The best books about how non-western cultures think about the world

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian who loves to tell unexpected stories about the interactions between science, religion, and philosophy. As a Christian with a physics degree, I knew the relationship between science and religion was much more interesting than an eternal conflict. So I went back to university, gained a PhD that involved reading lots of Latin and wrote God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Since then, I’ve been exploring how traditional ways of seeing the universe differ from modern science, and how we got from one to the other.


I wrote...

The Globe: How the Earth Became Round

By James Hannam,

Book cover of The Globe: How the Earth Became Round

What is my book about?

How did we discover the world is round? The Globe tells the story of our quest to determine the shape of the earth, and why it took over 2,000 years for the truth to be widely accepted. Every culture and every holy book once assumed the earth is flat. The ancient Greeks gathered the evidence to show this isn’t so, but among Christians and Jews, in China, India and the Islamic Caliphate, this knowledge had to overcome traditional ideas about the universe. Challenging long-established beliefs about Greek philosophy, medieval religion and Christopher Columbus, The Globe shows how the realization that our planet is a sphere deserves to be considered humanity’s first great scientific achievement.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

James Hannam Why did I love this book?

This book makes philosophy exciting again.

Julian Baggini has travelled the world to meet thinkers to find out how different philosophical traditions understand ethics, metaphysics, and reason. He sympathetically explains ideas that can seem unusual or surprising but he isn’t afraid to be critical in his observations.

I loved the way he uncovers the unique aspects of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, and American thought, comparing the ways they deal with questions about God, science, how to be good and how to be content.

Above all, he shows that philosophy is impoverished if it is restricted to ‘western’ thought. 

By Julian Baggini,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How the World Thinks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER*

'There to fill the Sapiens-size hole in your life' Observer

In this groundbreaking global overview of philosophy, Julian Baggini travels the world to provide a wide-ranging map of human thought.

One of the great unexplained wonders of human history is that written philosophy flowered entirely separately in China, India and Ancient Greece at more or less the same time. These early philosophies have had a profound impact on the development of distinctive cultures in different parts of the world. What we call 'philosophy' in the West is not even half the story.

Julian Baggini sets out to…


Book cover of The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times

James Hannam Why did I love this book?

What happens when two great civilizations change places?

Until the eighteenth century, the Muslim world felt confident and strong, not to mention clearly superior to Christian Europe. Then, when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Persia became a victim of Russian aggression, it was painfully clear that Europe was in the ascendant.

This book is the story of how Islam tried to come to terms with this stunning reversal, by turns embracing and then rejecting Western ideas. Persia and the Ottoman Empire made huge strides towards modernization, adopting women’s rights, scientific knowledge, and a Westernized military. But the fundamental tension between tradition and modernity was never quite resolved.

I particularly enjoyed the stories of people whose lives were consumed by the need to match the technological achievements of the West without wanting to emulate its values. 

By Christopher de Bellaigue,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Islamic Enlightenment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With majestic prose, Christopher de Bellaigue presents an absorbing account of the political and social reformations that transformed the lands of Islam in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Flying in the face of everything we thought we knew, The Islamic Enlightenment becomes an astonishing and revelatory history that offers a game-changing assessment of the Middle East since the Napoleonic Wars.

Beginning his account in 1798, de Bellaigue demonstrates how Middle Eastern heartlands have long welcomed modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from seclusion, and the development of democracy. With trenchant political…


Book cover of Classical Indian Philosophy

James Hannam Why did I love this book?

Peter Adamson’s fantastic and long-running podcast A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is also a book series.

My favourite is the introduction to Indian thought, a subject that badly needed an accessible overview. Each chapter is a short taster on a major thinker or aspect of Indian philosophy, laced with Adamson’s trademark drollery. It begins with the ancient Vedas and encompasses Jain and Buddhist thought going up to the sixth century AD.

As someone brought up in the Western philosophical tradition, I found the explanations of Indian ideas thought-provoking and fascinating. 

By Peter Adamson, Jonardon Ganeri,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Classical Indian Philosophy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri present a lively introduction to one of the world's richest intellectual traditions: the philosophy of classical India. They begin with the earliest extant literature, the Vedas, and the explanatory works that these inspired, known as Upanisads. They also discuss other famous texts of classical Vedic culture, especially the Mahabharata and its most notable section, the Bhagavad-Gita, alongside
the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. In this opening section, Adamson and Ganeri emphasize the way that philosophy was practiced as a form of life in search of liberation from suffering. Next, the pair move on to the…


Book cover of A History of Judaism

James Hannam Why did I love this book?

I found this book a revelation. It reveals an entire theological and philosophical tradition that I was almost completely ignorant of.

I knew a bit about Philo and Maimonides, and of course the Hebrew Bible, but had no idea about the depth of Jewish thinking over the centuries. From the Talmud to modern Reform and Orthodox Judaism, via Saadia Gaon and the Kabbalah, this comprehensive survey is a magnificent achievement.

And it’s made all the more enjoyable by Martin Goodman’s clear prose and amazing erudition.    

By Martin Goodman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A sweeping history of Judaism over more than three millennia

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and it has preserved its distinctive identity despite the extraordinarily diverse forms and beliefs it has embodied over the course of more than three millennia. A History of Judaism provides the first truly comprehensive look in one volume at how this great religion came to be, how it has evolved from one age to the next, and how its various strains, sects, and traditions have related to each other.

In this magisterial and elegantly written book, Martin Goodman takes readers…


Book cover of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

James Hannam Why did I love this book?

Not all ways of thinking are written down.

The people of Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean have a finely tuned understanding of their environment which enabled them to travel vast distances across the waves to colonise islands hundreds of miles apart, from Hawaii to New Zealand. This book starts with how European explorers tried to comprehend how they had done it but ends as a journey of self-discovery by the Polynesians themselves as they retrace the voyages of their ancestors. 

By Christina Thompson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A blend of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester's Pacific, a thrilling intellectual detective story that looks deep into the past to uncover who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific, where they came from, how they got there, and how we know.

For more than a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, a vast triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Until the arrival of European explorers they were the only people to have ever lived there. Both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed…


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Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

Book cover of Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

Felice Picano Author Of Six Strange Stories and an Essay on H.P. Lovecraft

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Felice's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood.

Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart.

He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

What is this book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood. Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old, possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart. He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…


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