The best social history books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about social history and why they recommend each book.

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Adventures of a Bystander

By Peter F. Drucker,

Book cover of Adventures of a Bystander

Peter F. Drucker is the most famous and influential management thinker of the 20th century. He grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fell at the end of the First World War. His classic education, his knowledge of history, his broad horizons, his understanding of business processes make him unique among management thinkers. He outshines them all. And he is an outstanding, captivating writer. Anyone who wants to learn and understand about management must read this book. I have read it three times. I mourn this late friend.


Who am I?

Hermann Simon grew up on a small, remote farm and became a world-renowned marketing professor, including stints at MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. But academic fame didn’t satisfy him. He had the ambition to achieve an impact on practice and founded Simon-Kucher & Partners, today with 41 offices and 1600 employees the world's leading price consultancy. He also detected the secrets of the "hidden champions", unknown mid-sized global market leaders (more than 1.5 million Google entries). In China a business school is named in his honor.


I wrote...

Many Worlds, One Life: A Remarkable Journey from Farmhouse to the Global Stage

By Hermann Simon,

Book cover of Many Worlds, One Life: A Remarkable Journey from Farmhouse to the Global Stage

What is my book about?

The CEO of Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, says: “This book tells Hermann Simon’s amazing story in a compelling way.” And the former CEO of Samsung Electronics adds: “I bought the book and finished it on the spot.” This book shows how a farmboy from virtually the “middle ages” can become a global player – an enormous encouragement for ambitious young people independent of what their background is.

Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300

By Susan Reynolds,

Book cover of Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300

Susan Reynolds was renowned for speaking her mind, never rudely but always forthrightly. If she considered that a generally accepted view or term was wrong or misleading or ill-defined, she said so. In a later work of hers, Fiefs and Vassals, she questioned the very value of the term “feudalism” when analyzing the Middle Ages. In Kingdoms and Communities, a rather less polemical work, she argued for the importance of self-organizing lay communities (parishes, guilds, even “the community of the realm”) as contrasted with the traditional focus on kings and the Church. Susan was in the line of a long tradition of female medievalists at Oxford and Cambridge, going back even before female students were allowed to take degrees. Eileen Power (1889-1940), author of Medieval People (1924, still in print) would be a precursor.


Who am I?

I have had an interest in the Middle Ages as long as I can remember. In boyhood, this took the form of model knights, trips to castles, and a huge body of writing about an imaginary medieval country called Rulasia. Later it was disciplined by the study of the real medieval world, in particular by finding an ideal subject for my doctoral dissertation in Gerald of Wales, a prolific and cantankerous twelfth-century cleric, whose writings on Ireland and Wales, on saints and miracles, and on the Angevin kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and John), were the ultimate inspiration for my own books on medieval colonialism, the cult of the saints and medieval dynasties.


I wrote...

Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

By Robert Bartlett,

Book cover of Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

What is my book about?

Throughout medieval Europe, for hundreds of years, monarchy was the way that politics worked in most countries. This meant power was in the hands of a family - a dynasty; that politics was family politics; and political life was shaped by the births, marriages, and deaths of the ruling family. How did the dynastic system cope with female rule, or pretenders to the throne? How did dynasties use names, the numbering of rulers, and the visual display of heraldry to express their identity? And why did some royal families survive and thrive, while others did not?

This history of dynastic power in Latin Christendom and Byzantium explores the role played by family dynamics and family consciousness in the politics of the royal and imperial dynasties.

Progress

By Johan Norberg,

Book cover of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

Talking about the future always depresses my students. They think life has become steadily worse over the past century and they see no evidence of a course correction. Norberg presents evidence to show that this is wrong. In terms of poverty, life expectancy, violence, literacy, and freedom, life has become better. He also explores why we think the opposite. Now this all may be the calm before the storm, but to fashion a better world we must know it for what it is today. 


Who am I?

