Table of Contents

1. What is History?

Humans are obligate modelers and communicators (see creation_myth). One of the most difficult-to-model and difficult-to-communicate phenomena is human behavior. In a well-honed science, we would use field trials and lab experiments to test hypotheses generated from natural history observations. For human behavior we often cannot (and should not) arrange these tests ("Let's bomb another city and see if the survivors react the same way").

We depend instead on examination of past events. This requires access to the raw data (e.g., original source writings, archaeological digs, and tree-ring analyses), and it requires intellectual integrity to address inconvenient facts.

Unfortunately, intellectual rigor gets in the way of a good story. Therefore our best approach (so far) is to maintain a rigorous academic tradition of factual investigation, and then let story tellers use these facts in mnemonically effective ways. It is a judgment call as to whether or not the author has fairly selected and represented the facts.

In my experience, there are several useful forms of history. Taken independently, they can convey a false impression. Taken together, they give a fair reading of the factual events, the motivations, and the larger implications.

  1. Archaeological and anthropological investigations. Any history must account for these facts. Of course archaeology can get things wrong (e.g., disturbed sites and mistaken carbon dating), as can anthropology (misunderstood myths and customs), but they are orders of magnitude more repeatable than traditional histories.

  2. "Nonhistorical" written materials. The assumption is that there is less incentive to bend the written record to match preconceived views. Thus a laundry list is more trustworthy than a formal report that the locals cheered when new taxes were announced.

  3. First person accounts, or as near as we can get. Here the reporter was a participant or has spoken to participants. A reporter may get the facts wrong out of ignorance, and of course be suspected of bending the presentation even when the facts are known. It is usually necessary to get reports from many people, especially people with different perspectives.

  4. The classic one-volume treatise on a given subject. There is a good reason these are classics. The author knows the material, has earned a reputation for presenting it fairly, and is a darn good story teller.

  5. The rebuttal to the classic. The classic is almost sure to ignore or downplay some events and/or motives. An author with another perspective can fill in the gaps. It is imperative to find and use these materials to gain perspective.

2. Famous Historians

Some historians and their texts are famous in themselves, irrespective of current scholarly value.

2.1. Herodotus

Herodotus. "The Histories", trans by Aubrey De Selincourt. Penguin Classics, 1954.

Herodotus is known as the inventor of history as a conscientious effort to collect and understand data on past events. He traveled and interviewed widely. It reads fresh and thoughtful today.

Background and causes of the Greek vs Persian wars.

2.2. Thucydides

Thucydides. "The Peloponnesian Wars", trans by Benjamin Jowett. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1963. Orig puslbished 400 BC.

Greek civil war, Athens vs Sparta and the destruction of the golden age.

2.3. Aristotle (2007-09-28)

Aristotle. "The Athenian Constitution". Penguin Classics, 1984.

Probably done by a student, under guidance by Aristotle. History of the Athenian Constitution through its various forms. Most of the insights are relevant today, e.g. the shift from Solon's laws into tyranny:

Pisistratus seemed most inclined to democracy, and won high distinction in the war against Megara. He wounded himself, and persuaded the people that this was done by his opponents and he should be given a bodyguard; the proposal was made by Ariston. Pisistratus took the men called club-bearers, and with their aid rose against the people and seized the Acropolis, in the thrity-second year after the enactment of the laws, the archonship of Comeas.

It is said that when he asked for a bodyguard Solon spoke against it, and claimed to be wiser than some and braver than others -- that is, wiser than those who failed to realize that Pisistratus was aiming at tyranny, and braver than those who realized but kept quiet about it. When what he said failed to persuade the Athenians, he displayed his arms in front of his door, and said that he had helped his country as far as he could (by then he was a very old man) and called on the others to do likewise. [pg 56]

2.4. Polybius

Polybius. (histories), trans by Mortimer Chambers. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1966.

Written c. 100BC, about Philip of Macedon in c. 300 BC.

2.5. Tacitus

Tacitus. "The Annals", trans by Donald R. Dudley. Mentor Books, 1966.

With his Agricola and Histories, covers Roman events 14 AD - 96 AD.

His style (in Latin) is crisp to the point of being terse -- thus "taciturn".

2.6. Procopius

Procopius. "History of Wars. Buildings. Secret History", trans by Averil Cameron. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1967.

