The best books on the human story as a single whole

Tamim Ansary Author Of The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection
By Tamim Ansary

The Books I Picked & Why

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud

By Peter Watson

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud

Why this book?

History isn’t just “what happened.” Trillions of things happened. History is about the patterns to be found among those trillions of facts. Getting at such patterns means following deep themes, and what could be deeper than ideas? Watson explores when, where, how, and why significant ideas emerged in history, how ideas led to more ideas, to inventions, to cultural changes…we witness the emergence of a soul as a concept, we’re there to see Freud construct his tripartite model of the human psyche… Every idea is part of a thread and this book is woven of many threads. 


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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Why this book?

Money. Surely the history of money is vital to understanding where we’ve been and where we’re going. Ah, but Graeber looks through surface manifestations of money such as coins and currency. He goes to the deeper roots. We learn that no society ever operated on barter. What existed before coinage was credit and debt. Greaber traces the evolution of this fundamental category of human relationship through the millennia, illuminating debt as an ever-present aspect of government, family life, wars, revolutions, slavery, history through the ages. 


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The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

By Edward Dolnick

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Why this book?

Yes, yes, history is an unbroken river of themes, but it’s also a chain of pivotal dramatic episodes. Dolnick gives us one such moment. In 17th century Europe, within two generations, a collection of brilliant oddballs invented science. They’re people, so they’re doing the sorts of things people do, elbowing and shoving one another to find the ultimate truth before the other guy. I appreciate that in the course of reading such a wonderfully enjoyable story, I somehow learn a great deal about the truth they were seeking, the underlying mathematical order of the universe in which they believed.


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China in Ten Words

By Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr

China in Ten Words

Why this book?

Culture is how we group ourselves. Culture is how we see. To make ourselves understood by people of other cultures, we have to lend them our eyes. That’s hard, but Yu Hua meets that challenge for me. His book China in Ten Words offers ten essays about China, each with a one-word title: Revolution. Reading. Copycat. Words like that. Each essay surrounds its title-word with content until one understands what the word means, not to oneself, but to Hua. The essays work like a fusion of memoir and history. They draw the reader into one man’s experience; and at the same time they illuminate a broad patch of history—Maoist and post-Maoist China.


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Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs: A Look at the Neuroscience of Innovation & Creativity in Art, Science & Life

By Ransom Stephens

Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs: A Look at the Neuroscience of Innovation & Creativity in Art, Science & Life

Why this book?

If history is a story, the breaking news might be: Humans Dominate Planet. Why? Because of our superior brains, I’m told. But how do these brains work? Dr. Stephens explains it. He explains it like we’re on our way to get a beer, say, and he’s just telling me something he knows in his usual wisecracking way.  I’m chuckling, but his explanation is working, its putting pieces together, I think I see how we operate, how we humans are churning out this history we’re swimming in. 


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