Five History Books to Help You Understand the World in 2023

Published Wednesday, May 24, 2023

If you want to understand the world around you, reading books can help you make sense of it all. These five books are all well-written, informative and will help you understand the history that has shaped our world.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World
by Tim Marshall

This book is part of Marshall’s Politics of Place series and quickly encouraged me to put the rest of the books on my reading list. It is on the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) suggested reading list. In Prisoners of Geography, Marshall places himself firmly in the ‘geography is destiny’ camp of historians as he describes the past, present, and potential future of ten different geographical regions. Due to his years as a wartime journalist, Marshall offers a compelling geopolitical lens in his analysis. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the political implications of geography and its impact on current events.

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Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938
by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley

This book is also on the FSOT’s suggested reading list (You may notice a pattern here…). This classic has been a fixture in many introductory Political Science courses since its first publication in 1978. In Rise to Globalism, the authors offer a fact-focused survey of American foreign policy in the years leading up to World War II. What I appreciated most about this book is that it filled in several gaps in my historical knowledge. I adore world history, but because I was often bored out of my mind during AP US History, I usually focus on everywhere other than the United States in my reading. This book brought history home to me and gave me a working knowledge of the policies that have a global impact in the present day. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a better grasp of what it means to be an American citizen in the 21st century.

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The Post-American World
by Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria’s book continues the trend of FSOT recommendations. Contrary to what the title might imply, The Post-American World is not anti-American. Instead, it is an evidence-driven analysis of two rising economies: India and China. The global economy, however, is shifting. Zakaria acknowledges this shift and shares a practical critique that places two important developing countries at the forefront. If you want to learn more about geopolitics and their economic impact, check it out!

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Civilization: The West and the Rest
by Niall Ferguson

This excellent survey of Western history begins in the 15th century and argues for six “killer applications” (i.e., distinct cultural practices) that led to European hegemony until the 20th century. Ferguson’s scope is decidedly Euro-American (hence the subtitle), but he presents his argument with a seasoned historian’s healthy skepticism and eye for detail. If you’re interested in an informed perspective on why the West dominated global affairs for centuries, you can’t go wrong with Civilization: The West and the Rest!

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From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
by Pankaj Mishra

As I've been reviewing the suggested reading list for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) for the past few years, and this gem has been the best book yet! I am always interested in non-Western ways of understanding history, and this book fits the bill. From the Ruins of Empire is a history of Asia (including the Middle East) from the late 18th century to the present. More specifically, this book covers the history of two Asian intellectuals - Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao- and their political activism against Western imperialism that still scars Asia. This book does an excellent job exploring the historical context of a complicated part of the world, shattering stereotypes, and proving that history certainly impacts the present. History buff approved!

About the Author

Patrick is a circulation clerk, high school teacher, and National Guardsman who has been working at Edwardsville Public Library since 2021. He is very much a fan of John Green's advice to "Study broadly and without fear" and so always has a book or seven on his currently reading list. When Patrick isn't working or reading he is enthusiastically planning his next great adventure.