History is intimidating. While we can measure the interplay of molecules in a test tube and declare it chemistry, or observe events in parliament and declare it politics, history is everywhere and nowhere. It’s the shadow of today, picking up the pieces of the present and casting them into the infinite well of the past. As a result, reading history is intimidating. Where on earth do you start?
I faced this quandary a year ago when I realised my historical knowledge consisted of a jumble of tired cliches: Romans with their roads, Egyptians with their mummies, and Victorians with their too-tight corsets.
Yet whenever I mustered up the courage to dive into any of these historical periods, I quickly lost heart. By the second chapter, I had more questions than answers. Why do these two groups hate each other? What was that war about? Who was that important historical figure? Mired in self-doubt, I gave up. It felt like to understand any of history, you had to understand all of it.
That was until I came across a simple idea. What if I started from the beginning? Maybe instead of doing the equivalent of blindly throwing a dart at a timeline, I started with the big bang and worked chronologically, illuminating the way one book at a time.
The first book I picked up was Dr Tyson and Goldsmith’s Cosmos: Fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution. Seems a little extreme I know, but it was refreshing to read something without a before. A true beginning.
Where to next? Well now that planets exist, why don’t we look at how life forms on a new planet with Fortey’s Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. We could follow that with The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, because who doesn’t love dinosaurs?! After a few books, the separate narratives start weaving themselves together into a larger story. History.
Before you know it the first civilisations are emerging and famous characters like Julius Caesar and Buddha start showing up; it’s like watching the world develop in a petri dish.
I’m now on book thirteen of my personal journey through history. It’s the early 1600s, and British venture capitalists are risking their fortunes in Britain’s first transatlantic voyages in New World, Inc. You can see my ongoing reading list here.
The exact book choices don’t matter. The joy comes in charting one’s own voyage through history, with one book leading to the next like stepping stones across a pond. I’m able to follow my curiosity, zooming in to 16th century Rome as Michelangelo toils away on his latest commission from the Pope, and zooming back out to examine the global impact of the reformation. It’s not about ‘completing’ sections of history, but instead watching it unfold before you, and being amazed at the stranger-than-fiction stories that occur.
It’s through this practice that I am reading history again. Not due to a sense of shame or obligation, but because it’s finally fun.
You can read about the history books I’ve been reading on my website.