Recommendations for a history curriculum
March 7, 2008 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I went to a liberal arts school, and am ashamed to say that my knowledge of world history is depressingly lacking. I want to learn at least enough about world history to have the “highlight reel” clear in my head. Could anyone recommend a collection of works that would help me out?

Specifically, I want to focus mostly on European history for now, with a plan to cover the East and Middle East later on. Ancient Greeks through WWII or later. Additionally, I would love for the books to be _interesting._ That is, while I don’t oppose textbooks, I’m a big fan of narratives, so well-written works that cover only small bits of big events in history would be welcome next to books that cover whole eras. (For instance, there’s a couple of books about Winston Churchill coming into power that I have read and/or want to read. Those recommendations are as welcome as books about the entire Greek civilization by Paul Cartledge.) I’m as interested in scientific and cultural milestones as much as political goings-on. Thanks in advance.

I should probably also mention that I'm not looking for a "collection" of works by the same author or anything. Just a bunch of books that, when taken together, would make me less of an historical idiot.
posted by nushustu to Education (23 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
The Cartoon History of the Universe books. Seriously. Surprisingly intellectual and a fun, easy read.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:50 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cartoon History of the Universe

Plus it has a good focus on Asia that tends to be lacking in most Western books.
posted by krisak at 2:52 PM on March 7, 2008

Try these two books based on BBC documentary miniseries - Civilisation and the Ascent of Man.

After all, how can you truly understand human history if you don't understand the development of both its arts and its sciences? As per your brief, both these books are narrative-driven, but on a grand scale: Clark uses the development of Europe's aesthetic sense to explore the general history of the Western world, and Bronowski does the same using science.
posted by micketymoc at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2008

A few years ago I read HG Wells an Outline of History. It's fairly long, but you can jump to he good bits. It also has the advantage of being very easy to find in the dollar bins at most used book stores.
posted by melgy at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2008

Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, now available on DVD, is an excellent suggestion. It's focus is more on European Art but I think it should still be part of anyone's basic education, as it was for people like me who were teenagers in the 60s. I still recommend it as background information for people travelling in Europe.

For more "pure" history The Western Tradition is an excellent PBS series which you can watch online.
posted by thomas144 at 3:08 PM on March 7, 2008

Thirding Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe series.

A few other random thoughts: Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is an engaging account of research in the last few decades on what the western hemisphere was like before Europeans arrived. If you want to understand how western Christianity split asunder, Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation is unsurpassed. Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a great introduction to modern physics and the origins of the military-industrial complex; Daniel Kevles's The Physicists addresses the subject from a broader point of view. Horace Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation, is an accessible account of the making of modern molecular biology (though it's now somewhat out of date). John McPhee's Annals of the Former World (really four separate books that he brought together in one volume, with light revisions and a new section), tells the story of how modern plate tectonics came into being, and with McPhee's usual focus on characters, it makes a great read.

For the big picture, David Christian's Maps of Time is somewhat more academic than the other titles I've mentioned, but it's a stunning attempt to provide a modern origin myth, supported by up-to-date research. He begins with the origins of the universe, then the solar system, then the earth, then life on earth, then hominids, then anatomically modern humans, then agriculture, then urban life, then large-scale states...up to the modern industrialized world.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:16 PM on March 7, 2008

...and since you asked specifically for book recommendations, anything by Barbara Tuchman would be the sort of narrative work you are looking for, in particular The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror. Another book I recommend highly, one of the very best books I have read is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.
posted by thomas144 at 3:17 PM on March 7, 2008

For a really great, fun to read "narrative" that tells the story of the history of physics, I suggest Timothy Ferris' Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Great book.
posted by thomas144 at 3:19 PM on March 7, 2008

Eric Hobsbawm wrote a four-volume history of the "long nineteenth century" and the "short twentieth century" that is brilliant, stimulating, and very readable: The Age of Revolution (1789-1848), The Age of Capital (1848-1875), The Age of Empire (1875-1914), and The Age of Extremes (1914-1991). Each volume is closer to a collection of essays than a narrative history textbook, so you can bounce around these to suit your interest.

