If someone wanted to be well read on the subject of the history of world civilizations what would you consider to be the three most important books for someone to read other than or in addition to...

If someone wanted to be well read on the subject of the history of world civilizations what would you consider to be the three most important books for someone to read other than or in addition to “A Study of History” by Toynbee?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Arnold Toynbee’s classic series on world history, A Study of History, remains a valuable contribution to that academic field.  Along with Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization, Toynbee’s 12-volume history stood as a standard for comprehensive studies of as broad a topic as one can reasonably imagine.   While A Study of History should continue to be read, as Toynbee was a brilliant thinker whose works provide valuable insights, one can’t ignore the fact that the final volume was published half-a-century ago (1961), and that archeological and anthropological research since 1961, along with the opening of previously closed archives in countries like Russia, have provided enormously important material to contemporary scholarship.  A multitude of newer volumes of world history have appeared since Toynbee’s death, and many of these are quite useful.  Before proceeding, however, it should be pointed out that recommendations such as those that follow represent the subjective opinions of this particular educator, and that they should in no way be considered definitive.

J.M. Roberts’ History of the World provides a very good one-volume (albeit, one very long volume) history covering, as its title suggests, a period of time extending all the way back to when humans first evolved and began walking upright.   While lacking in Toynbee’s unique insights and interpretations, it is a useful work.

A massive and eminently useful history, one that is still being produced, is the multivolume series by Susan Bauer.  Her History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome; History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade; and, History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, constitute one of the finer and most comprehensive studies of world history produced of late. 

The works of Jared Diamond probably deserve mention, despite the more focused range he employs and somewhat limited perspective.  Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse both provide a wealth of useful information and there is no doubt that Diamond is an intelligent, thoughtful and diligent researcher.  Any student could do worse than to read these volumes.  A biologist by training rather than a professional historian, Diamond’s analyses of world history provide a very unique perspective that warrants attention.  Rather than focusing on what is often called “the great man” school of thought with regard to history, Diamond focuses his attention more on the geographical, ecological and demographic factors that influence history.

These are three (counting Diamond’s two books as a single volume; if only one is read, go with Guns, Germs, and Steel) studies of world history that this educator would recommend.

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