The story of Justinian, c. 550 AD. Beginning of Byzantine history.

2.7. Eusebius

Eusebius. "The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine",trans by G. A. Williamson. Penguin, 1965.

2.8. Bede

Bede. "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People", ed by James Campbell. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1968.

History of the church in England; heavy on miracles.

2.9. Gibbon

Edward Gibbon. "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", ed and abridged by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1963.

I've also read the unabridged and I'd say this abridgement is the better way to approach the work.

2.10. Macauley

Macauley. "The History of England", ed and abridged by Hugh Tevor-Roper. The Great Histories Series, Washington Square Press, 1968.

Well, it is certainly famous in English history. But you should read G. M. Trevelyan's History of England -- it is a better read. (The M. in G.M. is Macauley).

3. World History

There have been attempts (e.g., Columbia University), but I haven't met any which were good stories.

3.1. Guns, Germs, and Steel

Jared Diamond. "Guns, Germs, and Steel". W. W. Norton, 1997. ISBN 0-393-31755-2.

UCLA Geography professor spans all history, with the general theme "geography is destiny." I coudn't find reference to Montesquieu, who had the same insight a while back.

The material is interesting and at times informative, but not academically footnoted. More like a well-informed personal opinion piece. The writing is a bit rambling -- I had a sense it could have been edited down to 300 instead of 400 pages.

Still, it is worth the price for this section in Ch 14, "From Egaliarianism to Kleptocracy":

At best they [centrally governed, non-egalitarian societies] do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis. At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring wealth from commoners to upper class....

Kleptocrats throughout the ages have resorted to a mixture of four solutions:

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite....

2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways...

3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence....

4. ...construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy....

Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other importnat benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other -- by providing a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on the behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks. [pp 276-278]

3.2. Empires of the Word

Nicholas Ostler. "Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World". Harper Perennial, 2005. ISBN-10: 0-06-093572-3.

Linguist with broad experience, in a rebuttal to Nebrija "always language was the companion of empire, and followed it in such a way that jointly they began, grew, flourished; and afterwards joint was the fall of both" (Gramatica de la lengua cxastellana, 1492).

Ostler generally leaves the technical linguistics analyses in the footnotes and focuses on the historical events in the main text. Given that framework, the book is a solid intro to the history of major languages, based on the written record.

General findings on why languages grew outside their initial homelands:

  • Grow in place: Each generation learns its mother-tongue. Egyptian and Chinese in their expanding homelands.

  • Sweep-aside: Ignore the current inhabitants and just build up your own language community. English takeover of North America. Russian takeover of Siberia.

  • Conquer and absorb: Win militarily, and then invite locals to join in the full culture. Arabic/Islamic sweep across Middle East and North Africa.

  • Conquer and dominate: Completely control public culture. Use only the chosen language. Exterminate those who resist. E.g., Turkic languages in Middle East. Spanish in South America and English in North America. This leaves bitter enemies, who will try to reestablish their old culture-and-language given a chance.

  • Prestige: The language's culture is admired, so the language is used to access that. This is a pull from the local people, not a push from various conquerors. Sumerian poetry in Akkadian empire. Akkadian as lingua franca for distant communications for later empires. Greek in Roman empire. French in British and Russian empires. American English as vehicle for late 20th century business, entertainment, "pop culture".

Ostler finds that if the language doesn't have one of these drivers, the language's reign will be short-lived after regime change. Dutch in Indonesia. Japanese in Korea and Taiwan. Portugese in India.

He also sees impact of learnability: If the new language has the same structure as the old one, then it is easier to shift over. It is easier to replace an Indo-European langauge with another Indo-European language. He cites Basque as an example.

4. Europe and Near East

4.1. Readings in Ancient History

Nels M. Bailkey. "Readings in Ancient History. Thought and Experience from Gilgamesh to St. Augustine", 5th ed. D.C. Heath and Co, Lexington, 1996. ISBN 0-669-39766-0

This is a compendium of ancient writings from the Middle East and Europe. Any such compendium would probably do.

If you have the time, it is valuable to read the full text, not just these excepts. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh is essentially the story of a man of nature who is seduced and corrupted by civilization, and eventually dies cursing it. Interesting point of view, coming from 2700 B.C.

4.2. Europe: A History

Norman Davies. "Europe: A History". Oxford University Press, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-06-097468-0.

