranian regions, and many of the non-Persians, like Thabit ibn Qurra, were non-Muslims).
Excuse my Eurocentrism, but Europe did conquer the world recently. So The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815. It’s a page turner (and you see how Russia reintegrated itself into Europe, at least its elites). The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is still the best sweeping history on the topic I’ve ever read (I’ve read probably a dozen big tomes on this period and subject?). World Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. We’ll miss the author, Lisa Jardine. At least I will.
As we move into the 19th and 20th century there is so much out there. Books like The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 are useful and very interesting, but there are so many on these sorts of topics, and we’re all more familiar with the era, so I’ll forgo giving you recommendations aside from one: After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000. It’s close enough to many thinks people talk about that it’s useful. For the rest, you can find documentaries.
I’ve focused on surveys which zoom in on a region and skim over a time period purposely. Traditional histories if you will. But I’ll finish out with some more unconventional stuff that I think would be useful. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present covers all the bases. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium has a narrower time frame. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World is self-explanatory, but Niall Ferguson is a great writer for all his faults.
Yes, read Guns, Germs and Steel. Not so much for the detailed assertions of fact, but for the way to think about historical processes and the forces that shape them. Reach Peter Turchin’s War Peace and War because it gives you a framework for decomposing patterns (some of the models in War Peace and War I have actually applied to books I read years before it, as I still have the “data” in my head).
Finally, read books like Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. Social history is important, though many of the books above actually cover society and culture in great depth. There are so many “daily life in….” that you can take your pick. But remember that for most of history most people were peasants, and peasants had a lot in common in their daily life, with differences being relatively trivial (e.g., gruel of barely vs. gruel of wheat or a porridge of rice).
The list above is not exhaustive. It is limited by the fact that I read on some periods of history (e.g., Classical Greece) as far back as the 1980s, so I’m not up to date on the latest survey books. Reader suggestions are welcome.
What is my goal with providing you this list? I want you to be able to iterate through historical assertions people in the media and politics make against your internal data set. See if they are full of shit. They often are.
There are two classes of bullshit. The first class are the nakedly mendacious. This is more common in the political class, where lying is a form of art. The second class are just ignorant and don’t know any better. This is more common in the pundit class.
One trick that the pundit class pulls sincerely because they are often ignorant is that they cite a historian to buttress an assertion, even getting a quote from that historian. But quite often the historian is clearly misleading the audience…the historian may not utter a lie, but in their presentation they allow the reader to have a takeaway that aligns with the normative bias of the pundit, and the historian that has prostituted themselves to some cause. Obviously you will never master a specific area of history like an academic with a command of another language, but if you know enough you can easily smell bullshit when it’s being injected into the information stream.