#1

A Little History of the World

E.H Gombrich — A grandfatherly stroll through world history

When I started this project, history felt like a painting of infinite scale and detail that mocked any attempt at being understood. Before I could begin, I wanted to first find a way to make history more accessible and attainable; to light the way ahead.

I found no better source of light than Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. In this book, Gombrich attempts to take history’s boundless painting and turn it into a simple child’s drawing able to be understood and appreciated by anyone. 

I have no doubt seasoned historians revile this book for its whimsical jaunt through time. Yet what this book lacks in academic rigour (it doesn’t even have a bibliography, the horror!) it makes up for in delightful prose. Originally aimed to be read by children, Gombrich is compassionate and lively, and his grandfatherly tone can be heard in every word. 

This book does an excellent job of reframing the reader’s sense of history, from one of an endless string of dates and names, to a collection of compelling stories that tell of our collective past. It serves as a canvas in which to place more in-depth explorations.

#2

Origins

Neil deGrasse Tyson & Donald Goldsmith — Fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution

The big bang is the earliest known beginning, and the obvious starting place for this project. It has the seductive allure of being without a before, and I naively thought that this would make it easier to learn about. It turns out, the big bang is actually pretty complicated, not helped by emerging science around quantum physics and dark matter. 

In Origins, Tyson and Goldsmith do not shy away from topics like cosmic background radiation, neutrinos and multi-verses, but it’s not what I was looking for as the first stop in my bibliographic journey.

Thankfully I persisted, and Origins progresses into more tangible territory, discussing the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. It’s here that I got sucked into the grand narrative of the universe, and learned how new elements are made (inside stars) and how they were dispersed across the universe (when those stars explode). The book finishes with a short chapter on the emergence of life on earth and speculates on the prospect of life beyond our planet. 

After a rocky beginning, Origins lives up to expectations, and places our world in the context of billions of years of cosmic evolution.

#3

Life

Richard Fortey — A natural history of four billion years of life on earth

Of all the books I have read so far, none complement each other quite so well as Tyson’s Origins and Fortey’s Life. Fortey gracefully accepts the baton passed down by Tyson and Goldsmith, and masterfully details the various stages of emerging life across the four and a half billion years of Earth’s history.

Life can at times be dense, and you quickly lose track of the various species that come and go as the millenniums pass. However Fortey also appreciates a good story, and isn’t afraid to draw on personal anecdotes to liven up the narrative.

It’s clear the author has an overflowing passion for natural history. Visions of shifting continents and earliest organisms “basking in the shallow seas in the late Pre-cambrian sun” paint an other-worldly portrait of Earth in its youth. It’s sometimes hard to recognise it as the same planet.

#4

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Steve Brusatte — The latest science on earth’s most fearsome beasts

While the aforementioned Life featured dinosaurs in its sweeping natural history, I thought it would be remiss to not at least read one dedicated book on the impressive beasts that ruled Earth before us (and continue to rule the imaginations of young children everywhere).

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives an excellent, up-to-date account on our current understanding of the dinosaurs. Brusatte is clearly a pioneer in his field, and he successfully incorporates his personal journey to give it the book a human touch.

In saying that, I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by all the this-osaurs and that-osaurs throughout; it was a relief to stumble across a triceratops or a diplodocus.

While I appreciated the detail and rigour that Brusatte delivers in a short 350 pages, I couldn’t help but feel somehow disengaged once the novelty of the subject matter wore off. This is evidenced by not one dog-eared highlight throughout the book. I don’t think this is a reflection of Brusatte’s writing, but perhaps my preference for dinosaurs to remain in the world of my imagination rather than on the archaeologist’s table.

#5

Guns, Germs
& Steel

Jared Diamond — The fates of human societies

Out of all the books in this series, it’s this one that comes up most often in conversation. I knew I needed something that bridged the gap between the big vision of Earth’s natural history in Fortey’s Life and the nitty gritty of the first emerging human civilisations in the books to follow. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel served that purpose, and more.

The book begins by asking a simple question: “Why were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs and steel?”. I.e., why did some parts of the world develop faster than others?

Diamond presents a series of well-reasoned and expertly evidenced responses that transformed my understanding of how and why technological progress occurs. A fascinating read that, above any other book on this list, is one everyone should pick up.