I grew up wandering farmers’ fields looking for arrowheads, and I started working in archaeology at 16 – 50 years ago. I ski, snowshoe, run, and play piano, but I sold my soul to the archaeology devil a long time ago. I specialize in hunter-gatherers, and I’ve done fieldwork across the western US, ethnographic work in Madagascar, and lectured in many countries. I’ve learned that history matters, because going back in time helps find answers to humanity’s problems – warfare, inequality, and hate. I’ve sought to convey this in lectures at the University of Wyoming, where I’ve been a professor of anthropology since 1997. 


I wrote...

The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

By Robert L. Kelly,

Book cover of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

What is my book about?

“I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow.” This inscription in Tutankhamun’s tomb summarizes The Fifth Beginning. In it, we tour human history through four times – beginnings – when the character of human life changed: the emergence of technology, culture, agriculture, and the state. Each is signaled by a radical change in humanity’s archaeological footprint. Using that perspective, I argue that today is a fifth beginning, the result of a 5000-year arms race, capitalism’s ever-expanding reach, and a worldwide communication network. It marks the end of war, capitalism, and maybe the nation-state, and the beginning of global cooperation. It’s the end of life as we know it. But with humanity’s great potential to solve problems, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. 

Inventing the American Astronaut

By Matthew H. Hersch,

Book cover of Inventing the American Astronaut

Hersch applies the sober, decidedly unsentimental, and almost brutally incisive analytical framework of labor conflict and professionalization to a whole range of issues negotiated within NASA—from the criteria for astronaut selection to the degree of spacecraft automation to mission programming. Each of these issues emerges loaded with interests of various professional groups—test pilots, military pilots, scientists, engineers, and managers. The astronaut profession is born through a series of clashes of professional cultures, each competing for influence within the US space program.

In my view, comparing this story with the parallel developments on the Soviet side reveals drastic differences. While the pilots-cosmonauts found themselves almost completely at the mercy of powerful space engineers, the astronauts skillfully used their symbolic capital to gain influence on decision-making at NASA.


Who am I?

My interest in space history began with stamp collecting and continued much later with visits to Russian archives, Star City, and aerospace companies, and interviews with cosmonauts and space engineers, who often told their personal stories for the first time. As a historian of science and technology teaching at MIT, I was especially interested in cases where technology and society intertwined: cosmonauts and engineers lobbied politicians with competing agendas, personal rivalries tore apart ambitious projects, and pervasive secrecy perpetuated public myths and private counter-myths. My digging into tensions and arguments that shaped the Soviet space program resulted in two books, Soviet Space Mythologies and Voices of the Soviet Space Program.


I wrote...

Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

By Slava Gerovitch,

Book cover of Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (Russian and East European Studies)

What is my book about?

Soviet propaganda, which widely mythologized the heroism of cosmonauts and the skill of engineers, faced a contradiction: were Soviet cosmonauts heroic pilots steering their craft through the dangers of space, or were they mere passengers riding safely aboard perfect automated machines? Under the technical issue of division of function between human and machine this book uncovers a social drama of rivalry of cosmonauts and engineers. Not only were the cosmonauts forced to fit into the automated control system of their spacecraft, but they also had to follow the preset agenda of the state propaganda machine, publicly representing an idealized human face of the communist regime. Pushing back, the cosmonauts tried to grasp control over their space missions, as well as over their public role.

The Great Transformation

By Karl Polanyi,

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

This book showed me the way to alternative understandings of money, from one culture to another, over vast periods of time and space. An extraordinary read. Polanyi influenced a little-known school of economics, yet one that is becoming more and more relevant as our understanding of money is transformed by alt- and cryptocurrencies.


Who am I?

I am an English professor, and for the past decade I’ve focused my attention on the fiction that is money. I’ve also been a magazine writer for many years and came to money by a circuitous route through writing about food, which led to writing about global hunger, which in turn led to writing about how food gets its price, which finally and lastly led me to the strange ways of Wall Street – options, futures, and the idea that money can be manipulated into a story, a narrative, or as we say in English departments, a plot.


I wrote...

The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate

By Frederick Kaufman,

Book cover of The Money Plot: A History of Currency's Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate

What is my book about?

