Tom Standage

Tom Standage has a knack for making history accessible, richly told, and keenly pertinent to our time.  His bestseller A History of the World in Six Glasses (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola) quenched our thirst for compelling narrative, in describing how a sextet of beverages embodied progress and prosperity among societies.  Now he returns with Writing on the Wall, a history of social media which reveals our webs of communiqué to in fact be anything but modern, spanning from ancient Rome right up through the Arab Spring, to illustrate how discourse and missives of shared information among friends has been changing our hive mind for thousands of years.  This week, Standage picks five of his favorite history books in different fields, providing the sort of rich tapestry of reading for which he is revered.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Jared Diamond

“This sweeping, multidisciplinary work presents an intriguing theory, based on biology and geography, about why Western Europe and its offshoots became so dominant in world history. Even if you aren’t convinced by all of its arguments, it’s a fascinating prism through which to look at world history.”

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

By David S. Landes

“Another world history, this time from the perspective of economic development, taking aim at the same target as Diamond’s book: why are the rich so rich and the poor so poor? What I love about these sweeping ‘megahistories’ is that there’s no single right way to look at world history. All we can do is slice it along different axes, as these books do.”

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind

By Roy Porter

“Rather than a world history, this is a history of medicine. But the polymathic Porter cannot help but relate medicine to all sorts of other fields, in the process revealing its role in shaping history. The use of lemons by British sailors, for example, banished scurvy and helped defeat Napoleon.”

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

By Nicholas Ostler

“The best thing about this epic history of the world’s languages, which is rather like a group biography or the story of a few powerful families, is the way Ostler finds unexpected parallels across space and time, subverting his own chronological structure. And, of course, it’s fascinating to see the links between language and culture play out over the ages.”

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC

By Steven Mithen

“An engaging tour of the world from the peak of the Ice Age to the dawn of civilization, this book is based on a daring narrative conceit: we follow an imaginary modern traveler across the landscapes of the distant past. This allows Mithen to escape from high-level generalities and zoom in on practical details about the changing nature of human life.”