#6

The History of the Ancient World

Susan Wise Bauer — From the earliest accounts to the fall of Rome

I could not have asked for a better guide through the next chapter of history than Susan Wise Bauer in The History of the Ancient World and her subsequent books.

In this book Bauer makes it clear that classical societies like the Egyptians, Romans or Greeks didn’t just *pop* into existence. Civilisation, as it turns out, is rife with growing pains. 

Across 800 expertly detailed pages, readers witness the unstable evolution of human society, exploding into life one minute (often through the will of a ruthless dictator) only to disintegrate the next. It’s a dizzying cycle of birth, decay, death and rebirth.

It would have been easy to get lost in the monotony of dictators, wars and political takeovers. Yet the author also gives time to levity, taking a moment here and there to indulge in a humorous anecdote. One of my favourites is regarding one of Hammurabi’s laws which stated “if a man goes to fight a fire at his neighbour’s house and pinches any of his neighbour’s goods under cover of smoke, he ‘shall be thrown into the fire’”.

However don’t let that fool you into thinking this is not a serious work of scholarly history. The 300+ cited works listed at the end should be evidence enough of Bauer’s dedication to accuracy and thoroughness. Her achievement here is remarkable.

#7

The History of the Medieval World

Susan Wise Bauer — From the conversion of Constantine to the first crusade

Bauer in these books doesn’t offer much interpretation, choosing to piece together the what and allowing the reader to make sense of the why. While some may find the endless stream of royalty and relatives, generals and usurpers tiring, it offers, in my view, a more accurate depiction of history. In The History of the Medieval World, Bauer allows us to judge the deeds of Constantine, El Cid and Charlemagne in the context of their time, before being mythified in our collective imagination.

#8

The History of the Renaissance World

Susan Wise Bauer — From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople

Susan Wise Bauer complete’s her History of the World with this book, an account of events that occurred between 1100 and 1453 where “new currencies are forged, new weapons invented, and world changing catastrophes alter the landscape”.

Bauer’s trilogy numbers over 2000 pages, and one would be forgiven for thinking that such a trek through such a large swathe of history would be exhausting. Thankfully, the short, sharp chapters (similar in style to Gombrich’s A Little History) helps keep the narrative accessible and enjoyable.

Part of me was sad when I reached the end of The History of the Renaissance World and the series as a whole. Bauer’s unflinching record of the first 5000 years of human society has facilitated what would have been an otherwise daunting task, and the temptation is to want her to continue to modern day. Nonetheless, as the world becomes more diverse, typified by the discovery of a whole new continent in 1492, it was clear global histories could only take me so far.

#9

Conquerors

Roger Crowley — How Portugal forged the first Global Empire

By the ninth book, I had my fill of vast, global histories and wanted to make a step change. I desired to be inside the heads and hearts of some of the real people experiencing history on the ground. Crowley’s Conquerors does just that.

Documenting Portugal’s miraculous rise as a global empire through the discovery of a sea route to India, there is nothing more titillating to the human spirit than a wildly ambitious adventure into unknown seas.

Even though it was Vasco de Gama who first laid Portuguese eyes on Indian shores in 1498, it is in fact Alfonso de Albuquerque, captain the fifth voyage to the east, who is brought to life in these pages. Crowley credits Albequerque with a series of extraordinary events that “shook and shaped” the world. After reading the book, you can understand why.

Alfonso is given a near impossible task: to build a profitable trade network with a foreign people in a hostile environment thousands of miles from home and with no secure territory beyond the worm-eaten decks of his ships.

Albuquerque is a polarising figure. At times you hate him: for his treatment of the local population, his destructive single-minded obsessions, and disregard for human life. At other times Albuquerque demonstrates supreme leadership in the face of overpowering hardship. You cannot help but start rooting for the guy.

In the end, Conquerors portrays this long-forgotten commander as “incorruptible and loyal” to a fault, shouldering the impossible expectations of an empire and miraculously succeeding. Alfonso de Albuquerque vaulted a small, marginalised country onto the global stage, and connected the hemispheres of east and west irrevocably.

#10

Conquest

Hugh Thomas — Montezuma, Cortez, and the fall of old Mexico

There are moments in history when the future rests on the actions of a small number of people in a select period of time. Where the fate of the world pivots on its axis like a weather vane in a gale. In Hernan Cortez’s case, the wind was not blowing in his favour.

