The best books on peculiar events and issues that changed the world

Thomas Suddendorf Author Of The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals
By Thomas Suddendorf

Who am I?

I am a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland and I am fascinated by big picture questions about how we became the peculiar creatures that we are. Shortly after I was asked to compile a list of recommendations, I attended my friend Ashley Hay’s book launch of Gum. This beautiful book does not just present a bunch of facts about Australia’s iconic trees, but uses this lens to examine many broader issues from colonial history to climate change. Reading it inspired me to create the present list of books that, unlike the rote learning of dates that marked many history classes at school, take much more interesting, novel vantage points from which to understand why things turned out the way they did.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals

What is my book about?

Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, whereas even our closest animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their dwindling habitats. What exactly is the difference between our minds and theirs? 

“Beautifully written, well researched, and thought-provoking, The Gap searches for key differences between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, and presents a balanced overview of the current status of our understanding of the mental abilities of animals. I found it fascinating and strongly recommend it to everyone who is curious as to how we have evolved to become the dominant species in the world today.” —Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, Founder, The Jane Goodall Institute, and UN Messenger of Peace

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History

Why did I love this book?

Did your history teacher tell you about the spice race and how it drove colonization and shaped recent history? This wonderful book tells the remarkable story of the adventures surrounding the occupation of the tiny Indonesian island of Run, source of much-sought-after nutmeg, and the eventual trade the Dutch East India Company struck to gain control from the British. In return, the British received another island: New Amsterdam - or what we now know as Manhattan. 

By Giles Milton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nathaniel's Nutmeg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A true tale of high adventure in the South Seas.

The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the Indonesian archipelago. Just two miles long and half a mile wide, it is remote, tranquil, and, these days, largely ignored.

Yet 370 years ago, Run's harvest of nutmeg (a pound of which yielded a 3,200 percent profit by the time it arrived in England) turned it into the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a battle between the all-powerful Dutch East India Company and the British Crown. The outcome of the fighting was one of the most spectacular…

Book cover of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Why did I love this book?

I must admit that the story of a fish, and humans fishing it, smelled off to me, as did the idea that the book included recipes I’d be unlikely to ever follow. But this is a brilliant book, a fascinating fresh perspective not restricted to information about fisheries, but concerning broader questions of human impact, resource management, and sustainability. Along the way, the reader learns many astonishing facts, such as how the Basques, even before Columbus, used the shores of America to salt and dry their catch, but kept the source of their supply a trade secret.

By Mark Kurlansky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Who would ever think that a book on cod would make a compulsive read? And yet this is precisely what Kurlansky has done' Express on Sunday

The Cod. Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been triggered by it, national diets have been based on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it. To the millions it has sustained, it has been a treasure more precious that gold. This book spans 1,000 years and four continents. From the Vikings to Clarence Birdseye, Mark Kurlansky introduces the explorers, merchants, writers, chefs and fisherman, whose lives have been interwoven with this…

Book cover of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Why did I love this book?

This masterful book comprises ten stories of events that ushered in the modern scientific understanding of the world. While some of the ground covered feature widely known characters – Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Humphrey Davy – the book is full of surprising tales that, like a journey through time, reveal many curious facets about the long and winding roads to discoveries. For instance, it took many decades before the study of the curious effects of laughing gas eventually led to anesthetics, to the relief of innumerable patients since. This book is a wonderful way to learn about the history of science. 

By Richard Holmes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, Richard Holmes's dazzling portrait of the age of great scientific discovery is a groundbreaking achievement.

The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, who stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769 fully expecting to have located Paradise. Back in Britain, the same Romantic revolution that had inspired Banks was spurring other great thinkers on to their own voyages of artistic and scientific discovery - astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical - that together made up the 'age of wonder'.

In this…

Creation: A Novel

By Gore Vidal,

Book cover of Creation: A Novel

Why did I love this book?

Occasionally, a novel perspective on events that changed the world can also be presented in a novel (sorry). Gore Vidal’s Creation is one example that left a deep impression on me. With the invention of writing, human philosophies could manifest in lasting new ways that profoundly shaped the world. Vidal’s historical fiction invites us to entertain the possibility that a single human living in the 5th century BC could have met the founding fathers of many of today’s moral traditions. It tells the story of the imaginary life of Cyrus, a Persian diplomat, grandson of Zoroaster, who travels the world and meets Socrates, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius among others. This may not be an easy read, and I recall it involved a lot of name-dropping, but it is worth the effort – providing a fascinating comparative perspective on religion and the human quest for meaning.

By Gore Vidal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A sweeping novel of politics, war, philosophy, and adventure–in a restored edition, featuring never-before-published material from Gore Vidal’s original manuscript–Creationoffers a captivating grand tour of the ancient world.
Cyrus Spitama, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and lifelong friend of Xerxes, spent most of his life as Persian ambassador for the great king Darius. He traveled to India, where he discussed nirvana with Buddha, and to the warring states of Cathay, where he learned of Tao from Master Li and fished on the riverbank with Confucius. Now blind and aged in Athens–the Athens of Pericles, Sophocles, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Socrates–Cyrus recounts…

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did I love this book?

This is a classic. A sweeping account of the diverse geographical factors that shaped the rise of cultures since the last ice age. Chances are you have read it; chances are some of it is now outdated. But I recall this was an amazing treatment, offering an enlightened view on the human story, on how we came to be in the position we find ourselves in today. It deserved the Pulitzer.

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Guns, Germs, and Steel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, a classic of our time, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond dismantles racist theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for its broadest patterns.

The story begins 13,000 years ago, when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire human population. Around that time, the developmental paths of human societies on different continents began to diverge greatly. Early domestication of wild plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent, China,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in international relations, the Middle East, and philosophy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about international relations, the Middle East, and philosophy.

International Relations Explore 245 books about international relations
The Middle East Explore 172 books about the Middle East
Philosophy Explore 1,395 books about philosophy