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I need a sense of time frame.
April 12, 2009 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Most history books seem to focus on one geographical location, and usually limit that focus to a narrow swath of time as well. I would like recommendations for books (or videos or anything else) that do neither of these things.

I have found that when I learn about history in the context of only one location, or only one time period for that location, I have trouble connecting it to things that are going on at the same time in other locations. For example, I have taken separate classes that cover the 18th and 19th centuries of the United States, Spain, and Russia, and yet I can't think back an event in Spain during this time and have any idea of what was going on in the United States or Russia at the time. It's like the stuff I know about those periods exists in its own little mental bubble that nothing else can permeate. I realize that when there are parts of the world that are isolated from others there is often not a big "connection" there to make, but I want to have a sense of time and scale regardless.

In other words, right now things seem to be indexed in my mind by location, then time period -- that's how I was always taught history. I think that has done more harm than good, so I want to reverse that; I want to think back to a period of time and have a general idea of what different societies were up to.

What I would like is a book (or anything else that fits the bill) that presents world history in a way that makes that possible. There is probably more than one way to do this, but for example, it might divide itself into sections like "early 1700s" and then have a chapter for several locations, then move onto the mid-1700s, or something like that. If it spends too long covering only one location, I will probably lose my sense of time frame.

Obviously I will not get a ton of details doing this, and I don't expect too many. The idea is that once I've tethered the stuff down in my mind by time period instead of location, I can go look up the kind of narrow-scope books that make me lose my sense of time frame right now. It seems to me that, in school, I was forced to learn tons of details about isolated times and places before I even had a good sense of scale for them, and the narrow-scope books will be perfectly helpful once I actually have that sense of scale.

The range of time I'd like covered is roughly the past three thousand or four thousand years. I'm open to more than that, depending. I don't expect to find all of that covered in one book, though. If a book covers just one century in a way that will stick in my head, that's good enough.

I am open to text books if they are good at this, but text books tend to have their own set of issues: they're usually dry and unengaging, which doesn't lend itself to sticking in my head; they try to force memorization of whatever details the text book thinks is important, instead of getting the general idea across; they tend to leave out a lot of interesting things because they're deemed unimportant. If there's a text book that doesn't do these things, by all means recommend it, but I'd rather have a book written by someone who just thinks history is interesting and wants to share that with me; I always learn much faster that way.
posted by Nattie to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Millenium: A history of the Last 1000 Years by Felipe Fernández-Arnesto might be what you are after.
posted by Megami at 7:16 AM on April 12, 2009


The set you're looking for is The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It's out of print now but sets are sold on Ebay.
posted by RussHy at 7:18 AM on April 12, 2009


It's focused on the history of science and science itself, but Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is pretty great and close to what you want.
posted by The Michael The at 7:23 AM on April 12, 2009


text books tend to have their own set of issues: they're usually dry and unengaging, which doesn't lend itself to sticking in my head; they try to force memorization of whatever details the text book thinks is important, instead of getting the general idea across

Man, I don't know what text books you've been reading, but most of the history text books I read in college were pretty damn engaging.

I think you have some poorly preconceived notions about what history is and how to learn about it... which I suppose is why you're asking this rather odd and drawn out question.

There are two kinds of history: texts that were written at the time, and texts that were written after the fact. Wanna learn about the Assyrians in the second millennium BCE? Go read Gilgamesh. Yeah, it's a work of mythology, but that's what people read at the time. Don't have time to poor through rough and inconsistent translations of 3,000 year old clay tablets? Then read anyone of the countless scholarly works on the subject.

The point is that understanding history isn't just about getting the dates and locations right, or having some consistent planet-wide view (whatever that is.) It's about understanding what people at the time thought about the world around them and how that view changed over time.

I have taken separate classes that cover the 18th and 19th centuries of the United States, Spain, and Russia, and yet I can't think back an event in Spain during this time and have any idea of what was going on in the United States or Russia at the time.

