The best short books on world history from the Paleolithic to the present

John Robert McNeill Author Of The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History
By John Robert McNeill

Who am I?

I’m a historian who wants to understand the big picture as best I can. And while occasionally I can clear my schedule enough to read a 1,000pp book, realistically that won’t happen often so I am always on the alert for short books that aim to provide what I am looking for: a coherent vision of the whole of human history. That’s asking a lot of an author, but these five do it well.

I wrote...

The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

By J.R. McNeill, William H. McNeill,

Book cover of The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History

What is my book about?

The Human Web compresses the story of humankind into 324 pages, emphasizing the connections among cultures.  Connections might mean trade, cultural exchanges, warfare, disease transmission or almost anything, intentional or unintentional. But connections were not random. They followed patterns, so that the world for at least 5,000 years has been organized in webs of interaction. And in the last 500 years, a global web has taken shape that now enmeshes almost everyone on earth. I wrote this book together with my father, which made it a better book, but is an experience I would not recommend as it can test family harmony. It has two separate conclusions, one by each author, because we thought we could not agree on what it all meant.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Brief History of the Human Race

Why did I love this book?

This one is 359 pages and says almost nothing about the 20th century. It is quirky in terms of what it includes and what it leaves out, but reliable in its facts and judgments, and full of insights I haven’t encountered elsewhere. It does not bother with grand theories or overarching narrative, but focuses on what the author finds interesting. Cook is a specialist on the history of Islam, which gives the book an uncommon vantage point. 

By Michael Cook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Brief History of the Human Race as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why has human history been crowded into the last few thousand years? Why has it happened at all? Could it have happened in a radically different way? What should we make of the disproportionate role of the West in shaping the world we currently live in? This witty, intelligent hopscotch through human history addresses these questions and more. Michael Cook sifts the human career on earth for the most telling nuggets and then uses them to elucidate the whole. From the calendars of Mesoamerica and the temple courtesans of medieval India to the intricacies of marriage among an aboriginal Australian…

A Concise History of the World

By Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks,

Book cover of A Concise History of the World

Why did I love this book?

This one is a polar opposite of Cook’s, in that it has a strong chronological structure to it and presents the story in five chapters, each devoted to a segment of time. It is the only world history that is really strong on gender, family, marriage, and women. But it also tackles the more traditional subjects for historians. A strength that it shares with Cook’s and Manning’s books is attention to the history of social inequality, a subject that more and more historians have taken up. At 376 pages, this one is not the briefest on my list. 

By Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Concise History of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book tells the story of humankind as producers and reproducers from the Paleolithic to the present. Renowned social and cultural historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks brings a new perspective to world history by examining social and cultural developments across the globe, including families and kin groups, social and gender hierarchies, sexuality, race and ethnicity, labor, religion, consumption, and material culture. She examines how these structures and activities changed over time through local processes and interactions with other cultures, highlighting key developments that defined particular eras such as the growth of cities or the creation of a global trading network. Incorporating foragers,…

Book cover of A History of Humanity: The Evolution of the Human System

Why did I love this book?

In 256 pages Manning tells you about what he calls the “human system.” Nearly half the book is dedicated to the Paleolithic, before farming, cities, and writing, a very unusual feature. Manning is trained as a historian of Africa, and that shines through at many points. He pays lots of attention to migration, languages, and labor history. Unlike most historians, he considers evidence from archeology, linguistics, and genetics as well as written sources. The only drawback to this one is that it is not written in the most accessible or entertaining prose.

By Patrick Manning,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Humanity today functions as a gigantic, world-encompassing system. Renowned world historian, Patrick Manning traces how this human system evolved from Homo Sapiens' beginnings over 200,000 years ago right up to the present day. He focuses on three great shifts in the scale of social organization - the rise of syntactical language, of agricultural society, and today's newly global social discourse - and links processes of social evolution to the dynamics of biological and cultural evolution. Throughout each of these shifts, migration and social diversity have been central, and social institutions have existed in a delicate balance, serving not just their…

Book cover of This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity

Why did I love this book?

This is the briefest of all on my list, at 92 pages. It doesn’t so much narrate world history for you, but structures it. Christian is a pioneer of what is called Big History, which situates human history inside the history of life on earth, inside earth history, inside the history of the Universe. He gives a taste of that approach here, but the main message is his organization of human historical experience into three main eras: the era of foragers, the agrarian era, and the modern era. What separates one from the next, above all else, is the way humans got energy from their surroundings. Very easy to read.

By David Christian,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“I first became an avid student of David Christian by watching his course, Big History, on DVD, and so I am very happy to see his enlightening presentation of the world’s history captured in these essays. I hope it will introduce a wider audience to this gifted scientist and teacher.” —Bill Gates A great historian can make clear the connections between the first Homo sapiens and today’s version of the species, and a great storyteller can make those connections come alive. David Christian is both, and This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, makes the journey—from the earliest foraging…

Book cover of Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

Why did I love this book?

This one squeezes a lot into 248 reader-friendly pages. It combines the Big History approach with the emphasis on connections that world historians typically admire. But it is mainly a human history: by page 38 humans are emerging, and from that point on the evolution of the Universe and life on earth are in the rear-view mirror. Also very readable.

By Cynthia Stokes Brown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Big History tells the story of the universe, from the beginning to now, by interweaving the fields of biology, geology and anthropology to offer an all-encompassing account of Earth's history. Flowing seamlessly from the birth of the universe to life on a planet inhabited by billions of people, this is a mind altering account of the fate of the Earth and of our role in this ongoing story. Featuring Cynthia Stokes Brown's paradigm-shifting movement, Big History is a seminal work written for academics, students and the layperson alike.

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