This is a gripping story, as well as solid factual material. I gave this to my father for Christmas when it came out. He returned it with copious highlights and margin notes. I then read it from both his and my perspectives. I in turn noted specific items.

Relevant to today (April 2004):

pp 604-605 "The science of economics...In Smith's hands it was a branch of speculative philosophy; and its greatest practitioners have recognized the frailty of their conclusions. In the popular mind, however, economics has greater pretensions. It has moved into the void left by decline of religion and the moral consensus; and it is seen increasingly as the main preoccupation of public policy. .... it threatens to become an end in itself".

pp 859-860 "'Many, too many, are born,' spake Nietzsche's Zarathustra, 'and their hang on their branches much too long.' In 'The Will to Power', Nietzshe called for a war by higher men on the masses...The great majority of men have no right to existence'."

Investor class, trickle down, welfare reform.

pp 945-948 (regarding identifying characteristics of totalitarianism). Read the list and draw your own conclusions.

pg 967 "In September 1930, in the interests of democracy, one minority Chancellor persuaded President Hindenburg to activate Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Henceforth, the german president could 'use armed forces to restore order and safety' and suspend 'the fundamental rights of the citizen.' It was an instrument which others could exploit to overthrow democracy."

Can you say "Patriot Act"?

pg 971 "The German armaments sector, which had been artificially constrained, could recover very quickly; Krupps turnover began to improve dramatically from 1933. But rearmament also healed Germany's wounded pride; and it won over the army, which in 1935-6 was able to reintroduce conscription.. Hitler had no precise plans for using his rearmed forces. But it was convenient to let people know that the gun under his coat was loaded."

Reagan post-peace-dividend buildup.

pg 1021 "In Copenhagen, where King Christian rode out into the streets in sympathy wearing as Star of David armband..."

I've seen this described as an urban myth, but I'm inclined to trust Norman Davies's rendition. At any rate, the message is to use the Bill of Rights. Attend meetings, speak out, use libraries, profess non-Christian religions, buy and learn to use guns, insist on due process when harassed by police, etc.

pp 1050-1051 "In Moscow, the trial of Polish underground leaders had taken place in June; public opinion in the West was not fully aware that the defendants in this case were neither fascists nor collaborators, but heroic allies whose only crime had been to fight for their country's independence. Western governments had preferred to press privately for lenient sentences rather than protest publicly."

pg 1059 "One study of American policy in 1945-6 has claimed that German prisoners held in Europe were administratively reclassified in order to bypass the Geneva Convention, and that a significant proportion may have died from neglect."

These days we call them "enemy combatants".

pg 1095 "The scale and organization of the Soviet security forces bore little resemblance to counterparts elsewhere. To call them the 'secret police' was a travesty. The KGB was the equivalent of the CIA, the FBI, and the U.S. Coast Guard rolled into one, with many other functions to boot. Apart from foreign intelligence, its various directorates ran the Gulag, the Glavpolit, the civilian militia, and the system of censorship. It's principle mission, however, was to keep itself informed of everything and everyone, and to root out 'unreliable elements' by all means available."

Dept of Homeland Security. Un-inspectable prisons such as Guantanemo Bay. Total Information Awareness. Cameras in the streets. RFID chips in our cars, cell-phones, clothes, and bodies.

pg 1096 "The industrial workers were told that they had inherited the earth; they toiled in expectation of the im,proved housing, wages, and safety which never materialized. The intelligentsia -- which in the official definition represented a professional stratum of 'brain workers' -- enjoyed high prestige but low incomes."

pg 1097 "Unknown to the public or the outside world, the privileged military and nuclear sector was consuming over 30 percent of the Soviet GNP -- at least five times more than was officially admitted."

pg 1117 "on 28 May 1987, 19-year-old Matthias Rust piloted a tiny private monoplane up the Baltic from Hamburg, crossed the Soviet frontier in Latvia, flew at treetop under the most concentrated air defenses in the world, and landed on the cobblestones near Moscow's Red Square. Single-handed, he made the whole Cold War look ridiculous."

15 years later, the Bush administration would claim that no one had thought of using a plane as a weapon, after planes (or something) rammed the WTC and the Pentagon.

4.3. The Basque History of the World

Mark Kurlansky. "The Basque History of the World". Walker Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0-14-02-9851-7.