Half fable, half manifesto, this brilliant new take on the ancient concept of cash lays bare its unparalleled capacity to empower and enthrall us.

The Money Plot tackles the complex history of money, beginning with the earliest myths and wrapping up with Wall Street’s byzantine present-day doings. The book pierces through the haze of modern banking and finance, demonstrating that the standard reasons given for economic inequality are contingent upon structures people have designed. It shines a light on the one percent’s efforts to contain a money culture that benefits them within boundaries they themselves are increasingly setting. And Kaufman warns that if we cannot recognize what is going on, we run the risk of becoming pawns and shells ourselves, of becoming characters in someone else’s plot, of becoming other people’s money.

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.

Blueprint

By Nicholas A. Christakis,

Book cover of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

In clear, captivating prose, Blueprint provides a dazzling body of evidence in support of the need for explanations of human behavior to take account of genes as well as environment, neurotransmitters as well as social norms, our species’ hunter-gatherer past as well as its technology-enabled present.  Distinguished sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis argues that the genes selected in our evolutionary past produced a group-oriented human nature—the “social suite”—that prizes love for partners and offspring, friendship and cooperation, relative egalitarianism, and social learning and teaching, and recognition of individual identity, as well as in-group bias. Whether shipwrecked sailors or utopian communities, online or in-person networks, Christakis demonstrates that human groups function better and survive longer when they reflect elements of the social suite and recognize the fungibility of “in-group” boundaries.


Who am I?

As a young sociologist, I shunned explanations of human behavior informed by psychology and biology, but over the years my research showed me that individual predispositions and capacities influence social structure, as well as the other way around.  Books like those I recommend helped me recognize how evolutionary dynamics gave rise to our intensely social nature and so explain many social processes.  And as I began this intellectual journey, events in my own life ripped off the psychological seal I had constructed over my childhood experiences of maternal abandonment and paternal suicide and finally enabled me to make sense of them. We can improve our individual and societal health by increasing our understanding of our fundamental social needs.   


I co-edited...

Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

By Russell K. Schutt (editor), Larry J. Seidman (editor), Matcheri Keshavan (editor)

Book cover of Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

What is my book about?

Human beings evolved in the company of others and flourish in proportion to their positive social ties. To understand the human brain, we must situate its biology in the wider context of society. To understand society, we must also consider how the brains and minds of individuals shape interactions with other human beings.

In Social Neuroscience, leading researchers in the fields of neurobiology, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology provide a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary explanation of the mutually reinforcing connections between brain, mind, and society. With a special focus on mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, the book’s chapters highlight the profound implications for human health of emotional damage due to severe social deprivation, neurological deficits resulting from parental abuse, cognitive deficits after neighborhood violence, and the gains in cognition and functioning that can result from systematic socially-oriented rehabilitation programs.

The People of Paris

By Daniel Roche,

Book cover of The People of Paris: An Essay in Popular Culture in the 18th Century

A wonderful evocation of many aspects of everyday life in Europe’s 2nd biggest city. Who were “the people” and where were they in the social hierarchy? This book looks at the beginnings of a consumer culture: what did ordinary families earn and what did this enable them to buy. Where and how did they live? How did working Parisians dress, what did they read, how did they spend their holidays? It’s all there!

Who am I?

I fell in love with Paris when I first went there and walked the streets for hours. It wasn’t the Haussman boulevards or the Eiffel Tower that captured my imagination, beautiful as they are. Rather, it was the older quarters and hidden corners that fascinated me. I wanted to know who lived there and what their lives were like. When I got the chance to do a PhD, that’s what I chose. After years in the different Paris archives, I still never get tired of uncovering their secrets. I’ve written four books about Paris and have plans for more!


I wrote...

The Making of Revolutionary Paris

By David Garrioch,

Book cover of The Making of Revolutionary Paris

What is my book about?

