The best books about civilization

29 authors have picked their favorite books about civilization and why they recommend each book.

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Albion's Seed

By David Hackett Fischer,

Book cover of Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

This masterpiece is the equivalent of an MRI scan of America’s cultural history. Its 900 pages are packed with scintillating insight into patterns of behaviour and belief underpinning the lives of ordinary Americans. Fischer uncovers ways of thinking and acting that traveled with migrants from the British Isles: Puritans from East Anglia, Cavaliers from the South of England, Quakers from the North Midlands, and English/Scottish Borderers. The author explores and explains American ideas of liberty, time, property, family, ways of working, law and order, and so much more.


Who am I?

Tristram Riley-Smith was posted to the British Embassy in Washington DC in the aftermath of 9/11. Alongside his day job he applied his skills as a Cultural Anthropologist to understand the greatest nation of the 20th Century as it crossed the threshold of the 21st. His interest is in all forms of invention, from those narratives and performances that give meaning to people’s lives to the material objects that furnish their world. In his book The Cracked Bell, Riley-Smith weaves his observations together in a literary portrait of America, revealing the alchemy of opposites that makes up this extraordinary nation.


I wrote...

The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

By Tristram Riley-Smith,

Book cover of The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty

What is my book about?

The twin concepts of liberty and the free market have been instrumental in shaping American identity. Here, author Tristram Riley-Smith delves into how the perverting of these concepts has led to today's economic crisis and identity crisis for America.


Including President Obama's election and the initial stimulus package, Riley-Smith takes us on a whirlwind examination of America. For three years, he served in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and traveled throughout the country and this outsider's perspective offers an in-depth look at the state of American culture after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, toxic debts, and the credit crunch. With lively, insightful commentary, careful research, and illuminating personal anecdotes, Riley-Smith uses images like the cracked liberty bell to explain just where things went wrong, and how we can make them right. He touches upon big issues and examines America's consumer culture, using recognizable icons like Martha Stewart, Giorgio Armani, artist Barbara Kruger, and Wal-Mart.

1491

By Charles C. Mann,

Book cover of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles Mann's book was an eye-opener to many people, pointing out that much of the history we learned as children in school was wrong. The realization that the pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas were rich, vibrant, and advanced has taken time to be accepted broadly, but Mann's book pushes that understanding to a new level. The book combines history with science and archaeology to present a full picture of the American history we never learned.


Who am I?

I am not a historian. I am a retired entomologist with a love for history. My first real experience with history was as a child, reading about Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic adventure on the Endurance—a story I must have re-read 50 times. I have come to recognize that much of the history I learned growing up was either incomplete or was just plain wrong. I am drawn to the arcane aspects of historical events, or that illustrate history from a different angle—which is shown in my list of books. The Silken Thread tells about the history that occurred because of, or was impacted by, just five insects.


I wrote...

The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

By Robert N. Wiedenmann, J. Ray Fisher,

Book cover of The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

What is my book about?

The Silken Thread shows how five insects—just five—have impacted human history. This is not a science book; it is a history book. These five insects have caused sharp turns in history in ways that are usually ignored or unknown. Everyone knows about the plague, and that it was caused by rats and fleas. Except it wasn't that simple. They did not completely play the roles that we learned—or taught in our classes. And that is just one example. All five insects intersected with humans in multiple ways, and our telling of their tales reminds us that it really is the little things that run the world.

Factfulness

By Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

Book cover of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World--And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

For many, the most mysterious thing about science is the way that it relies on mathematics. Many find the way that numbers are used and presented impenetrable. Yet in this wonderful book, the late Hans Rosling shows just how and why our biases make it so difficult for us to put realistic numbers to what’s happening in the world around us. All around the world, people were asked questions about the state of the world and consistently their answers were worse than choosing at random—because we almost always think things are far worse than they really are. Rosling uncovers the real numbers and presents them in an impressively easy-to-absorb way.