Indeed, Conquest documents one of the most remarkable and unlikely series of events ever to be committed to history. It is also remembered as one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. In it, Hugh Thomas tells of the voyage of ~500 Spanish soldiers led by Hernan Cotrez as they journeyed into the heart of South America’s dominating native empire: the Mexica (remembered today as the Aztecs).

The Mexica were not a primitive people. In fact their capital city of Tenochtitlan, located in present-day Mexico City, was bigger in population than almost any European city of the time. The Mexica boasted a fully functioning mercantile economy, universal education, an organised military, system of law, yearly schedule of religious festivals, art and poetry. Upon entering the city for the first time, Cortez’s men were in “awe”.

This vision of a long-lost civilisation developed in complete isolation from the known world helps underscore the calamitous events that follow. Conquest is a true tale that still remains stranger than fiction.

#11

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling

Ross King — Creation of the world’s greatest masterpiece

The books so far have done well to highlight some of humanity’s worst traits: violence, hedonism, and desire for power. This book is a celebration of some of its better ones: appreciation for art and commitment to craft.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is small in scope, covering the four years it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. This break away from burning and pillaging was a tranquil reprieve, although this does not reflect the mental state of Michelangelo himself, who spends the majority of the book in near constant torture.

Not just the physical torture of painting on a ceiling for months on end, but the mental torture that comes with attempting one of the most ambitious artistic endeavours of all time, on one of the world’s most important canvases, with little prior experience in the creative techniques involved.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling also offers indirect insight into the beating heart of the Renaissance era. I was surprised to learn Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael and many of the other ‘greatest hits’ co-existed together in the same place, at the same time. In fact one of the more dramatic scenes in the book tells of the painting competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, in which both were commissioned to paint opposing chapel walls in order to determine who was the better artist. While the project didn’t get past initial sketches, it is a clear example of a period that often drifts into the realm of fan fiction.

This book was a wonderful hiatus, and served as a reminder that not all history is war and conquest.

#12

A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation

Nick Page — Commemorating 500 years of popes, protestants, reformers, radicals and other assorted irritants

As I was progressing through my history reading project, there was one topic that loomed bigger than any other: the reformation. I knew it was an important event that couldn’t be avoided, but I was also intimidated by its scale, complexity, and relation to ideas of religion and belief.

In his book, Nick Page cuts through this theological academia with an approachable humour and sarcasm that makes understanding the reformation’s impact not just easy, but fun! For example, throughout the book each reformer is treated to their own ‘Top Reformers’ card, in which they are rated by Influence and Theological Importance, as well as Facial Hair and Hat Quality.

But jokes aside, Nick Page is a master storyteller. His carefully placed humour is not just used to entertain, but also captures the imperceptible change of culture in a way only satire can.

The echos of the reformation are clearly heard in the books that follow, and A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation does a wonderful job of detailing why it was one of the most significant shifts in human society ever.

#13

New World Inc.

John Butman & Simon Targett — The story of the British Empire’s most successful start-up

Before they were trawling Silicon Valley for the next Uber, angel investors were mingling with the British aristocracy spying the next transatlantic voyage most likely to return a rich bounty from the new world. At least, that’s the mid-sixteenth century Britain depicted in New World Inc.

In this book, Butman and Targett detail the host of voyages that set off from British shores in search for profits, often to return with nothing, if they returned at all.

Rather than focussing on the voyages themselves, New World Inc. looks at the mechanisms that enabled their embarkment. This includes the founding of some of Britain’s first companies, including one you may have heard of: the East India Company. It’s within these sprouting organisations that the machine of business gets its start, featuring early versions of joint-stocks, dividend payments and hostile takeovers.

The book runs up to the landing of the first American pilgrims in the Mayflower, and is a prelude to the more glamourised events that follow. In that sense, New World Inc. feels less consequential than the other books on this list. Nonetheless, it provides context to the founding of America, a topic I hope to explore more deeply soon.

#14

Religion and the Decline of Magic

Keith Thomas — Studies of popular belief in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England

Authors of popular history often concern themselves with the main events: discoveries and dictatorships, the Henry VIIIs and Alexander the Greats. As readers we enjoy watching the drama unfold on the global theatre. But what about life beyond the spotlight? 

