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10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Books that will erase your perspective on the past and rewrite It.


10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

“History is just dry and boring facts.”

I hear you.

For me, remembering when and where so-and-so was born or died was a tedious task. I don’t like rote memorization of details that offer little to no benefit.

Here is what I do like. I like learning new and intriguing things. I like finding out the how and why.

And I think the following books are a perfect gift for an inquisitive mind who likes to do the same.

If you have doubts, my summary of these books might change your mind.


10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

The journey of zero through time.

History is not about tracing the lives of living beings only. It is also about investigating the development of ideas and concepts.

In this book, the author explores the origin, development, and assimilation of the number zero.

“Zero and infinity are eternally locked in a struggle to engulf all the numbers.”

Greek math was based heavily on geometry. Indian math was based on abstract ideas. That would explain why zero didn’t make sense to the Greeks.

You cannot take 5 acres out of a land that has only 3. For Indians taking 5 out of a 3 would be -2.

“To the Pythagoreans, ratios and proportions controlled musical beauty, physical beauty, and mathematical beauty.”

Despite initial resistance, adapting zero in the West led to the creation of Calculus.

Zero’s opposite is infinity. Both of them are not only central to math but also physics. The concepts of absolute zero and black holes exist because of zero.

This book might make you remember the quadratic formula that you have forgotten.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Salt shaped our world. How?

Salt has a fascinating role to play in history. It is important for the development of empires and the rise of different movements. This book gives us the story of salt across time and space.

“When sodium, an unstable metal that can suddenly burst into flame, reacts with a deadly poisonous gas known as chlorine, it becomes the staple food sodium chloride, NaCl, from the only family of rocks eaten by humans.”

The production of salt can be traced back to ancient China and Egypt. Chinese extracted it from seawater and used it to flavor their food and sauces.

Egyptians used it in the mummification process and for preserving meat and fish.

“In fact, the first experiments in refrigeration were not with fish or meat but with everyone’s favorite luxury — butter.”

The British imposed a salt tax to control the colonized India. Gandhi started a civil disobedience movement aimed at this tax.

This is an interesting read that will make you appreciate the common salt.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

What is money anyway?

From money and banks to bonds and stocks, this book tells us all.

We used to trade in gold and silver. However, an increased supply of silver and gold coins decreased their worth.

The same is the case with paper money. For it to be worth something, people have to believe that it does and that banks will not overproduce it.

“…money is a matter of belief, even faith: belief in the person paying us; belief in the person issuing the money he uses or the institution that honours his cheques or transfers.”

Credit and debit systems also started in ancient times. Loans were engraved on clay tablets.

Trade between Italy and the Arab region increased. This led to the credit and debit system being evolved into banking.

“The more integrated the world’s financial markets become, the greater the opportunities for financially knowledgeable people wherever they live — and the bigger the risk of downward mobility for the financially illiterate.”

The author calls into question the assumption that bankers prey on the financially weak and accumulate wealth at the top. He argues that developing a sound and stable financial system is the only way that nations can progress and grow.

After reading this book, you will understand the importance and development of modern-day financial systems.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Biography of cancer, written by a cancer doctor.

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an Indian-American physician and biologist who has written numerous books.

One of the most interesting messages of this book is that we didn’t create cancer. Our progress unveiled it.

Cancer is an age-related disease and the lifespan of human beings has increased. Due to the downfall of other diseases, we have been seeing cancer more than before. We are also being exposed to carcinogens like radiation and smoke.

“Cancer is an expansionist disease; it invades through tissues, sets up colonies in hostile landscapes, seeking “sanctuary” in one organ and then immigrating to another.”

The author discusses the evolution of cancer treatments. He concludes that they are largely based on trial and error.

Relatively new technologies like gene editing and genome mapping offer new avenues for approaching cancer treatment.

Mukherjee shares the stories of his cancer patients in this book, making his writing personal.

The Emporer of all Maladies’’ is full of stunning information on how cancer develops, its different types, and the history of cancer treatments. You are bound to enjoy it if you like getting into the how and why of things.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

No one knows him, yet everyone knows his name.

Jack the Ripper was a callous serial killer who was active in England in 1888. Jack the Ripper’s real identity is still unknown.

This book compassionately tells us the life story of five presumed victims of Jack the Ripper.

It is widely accepted that most of the victims were prostitutes. The author, however, feels differently. She says only 2 of the 5 victims were prostitutes.

She humanizes these victims.

She tells us what they were like and what trials they endured. Not perfect by any means, they didn’t deserve to die the way they did.

“When a woman steps out of line and contravenes the feminine norm, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.”

The author shifts the narrative from the perpetrator to the victims. She discusses important themes as she tells their stories. Some of them are addiction, abuse, and financial dependence.

“If a husband, father, or partner left or died, a working-class woman with dependents would find it almost impossible to survive.”

If you are into Jack the Ripper case, this book should be on your bookshelf.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Cracking the code to life.

Mukherjee shares his own family’s example of the inherited genes. Some of his uncles and cousins were diagnosed with schizophrenia.

This led him to be upfront with his partner about the existence of this disease in his family’s genome.

“Like the master score of a bewitchingly complex symphonic work, the genome contains the instructions for the development and maintenance of organisms.”