Are you sure this isn't psychological on your part? I mean there are all types of various dissociative disorders which could account for this type of disconnect.
posted by wfrgms at 7:40 AM on April 12, 2009


There are two history series that I know that may fill the bill.

The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick is now on its 4th volume (well, technically there are only three volumes by that title, he re-christened the series "The Cartoon Historyof the Modern World" when the fourth volume came out, because we'd gotten up to 1492). It is in graphic-novel format, but it is surprisingly comprehensive. He does take a chronological approach for the most part -- starting with the Big Bang and moving through time -- but does occasionally backtrack and fill in, "okay, let's get a bigger picture on the more complete history of China/North Africa/Mexico/etc." The four volumes mentioned cover from the Big Bang up to the American Revolution, and give a pretty cohesive picture of everything worldwide in between, with emphasis on how things fit together globally.

Memory of Fire focuses more on the Americas and on the period from 1400's through to 1984, but it is fascinating. It's a three-volume series by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and he's told the history of both North and South America through a series of single-paragraph vignettes, written in a magic-realism style to boot; one of my favorite pages jumps from a silver mine in Peru to the Wounded Knee massacre to Mark Twain writing Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to a snip of everyday life in Haiti. It was the first real history work that gave me a real sense of how absolutely random, and thus fascinating, history is. (It only goes up as far as 1984 because that was "the present" at the time he was writing it.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:49 AM on April 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


wfrgms: I took several classes in history for my college degree, so I think I have a pretty good idea about what history is and I how personally learn it best. I was originally a double-major in it until I decided I wanted to graduate earlier and just accepted the minor. I don't know if you meant to sound condescending or not, so I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here...

I did not have engaging text books in my history classes; the books I were assigned that were engaging were not text books. If you read engaging text books, wouldn't it make more sense to recommend those instead of acting like I'm some kind of weirdo for learning differently than you do?

The point is that understanding history isn't just about getting the dates and locations right, or having some consistent planet-wide view (whatever that is.) It's about understanding what people at the time thought about the world around them and how that view changed over time.

I don't know what in my question lead you to believe I think otherwise. I want to have a general sense of things before I look into more specific things. What in the world is wrong with that? It is absolutely more helpful to me to be able to have it in the back of my mind that, before X event happened in Europe, the ideas of Y person from an earlier time and different region might have had some influence on that. I don't get that cohesive sort of view when things are taught to me in the isolated fashion they usually are. At best, I'll get lucky and they might outright mention some of the influences, but sometimes this does not happen, and regardless I want to be able to think about history on my own.

Are you sure this isn't psychological on your part? I mean there are all types of various dissociative disorders which could account for this type of disconnect.

I have learned much more effectively with teachers that taught by time frame, rather than mushing up all the events. If I know what happens first, it makes it easier to understand why what happened second, happened second. This makes everything easier to remember.

I'm completely puzzled that you would attribute this to a "dissociative disorder." Are you sure that's the term you meant to use? The DSM lists four dissociative disorders, none of which are remotely similar to this. I, um... had no emotional trauma or identity crises while taking my history classes, nor any detachment from reality.

Anyway, seeing as how people are recommending the exact sort of thing I'm looking for, I think you're reading a bit much into this. Thanks to everyone else for the recommendations so far!
posted by Nattie at 8:28 AM on April 12, 2009


Check out some other of wfrgms's answers. You will see that it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with him -- just ignore it.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:40 AM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Uh, yeah, don't pay attention to wfgrms, Nattie. I have exactly the same problem with learning history, and it's not because I have a psychiatric disorder. The way I learn things just does not jive with the way that history is taught. (Although, really, I have a hard time believing that the area-by-area approach is the best way to teach ANYONE history.) For example, I remember being astounded to discover that Napoleon did all of his stuff AFTER the American Revolution; I tend to think of European history as "a long, long time ago" and American history as only "a long time ago." (It wouldn't surprise me if this is because I learned about European history first.)

