A $50 history of everything?
February 28, 2011 3:58 PM   Subscribe

Give me an entertaining history of the world for $50!

I am woefully ignorant of the history of the civilized world. Mainly I found the topic incredibly boring in high school, being more of a science and music type.

I received a Nook and a $50 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble for my birthday. This seems like as good a time as any to rectify the situation.

Can you put together a $50 whirlwind history of the world for me in ebook format? Focus on approachability and readability.
posted by rouftop to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
An Incomplete Education (revised in 2006) and A Short History of Nearly Everything are both interesting, funny, generalist works that are available for the Nook. They cover more than just history, though.

The Cartoon History of the Universe series is pretty decent (here's part one, there are three altogether so far), but it's not available for the Nook. You can get the paperbacks from BN, though.
posted by jedicus at 4:12 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a science type, might you also be a math type? Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is an excellent book that explores the concept of "zero" over thousands of years of history. (It was rather controversial!) So you're learning a lot of history (Babylonian, Greek, religious, philosophical) in the context of math. And, believe it or not, it is really approachable and funny.
posted by dayintoday at 4:19 PM on February 28, 2011

I love the concept of An Incomplete Education, but the tone really put me off. Short History of Nearly Everything is fantastic, though.

I also rather liked Gombrich's A Little History of the World. It's definitely a product of its time (extremely western-centric), but I thought that the size was just about perfect for a very broad-brush overview. It also had an interesting way of making it clear just how much the social institutions and values we take for granted were, well, experiments when they first arose; that's something that I hadn't seen much of elsewhere.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:20 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Cartoon History of the Universe series is pretty decent [...] there are three altogether so far

They continue with The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part I and Part 2.
posted by Zed at 4:32 PM on February 28, 2011

Seconding Jedicus's recommendation of A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's quite sciencey, which may be a good thing as it'll keep you interested and still give you some history education. Bryson is also an excellent writer in my opinion.
posted by ajackson at 4:35 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thirding Cartoon History of the World, I remember a lot from when I read those as a kid.
posted by miyabo at 4:36 PM on February 28, 2011

Gonnick's Cartoon History of the United States helped me prep for AP US History finals, and I hear the History of the Universe one (which covers world history) is even better. Highly recommended.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:37 PM on February 28, 2011

I had books 1 and 2 of the Cartoon History of the Universe as a kid and just being reminded of them has made me order the entire series from Amazon (in dead tree form unfortunately). The first two books were just wonderful and packed quite a lot of information into pretty easily digested pieces.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:41 PM on February 28, 2011

Thanks for the Cartoon... recs but as mentioned those titles are currently unavailable for the Nook. I have a newborn so I only have one hand free to turn pages. :-)
posted by rouftop at 5:04 PM on February 28, 2011

Not only would I recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything, but Bryson's new book, Home, roughly fits your description too, being a sort of narrow history of civilization -- how we got here from the days when we slept in a big room downstairs with the servants at the foot of the bed.
posted by troywestfield at 5:16 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

The cartoon histories are sort of like Hollywood - possibly entertaining but at best a stepping off point for further study. And Bryson is not really doing history as such.

For the classics, check out The Classics, also on nook, by Mary Beard. I've not read it but I am confident that it will be interesting and entertaining.

You might look into Daniel Boorstin, whose Searchers and Discoverers are on the nook. So also his American stuff, but maybe you are looking for older stuff than that?

Not on nook, but good is Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present
posted by IndigoJones at 5:20 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first Newberry book was Hendrik van Loon's The Story of Mankind. It's aimed at a roughly junior high school audience, but it's not particularly dumbed down and lacks the exciting sidebars and other ADD features a modern book would employ to reach today's kids.

You might wonder if an ~80-year-old book about history would still be relevant, but apparently it is touched up periodically by modern scholars to correct factual errors.

(For some reason, there are multiple editions available for the Nook. The one I linked above is the most expensive at $3, but it has an example of van Loon's charming illustrations on the web page.)
posted by richyoung at 10:26 PM on February 28, 2011

Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is fairly readable and covers human history from about 11,000 BC to the present.
posted by metadave at 11:15 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm currently obsessing over The Great Society Subway. It's history with a very narrow focus, but the author has put together a survey list for American history, divided into Origins, Revolution, Race and Justice, Immigration, Culture, Landscape, and Technology. I haven't checked B&N, but some of these were available on the Kindle.
posted by tantivy at 11:37 PM on February 28, 2011

Seconding Gombrich's A Little History of the World. There's also Robert's A Short History of the World. As mentioned, Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is definitely worth reading. (I've read all 3 and a couple others and I still often feel historically illiterate, so to speak. It might take more than $50. Good luck!)
posted by shoepal at 3:45 AM on March 1, 2011

Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World From the Big Bang to Modern Times

It's a gigantic timeline, and split up into little chunks of time, an article for each. The articles cover shorter and shorter periods of time as the historical documentation for each period grows. Mostly Western history, with enough Pre-columbian and Asian history to whet the appetite, and it's scholarship is from the mid-'80s, when it was written, but oh my god, what a comprehensive and fascinating and digestible book this is.

Totally ADD friendly - pick it up, flip it open to any page, read an article a few paragraphs long, and walk away knowing something new.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:02 AM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

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