In the murky darkness exists an ever-present silent majority. We learn about the monarch, but we rarely get to know their subjects. What was it like to be a Roman or Victorian? Not just how they washed their clothes or what they learned at school, but more importantly, what was their view of the world and their place in it?

Trying to reconstruct the beliefs of a long-gone society is a daunting task, and it’s no wonder why writers often choose to elevate themselves above the humdrum of daily life with dramatic tales of heroes and villains.

By comparison, Keith Thomas is not afraid to roll around in the muddy peasantry. In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas attempts to construct the changing belief systems of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. It’s a thankless task. And frankly reading his book is a little thankless too.

This isn’t an insult to Thomas’ work. In fact Religion and the Decline of Magic is a monumental achievement. Some back-of-the-napkin math reveals there are around 2400 citations within its pages. That’s an average of 3 citations per page.

The reason is the author is working with raw data. Testimony from legal proceedings, medical notes by physicians, sermons of priests. Religion and the Decline of Magic attempts to connect a vast collection of tiny data points to build a picture of systemic belief in flux. It’s dense and messy, because humans are messy.

People believed one’s future could be determined by the size of their skull. That the monarch possessed healing powers. That the position of the moon influenced fluid in the brain. That amulets could reveal lost treasure.

It’s easy to look back at these beliefs from the perspective of modern times and assume people were just dumb. However Religion and the Decline of Magic posits that these beliefs didn’t prosper from pure ignorance. They served a social function, helping right the balance between the powerful and powerless.

What was the social function of witches, often depicted as widowed, crippled women? Well when a wealthy family were visited by one they would feel obliged to give money for fear of being cursed otherwise. Why were sorcerers hired to identify a thief through mystical ritual? Because there wasn’t a social system of justice in which to otherwise turn to.

What’s crazy is that it worked. People gave money to the poor and thieves succumbed to the pressure of mystical examination. Even more radically the book suggests magic ‘may have provided as effective a therapy for diseases of the mind as anything available today’.

It’s clear that we need academics like Keith Thomas. It’s fun watching the spectacle happening on centre stage, but every now and then it’s healthy to examine the writhing fabric that underlies it all.

#15

The History of Western Philosophy

Bertrand Russell — In progress

+

A Little History of the World


E.H Gombrich — A grandfatherly stroll through world history

When I started this project, history felt like a painting of infinite scale and detail that mocked any attempt at being understood. Before I could begin, I wanted to first find a way to make history more accessible and attainable; to light the way ahead.I found no better source of light than Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. In this book, Gombrich attempts to take history’s boundless painting and turn it into a simple child’s drawing able to be understood and appreciated by anyone. 

I have no doubt seasoned historians revile this book for its whimsical jaunt through time. Yet what this book lacks in academic rigour (it doesn’t even have a bibliography, the horror!) it makes up for in delightful prose. Originally aimed to be read by children, Gombrich is compassionate and lively, and his grandfatherly tone can be heard in every word. 

This book does an excellent job of reframing the reader’s sense of history, from one of an endless string of dates and names, to a collection of compelling stories that tell of our collective past. It serves as a canvas in which to place more in-depth explorations.

+

Origins


Neil deGrasse Tyson & Donald Goldsmith — Fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution

The big bang is the earliest known beginning, and the obvious starting place for this project. It has the seductive allure of being without a before, and I naively thought that this would make it easier to learn about. It turns out, the big bang is actually pretty complicated, not helped by emerging science around quantum physics and dark matter.

In Origins, Tyson and Goldsmith do not shy away from topics like cosmic background radiation, neutrinos and multi-verses, but it’s not what I was looking for as the first stop in my bibliographic journey.

Thankfully I persisted, and Origins progresses into more tangible territory, discussing the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. It’s here that I got sucked into the grand narrative of the universe, and learned how new elements are made (inside stars) and how they were dispersed across the universe (when those stars explode). The book finishes with a short chapter on the emergence of life on earth and speculates on the prospect of life beyond our planet.

After a rocky beginning, Origins lives up to expectations, and places our world in the context of billions of years of cosmic evolution.

+

Life


Richard Fortey — A natural history of four billion years of life on Earth

Of all the books I have read so far, none complement each other quite so well as Tyson’s Origins and Fortey’s Life. Fortey gracefully accepts the baton passed down by Tyson and Goldsmith, and masterfully details the various stages of emerging life across the four and a half billion years of Earth’s history.