An alternative view of Eurpoean history, from an "indigenous peoples" perspective. I suspect Kurlansky's "Salt" led to salted cod and thus his "Cod" which in turn led to Basque cod fishermen and thus to this text. No matter how he got there, he ends up angered by Spanish and French treatment of the Basque, from Inquisition through attempts to stamp out the language, to modern media-control identifying Basques with terrorism. As an historian, he tries to remain neutral and objective, but the juxtaposition of facts leaves little doubt of the message. US Native Americans in AIM would recognize the plotline all too well.

The section on witch hunts resonates with modern US "christian" fanaticism. The section on facist attacks on civilian populations resonates with US treatment of peace activists.

4.4. The Will of Zeus

Stringfellow Barr. "The Will of Zeus`". Delta, 1961.

This is a gloriously good story. Worth rereading (I have several times).

4.5. A Shortened History of England

G. M. Trevelyan. "A Shortened History of England". Penguin Books, 1959.

This abridged version reads very well. Some day I may try to find the full text.

4.6. The Islamic World

W. H. McNeill and Marilyn Robinson Waldman, eds. "The Islamic World". University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1973. ISBN 0-226-56155-0.

A compendium of literature and historically significant works.

4.7. The Arabs

Albert Hourani. "A History of the Arab Peoples". MJF Books, 1991. ISBN 1-56731-216-0.

A per the reviews, very clear writing. I was struck repeatedly by the parallels in statecraft of the Islamic empires and current neo-cons.

4.8. The Iranians

Sandra MacKey. "The Iranians". Plume, 1996. ISBN 0-452-27563-6.

Recommended by a family friend who spent many years in Afghanistan and Iran as a history professor and tour guide.

4.9. A History of Russia

George Vernadsky. "A History of Russia", 6th ed. Yale University Press, 1969. ISBN 0-300-00247-5.

"6th ed" suggests respected scholarship, and the blurbs say "readable", but this is a hard slog for me. Maybe I'm just not inspired by the climate and culture.

5. Asia

5.1. Sources of Chinese Tradition

WM Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom. "Sources of Chinese Tradition", vol1, 2nd ed. Columbia University Press, New York, 1999. ISBN 0-231-10938-5 (vol 1).

A compendium of historical documents and philosophical works, translated to English.

5.2. The Rise of Modern China

I. C. Y. Hsu. "The Rise of Modern China" 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 1983. ISBN 0-19-503218-7.

From 1600 to c. 1980. Thus covers the opening up of China via Western military force (e.g., Opium Wars), attacks by Russia and Japan, Communist Revolution, and the beginnings of Taiwan's "Economic Miracle". Does not cover mainland China's complete dominance of the US economy post 2000, nor its likely world dominance as it absorbs Middle East oil resources in the next decade or so.

Good at the "kings and battles", economic, and governmental aspects of history. Not much on life of the common people.

5.3. A History of Japan

R. H. P. Mason, J. G. Caiger. "A History of Japan" Revised ed. Tuttle Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-8048-2097-X.

I appreciated the authors' choices of what to include and what to exclude. Good on "kings and battles" and economics, but also good on cultural life.

5.4. A New History of Korea

Ki-baik Lee. "A new History of Korea". Translated by E. J. Shultz. Edward, W. Wagner, 1984. ISBN 0-674-61576-X.

A famous Korean text covering prehistory to 1960. Both the raw facts and the author's attention focus on the struggles to survive oppression in the form of a) native hereditary (and predatory) aristocracies and b) foreign conquerors. In both cases the parallels to the US are striking. For example,

Korea US
"true bone" European nobility and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)
yangban Ivy League, with "legacies"
Chinese and Japanese govt influence via highly placed ministers Multinational corporation govt influence via highly placed lobbiests.
Japanese ownership of the pressUS corporate ownership of the press

The author clearly sides with the Korean populace, but has few illusions about what works and what doesn't. After describing the "March 1st" 1919 peaceful declaration of independence from Japan, he reports, "Those peaceful demonstrations were crushed by military force," and provides the official numbers of those arrested, injured, and killed. He reports repeated failures to obtain international assistance, or to play one would-be conqueror against another. Only home-grown industry and a "buy Korean" ethos has worked.