The sights, sounds, and smells of life on the streets and in the houses of eighteenth-century Paris rise from the pages of this marvelously anecdotal chronicle of a perpetually alluring city during one hundred years of extraordinary social and cultural change. An excellent general history as well as an innovative synthesis of new research, The Making of Revolutionary Paris combines vivid portraits of individual lives, accounts of social trends, and analyses of significant events as it explores the evolution of Parisian society during the eighteenth century and reveals the city's pivotal role in shaping the French Revolution.

The Samurai

By Stephen Turnbull,

Book cover of The Samurai: A Military History

I would recommend anything by Stephen Turnbull, but I can only choose one, so I chose this. It is a blow-by-blow account of ‘The Age of the Country at War,’ Japan’s long 16th century, which ended with the unification of the country under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu. A key era in Japanese history, and there is still no other book in English to match it.


Who am I?

I first came to Japan knowing nothing about the place I was going to live. With hindsight, that was perhaps foolish, but it started my adventure in Japanese history. At first, I stumbled through blindly, reading the odd book and watching dramas and movies for fun. But then I discovered Yasuke, an African who became samurai in 1581. He focused me, and I started reading to discover his world. History means nothing without knowing what came before and after, so I read more, and more, until suddenly, I was publishing books and articles, and appearing on Japanese TV. It has gone well beyond the African Samurai now, but I am eternally grateful to him for his guidance.


I wrote...

African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

By Thomas Lockley, Geoffrey Girard,

Book cover of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

What is my book about?

The man who came to be known as Yasuke arrived in Japan in the 16th century, an indentured mercenary arriving upon one of the Portuguese ships carrying a new language, a new religion, and an introduction to the slave trade. Curiously tall, bald, massively built, and black-skinned, he was known as a steadfast bodyguard of immense strength and stature, and swiftly captured the interest, and thence the trust, of the most powerful family in all of Japan. Two years later, he vanished.

Yasuke is the story of a legend that still captures the imagination of people across the world. It brings to life a little-known side of Japan - a gripping narrative about an extraordinary figure in a fascinating time and place.

Acid Dreams

By Martin A. Lee, Bruce Shlain,

Book cover of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

A towering work that graces the shelf of any student of psychedelic cultural history. Memorable for its coverage, scholarship, and humour, Acid Dreams documents how LSD, once prized by the CIA as a chemical WMD and espionage weapon, broke free from the military-industrial enterprise and escaped the confines of psychiatric research to shape the aesthetics of sixties counterculture, paving its way to become a furnishing of modern life. While there are other notable efforts to address this material (i.e. Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream), Acid Dreams is a wonderfully detailed social history of LSD.

As a page-turning documentation of the role of LSD and other so-called “psychomimetics” in the CIA’s covert “mind control” program MKUltra, the book offers fascinating coverage of the “secret acid tests” in which LSD was tested on unsuspecting US citizens in the 1950s and 1960s. The book weaves together the stories…


Who am I?

The subject of psychedelics and, more generally, altered states of consciousness, has enthralled me personally and professionally since my teens. The subject grows fascinating as prohibition lifts in an era regarded as a “psychedelic renaissance.” My training as a cultural anthropologist, my interest in religion and ritual, and research focus on transformational events, movements, and figures colours this focus. Past research has included longitudinal ethnography of global psychedelic trance and festival culture. My current book project, an intellectual biography – Terence McKenna: The Strange Attractor (MIT Press, 2023) – is shaped by my interests in this area. 


I wrote...

Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT

By Graham St John,

Book cover of Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT

What is my book about?

While most known as a crucial component of the “jungle alchemy” that is ayahuasca, DMT is a unique story unto itself. Until now, this story has remained untold. Described by Erik Davis as “the definitive cultural history of the weirdest molecule on the planet (and in your body),” Mystery School in Hyperspace documents the modern history of DMT. Since the mid-1950s, DMT has attracted the attention of experimentalists and prohibitionists, scientists and artists, alchemists, and hyperspace emissaries.

Tracing the effect of DMT's release into the cultural bloodstream, this is the first book to explore the history of this chemical enigma, the discovery of its properties, and its significance across the sciences, arts, and life in the modern world.

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