Who am I?

I’m a science writer with over 40 books published. Science is central to all our modern lives—but for many people it feels remote, and difficult to understand. I love the opportunity to communicate science—to turn it from a collection of facts into stories that people can relate to. I always read popular science before I got into writing, but, if anything, I read it even more now. My own background is physics and math—and I enjoy reading and writing about that—but sometimes, it’s particularly interesting to pull together different aspects of science that affect all of us, crossing disciplines and uncovering the wonders that science bring us.


I wrote...

What Do You Think You Are? The Science of What Makes You You

By Brian Clegg,

Book cover of What Do You Think You Are? The Science of What Makes You You

What is my book about?

In What Do You Think You Are?, I investigate what makes you the unique individual that you are. From the atomic level, through life itself to consciousness, genetics, and personality, we explore how each aspect of you—your DNA, your memories, your flesh and bone—has come to be.

Full of fascinating true stories—featuring royal ancestors, stellar deaths, real-life hobbits, and a self-reproducing crayfish, to name a few—this wide-ranging exploration of what makes you you is a one-of-a-kind voyage of (self) discovery.

Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of Paris: The Biography of a City

The subtitle Biography of a City disarmingly conceals the author’s success in telling the story of Paris while connecting it with the history of France as a whole. This history skilfully threads together the construction and growth of Paris as a city with its politics, its everyday life, and the humanity that has populated its streets and neighbourhoods. This is above all a well-paced narrative that captures the evolution of the city and its people – in turns turbulent, cultured, contentious, and refined.


Who am I?

I’m a historian specialising in the French Revolution at the University of Glasgow. During my doctorate, my now wife and I stayed in Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. There grew a knowledge and love of Paris that have never diminished. As part of my research, I explore the places and spaces where events unfolded, trying to understand how these sites have since changed and been overwritten with new meanings and historical memories: I have the worn-out boots to show for it. I’m currently writing a book on Paris in the Belle Époque, from the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 to the outbreak of the First World War.


I wrote...

Rebel Cities

By Mike Rapport,

Book cover of Rebel Cities

What is my book about?

This book explores three cities – Paris, London, and New York - in the age of the American and French Revolutions. Beginning with the Stamp Act Riots in New York in 1765 and the popular protests in support of John Wilkes in London, the narrative encompasses the experience of revolution and the British military occupation of New York, the Gordon Riots and radical movement in London, and the start of the great upheaval of the French Revolution in Paris. 

It finishes by describing the Terror in Paris and the reactions in London and in New York. Central to the story is the part played by the streets, buildings, and meeting places that became the sites for these great struggles for democracy and freedom.

Collapse

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive

A long and highly detailed study of how societies fail and collapse, but a work of non-fiction that I could not put down and eagerly sought each day until I finished the book.

A great non-fiction title for us lay/ordinary readers should process a vast amount of historical research and evidence and specialist knowledge to produce an engaging, even mind-expanding work, that leaves us feeling not just informed but awakened to truths we could previously only guess at. Collapse achieves this expertly by examining the historical and archaeological evidence of why certain societies failed - the Anasazi, Maya, the Vikings in Greenland, Angkor up to Rwanda are included. From freshwater crisis' to soil degradation, overpopulation, the destruction of the natural world, to the needs of the few exceeding the needs of the many, the author takes us through the critical missteps collapsed civilisations embarked upon to ensure their own downfall.…


Who am I?

I'm continually asked why I write horror. But I wonder why every writer isn't writing horror. Not a day passes without me being aghast at the world and my own species, the present, past and future. Though nor do I stop searching for a sense of awe and wonder in the world either. My Dad read ghost stories to me as a kid and my inner tallow candle was lit. The flame still burns. Horror has always been the fiction I have felt compelled to write in order to process the world, experience, observation, my imaginative life. I've been blessed with a good readership and have entered my third decade as a writer of horrors. In that time two of my novels have been adapted into films and the British Fantasy Society has kindly recognised my work with five awards, one for Best Collection and four for Best Novel. I'm in this for the long haul and aim to be creating horror on both page and screen for some time to come.