Anyway, you did a pretty good job of describing how I feel when I try to learn history and of responding to wfgrms, so I'll just sit back and follow this question. (My current method of learning is having a partner who has a functional knowledge of American and European history, and doesn't judge me for asking idiotic questions whose answers I should have learned in high school.) It's taken me a long time to realize that the fact that I couldn't learn this all doesn't mean I'm stupid or dysfunctional (or even bad at history), although there have always been people like wfgrms who have tried to keep me from that realization.
posted by pluckemin at 8:49 AM on April 12, 2009


I just wanted to second the first suggestion made by EmpressCallipygos. The Cartoon History series is a fantastic and fun read that gave me a lot of context that I never got as a history student.
posted by El_Marto at 9:07 AM on April 12, 2009


For example, I remember being astounded to discover that Napoleon did all of his stuff AFTER the American Revolution; I tend to think of European history as "a long, long time ago" and American history as only "a long time ago." (It wouldn't surprise me if this is because I learned about European history first.)

Hahaha, yes! This is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about! And by exactly, I meant I thought the same thing about Napoleon being "before" the American Revolution. I'd get really mixed up about a lot of stuff just because I didn't have a good sense of what happened before other things. Thanks for giving that example, it made me smile. I'm always uncovering weird little things like that I've thought like that. It makes me feel frustrated to think I'm learning all these things about history but I'm not... storing it well, if that makes sense. I don't want to memorize dates or whatever wfrgms seems to think, I just want a sense of "before and after." I've found that whenever I've mentally corrected some of those misunderstandings, everything has made a lot more sense and seems more meaningful.

The discussion of whether it makes sense to teach history the region-by-region way sort of reminds me of another discussion I got into on AskMeFi (I think) about learning languages. I thought I sucked at languages for a while because my teachers never taught us grammar first, they would teach us vocabulary and sort of "stock phrases." It was just memorization with no underlying order. Then when I took Japanese it was the easiest language I had ever studied because my teacher organized it by four different sentence structures first, so everything I learned within those structures had some underlying sense to them. It made memorizing and understanding a lot easier. A lot of my classmates did well with this approach, but a lot of them were confused and would have rather done the other approach. I was just thrilled there was more than one way to do it, and that I finally figured out how I needed to approach these things.

I went on to take a year of Russian on the side. My Russian teacher used the first approach I described, the one that didn't work for me. However, since I finally knew what did work for me, I was able to go to her and ask her for the information I needed. I got nearly a perfect score in her class, and I have no doubt I would have gotten a C or worse if I hadn't done that. I have a lot of sympathy for teachers because one method of teaching might work great for one student and not another, and I think most of them are willing to try different approaches if someone asks. I'm always put off by people that try to make others feel defective for not clicking with the method du jour, though.
posted by Nattie at 9:10 AM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The Story of Civilization" recommended above is great. I also loved The Outline of History by H.G. Wells. My mother had an old copy it that I read a couple of times when I was a teenager in the 1970s. It's very readable and comprehensive, although obviously a product of its time.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:16 AM on April 12, 2009


I know EXACTLY what you're talking about, a billion times over.

I took a course in college from a professor who also understood this (it was actually a special class for all the students with dissociative disorder). His class was called "Patters and Processes in World History" (link to the syllabus, opens as a Word doc) and our "textbook," which was not actually a textbook, was The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History by McNeill & McNeill (father and son, I think?) who specialized in this type of view of history.
posted by thebazilist at 9:20 AM on April 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think I've had the same sort of frustrations that you've had Nattie. Most of my remedy for it has just been to read loads of history and intentionally work on my internal schema of when and where everything was happening. But one of the few types of books that is good for establishing this sort of holistic sense of history is historical atlases such as the Oxford Atlas of World History. In free online content of this sort the maps done by Thomas Lessman for Wikipedia are pretty good, collected by him at http://www.worldhistorymaps.info/.
posted by XMLicious at 9:28 AM on April 12, 2009


Argh, in my previous comment, jive=jibe. That was going to drive me nuts until I corrected it.

