The best books that will make us rethink global history

Who am I?

I'm an anthropologist on a mission to discover how people have used, and abused, law over the past 4,000 years. After a decade in a wig and gown at the London Bar, I headed back to university to pursue a long-standing interest in Tibetan culture. I spent two years living with remote villagers and nomads, freezing over dung fires, herding yaks, and learning about traditional legal practices. Now, based at the University of Oxford, I’ve turned to legal history, comparing ancient Tibetan texts with examples from all over the world. The Rule of Laws brings a long sweep of legal history and its fascinating diversity to a wide audience.

I wrote...

The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

By Fernanda Pirie,

Book cover of The Rule of Laws: A 4,000-Year Quest to Order the World

What is my book about?

The epic story of the ways in which people have used laws to forge civilizations.

Rulers throughout history have made law. But laws were never simply instruments of power. They also offered diverse people a way to express their visions for a better world. I trace the rise and fall of the sophisticated legal systems that underpinned ancient empires and religious traditions. I describe tribal assemblies, farmers, and merchants who turned to law to define their communities, and I reveal the legal efforts that people repeatedly make to control their leaders. The rule of law has ancient origins, I conclude, but it Is not inevitable. Laws can only make the world better if we understand where they have come from and how they could have been different.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Fernanda Pirie Why did I love this book?

A really deep history of civilizations, which calls into question some of the entrenched ideas we hold about the rise of the state. While other authors have questioned whether states have been good for humankind, Graeber and Wengrow ask whether they were even inevitable. A readable account, based on fascinating archaeological discoveries and peppered with anthropological insights, it reveals how ancient people experimented with different forms of social organisation. Often, they came together in immense groups and networks for ritual and trade, without being tempted to form anything like a state. It makes us think again about human society and where it might be headed.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…

Book cover of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Fernanda Pirie Why did I love this book?

Scott takes us through the evidence of the earliest hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies and asks why anyone ever allowed rulers to amass power and centralize control of resources. The evidence is that farmers flourished for centuries without letting anyone lord it over them. Why, then, does agriculture seem to have led to the rise of the state? Readable and compelling, Scott's latest book makes a really convincing case against the benefits, and inevitability, of the state.

By James C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An Economist Best History Book 2017

"History as it should be written."-Barry Cunliffe, Guardian

"Scott hits the nail squarely on the head by exposing the staggering price our ancestors paid for civilization and political order."-Walter Scheidel, Financial Times

Why did humans abandon hunting and gathering for sedentary communities dependent on livestock and cereal grains, and governed by precursors of today's states? Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. But archaeological and historical…

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Fernanda Pirie Why did I love this book?

An enjoyable read from start to finish, Frankopan vividly describes the successive civilizations that arose in the Middle East, and which influenced the course of world history. As the chapters trace the rise of new technologies, sophisticated philosophies, and cultural refinements, it becomes apparent that he is subtly decentring our traditional view of world history. Europe, we realise, came late to the game, far behind the Assyrians, Byzantines, Sasanians, Abbasids, Mughals, and Persians, who could legitimately have regarded their societies as the centre of world civilization. And their successors, Frankopan argues, still play pivotal roles in global politics.

By Peter Frankopan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The No. 1 Sunday Times and international bestseller - a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east For centuries, fame and fortune was to be found in the west - in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of adventure and riches. The region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India, is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture - and is shaping the modern world. This region, the…

Book cover of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Fernanda Pirie Why did I love this book?

Philosopher and psychiatrist McGilchrist presented a bold thesis about the working of the human mind. It has profound implications for the way we understand human societies. We’ve long known that the two halves of the brain perform different functions but, using approachable case studies and clearly presenting the science, the first half of the book argues that the left, more rational, part of the brain is dangerously dominant. Controlling and grasping, it needs to remain subordinate to the more inclusive, humane, and intuitive functions of the right brain. McGilchrist goes on to trace the consequences for the development of human societies and their problems. The ideas linger, relevant to practically all aspects of our lives.

By Iain McGilchrist,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Master and His Emissary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pioneering exploration of the differences between the brain's right and left hemispheres and their effects on society, history, and culture-"one of the few contemporary works deserving classic status" (Nicholas Shakespeare, The Times, London)

"Persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master' the right. Brilliant and disturbing."-Salley Vickers, a Guardian Best Book of the Year

"I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience."-W. F. Bynum, TLS

Why is the brain divided? The difference between right and left hemispheres has been…

Book cover of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Fernanda Pirie Why did I love this book?

Christianity did not begin with Christ. MacCulloch, world expert on the history of the church, begins his epic tale a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Early chapters reveal Christianity’s antecedents and, over the next 1,000 pages, he takes us through the twists and turns of the early Christian church, the trials and tribulations of its members, and those who patronized and persecuted them. He explains the esoteric theological debates that tore communities apart, he follows the early missionaries into China, and he describes the divisions that formed the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches. Passionate and critical, MacCulloch gets as close as seems possible to explaining what Christianity really is.

By Diarmaid MacCulloch,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Diarmaid MacCulloch's epic, acclaimed history A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years follows the story of Christianity around the globe, from ancient Palestine to contemporary China.

How did an obscure personality cult come to be the world's biggest religion, with a third of humanity its followers? This book, now the most comprehensive and up to date single volume work in English, describes not only the main facts, ideas and personalities of Christian history, its organization and spirituality, but how it has changed politics, sex, and human society.

Taking in wars, empires, reformers, apostles, sects, churches and crusaders, Diarmaid…

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Book cover of Being Your Cat: What's really going on in your feline's mind

Celia Haddon Author Of Being Your Cat: What's really going on in your feline's mind

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