The best books on big ideas in world history

Stephen R. Bown Author Of The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire
By Stephen R. Bown

Who am I?

Stephen R. Bown has has written ten books on the history of exploration, science, and ideas – including books on the medical mystery of scurvy, the Treaty of Tordesillas, the lives of Captain George Vancouver, and of Roald Amundsen and a doomed Russian sea voyage. His books have been published in multiple English-speaking territories, translated into nine languages, and shortlisted or won many awards. His latest book is a sweeping history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the English monopoly that had a profound influence on the development of North America over 200 years.

I wrote...

The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire

By Stephen R. Bown,

Book cover of The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire

What is my book about?

The story of the Hudson's Bay Company, dramatic and adventurous and complex, is the story of modern Canada's creation. And yet it hasn't been told in a book for over thirty years, and never in such depth and vivid detail as in Stephen R. Bown's exciting new telling.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliant and transformative book about the imaginary social components that constitute a worldview. I suppose you could quibble about the archaeological choices he made to illustrate his points, or disagree with a certain nuance of his interpretation on early theories on the evolution of our species, but that would be missing the point. This is a work of depth and understanding that should change your outlook on culture in general, and the internalized assumptions of own culture specifically, by placing it within a greater context of humanity and social evolution. I know it is a cliche, but this book really should be on your list if you want provocative insights into human culture, past and present – how the veneer of assumptions that keeps complex societies functioning (hierarchy, power and status) changes over time and place, but the underlying principles remain remarkably similar – how we as a species imagine our world – the taboos and the reasoning behind most of the institutions that we accept without question and how they could compare to other and past societies, showing the similarity of purpose and the profoundly different civilizational assumptions. Comparing a stone-age hunter gatherer witchdoctor to a besuited lawyer first made me laugh, then it made me think. If you want to be forced to really ponder our society and civilization and how it compares to others, this is vital and indispensable reading.

By Yuval Noah Harari,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Sapiens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the…

Book cover of Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention

Why did I love this book?

The central premise of Metropolis is that cities have been the great incubators of new ideas in politics, religion, and technology. Wilson argues convincingly that cities are humanity’s greatest invention since they created the necessary ingredients to creating most other inventions. He covers dozens of major urban developments from around the world since the dawn of history thousands of years ago. From the world’s first city, Uruk, in present-day Iraq nearly 5000 years ago, we are taken on a tour of fascinating cities that during their heyday were great centers of culture, learning, commerce, science and shows how they contributed to global history in a unique way at a key juncture in time. Athens, Baghdad, London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris – they all have fascinating pasts that reflected and helped to develop the modern world. There is certainly a lot of information to digest but it is presented in a revealing and interesting format that gives a sense of how each city functioned, what made its heartbeat and why it was influential. He also doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of urbanization, from crime to disease to pollution and the difficulty of obtaining food and supplies. This is a big idea book that will leave you with a new appreciation for the unusual variety of human expression and ingenuity, as amplified by our 7000-year experiment with a manufactured urban environment.

By Ben Wilson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Metropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Sunday Times bestselling author, a dazzling, globe-spanning history of humankind's greatest invention: the city.

'Brilliant...enchanting' Evening Standard 'Exhilarating' New York Times

The story of the city is the story of civilisation. From Uruk and Babylon to Baghdad and Venice, and on to London, New York, Shanghai and Lagos, Ben Wilson takes us through millennia on a thrilling global tour of the key urban centres of history.

Rich with individual characters, scenes and snapshots of daily life, Metropolis is at once the story of these extraordinary places and of the vital role they have played in making us who…

Book cover of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Why did I love this book?

