Best history books

The Best History Books (Updated 2022)

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by Sven WoltmannFebruary 14, 2022

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

Link to the book at Amazon

Sapiens tells the story of humankind from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century, trying to find an answer to the question of why humanity, in particular, has risen to dominate the world.

The author divides human history into four epochs:

  1. In the cognitive revolution, humans developed the imagination that enabled them to create abstract things like gods, money, nations, trade networks, corporations, and human rights. It was the shared belief in these stories that enabled people to work together in large numbers.
  2. With the agricultural revolution, people began to reshape their environment actively. They increased food production, and population growth accelerated rapidly.
  3. Unification of humanity: People living in once-independent tribes began to build cities, empires, and trade networks – culminating in a global empire as we know it today.
  4. During the scientific revolution, humanity began to explore the workings of the world and gradually replace the religiously based worldview with an objective one. This ultimately led to the rapid technological progress we are currently experiencing.

Despite all the progress, the welfare of humankind has not continuously improved. The agricultural revolution, for example, led to a far more one-sided way of life and diet than that of the hunter-gatherers.

Other animals suffered and continue to suffer from progress to this day. Many species have been wiped out, while others live in squalid conditions as mere food producers.

Humanity has reduced hunger, diseases, and wars in recent decades indeed - there are also efforts to improve the welfare of animals. But whether this is a sustainable trend remains to be seen.

This very insightful book ends with a brief glimpse into the future, which the author will explore in-depth in his follow-up work, Homo Deus.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

by Yuval Noah Harari

Link to the book at Amazon

After describing humanity's history up to the present day in "Sapiens," the author paints a picture of what the future of humankind might look like.

What challenges will the human species face in the coming decades after containing famines, epidemics, and wars?

What goals and purpose will it still have?

Will it optimize body and mind? Will it overcome death? Will it create artificial life?

Will we continue to be guided by humanistic values such as freedom and equality? Or by algorithms and Big Data?

Will some of humanity evolve into god-like beings (Homo Deus) and treat the left-behind humans the way we treat other animals on this planet today?

Harari draws an exciting vision of the future. Because of the rapid pace of development, we may witness some of the changes ... or be able to prevent them.

Like its predecessor, a recommended read if you need a break from reference books.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

by Yuval Noah Harari

Link to the book at Amazon

After his journey into the past ("Sapiens") and future ("Homo Deus"), Harari moves into the present to find answers to the most pressing questions of our time - a time of rapid change and uncertainty, of information overload and polarization, of climate change and Brexit, biotech and Big Data.

In 21 chapters, the author addresses political, technological, social, and philosophical questions. Questions like:

  • What will become of our liberal democracy?
  • How will algorithms and Big Data change our decision-making and freedom of choice?
  • What kind of work will people be doing in the near future, and how can we prepare our children for it?

While the word "lessons" suggests otherwise, the author does not have clear-cut answers to these questions. Rather, he wants to get us thinking about the major challenges of the 21st century and our values in these turbulent times.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

Sociology Books

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

by Malcolm Gladwell

Link to the book at Amazon

Why do some ideas and trends – whether in fashion, technology, or social behavior – catch on and others do not? Why do some books become bestsellers while others remain slow sellers? What is the secret of Sesame Street's success?

Malcolm Gladwell gets to the bottom of these questions and describes the phenomenon of the so-called "tipping point" – the point at which behavioral changes of a few people spill over to a critical mass ... and can change the world.

The trigger for the tipping point is usually the interaction of a few but well-connected people, a sticky message, and the right environment and timing.

I have to criticize that many of the author's arguments are primarily based on observations and are hardly scientifically substantiated, such as the reasons for lower crime rates.

Nevertheless, the book is interesting, entertaining, and well worth reading.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

Link to the book at Amazon

Blink is about intuition – about how we trust our gut and make split-second decisions without being aware or able to explain how and why we made them.

How reliable are intuitive decisions compared to those we make consciously and deliberately – based on careful collection and analysis of data and conclusions drawn from it?

According to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, extremely reliable. And he provides a convincing explanation and numerous entertaining examples.

There is, for example, the art expert who recognizes at first glance that a sculpture costing millions of dollars and scientifically examined is a fake. The firefighter who suddenly orders his crew out of a house seconds before it collapses. And the marriage counselor who needs to observe a couple for only a few minutes to accurately predict how long their marriage will last.

All of these people cannot explain their actions. According to Gladwell, however, this is by no means because they have not processed information. They merely did so unconsciously.

Decades of experience are stored widely in their brains and are processed unconsciously almost instantaneously. Thus, the brain arrives at the same – or an even better – result in seconds than after hours or days of conscious deliberation.