Life can at times be dense, and you quickly lose track of the various species that come and go as the millenniums pass. However Fortey also appreciates a good story, and isn’t afraid to draw on personal anecdotes to liven up the narrative.

It’s clear the author has an overflowing passion for natural history. Visions of shifting continents and earliest organisms “basking in the shallow seas in the late Pre-cambrian sun” paint an other-worldly portrait of Earth in its youth. It’s sometimes hard to recognise it as the same planet.

+

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs


Steve Brusatte — A new history of a lost world

While the aforementioned Life featured dinosaurs in its sweeping natural history, I thought it would be remiss to not at least read one dedicated book on the impressive beasts that ruled Earth before us (and continue to rule the imaginations of young children everywhere).

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs gives an excellent, up-to-date account on our current understanding of the dinosaurs. Brusatte is clearly a pioneer in his field, and he successfully incorporates his personal journey to give it the book a human touch.

In saying that, I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by all the this-osaurs and that-osaurs throughout; it was a relief to stumble across a triceratops or a diplodocus.

While I appreciated the detail and rigour that Brusatte delivers in a short 350 pages, I couldn’t help but feel somehow disengaged once the novelty of the subject matter wore off. This is evidenced by not one dog-eared highlight throughout the book. I don’t think this is a reflection of Brusatte’s writing, but perhaps my preference for dinosaurs to remain in the world of my imagination rather than on the archaeologist’s table.

+

Guns, Germs & Steel


Jared Diamond — The fates of human societies

Out of all the books in this series, it’s this one that comes up most often in conversation. I knew I needed something that bridged the gap between the big vision of Earth’s natural history in Fortey’s Life and the nitty gritty of the first emerging human civilisations in the books to follow. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel served that purpose, and more.

The book begins by asking a simple question: “Why were Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up with guns, the nastiest germs and steel?”. I.e., why did some parts of the world develop faster than others?

Diamond presents a series of well-reasoned and expertly evidenced responses that transformed my understanding of how and why technological progress occurs. A fascinating read that, above any other book on this list, is one everyone should pick up.

+

The History of the Ancient World


Susan Wise Bauer — From the earliest accounts to the fall of Rome

I could not have asked for a better guide through the next chapter of history than Susan Wise Bauer in The History of the Ancient World and her subsequent books.

In this book Bauer makes it clear that classical societies like the Egyptians, Romans or Greeks didn’t just *pop* into existence. Civilisation, as it turns out, is rife with growing pains. 

Across 800 expertly detailed pages, readers witness the unstable evolution of human society, exploding into life one minute (often through the will of a ruthless dictator) only to disintegrate the next. It’s a dizzying cycle of birth, decay, death and rebirth.

It would have been easy to get lost in the monotony of dictators, wars and political takeovers. Yet the author also gives time to levity, taking a moment here and there to indulge in a humorous anecdote. One of my favourites is regarding one of Hammurabi’s laws which stated “if a man goes to fight a fire at his neighbour’s house and pinches any of his neighbour’s goods under cover of smoke, he ‘shall be thrown into the fire’”.

However don’t let that fool you into thinking this is not a serious work of scholarly history. The 300+ cited works listed at the end should be evidence enough of Bauer’s dedication to accuracy and thoroughness. Her achievement here is remarkable.

+

The History of the Medieval World


Susan Wise Bauer — From the conversion of Constantine to the first crusade

Bauer in these books doesn’t offer much interpretation, choosing to piece together the what and allowing the reader to make sense of the why. While some may find the endless stream of royalty and relatives, generals and usurpers tiring, it offers, in my view, a more accurate depiction of history. In The History of the Medieval World, Bauer allows us to judge the deeds of Constantine, El Cid and Charlemagne in the context of their time, before being mythified in our collective imagination.

+

The History of the Renaissance World


Susan Wise Bauer — From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople

Susan Wise Bauer complete’s her History of the World with this book, an account of events that occurred between 1100 and 1453 where “new currencies are forged, new weapons invented, and world changing catastrophes alter the landscape”.

Bauer’s trilogy numbers over 2000 pages, and one would be forgiven for thinking that such a trek through such a large swathe of history would be exhausting. Thankfully, the short, sharp chapters (similar in style to Gombrich’s A Little History) helps keep the narrative accessible and enjoyable.

