TL;DR Over the next five years, I will read at least one history book for each country in the world. I’ll review the books I read, blog about my progress and share my thoughts. If it makes sense, I’ll write a book about my journey and/or the subject.
History is the long struggle of man, by exercise of his reason, to understand his environment and to act upon it. But the modern period has broadened the struggle in a revolutionary way. Man now seeks to understand, and act on, not only his environment, but himself; and this has added, so to speak, a new dimension to reason and a new dimension to history.Edward H. Carr, What Is History?
I suspect I’ll have to read Carr’s book again, before this is over.
I’ve always liked reading; from my youth, I remember Roald Dahl, Goosebumps, Jules Verne and Tolkien. But even though I certainly read more than average, I never had a ‘reading habit’: there were months and even years where I didn’t pick up one book. The haphazard trajectory of my life until now created a resistance to habit themselves.
That changed recently, and as I looked to buttress external novelty with internal stability, books were my refuge. Having struggled with depression and poor time management, I learned to appreciate the value of habits. I started reading one book a week in January 2019.
When you read (at least) one book a week, sooner or later you’ll have to think consciously about what to read.
You don’t have to—but I consider habits a way to increase compound interest, and for that to be effective, you need to put enough of your eggs in a given basket. To follow the financial analogy, diversifying your investments only works if you put enough money in each “pot”. Or imagine you’re putting aside a part of your income as savings: if you have a long term goal (such as buying a house), you’ll need to put enough of your savings in that pot, instead of scattering them across your bucket list.
So I thought, if I read 52 books a year, in 10 years I’ll have read 512 books: what do I want to focus on?
Why are you doing this?
The arrogance and breadth of presuming to read (and write!) about the history of the world is not lost on me. It is arrogant, difficult and totally necessary.
We all “know” that today’s world is more interconnected than it ever was, that we have a responsibility as consumers and citizens. We “know” these things because we’re constantly reminded of them, and the numbers seem to prove them: how global supply chains are inter-dependent for example, or how much our individual consumer choices impact on global warming and slave labour. We “know” these things, but they don’t quite fit with what we feel: our society is as individualistic as they come, stressing the value of equality, empowerment, possibility, responsibility. And yet, how many of us feel that power? Modern societies have so many moving parts and interdependencies and there’s just so many of us that personal empowerment feels too diluted to have any weight—be that the vote or consumer choice.
I feel that too, but I refuse to feel helpless in front of complexity.
I believe that complexity to be one of the biggest challenges facing humanity: if we accept that each of us is too small to effect change, nothing will happen. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be happening; but to effectively influence something, first you need to understand it. And while some have mistakenly said so, history isn’t over.
The scientific revolution changed the world for the better and heralded a trend of progress and prosperity uninterrupted even by the catastrophe of the 20th century; but while we can now see with incredible clarity the small and the far, we still have to deal with ourselves. Economics was the first to be called a “dismal science”, but the same attitude predominates today towards the study of history, psychology and politics. As much as they seem to elude quantification, we can’t do without them. And like nutritionists (and dieters) found out the hard way, reductionism is not always the answer. We can be angry towards the history of ourselves and of our neighbours, but that’s like being angry with yourself or your mother: they’re not going anywhere.
That’s why I sympathise with the likes of Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, Paul Ekman and other writers who also refused to throw in the towel in the face of overwhelming complexity.
One of my a-ha moments was realising that, before WWI, there were less than 50 countries in the world: today, they’re just just shy of 200. Well, where did they come from? To me, that seemed like the perfect way to tackle overwhelming complexity. Names are identities, but they’re also just words; and words are containers and signifiers. How do you learn about something if there is no word for it? Thankfully, the explosion of complexity that followed WWI and created the world we live in, came with a manual.
So I went back to my reading habit. If I read (at least) one book a week, in 4 or 5 years I’ll be able to read one book for every country in the world. Writing down the list of countries was daunting and liberating at the same time:
PS: Since picking up my habit of reading one book a week, I’ve found that I manage to read a bit more: I’m on track to read about 70-80 books in 2019, so while the 49 books I’m expected to read in 2021 seem like a lot, I’ll actually have space to squeeze something else in as well (or even normalise the list and put a few more countries in 2022, 2023 and 2024).
What will you write about?
I’m reading about world history for myself; it feels like a responsibility to know more about the world when I have the presumption of feeling (and effectively, living) like a world citizen when I know precious little about it, no matter how avidly I may read The Economist and Foreign Affairs.
So I read, primarily, to understand my own assumptions.
I think if I reading “for myself only”, I won’t get the most value out of this; if I want to write about it, I will be forced to read more and to look at my assumptions a second and a third time. Writing about world history is not the same thing as writing history. History is written by victors and historians, and I’m neither: I haven’t influenced the events I intend to write about and I haven’t made the historian’s effort to gather sources and documents. And yet, I have to write something. I see two main challenges:
- Length. Brevity is the soul of wit, but in this case it’s also a necessity. Generalisations and simplifications will be necessary constraints.
- Facts. Edward Carr wrote that “history consists of a corpus of ascertained facts”; he also wrote that accuracy is a duty, not a virtue. In the age of fake news, alternative facts and deep fakes, I sense this might increasingly become a problem. The distinction between invader and invaded doesn’t change the fact that an invasion took place. Or does it?
These two problems are easily identified, but there’s a third: what, exactly, am I writing about? What is the topic? Is there a thesis or will it just be just another “short history”? I don’t know yet, but I trust it will soon enough.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that John Greene’s Crash Course: World History was the first to show me that history can be taught in an engaging, cohesive way. It was also the first time I was able to grasp the links between seemingly unrelated ideas, events and civilisations.
Books like Henry Kissinger’s World Order, Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order series, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Daron Acemoğlu’s Why Nations Fail showed me that a cohesive, authoritative narration is possible and valuable.
If the authors mentioned above are an indication, I expect an onslaught of criticism; I hope it won’t deter me from seeing this to the end—on the contrary, I look forward to constructive criticisms, book suggestions and anything else that will help me make the most of my work.