Thoughtful Nonfiction and Big History


Understanding Where We Came From Through Books – by Will Wechsler

Avid reader, Will Wechsler shares his more academic picks for a well rounded knowledge base focused on history and scientific developments regarding people and the world around us.

How the world really works

I had a text exchange recently with a old friend about a book that I had just read, How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil.  Smil has been writing data-intensive books for decades and can list Bill Gates as one of his biggest fans.  A distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, Smil clearly frustrated that many don’t know how we create and trade the most important materials necessary for humanity to function (energy, food, cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia) and how we measure risk and try (and fail) to predict the future — and this book is his way of explaining the world to laymen like myself.  It’s fascinating but densely written, and since I know my friend would like that kind of book I happily recommended it.  


A few days later my friend asked me to recommend a longer list of books along the same lines, the highlights of the last decade or two of my nonfiction reading.  He said he particularly enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel  by UCLA professor of geography Jared Diamond and Freakonomics by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner, and would really appreciate nonfiction books that focused on similarly big questions.  

Well, few things are more fun than to draw up a list of books to recommend, so this is what I shared.  I hope the readers of Book Nation by Jen find it useful. 


If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.  It’s huge sales numbers around the world has attracted a large number of critiques, not unlike Guns, Germs, and Steel, but its definitely worth reading.  I’ve recommended it to others ever since I first read it. 

Yuval Noah Harari

I enjoyed it more than his future-oriented sequels, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – though I know others who like those better. 

Against the Grain

If you do like Sapiens then I can also highly recommend Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James Scott, a professor of both political science and anthropology at Yale, where he also directs the agrarian studies program.  This book provides a deeper argument that the adoption of agriculture, sedentism and states were a net negative for humanity, a theme that is also present in Sapiens

The Horse The Wheel and Language

I also recommend The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World By David W. Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College.  This is science with the trappings of a fascinating detective novel.  It explains how the clues left in the archeological record and in the languages that we speak today have unlocked the secrets of the Dothraki-like culture (if you like Game of Thrones) that we now call the Proto-Indo-Europeans.  Before reading this book I was really completely ignorant about what has been accomplished in the field of historical linguistics.  I don’t know if you like podcasts, but I found this book after listening to the first dozen or so episodes of a great one, The History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud.  (I have a lot of podcast recommendations as well, but that’s a different post.) 

The above mentioned fields of modern archeology and historical linguistics have been around for a few centuries, but only in the last few decades have scientists learned how to unlock ancient DNA.  I am utterly fascinated by what they are learning, with breakthroughs being announced every year that either confirm what we had previously thought about pre-history or completely revolutionize it. 

Who we are and how we got here

A great place to start reading about all of this is Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich, a Harvard professor whose lab is producing a disproportionate amount of these breakthroughs. 

A brief history of everyone who ever lived

If you like that I would also recommend A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by British geneticist Adam Rutherford.

She has her mother's laugh

The genetics revolution presently underway is also providing critical answers to who we are as individuals and how our genes influence us.  On this subject I would recommend She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by New York Times science reporter Carl Zimmer.  Among the many things that I learned and that have stayed with me from this book is the fact that mothers receive DNA from their children.

Thinking Fast and Slow

I’ve realized that while I took a lot of college and graduate school classes in history, economics and political science, I neglected to take classes in many of the subjects mentioned above: anthropology, archeology, historical linguists, and genetics.  I also somehow made it through college without taking a class in psychology.  So I really enjoyed the arguments, experiments and case studies in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus at Princeton.  

the fate of rome

Turning back to history, the books I find that like the most are ones that force me to reassess a story that I thought I already knew well.  One example of that is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, a professor of classics and letters and provost emeritus at the University of Oklahoma.  I read fascinated as he explained the new (to me) evidence of the roles that climate change and pandemics played in the fall of the Roman empire. 

1491, 1493

Similarly, I strongly recommend two books by journalist Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and its sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  The first is a well-written overview of the new (again, to me) evidence that the native Americans had been here far longer, in greater numbers, and with a more profound impact on the environment than anything I had learned in school — and that as much as 90% of them died because of the diseases that Europeans unknowingly brought with them.  The second tells the story of what happened afterward: how malaria influenced transatlantic slavery, how potatoes and other foods revoutionized global diets, and how much silver from the Americas ended up not in Spain but in China — all of which I didn’t know previously.

Better Angels

Ending on a more optimistic note, I also recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.  No, the twentieth century was not the most violent ever and, yes, human progress is by far the most important development of the last few centuries. 

Steven Pinker

I also appreciated his subsequent books, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, though while I agreed wholeheartedly with the arguments (and the desperate need for them right now) I found them somewhat repetitive. 


A very easy read with a similarly optimistic message is Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, the late Swedish academic.  This book has a lot of graphics and charts, as you might expect if you saw any of his famous TED talks.  

Happy reading! 

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Will Wechsler

William F. Wechsler is senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. Learn more about Will HERE…

Book Nation by Jen

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