I’m sure you’ve found this, too: It’s damnably hard to get a handle on things. Every day, we’re inundated by thousands of bits and pieces of information—online, by mail, on our phones and laptops, and everywhere we walk on the streets of a city or the aisles of a grocery store. How does all this stuff fit together? How can we gain perspective while trapped in this fragmented information environment?
Well, my answer is to read books. Perhaps it’s naïve of me, or presumptuous, but I humor myself by thinking that I’ve at least started to understand the Big Picture: where we came from as a species, how we got here, where we’re going, and how I fit into the whole thing. And the four score books I’ve listed below have helped me reach that understanding.
All these books are nonfiction, and I’ve awarded each of them a review of at least @@@@ (4 out of 5), eliminating a great many others I felt less positive about. I’m listing them below in topical sections, which I hope will make it easier for you to understand how they relate to one another. Within each section, these titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. And each is followed by the title of my review, linked to its text on this site.
This post was updated on January 2, 2021.
Gaining a global perspective through Big History
I know of no better way to begin reaching for the Big Picture than to delve into the emerging field of Big History. This interdisciplinary approach is less than 30 years old as I write. Using the tools of both the physical and the biological sciences as well as those of history and other social sciences, the practitioners of this ambitious field explore the broader context in which we live our lives. Their studies range from the Big Bang to the present. Properly speaking, many of the authors included here would not recognize being identified as Big Historians. They might even resent it. But I’m including their books because, unlike most history books that explore a single era, event, or place, they help illuminate the larger trends that have dominated the story of humankind.
A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves, by Walter Alvarez—The unlikely story of life on Earth
The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection by Tamim Ansary—Understanding human history as an extraterrestrial might view it
Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, by Cynthia Stokes Brown—Big History’s new approach, from the Big Bang to the 21st century
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian—A survey of Big History by the man who created the field
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond—Why is economic development so uneven around the world?
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann—Pre-Columbian civilization in the Amazon
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt—An historian explains how we came to think the way we do
The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen—When did globalization begin?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari—Exploring the arc of history over 70,000 years
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann—Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before 1492
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann—After the Columbian Exchange, nothing was ever the same
Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris—Is history too important to leave to historians?
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford—Debunking the popular myths about genetics
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott—This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history
Gaining a global perspective through geopolitics
The study of geopolitics offers another set of tools to examine the Big Picture of the world around us. And three books I’ve read have given me a newly refined appreciation for the role that geography has played in shaping human events. Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, has done the same. However, I’ve included it above since geopolitics typically addresses developments only in modern times.
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan—US-China competition through the lens of geopolitics
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan—A thought-provoking view of world politics
Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan—The geopolitical reality behind the “pivot to Asia”
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall—A thought-provoking look at how geography explains history
Gaining a global perspective on poverty, inequality, and development
Economic inequality is one of the dominant issues on the world agenda today. The books in this section help explain how such glaring disparities in living conditions have come about—and what might be done to address them. Apart from the climate emergency, there is no more urgent issue in our time.
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo—Must reading about the contrasting approaches to ending global poverty
The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis—Who’s responsible for corruption in Africa?
A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark—Why is the Global North so much richer than the South?
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, Orlanda Ruthven—Understanding the day-to-day reality of global poverty
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton—How the inequality gap came to be
The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto—Hernando de Soto on property rights, capitalism, and inequality
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly—Why economic development happens (or doesn’t)
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski—How Africa came to be what it is today
A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn—The path to altruism and a better world
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn—“Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide”
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk—The quest to end poverty: Jeffrey Sachs unmasked
The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers by Paul Polak and Mal Warwick—Books by Mal Warwick
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund—The facts, just the facts, about the world as it really is
Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor by Hugh Sinclair—The truth about microfinance: microcredit doesn’t end poverty
Gaining a global perspective on business and economics
In the course of the last 600 years bankers and businesspeople have emerged to play what many would call the dominant role in the world today. The giant multinational corporations that preoccupy many observers are a recent development. But as early as the 15th century the merchant bankers of Renaissance Italy came to prominence not just in the city-states where they were based but throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. And it was the profit motive that later propelled the exploration of the New World, the settlement of America, and the colonization of so much of the Global South. These books help illuminate that history.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert—Capitalism reexamined from an historical perspective
The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser—We never think about it, but our civilization is built on sand
A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook—Urbanization, globalization and the future of humanity
The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway—Bretton Woods: clashing personalities determined our economic history
Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World by Michael Edwards—Michael Edwards in “Small Change”: why business won’t save the world
From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey E. Garten—The story of globalization told through biography
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giriharadas—Are tech billionaires and hedge-fund managers changing the world for the better?
