So when I’m not traveling (which is often), and I’m not too busy (which is rare), I still like to learn about the world I live in. I’m a little bit of a history nerd and I adore books more than anything, so here’s a list of books I’ve found that seem like great ways to explore the greater world around me without leaving the comfort of my loveseat. Few things can be better than that!
“At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” by Bill Bryson
This was recommended to me on Facebook. I listened to the Book on CD as I drove around town. I don’t know how Bryson does it, but I was on the edge of my seat listening to the history of lead-covered wallpaper in the 18th century. Seriously. Sounds weird, but I promise you’ll be riveted also. He start his book with a very long, rambling chapter on the great exhibition in the mid 1800s, the one housed in a glass building, otherwise known as The Crystal Palace. After that, he takes us room by room through his house, explaining the history of furniture, the wars over salt and pepper, the rats in bathrooms (shudder!), technological improvements in kitchens, and general life throughout history. He makes the most common topic fascinating, and adds interesting stories from history that will just make you shake your head in disbelief (mastectomies in the middle ages) or laugh (how people get up and down stairs). I highly recommend it!
“Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” by Jared Diamond
This I am still in the middle of, but judging by how many professors have recommended it to me over the years, I’d say it was a classic and you should go ahead and read it. Written by a evolutionary biologist with linguistic and anthropologistic leanings, there’s no way this could be boring. He spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea, so his book tries to answer the question, “why did Europe conquer the world? Why not the other way around?” I have yet to get to his final answer to this question, but his process along the way, such as looking at diseases and the extinct animals in Australia, as well as the domestication of corn, is very interesting.
“Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sykes
I first read this when I was about 18, researching for some novel I was attempting to write and loved it. His first book is “The Seven Daughters of Eve,” which detail the genetic testing and ancient migrations throughout Europe. He posits that pretty much all of Europe was populated by five men and eight women. This book takes a closer look at the British Isles. It was absolutely fascinating to realize we could learn what happened to entire people groups, ethnicities, and a tribes just by taking a look at their descendents’ genes today. There was a similar researcher who thought the same thing in the mid 1800s. He traveled around England and took extensive notes on the physical appearances of everyone he saw, then catalogued them, then came up with a rough idea of the migrations of the Celtic people after the Roman and subsequent Saxon invasions. Sykes shows the historical influx of Danish invaders/settlers over the years of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, then compares that with the genetic results of northeastern England. To this day, it seems, the town that the Danes first landed in the 800s has the most blondes per capita. Fascinating stuff. I highly recommend.
“Plagues and Peoples” by William McNeill
I haven’t read this one, either, but it looks great. Published in 1977, it spends quite a lot of time on the Black Plague. So if you like that sort of thing, here’s a great book. Because I can’t recommend it, here’s Amazon’s blurb: “Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact–political, demographic, ecological, and psychological–of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. With the identification of AIDS in the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle of events, which William McNeill explores in his new introduction to this updated editon. Thought-provoking, well-researched, and compulsively readable, Plagues and Peoples is that rare book that is as fascinating as it is scholarly, as intriguing as it is enlightening. “A brilliantly conceptualized and challenging achievement” (Kirkus Reviews), it is essential reading, offering a new perspective on human history.”
“Cannibals and Kings” by Marvin Harris
Written by an anthropologist, this 1977 book also looks great. He’s a cultural materialist, I think, as opposed to other schools of thought, including structuralists and rationalists. Amazon’s blurb: “In this brilliant and profound study the distinguished American anthropologist Marvin Harris shows how the endless varieties of cultural behavior — often so puzzling at first glance — can be explained as adaptations to particular ecological conditions. His aim is to account for the evolution of cultural forms as Darwin accounted for the evolution of biological forms: to show how cultures adopt their characteristic forms in response to changing ecological modes.”
“Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” by Guy Deustcher
This 2010 book is on my to-read list as well. I discovered it after I listened to a revolutionary online podcast explaining why the color blue is a very recent addition to the world and our eyes (“Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” is the name of it). For days afterward all I did was stare at the sky and say, “but it’s so clearly blue! Right?” Anyway, here’s Amazon’s blurb: “A masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how—and whether—culture shapes language and language, culture Linguistics has long shied away from claiming any link between a language and the culture of its speakers: too much simplistic (even bigoted) chatter about the romance of Italian and the goose-stepping orderliness of German has made serious thinkers wary of the entire subject. But now, acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the issue. Can culture influence language—and vice versa? Can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts? Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for “blue”? Challenging the consensus that the fundaments of language are hard-wired in our genes and thus universal, Deutscher argues that the answer to all these questions is—yes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water—a “she”—becomes a “he” once you dip a tea bag into her, demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial. Audacious, delightful, and field-changing,Through the Language Glass is a classic of intellectual discovery.”
“The Year 1000,” by Robert Lacey
This is sort of a history book. It examines what life was basically life for English people at the turn of the millenium. As someone who loves history and all things British, this is a wonderful find for me. I must admit I have yet to read it (darn class papers keep getting in the way!), but I have read one of his other books, which puts all of England’s in/famous historical figures into stories and then into one book. It is absolutely delightful. I highly enjoyed his writing style and will buy my own set of that book to read to my children when teaching them about England. This book, however, is more for adults. It is like a modern interpretation of the Domesday Booke, yet with added content. Because history isn’t just learning dates. It’s about learning how our ancestors lived, interacted, and survived. Its about diving into another culture. This is my list so far, and I’m always interested in adding to it! What books have you read that explore the world from your loveseat?