Over the last three years, life/work/discipline/other curiosities permitting, I read 59 books on modern history. This is a post about my experience, how I choose the books, what I learned, and why I think everyone should do some version of what I did. You can find a slightly condensed (47 books) list at the end.
History wasn’t something I studied well. The older I grew, the more curious I became, and the more things I saw the clearer it was: to understand present, let alone participate in it, it couldn’t be suspended from the past. And so realising just how little I knew of how and why we have the world we do today, I felt I couldn’t really be without understanding that.
Also––as time accelerates the present becomes ephemeral. The past and the future matter much more than the present when it is a fugitive of the former and a suffix to the latter.
It feels as though I’ve been in a residency in the past and now see the present in vivid and extreme possibility. There is nothing definite about it. The present is the single child of the past’s many sperms.
And the single egg in my analogy is the world.
Though there is nothing special about what I’ve done, it really is a privilege and a joy to have learned what I have–especially as an adult. Knowledge is like entrepreneurship; those who have it are simply those who pursued it. Not quitting this project was challenging but worth the everlasting sensation of turning the last page of the last book.
Learning history is learning the language of the present. You cannot speak about the present if you don’t know how we got here. I am not an expert/historian now but for me this effort framed the world into an architecture of the past that allowed me to place the present well and maneuver the future better.
I may now use that framework to do more specific deep dives into an event, a state, or a movement.
I made some specific decisions when compiling this list.
- This is a modern list and preoccupied with how we got to now, hence its focus on the recent eras. History is generally divided (albeit by occidentals) to three parts: Antiquity (pre 476AD i.e. from rise of Sumer to fall of Rome), Medieval (476–1453 i.e. to fall of Constantinople), and Modernity (post 1453). I’ve made three exceptions to this where I read specifically about pre modern histories; Western, Chinese, and Islamic civilisations. (For more on that see P.S. at the end.)
- It is a political, economic and social list. It does not focus too much on the history of the arts and sciences. There will be other deep dives for that.
- With the exception of a few, it is compiled without professional advice (i.e. Google, goodreads, amazon, newspaper lists, and personal TOC reviews) with the aim of educating me–an Arab subaltern that never read history properly.
- It is organised chronologically, though sometimes I had to stop a book and continue after reading others in between because of overlapping spans.
I’ve kept an open-access facebook album of screenshots I took of interesting passages.
Things I learned (some)
- History teaches you geography. From Appalachia to Abkhazia, Bengal to Bessarabia, and Yunan to Yacutan —location location location. Knowing where it happened is just as important as what had happened and after enough lookups you internalise regional maps, and eventually the world. Google images and maps were my friends.
Read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now.
–Adler, Van Doren, How to Read a Book, p. 241
- History, read well, can make you wise. You see how people manage everything at their disposal, from their inner psychology to their ancestral geography, towards hope or despair. You learn so much about how life is an interplay between individual ambitions, macro social cycles (e.g. Kondratiev’s waves and Wallerstein’s cycles), and meta ecological change.
- People from a distance are less compromising e.g.
— Ostpolitik, West Germany’s policy of normalisation with East Germany, was initiated by West Berliners.
— Taiwanese diaspora, especially US-based ones, are a lot more hawkish on China and reunification than those in Taiwan.
— Colombians close to Farc-controlled/operated territories, who lost more people to the war, were overwhelmingly pro peace.
- Magnanimous victory is the only lasting victory. Losers don’t go away. Time and again, the victorious defeat themselves in the future by demanding too much in the present.
- Colonialism was short. For the most part, Africa and Asia were colonised from the 1870s and de-colonised by the 1960s. This is all the more incredible considering its massive impact.
- Decolonization was very fast. And due to that speed, there was no sustainable functional continuation of whatever bureaucracies that existed and many states ended up reproducing their colonizer’s authoritarian systems with aesthetic homages.
- The end of the cold war re-divided the world; from left vs right to open vs closed, or as Balaji Srinivasan calls it: cloud vs land.
- Russia is Europe’s half cousin. The history of this Eurasian country is a bi-polar one. From the 17th century until WWI, with the Romanovs firmly married into German, Danish and other European royalty, it was by and large viewed as a distant European state that ruled Europeans and Asians. By contrast, the USSR was an Eastern and progressive (multi-ethnic) state. Ever since the fall of the Berlin wall, Russia continues to sway between the Moscow (foreign) and St Petersburg (fraternal) modes or lenses by which it views Europe.
- China is an imperial, colonial, and multiethnic empire. Core, or original China is really what today would be called the North China Plain. The rest of China (e.g. Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan) was conquered.
- Australia (independent) and New Zealand’s (conciliatory) relationships to Britain were partly shaped by the respective predominance of Irish and Scottish immigrants.
- Present China is extremely stable, by historic standards.
- More than any other ancient civilisation that was colonised, China is bitter at its century of humiliation by European (and Japanese) powers.
- The Marshall plan and establishment of NATO were historic, unique, and extremely visionary commitments. It is difficult to imagine Europe without them. All things considered, it is a great shame that something similar did not take place after the fall of the USSR; instead of inventing the future we settled for neoliberal technocracy. Perhaps because most people in power then hadn’t fought in WWII.
