How X Shaped the World
February 12, 2022 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books in the "How X Shaped the World" genre, that describe how a technology, commodity, idea, institution, etc helped determine the world we live in today. Bonus points if you can sum up the main claims of the book (i.e. describe how the thing shaped the world) in a sentence or two.

Examples (mostly from searching online; I haven't read them so summaries of these would be helpful as well). Thanks!

Marc Levinson - The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Mark Kurlansky - Paper: Paging Through History; Salt; Cod
Steven Johnson - How We Got to Now
Andrew Rimas & Evan Fraser - Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
William Bernstein - A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today
Amir Alexander - Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World
Clifford and Peintre - The Colors of History: How Colors Shaped the World
Thomas Woods Jr. - How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
Simon Winchester - The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World; Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World
Mark Blythe - Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
posted by ropeladder to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Arthur C. Clarke - How the World was One - a personalized history of telecommunications, from undersea telegraph cables, to geosynchronous satellites.
posted by Rash at 3:42 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: The Offshore World by Ronen Palan is the best book about offshore finance I have ever read and is a wonderful dive into how untaxed and corrupt co-production shaped the modern world.
posted by parmanparman at 3:56 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: War: How Conflict Shaped Us, by Margaret Macmillan


The Golden Thread, by Kassia St Clair

And Salt: A World History
posted by thenormshow at 5:08 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Mismeasure of Man by Steven J Gould
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

I think these fit your criteria! They are all great.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:15 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Connections by James Burke. I have the documentary series in book form. He does the "X shaped the world" several times for various subjects. His key point, I think, is that no one plans for "X to shape the world." It just sort of happens, and it's inevitable.
posted by SPrintF at 5:17 PM on February 12, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein - The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. I haven't read it, but I've seen it cited several times and have been meaning to read it at some point. My understanding is that it's a detailed history of the impact of the printing press on European society.
posted by panic at 5:19 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thomas Cahill's How The Irish Saved Civilization. The first book in his "HInges of History" series, it tells how Irish monks copied ancient manuscripts, ensuring they could be passed down, then carried copies to new monasteries they founded across Europe.
posted by lhauser at 6:29 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: microhistory covers a lot of what you are asking and the question has been asked here before

To find previous questions here I might search for "salt history" because that salt book is most people's example of a microhistory book
posted by cda at 7:20 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Longitude
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't remember how much it talked about the printing press changing the world, but Gutenberg The Geek might be a good companion to the Eisenstein book mentioned by panic.
posted by TimHare at 8:39 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: A History of America in Ten Strikes
posted by latkes at 9:14 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: I am here to suggest The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, which traces the history of the Avant- Garde and probably explains the origins of 20th Century modern art.
posted by brookeb at 10:12 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind (1985) by Henry Hobhouse. How the discovery and trade of sugar, tea, cotton, the potato, and quinine drove economies and set the agenda for colonisation.
Seeds of Wealth: Four Plants That Made Men Rich (2004) sequel covering timber, wine, rubber, and tobacco.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:10 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've not read it but one of my academic colleagues had been recommending Simon Garfield's "Mauve: How one man invented a colour that changed the world" to anyone who will listen.
posted by biffa at 12:51 AM on February 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World by Christian Wolmar - an engrossing read which railways transformed the world.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell - a book about how things go viral which itself went viral. This is a bit meta for your requirements in that it's more about how ideas spread around the world, rather than about any specific idea.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - if humans as a species shape the world, then genes shape humans and human behaviour, ergo genes shape the world. Bonus: Dawkins came up with the idea of a "meme", a noun that "conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation", which he discusses in later editions of the book.
posted by underclocked at 1:35 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: "Just One Thing": Microhistory Books and Beyond

That should keep you busy......
posted by lalochezia at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. It's from 1997, and so was written shortly after the total collapse of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic. The cod was once the most important/valued fish in the world, and Kurlansky expands the scope to include all the major ocean cod zones from the north Atlantic to Brazil, and West Africa. But the global in the title is a bit aspirational, and I suppose global coastal area doesn't fit. The scope of book is a history of the wars and revolutions over cod, the economies and livelihoods and how the settlement of North America was driven by cod. Kurlansky includes recipes that I found and unnecessary, perhaps to convey how national diets have been based on it? Regardless I think this matches what you are looking for: how the cod has shaped global trade, European settlement and environmental collapse.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg is more recent and is the singular reason I largely stopped eating sushi. The subject is global fisheries market and the four most 'valuable' fish - tuna, cod, sea bass and salmon. The question in this book is essentially how can we feed the population of earth? I won't spoil the book to note the answer is that you shouldn't eat tuna at all, the cod has already been overfished, and so you should just eat farmed salmon and sea bass, as those are also on the brink of collapse in the wild.
posted by zenon at 9:15 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz. How sugar shaped the British Empire - and so much more.
posted by congen at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: Barbed Wire: A Political History
posted by umbĂș at 11:02 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: The Ghost Map is about the creation of epidemiology, but more generally the development of data analysis.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:52 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years is an anthropological history of money that frames it as created by debt and other obligations, and dispels the myth that it started as a replacement for barter.
posted by kandinski at 4:13 PM on February 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Great suggestions, I wish I had time to read them all. Special thanks to lalochezia and WCityMike2 for the links to whole lists of books that qualify.
posted by ropeladder at 6:52 PM on February 13, 2022

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a fascinating look at the role textiles played in pre- and early-historic cultures (mostly in Europe).

The True History of Chocolate by Sophie & Michael Coe isn't so exclusively focused on "how this thing shaped the world", but it's a great book and does spend some time in that territory.
posted by sibilatorix at 1:01 AM on February 14, 2022

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