Over at Substack someone asked if L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s works from the 1990’s are worth reading. I had to say, sadly, that probably not. It’s 2020, and they’re just too out of date.
If you haven’t, you should read David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It’s already a little out of date, partly due to work from his own lab, but it’s mostly on-point. If you haven’t read it, do so. I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to read this book, because you can “hum” through the statistical genetics parts if that’s not your cup of tea. If you aren’t into history, the statistical genetics is still interesting unless you are deeply involved in this field.
Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes is also pretty good and relatively up-to-date.
In 2017 I posted about books you should read. I began to think about stuff I’ve read since then that has stuck with me. First and foremost, Imperial China, 900–1800. This is an excellent big-think book that will stay with you, and covers the period that really helps you understand modern China today.
An older book that I always recommend people, When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the “Riches of the East”. I think this book is relevant since we increasingly live in a multipolar world that’s recentering on Asia.
Another book that is essential reading is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. It’s an excellent environmental history that illuminates a topic most of us are interested in. Additionally, there are facts that are important to know. The author claims that pandemics are really a feature of the broad empires that arose around 0 A.D., while the Neolithic was characterized by endemic local outbreaks.
Outside of my usual domains, John Keay’s Midnight’s Descendents is a quick and readable history of India after 1947. Key is a writer who produces pretty good histories for laypeople, so I recommend most of his books
The First Farmers of Europe is a good academic book for non-academics. I found it via Peter Turchin. No fancy man, lots of facts. Just go slow is what I suggest.
Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not is another book I’d recommend to people despite it being academic. This work changed my priors a bit on the importance of ideology (perhaps more important than I’d thought).
I haven’t read many “dinosaur books” since I was a kid. But The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World is one of those I have. I highly recommend it despite its academic perspective.
Walter Scheidel is one of those scholars where I would recommend being a completist. He has a lot to say, and it’s novel. I can’t recommend Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity enough.
I don’t plan on reading much about the Reformation in the future, as I’ve read a lot in the past. But Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World was worth reading.
If you haven’t read Joe Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, do so. It’s not necessarily going to convince you. But, it’s a place where you need to be to start a discussion about all things “Great Divergence.” Even if you think it’s full of crap, it’s something you’re going to have to engage. On the whole, I think your mileage will vary based on the portions of the book you agree or disagree with.
Of the fathers of population genetics, J. B. S. Haldane had the most interesting biography. So if that interests you, I would check out A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane.
Stuart Ritchie is always worth reading. So check out Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth if you get a chance.
Richard Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765 is important to read even if you aren’t interested in India. It illustrates global and cosmopolitan culture in a non-Western context. As the European West becomes less of the universal culture of the modern age, it will be useful to know about the past when it wasn’t as well.
Then, there is One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger. Why am I recommending this? I think some of you should “hate-read” this. At some point, it is quite likely in the next decade that the “woke” wave will break, and we’ll be back to dealing with neoliberal shills like Matt Yglesias as the “Left” party. Instead of language games, there will be real policy direct from on high.
This is useful in the same way reading theology is useful. You may think it’s nonsense, but people take nonsense seriously. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is the best book to read if you already agree broadly with neoliberalism. But then again, I don’t read books for personal validation.
And finally, I’m no longer the youngest obsessive reader in my line, so here are a few recommendations from the elementary-aged Khans for your own younger kids or grandkids.
My eldest raced through Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret and Game of Stars when she found them (no ethnocentrism here… she picked them up based on the cover) and was proud to be the first on the waiting list at the library when the Chaos Curse released this spring.
She has also adored the Mysterious Benedict Society series.
Her highest recommendation though is for linguist and prolific author Donna Jo Napoli‘s mythology series. The National Geographic editions are oversized, beautifully produced and lushly illustrated by Christina Balit. Napoli comes at each project with a scholar’s delight in small details. There are frequent sidebars about the geographical settings depicted, historical and biological references and the linguistic considerations Napoli made in translating. So far, my restless child who won’t even so much as look at an ordinary book she’s already read has circled back and reread these editions cover-to-cover as many as five times each. Her favorites in order are Tales from the Arabian Nights, Treasury of Greek Mythology, Treasury of Egyptian Mythology, Treasury of Norse Mythology. The only one she has left is Treasury of Bible Stories.
One of her siblings meanwhile is dabbling in the deep-thinking currents of our time, with all the subtlety of early elementary school. His simplistic pronouncements, alas, are almost indistinguishable from what that great eminence of 2020 gifts us with here.