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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Giles Milton

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

Why 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. 


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Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

By Mark Kurlansky

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

Why 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.


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

By Richard Holmes

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

Why 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. 


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Creation: A Novel

By Gore Vidal

Book cover of Creation: A Novel

Why 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.


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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

By Jared Diamond

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Why 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.


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