But caution is advised. The subconscious can also be deceived. Warren G. Harding, for example, was elected U.S. president primarily because of his statesmanlike appearance – and turned out to be one of the worst presidents in American history.

Another example is "racial bias": Many people tend to assign negative terms to black people and positive terms to white people. Depending on cultural conditioning, even black people are subject to this bias.

The book is easy to read and highly entertaining, thanks to the many compelling stories. It makes you aware of unconscious choices and makes you think about when to trust your intuitions and when not to.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

Link to the book at Amazon

Countless books have been written about why some people are successful, and others are not. The answers always go the same direction: talent, intelligence, diligence, passion, perseverance.

All of these points are important; there's no question about that. But one topic is almost always left out – and that is exactly what this book is about: chance!

Malcolm Gladwell shows (as always) with numerous entertaining stories supported by studies, which fortunate circumstances paved the (career) path for successful people.

For example, professional athletes born in January, February, and March: Within their cohort, they have physical advantages over younger players. These advantages don't equalize throughout their careers but grow stronger and stronger through a feedback loop of success and encouragement.

There are Asian students who are a year ahead of their European counterparts in math simply because Asian languages pronounce numbers in a way that makes them easier to calculate with.

There's Bill Gates, who was at the right school at the right time – namely, one of the few that had a computer at the time and allowed him regular access to it.

Of course, not these external factors alone make for success. To be successful, you also have to seize the opportunities that come your way. And that's where diligence, passion, and perseverance (also known as "grit") come into play again.

This Gladwell bestseller is again a very entertaining and enjoyable read and allows us to look at the success of outliers from a different angle.

Suitable as an audio book? Yes.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

by Malcolm Gladwell

Link to the book at Amazon

Using numerous David-versus-Goliath stories, Gladwell's book of the same title shows how underdogs can prevail against seemingly superior opponents by turning supposed disadvantages into advantages – and, conversely, how supposed advantages become disadvantages at a certain point.

The stories of underdogs come from a wide variety of backgrounds: dyslexics who compensate for their reading deficiencies with an excellent memory; basketball teams that make up for their physical inferiority with unconventional strategies; civil rights activists who, rather than being intimidated by failed assassination attempts, have their aspirations strengthened; people who have survived wars and other tragedies.

They all have in common that they use seemingly hopeless situations against all odds to develop unconventional strategies and alternative skills, especially resilience, risk-taking, and tenacity, which later become the foundations of their success.

On the other side are the supposed winners: children of rich parents, students in ever-smaller classes, and students at elite universities.

Gladwell describes how the "law of the inverted parabola" applies in all these areas, i.e., that the advantages of certain traits increase up to a certain point but then tilt away.

For example, extreme wealth makes it difficult to instill values such as diligence, ambition, and self-reliance in the next generation. School classes that are too small lack diversity and dynamism. And students at mediocre schools are shown to have a higher chance of success than those at elite universities such as Harvard.

Gladwell has once again written an entertaining, exciting, instructive, and highly recommended book. He shows us that we are not helpless to our weaknesses and should never overestimate our strengths, as reality is often much more complex than we think.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes! And, like all Gladwell audiobooks, the author reads it himself.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

by Malcolm Gladwell

Link to the book at Amazon

In "Talking to Strangers", Malcolm Gladwell explores why communication with strangers often leads to misunderstandings.

He tells stories of traffic stops that end in suicide, of false suspicions in murder cases, of asset managers who cheat investors out of billions, and of successful deceptions in the world of intelligence agencies.

People usually assume that they can make a sound judgment about their counterparts in a face-to-face encounter. That's why we meet babysitters and job applicants in person before we hire them. And why judges have defendants appear in person to decide bail applications.

However, numerous studies show that decisions based on facts are often better than those based on face-to-face encounters.

For example, our ability to detect lies is remarkably poor. Our society is based on honest interaction, and therefore, we usually assume that our counterpart is telling the truth ("default to truth" theory). Consequently, it can take years or decades for spies to be unmasked or fraud and abuse cases to be uncovered.

Like any Gladwell book, "Talking to Strangers" combines scientific findings and well-researched, richly detailed interwoven stories, making it a delightful read.

It helps us understand why misunderstandings happen all the time. We can accept our limitations, not blame strangers for unintentional misunderstandings, and show understanding for our fellow human beings when they have been duped into "default-to-truth" mode by malicious strangers.

The German title, by the way, is not a particularly good translation. Gladwell alerts readers to a problem - he doesn't have a solution to it. The English title "Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know" is much more appropriate.

Suitable as an audiobook? Yes, very: Like all Gladwell books, it is read aloud by the author himself. Interviews are included in the original audio rather than being read by the author.