If you want to go back further than that, look into Fernand Braudel.
posted by gum at 3:30 PM on March 7, 2008

Seriously the cartoon histories. You can read them in a week, and it will give you a nice general framework to start embedding other things into. You might keep your own timeline on a sheet or two of paper, adding in things you read about as you go.

The School of History by Mark Munn is a nice look at the Athenian empire, in particular how it fell, with a lot of cultural stuff in there too. Read up on the story of the man Alcibiades, he's a kind of charismatic standout. There's a BBC (?) video called "The Greeks" narrated by Liam Neeson that's a great whirlwind intro to ancient Greek history - well worth watching.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:30 PM on March 7, 2008

I'm in a (high school) class that essentially is the history of Europe/the world during the 20th century. We basically read chapter after selected chapter from various books dealing with the Important Events of the time. Probably the most comprehensive one we've used is Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger- he gives a lot of good inside baseball type stuff, although obviously he puts his own spin on things. It gives a good overview of European history from Bismarck to Reagan. Another we've used (for earlier things) is A History of the Modern World by Palmer. It's dense, but it's thorough.
posted by MadamM at 3:46 PM on March 7, 2008

These are great. Let me clarify a little bit though. If I start w/ something like the Cartoon History of the Universe, that will be awesome. I also would like really good works that go into more detail about particular parts of that history. Just the Greeks or WWII or what-have-you. So I guess I'm looking for a big stack of books, some that are primers to western history, and some that are more era-specific. So any suggestions for great books about any particular eras would also be greatly appreciated.

Thanks again.
posted by nushustu at 4:30 PM on March 7, 2008

Short History of the World

Geoffrey Blainey-
posted by mattoxic at 4:34 PM on March 7, 2008

gum suggested Hobsbawm's "The Age of..." series. I love Hobsbawm and he's a fantastic writer, but be aware that he looks at history through a Marxist lens.

Also consider "Don't Know Much About History," a lively, accessible book.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:37 PM on March 7, 2008

Europe by Norman Davies is thick, but a great read.
posted by jtron at 5:42 PM on March 7, 2008

You must read The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes, or watch the videos. There may or may not be a pop quiz (okay, we all know that means there really will be a quiz, so get to reading).

Also, The Black Jacobims will give you a good, leftist, view of the Haitian Revolution, and some valuable new perspective on the French Revolution.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:25 PM on March 7, 2008

errr. I mean Black Jacobins.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:31 PM on March 7, 2008

Another we've used (for earlier things) is A History of the Modern World by Palmer. It's dense, but it's thorough.

I stole my copy from my AP History class back when it was in its 6th edition. I still feel slightly bad about it, but they had extra copies, and... you know the whole "my tax dollars" argument.

Point being, this is a great, great book if you can get your hands on it.

Personally, my favorite "10,000 ft. view" historian is Paul Johnson. Modern Times is an engaging history from ~1919 to the present. Birth of the Modern is 1815-1830 (the origins of the entire modern world... fantastic book... probably my favorite). Unfortunately, the man is a Conservative prick (former speech-writer for Mrs. Thatcher, and all that entails). Just ignore the man behind the words. His books are some of the most meticulously researched and annotated that I've seen for "pop" history, and yet his writing is extraordinarily engaging.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Listen to Thomas Laqueur's History 5 lectures from last fall.

They're designed to supplement textbook narrative, with an emphasis on social history, a fair bit of cultural materialism -- the artefacts of history that speak to the conditions of their creation -- and some overriding themes of the continent's transformation (and its reach into the rest of the world) over five and a half centuries.