Part of me was sad when I reached the end of The History of the Renaissance World and the series as a whole. Bauer’s unflinching record of the first 5000 years of human society has facilitated what would have been an otherwise daunting task, and the temptation is to want her to continue to modern day. Nonetheless, as the world becomes more diverse, typified by the discovery of a whole new continent in 1492, it was clear global histories could only take me so far.

+

Conquerors


Roger Crowley — How Portugal forged the first Global Empire

By the ninth book, I had my fill of vast, global histories and wanted to make a step change. I desired to be inside the heads and hearts of some of the real people experiencing history on the ground. Crowley’s Conquerors does just that.

Documenting Portugal’s miraculous rise as a global empire through the discovery of a sea route to India, there is nothing more titillating to the human spirit than a wildly ambitious adventure into unknown seas.

Even though it was Vasco de Gama who first laid Portuguese eyes on Indian shores in 1498, it is in fact Alfonso de Albuquerque, captain the fifth voyage to the east, who is brought to life in these pages. Crowley credits Albequerque with a series of extraordinary events that “shook and shaped” the world. After reading the book, you can understand why.

Alfonso is given a near impossible task: to build a profitable trade network with a foreign people in a hostile environment thousands of miles from home and with no secure territory beyond the worm-eaten decks of his ships.

Albuquerque is a polarising figure. At times you hate him: for his treatment of the local population, his destructive single-minded obsessions, and disregard for human life. At other times Albuquerque demonstrates supreme leadership in the face of overpowering hardship. You cannot help but start rooting for the guy.

In the end, Conquerors portrays this long-forgotten commander as “incorruptible and loyal” to a fault, shouldering the impossible expectations of an empire and miraculously succeeding. Alfonso de Albuquerque vaulted a small, marginalised country onto the global stage, and connected the hemispheres of east and west irrevocably.

+

Conquest


Hugh Thomas — Montezuma, Cortez, and the fall of old Mexico

There are moments in history when the future rests on the actions of a small number of people in a select period of time. Where the fate of the world pivots on its axis like a weather vane in a gale. In Hernan Cortez’s case, the wind was not blowing in his favour.

Indeed, Conquest documents one of the most remarkable and unlikely series of events ever to be committed to history. It is also remembered as one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. In it, Hugh Thomas tells of the voyage of ~500 Spanish soldiers led by Hernan Cotrez as they journeyed into the heart of South America’s dominating native empire: the Mexica (remembered today as the Aztecs).

The Mexica were not a primitive people. In fact their capital city of Tenochtitlan, located in present-day Mexico City, was bigger in population than almost any European city of the time. The Mexica boasted a fully functioning mercantile economy, universal education, an organised military, system of law, yearly schedule of religious festivals, art and poetry. Upon entering the city for the first time, Cortez’s men were in “awe”.

This vision of a long-lost civilisation developed in complete isolation from the known world helps underscore the calamitous events that follow. Conquest is a true tale that still remains stranger than fiction.

+

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling


Ross King — Creation of the world’s greatest masterpiece

The books so far have done well to highlight some of humanity’s worst traits: violence, hedonism, and desire for power. This book is a celebration of some of its better ones: appreciation for art and commitment to craft.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is small in scope, covering the four years it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. This break away from burning and pillaging was a tranquil reprieve, although this does not reflect the mental state of Michelangelo himself, who spends the majority of the book in near constant torture.

Not just the physical torture of painting on a ceiling for months on end, but the mental torture that comes with attempting one of the most ambitious artistic endeavours of all time, on one of the world’s most important canvases, with little prior experience in the creative techniques involved.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling also offers indirect insight into the beating heart of the Renaissance era. I was surprised to learn Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael and many of the other ‘greatest hits’ co-existed together in the same place, at the same time. In fact one of the more dramatic scenes in the book tells of the painting competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, in which both were commissioned to paint opposing chapel walls in order to determine who was the better artist. While the project didn’t get past initial sketches, it is a clear example of a period that often drifts into the realm of fan fiction.

This book was a wonderful hiatus, and served as a reminder that not all history is war and conquest.

+

A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation


Nick Page — Commemorating 500 years of popes, protestants, reformers, radicals and other assorted irritants

As I was progressing through my history reading project, there was one topic that loomed bigger than any other: the reformation. I knew it was an important event that couldn’t be avoided, but I was also intimidated by its scale, complexity, and relation to ideas of religion and belief.

