I want to be a History Buff.
A real junkie.
I would like to have a map of all major events, personalities, and timelines in my head. So that as soon as someone mentions anything in the past (recent or ancient), I can immediately orient it in time and place.
This way, in a dialogue, I’ll have a complete perspective to truly understand the person’s point of view and contribute meaningfully.
But I just don’t seem to have the grit to pour through encyclopedic volumes of meaningless dates & disjointed facts.
And even when I do steel myself and go through a soulless history book, I may learn something. But …. I never seem to recall the event or the lesson.
With the books and videos listed below, studying History feels like cheating. History’s supposed to be boring, painful. Yet with the resources I am sharing today…you’re *gasp* having fun. Learning loads. Something you thought you’d left behind in your yesteryear!
I started this book just a couple of days ago. And oh my gosh, this is The History Book that I’ve been searching high and low for. The book that inspired this blog post.
A history book that has sold over half a million copies, does indeed deserve a deeper look. Though written in 1935, this book is still a treasure of historical writing.
It begins with the Pre-Historic times (explains what pre-historic means anyway) and goes up to the 1930s. Sure, there may be several other History books that cover the same breadth of eras. However, I doubt if any can come close to the narrative spin by E H Gombrich.
It captures your attention squarely with its opening words…”Once upon a time,”. Gombrich weaves a tale of Pre-historic man, the Egyptians, Persians, Sumerians, and Greeks.
Their art, their philosophy, their sport, their religion, their wars, conquests, their triumphs and their defeats – everything comes to life in vivid detail, with a strong twist of storytelling. Best of all the book also touches on what remains of these great civilizations today and how deeply we have been influenced by them.
Although aimed at young readers and children, the book is hardly childish. It’s a classic that young readers would be very comfortable turning the pages of, as would their “adult” peers.
My greatest takeaway from reading this work is I have finally been able to put together a mental-framework of all the events in the world.
I can finally place all the names that I’ve heard ( Pharaoh, Moses, Cyrus, Xerxes, Alexander, Aristotle, Buddha, Jesus) on a single timeline. Who influenced whom by how much and when.
This is the book to be prescribed for History in schools. Also a must-have book for every home library. (Needless to say, there will be a copy of this at ILM Montessori and students will be encouraged to explore it.)
I am only so far into the book and will probably have a lot more to share once I am done. But I had to stop and write this post as I proceed.
The book is written by a scholar but is not pedantic. The idea is not to provide a deep analysis of any situation, but purely to tie all the events in a single narrative that you are not likely to forget.
If you happen to step into my office and you look left, you’ll see up on the wall a Timeline of History. The complete record from prehistoric times to 2000. What’s cool is it shows parallel streams of history across different geographies.
Now I’ve had this timeline up for years. And sure I would glance at it once or twice, but that’s the extent of my immersiveness. However, after coming across Gombrich’s work above, this Timeline has literally come alive. It completes the picture in a way that text can never do.
As well as point out the gaps that Gombrich chose to miss out.
Furthermore, this timeline is a bit of a checklist. Because now when I dive deep into a particular aspect of history, either out of interest or by chance, I go ahead and put a checkmark against that event on this timeline.
A neat little history of my love affair with global histories.
An amazing documentary series!
What makes it unique is that it’s not just about inventors and inventions, but these inventions are placed along Timelines. Each episode covers the most significant inventions of a particular decade.
Check this out:
1900’s: We see the invention of the Radio, Vaccuum Cleaner, and the Airplane
1910’s: This decade sees the birth of the Toaster, the parachute (invented by a coal-miner!)
1920’s: Sound comes to theatres, the lie-detector is invented, and the Space Age is launched by the discovery of Rocket fuel
All the way till 1990’s: There’s a new telescope called The Hubble, the Camera Phone takes the world by storm, and the Pathfinder lands on Mars
The breakdown and context adds to the mental-framework I now have in place to properly account for significant events.
Each invention is dramatized so well that one feels the pain of the inventor’s challenges. And oh, the ecstasy of the breakthrough.
Their pure unrelenting grit, and the dogged persistence to put into form a vision that only they can see. Even in the face of ridicule and apathy. Leaves you inspired with a longing to emulate.
The most memorable inventions I’ve watched so far:
The Vacuum Cleaner
James Murray Spangler had a job as a carpet duster. He would take carpets of a department store to a basement and whack the dust out of them. But he suffered from Asthma. Watch how he dissembles a common three bladed ceiling fan to make the first iteration of the vacuum cleaner. (A Macguyver moment, for sure!)