From Mendel’s peas to the discovery of DNA as the source of genetic information, we have been trying our best to unlock the secrets to our code. Mukherjee tells us all.

He talks about the concept of Eugenics and the harm it brought, for example, forced sterilizations.

“It is the impulse of science to try to understand nature, and the impulse of technology to try to manipulate it.”

The most fascinating take put forward by the author is that genes respond to internal and external environmental factors. When the environment changes, the expression of genes changes too. Perhaps, this brings us to the balanced point that lies in the middle of the nature vs nurture debate.

He calls into question techniques like gene editing.

Genes of a species mutate to help it survive the changes in the surroundings. By editing them ourselves, we are meddling in nature, shortening the survival time.

Mukharjee’s writing is a must-read for scientists and genetics enthusiasts.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

What does a fish have to do with history?

As a child, I remember being fed cod liver oil by my parents. Perhaps they thought it would bestow us with intelligence just like the belief of ancient Icelandics?

Deeply researched, Kurlansky’s book offers a rich account of codfish’s history.

The first cod fishery was established by the Basques and Vikings.

“Cod became almost a religious icon — a mythological crusader for Christian observance.”

He then goes on to discuss the effect cod has on various societies, cultures, cuisines, and wars. Massachusetts, for example, built its wealth, thanks to the codfish.

The writer leaves us with a very important lesson.

He contrasts the approach of Newfoundland, Canada with Iceland and Norway, all of which have waters rich in cod.

Iceland and Norway shut down their fisheries and introduced policies to control cod fishing when the number of codfish started to dwindle. This led to sustainable and healthy cod populations that are still profitable.

Canada however, gave in to the pressure from politicians and fishermen and failed to control the overfishing. This led to the downfall of Canadian cod fisheries in the 1990s. As they say, ‘Stitch in time saves nine.’

Even if you don’t enjoy fishing trips with your dad, give this book a go.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Killers on demand — How did a group of 500 killed 83,000 people?

German soldiers of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were told to round up and execute Jews in occupied Poland. Young and able men were taken to work camps. Most of those killed were women, children, elderly and sick.

A few opted out, while the rest followed orders. This book explores the psychology behind their actions.

Authorities also made some changes to reduce the opposition to orders by using psychological tricks.

“The behavior of any human being is, of course, a very complex phenomenon, and the historian who attempts to “explain” it is indulging in a certain arrogance.”

What turns an ordinary man into a professional killer?

It is not easy to understand the reasons for human behavior. The author explores different reasons for what made these men kill. Surprisingly, they weren’t even enthusiastic Nazis.

The factors include peer pressure, obedience to authority, the distance between the killer and the victim, and antisemitic propaganda.

It is an emotional read. However, it will make you think long and hard about humans and what they are capable of.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

When Neanderthals walked the earth.

According to current research, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens (that is us) have a common ancestor about 500,000 years ago.

What do we know about our tool-making cousins?

Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archeologist who spent 8 years writing this book. Her compelling account is a testament to her hard work and expertise.

“…the tools now at the disposal of archaeologists border on science fiction.”

The author includes the discoveries made at numerous dig sites. She tells us about the Neanderthal’s history, DNA, lifestyle, and much more.

Through a sketch at the start of each chapter, she gives us a glimpse into their life.

“Amid ancient surfaces densely spangled with myriad artefacts, fireplaces are like archaeological wormholes, bridging the impossible chasms of time separating us from long-vanished dwellers.”

This book covers modern archeological techniques like 4D mapping, isotopes, and laser scanning.

The book will leave you feeling a bit nostalgic about the past that you have never lived.



10 Phenomenal History Books So Unique They’ll Make You See History with New Eyes

Shifting the narrative from the West to the East.

In this book, Frankopan takes us on the winding roads and paths that traders took in Persia. And how that has shaped the world today.

Starting from the Persian Empire and the Chinese dynasty, the Silk Roads didn’t just allow things to move across but also ideas.

Religious ideas were exchanged. Greek religious ideas moved to the East, and Buddhism moved Westwards. From its start in Palestine, Christianity also spread throughout the world.

After the advent of the religion of Islam, which was founded by a trader, the Silk Roads came under the control of Muslims. A new era arrived.

“While the Muslim world took delight in innovation, progress and new ideas, much of Christian Europe withered in the gloom, crippled by a lack of resources and a dearth of curiosity.”

The trade route was altered once again as Jerusalem was captured by the Christians.

Then came the Mongols, who carried the Black Death. Europe went through a massive loss of life but it led to its ascend. New empires sprouted in the West and new commercial channels were formed. The pinnacle was now the West.

“And yet, despite the horror it caused, the plague turned out to be the catalyst for social and economic change that was so profound that far from marking the death of Europe, it served as its making.”

There is a lot more in this book, from the oil resources of Persia to the World Wars, which would be too much for this summary.

The author predicts that the focal point of the earth is shifting back to the East. There are natural reserves of coal and gas in Ukraine and Turkmenistan. China is emerging as an Economic superpower. Academic Excellence and Art can be seen flourishing throughout.

This book will give you a timeline of history through the lens of commerce.



 

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If you enjoyed these book recommendations, check out the rest of my book lists on my blog- https://www.thenovelnest.com/blog


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