In his book, Nick Page cuts through this theological academia with an approachable humour and sarcasm that makes understanding the reformation’s impact not just easy, but fun! For example, throughout the book each reformer is treated to their own ‘Top Reformers’ card, in which they are rated by Influence and Theological Importance, as well as Facial Hair and Hat Quality.

But jokes aside, Nick Page is a master storyteller. His carefully placed humour is not just used to entertain, but also captures the imperceptible change of culture in a way only satire can.

The echos of the reformation are clearly heard in the books that follow, and A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation does a wonderful job of detailing why it was one of the most significant shifts in human society ever.

+

New World Inc.


John Butman & Simon Targett — The story of the British Empire’s most successful start-up

Before they were trawling Silicon Valley for the next Uber, angel investors were mingling with the British aristocracy spying the next transatlantic voyage most likely to return a rich bounty from the new world. At least, that’s the mid-sixteenth century Britain depicted in New World Inc.

In this book, Butman and Targett detail the host of voyages that set off from British shores in search for profits, often to return with nothing, if they returned at all.

Rather than focussing on the voyages themselves, New World Inc. looks at the mechanisms that enabled their embarkment. This includes the founding of some of Britain’s first companies, including one you may have heard of: the East India Company. It’s within these sprouting organisations that the machine of business gets its start, featuring early versions of joint-stocks, dividend payments and hostile takeovers.

The book runs up to the landing of the first American pilgrims in the Mayflower, and is a prelude to the more glamourised events that follow. In that sense, New World Inc. feels less consequential than the other books on this list. Nonetheless, it provides context to the founding of America, a topic I hope to explore more deeply soon.

+

Religion and the Decline of Magic


Keith Thomas — Studies of popular belief in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England

Authors of popular history often concern themselves with the main events: discoveries and dictatorships, the Henry VIIIs and Alexander the Greats. As readers we enjoy watching the drama unfold on the global theatre. But what about life beyond the spotlight? 

In the murky darkness exists an ever-present silent majority. We learn about the monarch, but we rarely get to know their subjects. What was it like to be a Roman or Victorian? Not just how they washed their clothes or what they learned at school, but more importantly, what was their view of the world and their place in it?

Trying to reconstruct the beliefs of a long-gone society is a daunting task, and it’s no wonder why writers often choose to elevate themselves above the humdrum of daily life with dramatic tales of heroes and villains.

By comparison, Keith Thomas is not afraid to roll around in the muddy peasantry. In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Thomas attempts to construct the changing belief systems of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. It’s a thankless task. And frankly reading his book is a little thankless too.

This isn’t an insult to Thomas’ work. In fact Religion and the Decline of Magic is a monumental achievement. Some back-of-the-napkin math reveals there are around 2400 citations within its pages. That’s an average of 3 citations per page.

The reason is the author is working with raw data. Testimony from legal proceedings, medical notes by physicians, sermons of priests. Religion and the Decline of Magic attempts to connect a vast collection of tiny data points to build a picture of systemic belief in flux. It’s dense and messy, because humans are messy.

People believed one’s future could be determined by the size of their skull. That the monarch possessed healing powers. That the position of the moon influenced fluid in the brain. That amulets could reveal lost treasure.

It’s easy to look back at these beliefs from the perspective of modern times and assume people were just dumb. However Religion and the Decline of Magic posits that these beliefs didn’t prosper from pure ignorance. They served a social function, helping right the balance between the powerful and powerless.

What was the social function of witches, often depicted as widowed, crippled women? Well when a wealthy family were visited by one they would feel obliged to give money for fear of being cursed otherwise. Why were sorcerers hired to identify a thief through mystical ritual? Because there wasn’t a social system of justice in which to otherwise turn to.

What’s crazy is that it worked. People gave money to the poor and thieves succumbed to the pressure of mystical examination. Even more radically the book suggests magic ‘may have provided as effective a therapy for diseases of the mind as anything available today’.

It’s clear that we need academics like Keith Thomas. It’s fun watching the spectacle happening on centre stage, but every now and then it’s healthy to examine the writhing fabric that underlies it all.

History of Western Philosophy


Bertrand Russell — In progress