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann—Economic inequality deconstructed in a brilliant historical study
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis—What goes around, comes around: following the financial meltdown around the world
Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy—Understanding globalization, from the ground up
Money: The Unauthorized Biography — From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies by Felix Martin—Misunderstanding money helped cause the Great Recession
Everybody’s Business: The Unlikely Story of How Big Business Can Fix the World by Jon Miller and Lucy Parker—The case for Big Business: will Nike and Coca-Cola save the world?
Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar—Economic history through the lens of personality
The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway—FDR, the gold standard, and the Great Depression
The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World by Jeremy Rifkin—Afraid the end of the world is nigh? Here’s a hopeful message
Gaining a global perspective on technology and the future
With change that hurtles along at a blistering pace, there is no subject harder to gain perspective on than science and technology. The consensus among observers is that artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will play a pivotal role in shaping the human future. But robotics and AI are not unfolding in a vacuum. Many other technological developments, from cyber war to space travel to materials science, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, hold equal potential to influence our lives for better or worse in the decades to come.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake—An authoritative insider’s take on the threat of cyber war
Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy—Can we avoid a dystopian future?
The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport—Four billionaires, private space companies, and humanity’s future in the cosmos
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler—Does technology promise humanity a bright future?
Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl—Will robots run amok?
Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization by K. Eric Drexler—Nanotechnology and the future of our species
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford—Will robots create a jobless future?
The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence by Amir Husain—Today’s artificial intelligence is transforming our lives, an expert insists
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey—A colony on Mars? Really? An astronomy professor thinks so.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson—A human-centered history of the Digital Revolution
The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth by Michio Kaku—From the moon and Mars to the multiverse
AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee—The best book about artificial intelligence I’ve read so far
The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever—An authoritative look at technology’s potential
2062: The World That AI Made by Toby Walsh—An AI expert worries about the robots of the future
The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity by Amy Webb—An artificial intelligence skeptic paints a chilling picture of a future dominated by AI
Gaining a global perspective on climate change and the threats to public health
Although it’s not widely recognized, the ever-present threat of a global pandemic is intrinsically related to climate change. Although scientists haven’t yet confirmed the connection to the outbreak of COVID-19, it’s clear enough to an informed observer. Warming temperatures, increased flooding, and ever-more-violent storms, combined with rising population and increased demands on the land for human use, are shifting the habitat of disease vectors. We’ve already seen the emergence of deadly new contagious diseases such as AIDS and Ebola as a result—and now COVID-19. We will see more, as some of these books make clear.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry—A brilliant account of the 1918 flu epidemic
Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard—Global warming and climate change: the next fifty years
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert—Are we living through the Sixth Extinction?
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz—Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction?
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen—Where do all those emerging diseases come from?
Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah—The existential threat of contagious disease
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney—Was the Spanish Flu of 1918 a greater disaster than World War II?
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells—Climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse
Gaining a global perspective on the US role in the world
Throughout much of the past century, and emphatically so since 1945, the United States has dominated world affairs. In the past, the former Soviet Union, and in the present, the People’s Republic of China, have challenged American hegemony. But until now few have raised serious questions about which country had the greatest influence in setting the world’s agenda. Today, China may be emerging as the leading power of the 21st century; given the self-defeating policies of the Trump Administration, that is far more likely to be the case. Still, any role reversal must lie in the future, given the economic and military power the US still commands. And the books listed below will help explain how this imbalance has come about.
The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley—Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American foreign policy
A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass—American foreign policy in a “nonpolar” world
The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer—The racist origins of the American empire
A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino—Mao, Truman, and the birth of Modern China
The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret—A revealing history of U.S.-China relations
The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo—In a world of complexity, survival requires resiliency
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot—When America’s secret government ran amok
Gaining a global perspective: books that don’t fit into the categories above
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary—An Islamic perspective on history
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson—“The greatest catastrophe in human history”
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson—How little we know of science history
Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma—1945: the fateful year when the world stepped back from war
Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit—Why do so many people hate Western values?
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark—Does history repeat itself? A Cambridge University historian wonders
The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges by Zaid Hassan—What makes social change happen?
The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age by David E. Sanger—Espionage, sabotage, economic warfare, and cyber weapons
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley—Donald Trump’s playbook revealed in a penetrating new book
A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS by Robert F. Worth—A postmortem for the Arab Spring
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf—Biography of a genius: the man who invented ecology
For further reading
You’ll find other good books of interest at the following:
- Science explained in 10 excellent popular books
- My 10 favorite books about business history
- Top 10 nonfiction books about politics
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.