- Putin built (in Russia) what Gorbachev said he would (in USSR): a market economy controlled by a strong state. The former understood the appropriate carrot:stick ratio.
- Napoleon was relentless at political PR. To Egyptians upon landing in Alexandria:
It has been said to you that I have only come to this country in order to destroy your religion. This is a clear lie; do not believe it. Say to the slanderers that I have come to rescue you from the hands of the oppressors. I worship God (may He be exalted) far more than the Mamluks do, and respect His Prophet and the glorious Quran . . . O shaykhs, judges and imams, officers and notables of the land, tell your people that the French also are sincere Muslims; the proof of it is that they have occupied great Rome and ruined the papal see which was always urging the Christians to attack Islam, and from there they have gone to the island of Malta and expelled from it the Knights of Malta who used to claim that God wanted them to fight the Muslims. At all times the French have been sincere friends of the Ottoman sultan and enemies of his enemies.
- The fortunes of Egypt’s Mohammed Ali Pasha were defined by the American Civil War. He wished to join the European ecosystem by industrialising ala Italy, Germany, and France. To do that he needed a key revenue source. He found this–temporarily–in cotton exports, which boomed during the North’s naval blockade of the South.
- Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India because she was annoyed that she was outranked by Czar (emperor) Alexander II and the possibility of Vicky, her daughter and wife of the German crown prince, too becoming empress one day.
- Spaghetti, a southern dish, was nationalised by the army.
- America is much more religious than Europe. Europe is where the Protestants left the Catholics and other heathens behind to rebuild in America a purer, smaller church (and government) again. It is in this light that its fascination with Greco-Roman architecture and its visceral, if initial, rejection of all waves of migration can be viewed. As they saw it, they had escaped the anti-Christ Pope only to be followed by his followers and then others: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.
- The Reformation could only have happened in Germany. France, England and Spain had secularised (nationalised) their churches and so the Pope couldn’t tax them to the level he could tax Germany’s many states, duchies, estates and other polities.
- Egyptians and fellow Arabs were truly shocked at how awesome Napoleon and other Europeans were. Their most recent memories of them were of backward (and filthy) people during the days of Saladin and Richard I. They were note aware of the European progress as, until then, that manifested over centuries in Central Europe and the Balkans to which perhaps only the Ottomans (state and military) understood.
- While the Yongle Emperor–the second Ming ruler–who dispatched several naval expeditions that reached the coasts of Africa by the very early 15th century, it was ultimately the Europeans (beginning with the Portuguese) that colonised it. One theory posits that this happened because China was united and Europe was not; hence, while China would have to refocus its efforts from south eastern naval exploits towards defending against northern mongol hoards, Portugal did not feel the need to end its West African expeditions merely because the Ottomans were at the gates of Vienna.
- Southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula are geopolitically comparable. The UAE is Malaysia plus Singapore. Saudi is Indonesia. Brunei is Qatar.
- How the foundation of recently unified Italy and Germany were impacted by the life of their respective architects, Cavour and Bismarck. The former died after three months of assuming the prime ministerial office. The later was chancellor for nineteen tears.
- The long occupation of Algeria (1830–1962) by France quickly became strategic because of its export of its radicals and revolutionaries to it.
Africa is an element of order in France.
–Léon Blondel, 1838
- How morally justified the South felt at seceding and angry they felt at unfairly losing the American Civil War.
- Decisive impact of the decision of Harun Al Rasheed–legendary Abbasid Caliph–to give Al Mamoun–his second son and later Caliph–the Deputy Crown Princeship and governorship of Khorasan and subsequent civil war between him and Al Ameen–elder brother, Crown Prince and later Caliph–to Arabs’ central role in Islamic empire and solidity of the Islamic empire.
- Sin Fein impressed 18-year old Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister.
Have you heard of Sin Fein in Ireland?… It is the most interesting movement and resembles very closely the so-called Extremist movement in India. Their policy is not to beg for favors but to wrest them.
- How central the long-disunited German people are to the history of Europe. Every European monarch had significant German blood.
- There was a time and place when the Lebanese spoke in one voice: May 1840, St. Elias Church, Antilyas
We, the undersigned, Druzes, Christians, Shiites and Sunnis, living in Mount Lebanon and drawn from all its villages, have met at St Elias and sworn on the altar of the saint that we shall not betray nor harm each other. We shall speak with one voice and have one opinion.
- How singularly crucial Turkic people were to Islam’s history and spread i.e. from Ughur China and Tatar Russia to Mamluk Egypt and Mughul India.
- Russia’s rule of its Polish dominions was so Russified, Poles had to read their national literature in Russian.
- The political triumph of the West in the early 19th century was the dual and equal beating back of socialist and reactionary forces to their fringes and the establishment of wide liberal centers.
- The political failure of the West in the late 19th century was, after the depression of the 1870–90s, the replacement of these wide liberal centers with narrow capitalist nationalisms. Then there was a boom in the 1890s till the great war came but everyone knew something was off. Hence the irony of the belle époque/victorian/gilded age.
