Shame of ignorance leads to knowledge;
shame of poverty leads to wealth.
Earlier this week I was grousing on twitter about books like Ursuala Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Frank Herbert's Dune, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or Ian Banks Culture series. The obvious connection between all of these books is they are acclaimed works of 'soft' science fiction. But hang around with political nerds long enough and you will realize something else these books have in common: when you ask those people "what books have had the biggest impact on your life?" these books are often some of the first ones offered up. The same person will not offer all five of course—it is a very different sort of person whose life has been changed by The Dispossessed and by Starship Troopers—but the impact is just as strong in all cases. Other books you will find in this crowd includes novels of Ayn Rand or Hermann Hesse, and works of philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche or the French existentialists.
Some of these books are better than others. Some are over-rated. Others are works of minor brilliance. But their enduring brilliance (or lack of it) are not why they show up on these lists. They pop up so often because they are perfectly, though unintentionally, designed to transform the life of a certain sort of person: the bookish, overly-intellectual American teenager.
Do not misunderstand me. None of these books (well, maybe a few of Hermann Hesse's...) were designed for the 'young adult' audience. Almost all were written before publishers considered 'YA' a distinct consumer demographic. Much of their attraction to the teenage mind comes from this fact. These books are adult works written for adult audiences. They are meant to be taken seriously. And these young readers do take them seriously.
These are all books with big ideas. The ideas rest at the intersection of action and thought. Foundational to all of these works is a critique of the conventional. This is quite explicit in the work of the philosophers and existentialists, who write directly of what bothers them in human life, and how humans might do better. The critique is more subtle in the science fiction novels. Here readers are presented with societies vastly different than their own, fictional utopias and dystopias that discard all of the assumptions of American middle class life. They operate on a different set of values than that taught in classrooms and living rooms of suburbia. They force readers to reassess their own values and assumptions about what makes society work. No matter what else might be packed into it, this is an underlying message behind any thoughtful work of 'soft' science fiction: things could be different.
You could learn this other ways, of course. A look at the political philosophy of the Aztecs or the feuding laws of Medieval Iceland will force you to rethink your assumptions about what makes humans tick. But that is hard. In contrast, science fiction writers wrote with modern audiences in mind and package their material into engaging narratives. You can read them without bothering with supporting class lectures or extended footnotes. That appeals to an intellectual 16 year old. Well written science fiction is history and political philosophy on the cheap.
(The same thing is true for Nietzsche, Sartre, and the rest, of course. The reason they are immensely popular with intellectual teenagers while Kant is not has everything to do with the difficulty of reading the latter and the ease of reading the former, not the intrinsic worth of their actual work).
This is not a bad thing! I do not write all this to dismiss science fiction or existentialism. I am glad there are books that force thoughtful teenagers into wrestling with the big questions of human existence. But what if you don't want to read about history, political philosophy, and the human sciences 'on the cheap?' What should you read if you have already done that science fiction thing as a teenager and want to dig into something deeper? What to read then?
A twitter follower asked me that exact question two days ago. I have thought about it a bit since then and have decided that this would be a fun topic to write a post on. You will have to take my answer with a grain of salt; I have written no mind-shattering theory to explain the decline and fall of human civilizations. I am no authority. The most I can say for myself is that I have read a lot. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here). For those of you who read at more normal speeds, what I am about to write might be useful for optimizing your time. I have read the crap so you do not have to.
In general, I am assuming that our twitterer is interested in questions like these: "What makes human society work? Why do people do what they do? How does culture/wealth/geography/[enter your favorite variable here] change human behavior? What is the relationship between human behavior seen at the micro-scale and at the macro-scale? Do ideas matter? How much does individual choice matter? Is it possible to live morally in human society? Is it possible for societies as a whole to become more or less moral over time?" I am also assuming the questioner has no special background in any particular field, and also that they are not especially mathematically inclined.
If that describes you, I'd prioritize my reading in the following categories, and in the following order:
- behavioral science
- political/moral philosophy
- social science
History is the most important thing you can read. Why? Only a strong background in history can you tell you when writers in other fields are full of crap. I cannot tell you the number of times I have a found a political argument (or even fairly well regarded work of social science) that reads compelling at the 10,000 foot view but falls apart when you stack it up against concrete facts of history seen from the ground view. Humans are motivated reasoners. We bend the data to fit our theories. If you are not familiar with the data, you will not realize when it is being distorted or misused.
The data of the social sciences is history.
The problem with history is that it is too big. It is impossible to get a fine grained picture of every people and era on the planet. There is just too much of it.
My recommendation is to pick three very different historical periods that you find fascinating. They can be any three, really, but ideally they will be a bit separated from each other in space, time, and culture. For example, you might choose pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Abbasid empire, and revolutionary Russia. Or maybe your interests lie with Republican Rome, the Protestant reformation, and 20th century India. That all works. It does not really matter what you choose, as long as you have decent spread (at least one is 'modern,' at least one is 'ancient,' and at least one is from a non-Western civilization). The important thing is that you have a genuine interest in these societies strong enough that you could gladly read 4-6 books about each of them without getting bored.
