John W. Dean

Looking for Great "Big History" Books

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, August 7, 2009

My late friend Ron Silver, the actor and political activist, once asked me a question that I have continued to think about ever since. On the afternoon of his last New Year's Eve, when he surprised me by coming to California, he wanted to know if I had found any great "big history" books.

Diagnosed with a fatal form of esophageal cancer and having already lived beyond his physician's expectations, Ron was visiting to say good-bye to friends and spend quality time with family, as he departed the mortal coil with the extraordinary grace and dignity that included his usual good humor and concern about others. Except for the side effects accompanying the periodic experimental drug treatments, he said he felt surprisingly good. Thus, when he was not with family and friends, he was doing a lot of reading.

Ron was smart and well-read. For spiritual guidance and comfort, he had immersed himself in writings of his religion, Judaism. For entertainment, he had been rereading favorite classics. But he was also looking for material that might help him place his interest in government and politics in better perspective. More specifically, he asked, Did I have any suggestions of "big history" type works? He explained that he was having trouble tracking them down, and figuring out which might be worthwhile reads, and so he was asking others for recommendations. He was surprised that no one had started a big history website, or blog, where those who were interested might find such works.

By big history, Ron was not referring to multi-volume works. Clearly, he did not have time for such tomes. If he was lucky, he hoped, he had another six weeks to six months. (As it turned out, tragically, he had only another seventy-four days.) One of the legacies he left came in the form of his interesting and provocative question.

"Big History" Studies

Ron had introduced me to "big history" many years earlier, when he urged that I read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond addresses big historical questions: "Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?"

Big history is a relatively new approach, which examines human history in wide frameworks. Like Ron, once I discovered big history, I too found myself looking for these works. They are not that easy to find. The Library of Congress cataloging system, for example, has no entry for big history.

Big history was introduced in the late 1980s by scholars like David Christian, who make a powerful case that to understand human history, we must look beyond our borders and our species and our planet to "the whole of time." Accordingly, many big history writers begin with the Big Bang, tracing, examining, and compressing the historical record from the beginning to the present as they probe for insights. A well-known explanation of this multidisciplinary approach is found in Fred Spier's The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today (1996).

These studies, however, can be more modest in scope. For example, works that I have enjoyed include: Isaac Asimov's Beginnings: The Story of Origins – Of Mankind, Life, the Earth, the Universe (1987), and Amy Chua's Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fail (2008). These works, like Jared Diamond's study, are relatively focused while covering great spans of times and countless events. Thus, Amy Chua looks at empires (in near equal proportion) across time: Persia, Rome, the Tang Dynasty, the Mongols, medieval Spain, the Dutch Republic, the Ottoman Empire, the Moguls, the British, the Axis powers, and the United States – as opposed to over all time.

Ron's frustration in looking for books addressing big history was understandable, since there is no "big history" genre. When I ask librarians and bookstore clerks, when browsing, if there are any new big histories, only a few know what I am talking about. Yet many big history books are extremely popular bestsellers, like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (2005) and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988).

Until I talked with Ron when he was literally fighting for his life, it never occurred to me how particularly helpful these works might be for anyone facing the end yet still searching for a better understanding of humankind. In addition, readers of big history quickly discover the remarkable authors of these works, men and women with wonderful minds, for no small minds could ever grasp the subjects so vast. I laughed when Ron said that another friend of his, clearly not familiar with these works, thought them to be "Cliff Notes for the Intellectually Lazy." To the contrary, these works are original research, they bristle with fresh thinking, and they offer new perspectives that provide helpful insights to better understand our lives.

It's Long Past Time for a Big History Website or Blog

Ron refused to let me send him my favorite big history work. He said he only wanted to gather a list, and he would turn to them as time permitted. He did not want to depress himself by being faced with a stack of books that he wanted to read, but could not get to before the final bell. So I do not know if he got to my favorite, which I told him about while standing in the doorway of the lovely home a friend had made available to him and his family for New Year's Eve. (A prior commitment precluded my wife and I from joining him.)

In 2000 – I no longer remember the date, but only the situation – I was listening to Los Angeles talk radio host Michael Jackson while I was driving. He was interviewing Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich about his latest book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. I had recently finished Jared Diamond's big history, and from the interview, it was clear that Ehrlich had also undertaken such a study. The interview prompted me to stop by a bookstore and take a look at the book. I purchased it and could not put it down. On many occasions I have referred to it. I strongly recommended it for Ron's list.

In recommending the book, I explained that Ehrlich's examination of our human natures (plural) is compelling and powerful. His analysis of "nature versus nurture" (it is both, and he obliterates claims of genetic determinism); his explanation of culture's impact on our species; his tracking of the origins of states and governments; his look at religion, warfare, and human values -- to name a few of the topics he explored -- was (and is) for me big history at its best: provocative, revealing, entertaining, informative, and well-argued, with solid documentation. Rather than highlight Professor Ehrlich's work further here, I would direct readers to the concise and interesting explanation of it that he published in the New York Times when Human Natures was released.

Ultimately, though, my sharing a big history favorite with a dear friend is not what prompted this column. Rather, it was Ron's last words to me, which I have been thinking about for months. "Find someone to start a big history website," he urged, "because there are a lot of Baby Boomers like me who want to know how it all fits together before they leave, and these books do the best job I have found, but they are too hard to find." I agreed that it was a really good idea, and so I have been trying to encourage a couple of historian friends to do just that.

But they make a good point: They are not sure if there is much interest for such a book. Thus, this column is to test interest. First, I am looking for people who enjoy big history and their explanations of why they enjoy it. Second, I am looking for more big history titles. Finally, I am curious about who is interested. While I have posted this inquiry at FindLaw, I hope to post it elsewhere as well. If you have titles and an interest in big history, and if you think that such a website is a good idea, please write me at big.history.books@gmail.com.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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