The Lie Detector
A humane police officer can’t bear to see his peers thrashing suspects to get a confession. So he uses his medical training to experiment with an idea. Can one measure involuntary bodily fluctuations to track the verity of an individual’s claims? Turns out it is possible!
Inspired by the radio, John Logie Baird, uses common household items a Bike light lamp, a hat box, knitting needles and a biscuit tin to construct the first working model of a television! (Yet Another Macguyver.)
There are so many others, from the discovery of the disposable razor by King Gillette to the rocket by (so and so). Each saga is equal parts fascinating and inspiring!
If this is a genre that interests you, another documentary worth watching is: Breakthrough: the Ideas that Changed the World
The series goes through history once again but focuses on one idea (flight or communication) and how that evolved over decades and generations.
If ever I was in the habit of putting Coffee table books, this is the one I’d put at my home, office and school.
To say that this work is an undertaking of epic proportions is an understatement. It provides time lines from pre-history (before 3,000 BCE) to what it calls the “modern world” (1914 and after).
It’s jam-packed with surprising facts and amazing details, such as the most bloodthirsty pirate of all time and the first crime to be solved by studying fingerprints.
Timelines of Everything takes you on a whirlwind journey through an illustrated history of time, from the Big Bang to the Instagram.
Of course, this is not a book to consume from end to end. But just flip the pages and marvel at the stunning layout while being drawn in to the story that each page has to offer.
Each timeline is a work of art on it’s own. Take a look at a few pages below to see what I mean.
All the above resources have a focus on ancient history. If you prefer a deep dive into more recent events (i.e events during your parents or grandparents time), then this is the series to watch.
From an Amazon reviewer, that I completely concur with:
“This fabulous DVD series, originally run by the BBC, sets out to educate us all about pivotal points and events in human history. I must say that it does a marvelous job! Through dramatic and realistically accurate reconstructions, we get to relive these all important life changing events.”
In programmes consisting of one hour segments, the programme makers document two related moments in history. For example, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the second, the present reigning monarch, is paired up against the death of Princess Diana.
There are episodes featuring the Pan Am flight 103 Lockerbie disaster, the creation of the atomic bomb, Chernobyl, the battle of Midway, Pearl Harbour, the moon landings, the Hindenburg Disaster, the first recorded flight by the Wright Brothers, Marconi’s attempts at sending the first transatlantic signal, Hiroshima, the audacious theft of the crown jewels (beating Moriarty in Sherlock by a good few years!), and the assassination of Martin Luther King, to name but a few.
Through compelling narration, you get to learn all sorts of fascinating things. If you want to learn more history, but not read the books, get yourself a set.”
It’s a series that I started several years ago, and which I still revisit now and then.
What a book!
While the masterpieces discussed so far are mostly about Western History, they are oblivious to a parallel timeline and events that have impacted the world equally indelibly.
In Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary tells the rich story of world history from a new perspective – the evolution of the Muslim community.
His story moves from the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) through a succession of far-flung empires, to the tangle of modern conflicts that culminates in the events of 9/11.
He introduces the key people, events, ideas, legends, religious disputes, and turning points of world history, imparting not only what happened but how it is understood from the Muslim perspective.
With masterful storytelling prowess and dashes of delightful humor, Ansary weaves a tale that has you turning pages till your fingers go numb. A fascinating take on the world narrative usually heard in the West.
This is a book that I’ve not read yet, but felt necessary to include for the completion of my list.
Written by Pulitzer winning authors, the Durants, it addresses the question that perhaps every Student asks his History teacher, “So What?”
Well, the So What is this…
In 128 pages the Durants have compiled the Lessons that they’ve learnt from History on:
– Wealth inequality. Which they argue is a natural and inevitable consequence of the “concentration of ability” within a minority of a society.
– Socialism, which strives to counteract the forces that drive wealth inequality.
– The various forms of government and the special circumstances that enabled democracy to take root and flourish in the American colonies.
Just to name a few …..
Lessons of History, is a wonderfully written study of how we got to where we are today.
Sure, the future and what SpaceX is up to can be more alluring. However, it’s by learning how the wheel was invented and perhaps even reinventing it, that has catapulted us here.
If you don’t know History, then you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.Michael Crichton
Are there any resources you would like to add to this list? Let us know in the comments and share your experience of trysting with history.