5.5. India

See India

6. Oceania

The Polynesians apparently kept accurate oral histories as chants and hulas. Unfortunately, they were overrun by Europeans who had no interest in maintaining that culture (whalers) and by bigots who wanted to systematically eradicate it (missionaries). A few explorers and early writers captured some of the oral tradition, and in places the old cultures held on until more enlightened conquerors arrived.

In the swarm of GI's passing through the islands in WWII were literary-minded people willing to pull these stories together. This gives us two useful books: A source collection, and a wonderful story.

6.1. A Hawaiian Reader

A. Grove Day and Carl Sroven. "A Hawaiian Reader". Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

Source materials for the European/American contact, from James Cook through US statehood. Includes some Hawaiian oral traditon as well.

6.2. Hawaii

James A. Michener. "Hawaii". Fawcett Books, reissue 1994 (orig 1959).

While fictional, it is true to the basic historical ebb and flow of culture, power, and skullduggery. You will be outraged, uplifted, and amused. As a bonus, you wiil understand context for the current independence movement, e.g.,

6.3. The Fatal Shore

Robert Hughes. "The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia's founding". First Vintage, 1988. ISBN 0-394-75366-6.

I haven't finished it, but it looks like a good story as well as respected scholarship.

7. Americas

This is basically the story of "Native Americans" and their slaughter by European, and then the story of the Europeans.

7.1. The Oxford History of the American People

Samuel Eliot Morison. "The Oxford History of the American People". Oxford University Press, New York, 1965.

You might call this the "official" history.

7.2. A People's History of the United States

Howard Zinn. "A People's History of the United States: 1492-present". HarperCollins, 1999

This is "the rest of the story". Quite a revelation for anyone who just learned the official version.

7.3. The Indian Heritage of America

Alvin M. Josephy Jr. "The Indian Heritage of America". Bantam Books, 1968.

Solid coverage; anthropological flavor. Dated by now but the basics don't change.

7.4. Bury My Heart as Wounded Knee

Dee Brown. "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee". Bantam Books, 1971.

American history from the Indians perspective. Read this and then "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse". Then think about

a) US policies in Latin America and in the Middle East.

b) The role of Christians, the US military, and the FBI in exterminating a continent's worth of cultures and peoples.

7.5. US Constitution

See US Constitution

7.6. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Walter Isaacson. "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life". Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Franklin has been called the essential American, the first American, the founding Yuppie, the original Babbit, etc. By whatever name, he embodies intellectual enthusiasm, practical invention, self improvement, community building, faith in democracy, distrust of power and specifically inherited power, and religious/cultural tolerance.

US citizens should read this book for several reasons:

  1. As an antidote to simplistic renditions of Franklin we learn in school
  2. To better understand the issues and events leading to the founding of our nation (Franklin had a hand in nearly everything).
  3. To watch a confirmed royalist eventually became a radical patriot. This is crucial today (2004) when corporations have taken the role of the British crown and the Penn Proprietors -- and have convinced many non-wealthy citizens to go along with their rule.

7.7. Theodore Roosevelt (2007-09-28)

Mario R. DiNunzio, ed. "Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind - Selected Writings". Penguin Books, 1994. ISBN 0-14-02.4520-0.

TR was a complex person who learned from his experiences -- and he had a lot of them. You can probably find a quote to support any position in current affairs. An aggressive America booster, willing to build and use military force to make a place in the world. But also a man outraged by robber barons, backroom deals, and mis-treatment of the common folk. He was for Irish immigration (when that was not popular) but only if they assimilated.

7.8. Latin America (2007-09-28)

Edwin Williamson. "The Penguin History of Latin America". Penguin Books, 1992.

Detailed, well-done. Rather dry going. You could call this an "official history", though it doesn't pull any punches with regards to how the Europeans treated the Native Americans.

8. Africa

8.1. Africa: A Biography of the Continent

John Reader. "Africa: A Biography of the Continent". Vintage Books, 1999. ISBN 0-679-73869-X.

The reviews use terms like "awesome", and "astounding", and I have to agree. From geology to paleobiology to archeology to linguistics to history it carries the story with power and clarity. Incidentally, the parallels to the US treatment of Native Americans, and to the colonialization of the US economy by the globally wealthy is startling (though Reader makes no attempt to draw those parallels).

Creator: Harry George
Updated/Created: 2016-12-31