I wrote...

Lost Girl

By Adam Nevill,

Book cover of Lost Girl

What is my book about?

It's 2053 and climate change has left billions homeless and starving--easy prey for the pandemics that sweep across the globe, and for the violent gangs and people-smugglers who thrive in the crumbling world where 'King Death' reigns supreme. The father's world went to hell two years ago. His four-year-old daughter was snatched when he should have been watching. The moments before her disappearance play in a perpetual loop in his mind. But the police aren't interested; who cares about one more missing child? It's all down to him to find her, him alone.

Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of Notes from a Small Island

Bryson is just a brilliant writer who makes you feel as though you’re with him in intimate conversation in his head. His powers of observation in small things, which may seem familiar but are extraordinary, wakes you up to life. This book means a lot to me because of its beginning. He mentions my first big project after designing Jorvik Viking Centre, which was to conceive of and design an exhibition in Dover on the coast of Kent, ‘White Cliffs Experience’. His arrival as a young man and subsequent time spent almost as a down-and-out in that town captured for me the feeling of such a place of transit, of not belonging. He is the most easily evocative writer whose gift is to take you there and smile. 


Who am I?

I’m a storyteller. I studied graphic design, animation, and film and became the title designer of Yorkshire Television’s game show 3*2*1 and directed an art-directed film and animation for British television and cinema. I was the Project Designer of the original Jorvik Viking Centre (1984). By 2008 I designed and built 25 award-winning cultural heritage centres and completed 150 international consultancies, producing and directing my exhibition documentaries. I learned how important writing was to my work. When it came down to it, whatever technique I used in the telling, there was always the story behind it as the way to transport the audience into a mentally immersive experience.


I wrote...

On My Way to Jorvik: a humorous memoir of how a boy with a vision became a radical designer

By John Sunderland,

Book cover of On My Way to Jorvik: a humorous memoir of how a boy with a vision became a radical designer

What is my book about?

Why can’t museums be more like films?' thought 11-year-old John Sunderland. He was a truant in a West Yorkshire grammar school, a maths failure, a great respecter of art and history and loved films. He created the iconic British TV cartoon character Dusty Bin and made films with the zany comedian Kenny Everett. He was the perfect person to solve the quandary of the British archeologists who wanted to bring the 10th-century finds of Viking York to life for the public. 

You’ll romp chortling through this uproarious, incredible behind-the-scenes account of the creation of the original Jorvik Viking Centre that changed the way Britain’s cultural heritage would be presented from then on, told with the unremitting Yorkshire wit of its Project Designer, John Sunderland. 

Out of Our Minds

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto,

Book cover of Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It

Much of what we do and think comes from imagination, generated by our minds rather than by the physical world. This includes art, literature, music, religion, even science. Our dreams are spontaneous acts of creativity, and even memory itself can be distorted by the restless mind.  Fernandez-Armesto argues that many animals have better memories than we do, because the human system produces spontaneously creative thoughts at the expense of fidelity. That’s why memories are often false. The author is a historian with an interest in how the mind works, and his book is an amazingly comprehensive history of the human imagination.


Who am I?

Michael Corballis is a psychologist and brain scientist. His interests lie in how the mind works, how it maps onto the brain, and how it evolved. Much of his work is published in books and scientific articles, but he has also written books aimed at a general readership. These include Pieces of Mind, The Lopsided Ape, The Recursive Mind, The Wandering Mind, and The Truth about Language.


I wrote...

Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

By Michael C. Corballis,

Book cover of Adventures of a Psychologist: Reflections on What Made Up the Mind

What is my book about?