Because that is what you should do. Read 4-6 books about each of the eras in question.
Your goal here is to build up a fairly granular knowledge of a particular time or event than can be called on to test and assess theories and narratives that will be thrown at you. "Famous scholar X proposes that y leads to z, but did y lead to z in each of the eras I am most familiar with?" You will know you have the background knowledge to do this right when you can answer questions like the following for a given era of expertise: "What are some of the biggest disagreements historians have about this era/event? What are the main sources historians or archaeologists use to try and understand the era, and how might they bias this understanding? If you had to pick one small incident or detail about the era that seems insignificant at first, but is actually very revealing example of the way this society/event worked, what would it be?"
You don't need PhD levels answers to these questions. Just something more insightful that you would get from the Wikipedia page.
From that point, you can broaden out to more general histories. If you read fast enough to keep reading 4-5 books on different eras, keep on doing that. More normal people will probably want to transition to broader surveys that fill in the blank spaces they have with the rest of the world. There are plenty of fine histories that cover entire countries or regions from antiquity to the present (e.g., India: A History Japan and the Shackles of the Past). Others might follow the history of a specific topic (say, war, the environment, or the financial system) over multiple centuries (e.g. the Pursuit of Power, Ecological Imperialism, the Cash Nexus). Others might do the same thing, but restrict themselves to a slightly smaller geographical scale (e.g. Asian Military Revolution, China: An Environmental History, An Economic History of China). Global histories of entire centuries are also somewhat in vogue (I blame Hobsawm's series for this development). Others will be comparative histories—works of history or ethnography that line up dozens of societies (e.g. The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, Understanding Early Civilizations, War in Human Civilization, Dynamics of Ancient Empires), or just a few (Islamic Gunpowder Empires, Empires of the Atlantic World, The Industrial Revolution in World History). All of these will do.
If that seems overwhelming, one way to make it easier would be to focus one particular macro-topic that can be explored in almost every single society. I personally have a special interest in warfare and military affairs. Reading about the wars and military institutions of different societies across history of human civilization has proved useful for learning much about the broader history of the societies involved. Something similar can be said for economic, religious, institutional, and environmental history. It should be true for histories that focus on the life of women, but I have been disappointed by the many bad apples in this sub-field, who often focus too narrowly on literary representation and images to say anything useful about the larger society in which these images are drawn from. There are exceptions (see Domestic Revolutions) but they are harder to find.
The last group of history books are the ones you are likely the most eager to read. These are books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Francis Fukuyama's Political Order, Ian Morris's Why the West Rules. While methodologically these books are properly considered histories, for the purpose of this series I group them with the social sciences. They are concerned with the same questions that animate works of social science like Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty or the entire oeuvre of Peter Turchin. Why do some countries become wealthy while others do not? What explains the rise and fall of civilizations? Why did Western countries conquer the world instead of the other way around?
These books are fine to read and fun to contemplate, but if you start here you are doing it wrong. I have collected fifteen separate 400+ page books that try to answer the question "why did the West get rich first." And that was seven years ago! The number of books tackling this question has only grown larger. But if that is all you read, you are in trouble. How will you know who is right and who is wrong? If you have not read widely in history and anthropology, who are you to judge? There is absolutely no point, for example, in reading one of Peter Turchin's books if you don't have the background knowledge needed to assess whether his models match the historical record. There is no point reading Diamond's explanation for why China stagnated and why Europe did not if you do not know anything about Chinese or European history yourself (I am not convinced Diamond does). Grand theories of civilization should be at the bottom of your list. They are worth reading, but not before you have the foundation in facts that you need to distinguish between the good work and the ill.
So how do you find the history books worth reading? Occasionally people you can trust will put up reading lists. I have a reading list here on books to read in Chinese history. Here is Razib Khan's recommendations on Roman history. Will Buckner has a list of valuable ethnographies over at Traditions of Conflict. Bryn Hammond has an absolutely fabulous set of reviews on just about every book ever written on the Mongols and Inner Asian nomads. Website like Five Books are another good place to start.
But if no reading lists come to mind, there are two methods in particular I have often have useful. The first is to Google syllabi. If you are interested in the history of the Roman Republic, Google "Roman Republic syllabus" and see what pops up. Read a few courses and see what books are included. Alternatively, if you just read a book you thought was particularly good, put its title into Google and then the word "syllabus" afterwards and see what other readings college professors have paired with that book in their courses.
The other route is the more old-fashioned: read the footnotes. A significant percentage of what I read comes not from book reviews or book lists, but by looking up and purchasing the books mentioned in the footnotes of other books I found interesting. Often times the best book on a topic is not the newest one. This is how experienced academics and researchers fill up their own reading lists. What works for us will work for you.
That's a wrap for today, folks. I do not have anything else to say about history books. I still have quite a bit to say about literature, behavioral science, political theory, and social science. But this post is already long. My idiosyncratic take on those subjects will be given their own post(s).
If you this post on books is your sort of thing, you might also like the posts"Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings," and "Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.