The English East India Company under Robert Clive became the greatest corporation in the world, rivaled, possibly, only by the Dutch East India Company. It is also one of the most storied businesses, its rise, and expansion so improbable, violent and spectacular that it nearly defies credulity. The East India Company was so dominant and so all-pervading that its history has been used as the model for countless fictional conglomerates in novels and films. Its power became so titanic that it ended up, by accident and the seemingly fearless or foolhardy actions of Clive, as the government of millions of people in what is today the nation of India. The inherent conflict of interest of a shareholder-driven corporation being responsible for managing an entire sub-continent, subsuming the interests of the people and overall society beneath its desire for increased commerce and profit, is one of the fascinating ideas of the Company and its history. The Company was basically the foundation of the British Empire, its corporate independence restricted, and its management structure taken over by the British government after many generations of corporate rule. Some of the Company’s directors and investors became staggering rich on the plunder extracted from its monopoly, their mansions dotting the countryside of England and Scotland. The Anarchy is a great book, so compelling in subject matter and grandiose personalities, and so well written it will redefine for the reader the notion of corporate over-reach and show how destructive and corrosive monopolies can be. One of the best books I’ve read in ages.

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Anarchy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2019 THE TIMES HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR FINALIST FOR THE CUNDILL HISTORY PRIZE 2020 LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION 2019 A FINANCIAL TIMES, OBSERVER, DAILY TELEGRAPH, WALL STREET JOURNAL AND TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 'Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India ... A book of beauty' - Gerard DeGroot, The Times In August 1765 the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and forced him to establish a new administration in his richest provinces. Run by English…

Book cover of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

Why did I love this book?

I loved this book because opened my eyes to a seemingly inconsequential topic that I knew nothing about, but arguably had significant cultural influence of the development of the United States. Perhaps most importantly Shorto brings the era alive with the stories of the unusual people who built early Manhattan literally from the ground up. Ever wonder where Wall Street, Harlem, and the Bronx get their names? I had no idea that Dutch Manhattan was such a vibrant place before the British took it over, or the divergent cultural values of the Dutch that were a foil to the narrow worldview of the more northerly Puritan colonists in New England, such as the concept of freedom of religion. But Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company managed the entire colony as a business interest, a private corporate land holding, denying settlers civil representation and ruling somewhat autocratically. He refused to relinquish his or the Company's dictatorial powers and pursued policies counter to the interests of the colonists (refusing to fund schools and a hospital, etc.) yet all the while transforming the settlement into an important port and commercial hub for the surrounding region and for the trans-Atlantic trade. As a result of Stuyvesant’s authoritarian tendencies that were at odds with the more liberty-minded attitude of the Dutch settlers, when British warships entered the harbour in 1664 during the third Anglo-Dutch war and offered the people of New Netherlands representative civil government if they surrendered, the entire militia laid down their arms without firing a shot. That is worth thinking about.

By Russell Shorto,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Island at the Center of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a riveting, groundbreaking narrative, Russell Shorto tells the story of New Netherland, the Dutch colony which pre-dated the Pilgrims and established ideals of tolerance and individual rights that shaped American history. 

"Astonishing . . . A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." --The New York Times

When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely…

Book cover of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Why did I love this book?

The pre-Columbian world was far more varied and richer in terms of environment and culture, than people realize. Deploying new discoveries and research in archaeology, ecology, and history, Mann brings this lost world alive and shows how by the time many European explorers and travellers reported on what they saw in the “New World,” it had already undergone a staggering and destructive transformation, primarily at the hands of infectious disease. Whole civilizations had collapsed, with population declines of up to 80 percent in some regions. Economies were disrupted or destroyed, cities, towns, and farms abandoned, the remnants to be discovered centuries later during excavations and painstakingly pieced together. Using all the latest research and collected knowledge, he exhumes the mystery of this time period revealing the complexity and diversity, and shows that the notion of North America as being sparsely populated by technologically primitive and primarily nomadic hunter-gatherer societies was a recent transformation that occurred rapidly after the first contact with Europeans in the late 15th century, once European seafarers first crossed the Atlantic unleashing world-shattering and hitherto unknown pathogens on unsuspecting advanced civilizations from the Maya and Aztecs and into North America. Realizing how complex, advanced and heavily populated, and urbanized the pre-Columbian world was is vital to gaining an accurate appreciation for world history, and how the vagaries of fate and unintended consequences are often the greatest drivers of history.

By Charles C. Mann,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked 1491 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492—from “a remarkably engaging writer” (The New York Times Book Review).
Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized…

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