Interesting that you had the same pattern as me w/r/t Napoleon, Nattie. I wonder how many people have made the same cognitive error. Knowing the dates when things happened really doesn't make a difference, if I learn about the events at completely different times in completely different contexts. It's like each area has its own timeline in my brain, and each timeline floats around completely unmoored from the others.
posted by pluckemin at 9:47 AM on April 12, 2009


You guys rule, this is all very helpful. :D
posted by Nattie at 9:49 AM on April 12, 2009


I can also sympathize; it's difficult to have a holistic conception of human history without having spent a lifetime learning and teaching it (or so I assume). That said, Jacques Barzun fits that description, and I found his From Dawn to Decadence a good read. Caveat: it's only a chronicle of the last 500 years or so, but that's when things start to get really interesting anyway.
posted by MimeticHaHa at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2009


Salt : A World History
posted by Afroblanco at 9:51 AM on April 12, 2009


In response to the part of your question that said "I want to think back to a period of time and have a general idea of what different societies were up to," I would recommend the Daniel J. Boorstin books for the way he organizes his chronologies.

They are mostly on broad topics but he pulls in information from every culture in a more or less chronological way to build on larger ideas. Read a few of them and they have the wonderful effect of connecting themselves together as one giant book. I am not at all a historian so I don't know how well his work is regarded, but as a layperson I find it more than engaging and hefty enough.
posted by quarterframer at 10:19 AM on April 12, 2009


I have a book that might be really helpful to you. It's called The Timetables of History. My edition is "The New Third Revised Edition" and it was compiled by Bernard Grun. Simon & Schuster is the publisher. This isn't the book you're looking for by itself. It's more like a spreadsheet in book form that goes from 5000 BCE to the present. It would be best used to supplement your reading of other history books.

For example, if you were reading a book about 18th century Spanish history you might glance at The Timetables of History after reading that France declared war on Spain in 1719. You would look at the year 1719 and see that the Jesuits were expelled from Russia in that year and that Ireland was declared "inseparable from England in that year. You could then glance down to 1720 and see that this was the year that Spain occupied Texas and also the year that Tibet became a protectorate of China.

The downside, depending on your areas of interest, is that it tends to focus in much more detail on Western Civ. than on the rest of the world. Anyway, good luck!
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 10:37 AM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have the same issue as you, and I majored in history. Whenever I read something historical, I always try to line it up in my head with other events I knew were happening in the world.

Anyway, this is a work of fiction, but Gone to Soldiers is the best book I've ever read about World War II. It only deals with one time period (roughly 1939-1946), but it follows an interlinking cast of narrators who live in and travel to a bunch of different places around the world, helping you understand how WWII was experienced in all these different places. Some of the people/places/events include women working in Detroit munitions factories, a marine at Guadalcanal, a French resistance fighter, American intelligence officers in London during the Blitz, and Jews at Auschwitz. It's especially jarring to go right from Auschwitz to a breakfast table in New York, but that jarring sensation definitely helps you understand what was going on simultaneously.

It's also just a great read.
posted by lunasol at 12:14 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


A lot of the suggestions here are for more popular histories, which is great. But if you're also looking for more scholarly works, there are a few historians who have written the large-scale, sweeping kinds of histories that you're looking for.