- The Renaissance wanted to resuscitate an era long gone while the Avant-garde wanted to ‘progress’ faster into a future.
- Should they wish to stay and rule, Foreign conquerors frequently assume the language and customs of the their new masses with significant additions of their own. The Normans eventually swapped Anglo-Norman/French for English but imported much French and other latin based languages’ terms into which created Modern English. Similarly, once freed from direct Chinese control, the Sino-phile elite swapped Classical Chinese for the dominant local language but brought much vocabulary with them; the resulting language being Vietnamese.
- As First Lord of the Admiralty (1911–15), Winston Churchill’s decision to convert the navy’s ships from coal to oil had lasting impacts on Britain’s interest in West Asian oil fields and the latter’s value in global markets.
- How fused Turkish and Persian cultural identity was until very very recently.
- Egypt to rest of North Africa (close yet far) is Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula (same same but different.)
- Barry Goldwater supported Bill Clinton’s call for allowing gays to serve in the US military.
- Introduced by Indian, Yemeni and South Russian cattle by Italian forces invading Eritrea in the late 1880s, Rinderpest killed more than 90% of Africa’s cattle by early 1900s, disrupted its centuries old ecological balance, and–having replaced cattle and human friendly graze and farmland into tsetse infected woodland inhibited only by wild animals–created a ficionalised image among conservationists of untouched African wild lands.
- No future is inevitable nor controllable, it is fleeting. We try every day to fight through demons within and without us towards it… at times we aspire above them and at others we despair below. But more than anything else as Mourad Mazouz, an existentialist French-Algerian restauranteur, once told me:
We do what we can with what we have.
It is a privilege to live through so much change as we do today and it would be an honor to participate. All we are here for is to participate in the now(s).
- Guns Germs and Steel — Diamond
- History of the Ancient World — Bauer
- History of the Medieval World — Bauer
- History of the Renaissance World — Bauer
- The Venture of Islam I — Hodgson
- The Venture of Islam II — Hodgson
- The Reformation — MacCulloch
- The Modern World System I: 1500s — Wellerstein
- The Modern World System II: 1600–1750 — Wellerstein
- The Venture of Islam III (Book 5): 1500s-1722 — Hodgson
- The Modern World System III: 1730s-1840s — Wellerstein
- The Thirty Years’ War 1618–1648 — Bonney
- The Thirty Years War — Wedgwood
- The Pursuit of Glory 1648–1815 — Blanning
- China, a History I — Tanner
- Africa, biography of a continent — Reader
- A history of East Asia — Holcombe
- China, a History II — Tanner
- 1776 — McCullough
- The American Revolution: A History — Wood
- The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 — Eric Hobsbawm
- The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 — Sellers
- Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era — McPherson
- The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 — Hobsbawn
- Bismarck and the German Empire — Eyck
- The Risorgimento and the making of Italy — Beales
- The Venture of Islam III (Book 6): 1789–20c — Hodgson
- A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present — Meade
- The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 — Hobsbawm
- The Modern World System IV: 1789–1914 — Wellerstein
- Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798–1939 — Hourani
- The Arab Rediscovery of Europe: A Study in Cultural Encounters — Abu Lughod
- The War that ended Peace — Macmillan
- A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 — Meyer
- Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World — Macmillan
- A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East — Fromkin
- Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918–1938 — Blom
- Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945 — Hastings
- The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence — Meredith
- History of the Middle East — Mansfield
- Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 — Judt
- American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 — Brands
- Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 — Kotkin
- Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia Since World War II — Pike
- The Penguin History of Canada — Bothwell
- A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific — Denoon et al.
- The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914–1991 — Hobsbawm
This is a specific idea that I’m considering. I don’t expect it to be an easy one to agree with.
While there are many culturally significant regional civilizations–historic (Babylon, Pharaonic Egypt, Phoenicia, Ancient Persia, Rus of Kiev, Mali Empire, Inca) and contemporary (India, Brazil)–there are three truly global and resilient civilizations that have:
–Dynamically absorbed (other) people
–Provided holistic ideas on how the world should be i.e. spirituality, architecture, war, bureaucracy, arts, science, philosophy.)
–Have the potential to set the mores of an era.
–Are likely to continue to survive the test of time.
In the most expanded sense of the word ‘civilization’, they are the Chinese, Western and Islamic ones. I consider them the only ones that have or can rule the world and inspire others to join and follow it. The analogy to them is the comprehensive and so far unchallengeable position of the Apple and Android ecosystems. While there may be other systems (e.g. Windows Phone, Blackberry) with dedicated users, they simply do not attract the number of users the two do; ergo, can never, given their current strategy and philosophy, become world dominating ecosystems.
Chinese: in addition to Han, I include Japanese, Mongolian, Tibetan, Korean, Burmese, and Indochinese cultures.
–Western: from Rome to Europe (up to the Ural) and the Americas.
–Islamic: From Andalusia through Mulsim Africa and modern Persia to Mughal India, Malacca Sultanate, and late Golden Horde.