7 Books to Round Out Your Understanding of the World

Seeing an international dateline in a news story feels a bit like blindly groping for my glasses in the middle of the night. It’s a feeling that I don’t get with a story from, say, Sacramento or Billings. I’ve never been to Sacramento or Billings, but I’m confident I could find the nearest Starbucks or ask for directions to the airport in either place. I speak the language. I know that football doesn’t mean soccer.

When I get to the world news section of the New York Times or, though, that “Beirut” or “Guangzhou” or “Nairobi” at the top of a story gives me more than a little pause. Do I understand the Sunni-Shia issue at play here? Do I have a visual lay of the land? Do I know whether colonization or World War I or the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the real antagonist in this story?

I’ve read a lot more books about American presidents (dozens) than I have about Guangzhou (none), but I’m still curious about what’s happening there, what it means, and why it matters. I’m interested in how the Ottoman Empire made Istanbul a cultural melting pot and why there’s so much Muslim-Hindu strife in Pakistan, but developing that kind of understanding seems as daunting and unapproachable to the casual observer as, say, microbiology or coding an iPhone.

A number of new books have taken the approach of starting in a time or place and working their way out to a broader view. You gotta start somewhere, right?

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

At the beginning of the common era, the Silk Roads were the trading routes between ancient empires. “Dotted across the spine of Asia,” as Frankopan describes, “these cities were strung like pearls, linking the Pacific to the Mediterranean.” The Oxford historian builds Big History around the 2,000-year history of the region where the East meets the West.

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

World War II was a Big Bang event in global history — a cataclysmic, pervasive conflict that affected global boundaries and set many of the religious and ethnic conflicts in motion that are still playing out today. In 1946: The Making of the Modern World, a UK journalist works his way around a world in flux during that pivotal year.

The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991 by Robert Service

The Cold War today carries the air of a nebulous non-war or almost-war between the United States and the Soviet Union, beginning after World War II in the late 1940s and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Service’s pointillist history of the summits, negotiations, and maneuvering between Washington and Moscow reminds readers of the role diplomacy can play in periods of global transition.

Kissinger by Niall Ferguson

An advisor to Richard Nixon and one of the architects of the realpolitik approach to foreign policy, Henry Kissinger was one of the most powerful and influential foreign policy advisers in U.S. history. Kissinger, the first of a two-volume biography, frames the world in the middle of the 20th century from his childhood as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany, to his years in American academia, to Nixon’s election in 1968.

Conquerors by Roger Crowley

In the decades after Columbus sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag, it was actually Portugal that first established colonies in India, Brazil, China, and Japan. You know why red chilis, cilantro, cinnamon, and potatoes are in both Mexican and Indian cuisine? The Portuguese, who were indispensable cogs in the spice trade that became the first global market.

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

In the summer of 1914, Europe went from relative peace to full-scale war in a matter of weeks. In The Sleepwalkers, Clark examines troves of new material from Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere to take a fresh look at the dynamics that underlie the beginnings of World War I. In particular, the Cambridge historian looks at the miscommunications and diplomatic failures that unwittingly led to the conflict.

Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert

When the Civil War began in 1861, the United States was no island isolated between vast oceans. Rather, it was an active resource in the global markets for rice, indigo, tobacco and — most importantly of all — cotton. In Empire of Cotton, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Beckert recontextualizes early America’s commerce, credit, agriculture and slavery through the prism of its star export.