Eric Hobsbawm was an extremely accomplished historian who wrote a series of world histories of this sort before he died. They are learned, synthetic, and elegantly written. One caveat: he is a marxist at heart, but to me these books aren't particularly heavy-handed in that respect:

- The Age of Capital: 1848-1875
- The Age of Empire: 1875-1914
- The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991

Fernand Braudel was one of the leaders of the Annales School of French historiography. He favored looking at broad social and economic changes over a long period of time, as opposed to narrow case studies of a particular time and place. He's best known for several sweeping histories of Pre-Modern Europe:

- The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization and Capitalism : 15th-18th Century - Volume 1)
- The Wheels of Commerce (Civilization and Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century -Volume 2)
- The Perspective of the World (Civilization and Capitalism 15Th-18th Century, Vol. 3)
- A History of Civilizations

You may also be interested in the work of Niall Ferguson, who has written a number of sweeping economic and military histories, including The Cash Nexus: Economics And Politics From The Age Of Warfare Through The Age Of Welfare, 1700-2000.
posted by googly at 12:16 PM on April 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm in the middle of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. I highly recommend it.
posted by loosemouth at 1:14 PM on April 12, 2009


Seconding the timetables of history. they aren't in depth really but they are great for seeing how things line up across time and place.
posted by zennoshinjou at 2:06 PM on April 12, 2009


Obligatory historian snark: Please avoid Niall Ferguson. He's crazy, and allergic to facts, especially in military history.

But Guns, Germs and Steel is is the book I immediately thought when opening this thread - in terms of being of both a wide geographic and long chronlogical stretch. It really is a book about the development of human civilizations to c1500, rather than one which sets the 17th crises of Asia and Europe into context, for example. Definitely worth reading.

-----------------------------------------

To break down the different types of history we are discussing.

History that covers a large area or areas is often called regional or world history or comparative history (depending on whether they are looking at connections between societies, or contrasting aspects).

History that covers a long time is sometimes referred to as history of the longue durée (mainly by the used by the French Annales School of history, and people who idolise them, like me, because they are awesome).

Considering that you most want to break down your geographically siloized sense of history, it sounds like you would enjoy both world and comparative histories.

In terms of directly comparative history, one very academic but excellent book is Kenneth Pomeranz's Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.

Or if you are looking for something lighter and more fun, but still a great primer, The Chronicle of the World is part of a fun series which tells history through fake newspapers. We have The Chronicle of Britain, and it's both funny and informative - and gives you a real sense of how history fits together.

As a history student myself, I have found that the best comparative understanding of history, however, doesn't come in a few books, but over the course of my reading. Every time I pick up a book about another place, for example, I am thinking of what Britain was like at the time (as British history is my specialty) - like when I hear someone talk about land-holding in Iran in the 19th century. Once you have a clear timeline in mind for one place - let's say, the US - you should them be able to hear something about Revolution in France in 1789 and realise that it was happening only 15 years after the Revolution in the US began - and thus see the influence that the American revolution had on the French one. Or be aware that the US was settling its west at the same time as the European empires were expanding in Asia and Africa (mid-late nineteenth century).
posted by jb at 2:18 PM on April 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


C.A. Bayly The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914. Global Connections and Comparisons
posted by Abiezer at 6:34 PM on April 12, 2009


These are all great answers!

I've read Guns, Germs, and Steel; it was actually watching a Jared Diamond lecture that lead me to ask the question, since I remembered Guns, Germs, and Steel was very easy for me to follow because it was set up this way. I definitely recommend it to anyone else watching the thread. :-)
posted by Nattie at 2:09 AM on April 13, 2009


Sorry to jump in late, but you might be interested in reading some about historiography as well. Some of the links to books and articles at the end of the wiki seem especially interesting. I've ended up more fascinated by how history is written around the events rather than with the events alone :)
posted by Mouse Army at 4:54 AM on April 13, 2009


Barbara Tuchman's the Proud Tower is one of my faves.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:44 AM on April 13, 2009


A little late, but this poster might be useful to hang up, if you have the space
posted by rollick at 9:44 AM on April 24, 2009


rollick - my husband has that poster hung in our living room. It's fun, but kind of, by which I mean really, old-fashioned, and western centric. It's more of a toy than a serious historical tool. But it is cool looking.
posted by jb at 6:26 PM on April 25, 2009


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