When it comes to books, all we sell are dental books. That said, books are very dear to us, books of all shapes, sizes, subjects, and genre.
Recently a friend asked for advice when it came to finding an engrossing and scholarly but accessible general history book. This question really got me thinking and as a result, a list of suggestions was drawn up.
- William McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power: Dense, yes, but important, truly. Spanning roughly a 1000 years (actually more because the first chapter summarizes ancient societies), McNeill traces the path by which the West—namely Europe and then the U.S.—became the dominant military power on the globe. Though Eastern powers, notably China, have nearly caught up, McNeill shows in his book that Western societies possessed unique qualities that contributed to their precocious military developments since the Middle Ages. His main argument: commercial transformation in society forced militaries to respond to market forces in ways previously unseen. This may make the book sound like a purely military history book, but it’s not. McNeill covers vast amounts territory including the technological, social, cultural, economic, and psychological causes and effects of Europe’s military development. Really an incredible synthesis of history, with plenty of footnotes.
- Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: We’re not biased towards Western history, but this volume on why/how the West came to dominate the world is too fascinating to be left out of this list. Diamond has an interesting background for writing a history book. He has degrees in physiology and biophysics. This, however, makes his approach in this title most interesting. Rather than arguing the old view that the West’s superior intelligence led to their dominance, Diamond starts at the beginning of civilization. He outlines how geography, diet, climate, linguistics, human biology, and animal domestication all profoundly shaped the development of society. Of course, it doesn’t answer all questions and critics have said that much of it is derivative (sometimes compared to McNeill’s book above). Still, it is more than worth your time to read.
- Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: a World History: It’s rather courageous to write a world history book based around one commodity. Some charge that this book is gimmicky or overly emphatic, but it’s still a riveting read nonetheless. Kurlansky begins his whirlwind global journey in China, and then moves to Egypt then Greece, Rome, and beyond. We take for granted that around a century ago modern chemistry and geology revealed how prevalent salt was on the earth. Until then it was one of the most sought-after commodities. It has played a significant role in human survival—most notably as a way to preserve meat. It has led to wars and political upheaval—e.g. Gandhi’s salt march. Indeed without a correct balance of salt in our blood, we would die.
- Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: While not a general history, this is suggested because Americans really need to understand why Iran “dislikes” us. In 1953, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was removed by an American C.I.A. orchestrated coup d’etat in an operation called Ajax. The reason: Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil to the detriment of Britain’s, and our, interests. Since the early 20th century, Britain had controlled the oil fields of Iran through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (where BP, British Petroleum comes from). Without this company, Britain’s supply of oil would be severely reduced. Hence the coup, the reign of the shah, and the dissatisfaction that would eventually cause the 1979 Revolution, a hostage crisis, and subsequent poor relations with the West.