The book is an autobiography of my life, from growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, to several attempts to find a career, to eventual employment in Canada and New Zealand as an academic psychologist and researcher. Over the past 60 years, I saw scientific psychology transform, from behaviourism, to the cognitive revolution, then to the discovery of the brain. I worked with pigeons, long-suffering undergraduate volunteers, and split-brained patients. I pondered the various aspects that make up the mind: memory, imagination, the two sides of the brain, language, and its evolution. Four of the books recommended below feature in this book; One of them (the fourth) appeared too recently for inclusion.

Ideas

By Peter Watson,

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

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. 


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? 

The Good Old Days-- They Were Terrible!

By Otto Bettmann,

Book cover of The Good Old Days-- They Were Terrible!

This 1974 book, by the founder of one of the world’s great picture libraries, was a real eye-opener to me when I first read it. We are all nostalgic and look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, and so do I. But then we forget about the hunger and the crime, tuberculosis, smallpox and heaps of trash on the streets, the child labor, and the despair of the aged. This richly illustrated book, with its multitude of stories, set me straight. For instance, did you know that New York had 150,000 horses in 1900, each producing around 20 pounds of manure a day? The past stank. It makes you deeply grateful for science, technology, and economic growth.


Who am I?

I did not use to believe in human progress, but thought there must have been good old days behind us – until I studied history and understood that my ancestors did not live ecologically, they died ecologically, at an early age. Since then I’ve been obsessed with progress, what makes it possible and how we can spread it to more people. I am a historian of ideas from Sweden, the host of a video series on innovations in history, New and Improved, and the writer of many books on intellectual history and global economics, translated into more than 25 languages.


I wrote...

Open: The Story of Human Progress

By Johan Norberg,

Book cover of Open: The Story of Human Progress

What is my book about?

Mankind conquered the planet because we use more brains and more hands, always learning from and exchanging with others. History’s great civilizations were dependent on openness to people, goods, and ideas from strange places – and so are we.

But there is a catch. We developed this ability to cooperate harmoniously so that we could kill and steal. Competition between groups in pre-history turned us into traders, but also tribalists, tempted to divide the world into us and them. We need openness, but are often uncomfortable with it. This is the historical and psychological background to the current battle between Open and Closed. Part sweeping history and part polemic, this book makes the case for why an open world is worth fighting for more than ever.

Republic of Detours

By Scott Borchert,

Book cover of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America

Several books focused on the Works Progress Administration (WPA), or discreet parts of it, had been published before Borchert’s was released but this is the best of them. I doubt that any other book will ever tell the story of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) quite so well. On one level, it lays out the project’s scope and walks readers through the politics involved with its creation and continued operation. And on another, it explains what the project meant for the writers it employed and how it influenced their work. Every other book on this list was written by an author employed by the project or another part of the WPA; this book will help you understand them as part of a coherent literary moment in American history.     


Who am I?

While writing Never a Lovely so Real, I fell into many traps. The Federal Writers Project was one of the deepest. Nelson Algren’s time at the project in Chicago saved him from personal and professional ruin. And I became a bit obsessed with the idea that, during the Great Depression, there had been a government program that hired writers by the hundreds and brought them together to work toward a common goal; one that helped shape a literary generation. As I say though, it was a pitfall. Most of what I learned wouldn’t fit in my book, but I’m grateful for all of the writing my research introduced me to.      


I wrote...

Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

By Colin Asher,

Book cover of Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

What is my book about?

Never a Lovely so Real is a biography of Nelson Algren, a brilliant but neglected American writer. During a career that lasted nearly fifty years, he penned several books so fully realized and deeply felt that they remain powerful today. Among his finest are: Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man with the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, Nonconformity, and A Walk on the Wild Side.

Although Never a Lovely so Real is a literary biography, I’m a touch uncomfortable thinking of myself as a biographer. I never planned to become one and I wrote my book as a work of creative nonfiction. It’s the form that best suits Algren’s story, which includes several lifetimes’ worth of travel, work, thought, fame, romance, and trauma.

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