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

Who am I?

Tamim Ansary is the son of an Afghan father and an American mother.  As a writer, growing up in Afghanistan and growing old in America has drawn him to issues that arise from cultural confusion in zones where civilizations overlap. His books include histories and memoirs, which he considers two sides of the same coin: a memoir is history seen up close, history is memoir seen from a distance.  Much of his work explores how perspective shapes perceptions of reality—a central theme of his best-known book, Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

I wrote...

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection

By Tamim Ansary,

Book cover of The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection

What is my book about?

The Invention of Yesterday is a birds’-eye view of world history from the perspective of the emerging global “we”. It follows our journey from the Stone Age to the Virtual Age, from the tens of thousands of tiny bands of relatives we were 50,000 years ago, to the single intertangled spaghetti of human lives that we are today, all of us shouting at once. What were the stages of this drama; what were its pivotal moments, what drove the story, how did one thing connect to another, where might this all be going, and now that we are so interconnected, how come we’re still fighting? 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Peter Watson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Peter Watson's hugely ambitious and stimulating history of ideas from deep antiquity to the present day—from the invention of writing, mathematics, science, and philosophy to the rise of such concepts as the law, sacrifice, democracy, and the soul—offers an illuminated path to a greater understanding of our world and ourselves.

Book cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Why did I love 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. 

By David Graeber,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The groundbreaking international best-seller that turns everything you think about money, debt, and society on its head—from the “brilliant, deeply original political thinker” David Graeber (Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me)
Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.


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

Why did I love 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.

By Edward Dolnick,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Edward Dolnick’s smoothly written history of the scientific revolution tells the stories of the key players and events that transformed society.” — Charlotte Observer

From New York Times bestselling author Edward Dolnick, the true story of a pivotal moment in modern history when a group of strange, tormented geniuses—Isaac Newton chief among them—invented science and remade our understanding of the world.

At a time when the world was falling apart— in an age of religious wars, plague, and the Great Fire of London—a group of men looked around them and saw a world of perfect order. Chaotic as it looked,…

China in Ten Words

By Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr (translator),

Book cover of China in Ten Words

Why did I love 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.

By Yu Hua, Allan H. Barr (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked China in Ten Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People. Leader. Reading. Writing. Revolution. Grassroots. Through these and other common vernacular words and phrases, Yu Hua - widely regarded as one of China's greatest living writers - frames powerful personal stories of the Chinese experience from the Cultural Revolution to the 2010s. With wit, insight and courage, he presents a refreshingly candid vision of the 'Chinese miracle' and its consequences, and reveals a unique perspective on the world's most populous yet misunderstood nation.

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Ransom Stephens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Left Brain Speaks, but the Right Brain Laughs, physicist Ransom Stephens explains the interesting and often amusing tale of how the human brain works. Using understandable metaphors and easy to follow language, Stephens gives readers of any scientific level an introduction to neuroscience and shows them how things like creativity, skill, and even perception of self can grow and change by utilizing the body's most important muscle. Fans of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson will love Stephens' down to earth attitude and those interested in science will appreciate his thoughtful explanations of scientific terms. The Left Brain…

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