On the page, I have to mention Simon Schama's Citizens, which is just compelling narrative history-writing. One of the Amazon reviewers calls it (with unintentional irony) 'liberating', and that was my experience as a teenager, as an antidote to the dry sequence of events in the French Revolution. Its thesis is revisionist, so it's not 'the one book on the topic you must read', but its detail and freshness make it compelling. It's also not a short book.
posted by holgate at 10:08 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding jtron's recommendation- Norman Davies Europe. Very thick and covers everything. Despite it's length and scope it is extremely readable and has inserts on different issues that break up the narrative every few pages to give inspiration for your further reading.
posted by Gratishades at 4:04 AM on March 8, 2008

Let me second the Gonick's, throw in Chris Bazier's The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (I think he aimed to do it in something like 5000 words, it's a slim book and can be read over the course of a few days), but I'd also like to clearly state that doing the world history thing, with a specific focus on European history and a little dabbling in the middle east does not produce a well rounded, ha ha, understanding of world history. Latin America, Africa, the first nations (indians), and the pan-Asian world all have crazy ass histories and if you study European history as world history, it's going to produce a confused world view.
If you want to study European history, study European history, but it's a narrow slice of the pie (that often claims universality) and you should acknowledge it as such. A lot of people study European history and then when approached with different histories and cultures, reflexively repackage them into the European paradigm. It's square peg/round hole time and, boy, is it frustrating to work with. So study the world history for real or study european history and recognize the strengths (it interests you) and limitations (it is only a little piece of the world, no matter how much colonizing they did). Have fun!
posted by history is a weapon at 8:39 AM on March 8, 2008

Hobsbawn and Braudel. Peter Gay's cultural histories. Mark Mazower's Dark Continent, a readable, engaging synthesis of 20th c. European history (with some interesting takes and twists).
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:24 PM on March 8, 2008

I also would like really good works that go into more detail about particular parts of that history. Just the Greeks or WWII or what-have-you. So I guess I'm looking for a big stack of books, some that are primers to western history, and some that are more era-specific. So any suggestions for great books about any particular eras would also be greatly appreciated.

Interesting question. How much time are you planning to spend on this?

My recommendation for a single book would be William McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community.

Here's my attempt to construct a "highlights reel," with further references.

I find it's useful to refer to historical maps; here's a few examples of historical maps of Eurasia.


Invention of agriculture, around 8000 BC. Growth of farming settlements at the expense of hunter-gatherers. Non-Eurasian societies. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies)

Ancient history:

Rise of Mesopotamian civilization (Sumer, Akkad, Babylon) based on irrigation, around 4000 BC. Cities, barbarian invasions, empires. Diffusion to Egypt and the Indus; later diffusion of civilization to the Mediterranean and China. Balance of power between civilized states and barbarian neighbors.

Development of the war chariot. Large-scale invasions by nomads from the Central Asian steppe, starting around 1700 BC. Rise of the Persian empire, about 500 BC.

Persian attempt to conquer Greece. Peloponnesian War. Hellenistic expansion under Alexander the Great. Rise of Rome. Establishment of the Silk Road. (Chester Starr, A History of the Ancient World; H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks; Herodotus, The Histories.)

More barbarian invasions from the steppe, starting around 200 AD. Fall of the Roman Empire in the West; establishment of the Frankish and other Germanic successor kingdoms. (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)

Medieval history:

The Arab expansion, starting 634 AD. The Crusades. Continued Islamic expansion under the Turks. Consolidation of the European monarchies. Rise and fall of the Mongol empire. (R. W. Southern, Making of the Middle Ages; Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century; Andre Maurois, A History of France; George Trevelyan, A History of England)

Modern history:

For a highlights reel of modern history, starting around 1500, see Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000.

European history from 1500 onward is the history of successive powers, each the strongest European power of its time, attempting to conquer all the rest through war and being checked by an opposing alliance: Spain under Charles V and Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Germany under Wilhelm II and Hitler.

Some further references for particular aspects of modern history:

The Renaissance: G. F. Young, The Medici.
European exploration: William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire.
The industrial revolution: Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History.
The Cold War: Louis Halle, The Cold War as History.
US history: Samuel Morison, The Oxford History of the American People.
posted by russilwvong at 12:08 AM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

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