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Dahlen comments on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject - Less Wrong

167 Post author: lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

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Comment author: Dahlen 28 September 2015 12:59:52AM *  2 points [-]

Does anyone have a recommendation for a comprehensive history textbook, covering ancient as well as modern history, and several geographical regions? Just something to teach me about major events and dates, wars, rulers & dynasties, interactions between civilisations, etc., without neglecting the non-geopolitical aspects of history. College-level, please. (A dumbed-down alternative to what I'm asking would be to start looking for my old high school textbooks, but obviously that wouldn't be very satisfactory.) Comprehensive accounts of single civilisations in a single period could work as well, but I'm looking for a book that is mainly didactic in purpose and with a broad subject matter.

Also: should I supplant whatever I'm studying with Wikipedia, so that I have the option of going in as much depth as I like? Or is it too unreliable even for basic learning purposes?

Comment author: Vaniver 28 September 2015 01:17:28AM 1 point [-]

There's a lot of history. Something that covers both ancient and modern history is going to be something like Sapiens (my summary) or the Big History Project. But Sapiens is about a particular viewpoint of history / the general arc drawn through the datapoints, not the datapoints themselves.

Consider, for example, a request for a book on all of science. The only real thing that could be recommended is a book on the scientific method, or a general history of the most important scientific ideas, but nothing that could be considered "comprehensive." To just grab four history books off my shelf, I have a 300 page one on the history of materials and material science (and how that impacted economics and politics), a 420 page book detailing the evidence for evolution over the last ~500 years in Britain, a 900 page book that tersely describes important cultural works and events in Western civilization over the last 500 years, and another 900 page book that describes four distinct cultural groups in Britain that are the ancestors of the major cultural forces in the modern US.

Comment author: Dahlen 28 September 2015 01:34:55AM *  2 points [-]

Here's, for example, a textbook I was looking into: World History by Duiker & Spielvogel. The table of contents looks pretty much like what I was seeking, though there's less focus on geopolitics and more on the civilisational "big picture" than I would have liked. (Edit: and perhaps if it were thrice the page count it would have been closer to the level of detail I was trying to get.) I was interested in getting a comparison between, for instance, this book and others of the same type.

What I'm trying to remedy is a very poor knowledge of the most basic, boring kind of historical data: who ruled when, what were the major battles and their dates and locations, what political entities and subdivisions existed and when were they founded and ended/conquered, what major reforms were made, what people produced and traded etc. I too have and can find books on very specific historical matters, and take pleasure in reading them, but they would fit better in an understanding of the hard facts and data relevant to those historical circumstances.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 September 2015 03:48:13PM -1 points [-]

most basic, boring kind of historical data: who ruled when, what were the major battles and their dates and locations

Why do you want to know this? You'll forget the great majority of this data in half a year.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 September 2015 04:00:50PM *  3 points [-]

The difference between recall and recognition is perhaps important for this. Even if you can't recall things unbidden, recognizing that something fits with your "sense of history" or not is useful. For example, if someone says "remember that time a Muslim army invaded central France?" you might think "oh yeah, what was that battle's name? Wasn't Charlemagne's father involved?" instead of "that sounds like an AU timeline."

(The 'dates and battles' view is better than ignorance, but I still think it's a very oversold perspective relative to scientific / economic / engineering history.)

Comment author: Lumifer 28 September 2015 04:27:14PM -1 points [-]

Even if you can't recall things unbidden, recognizing that something fits with your "sense of history" or not is useful.

Yes, but it's the standard school approach of "throw a lot of everything at the wall, something will stick". It doesn't look efficient or effective. I can see some sense in it during the middle/high school years because you're basically training kids to deal the overwhelming amounts of information (e.g. by forcing them to figure out what's important and what's not) -- however adult self-education should be able to do a lot better.

Comment author: Dahlen 28 September 2015 10:50:48PM 1 point [-]

I know a lot less about it than you might expect. I'm able to recall various tidbits about people's life and culture in who-knows-what historical era, but the "big picture" is very low-res. I don't want to keep having surprises like, "oh, these peoples existed", "hey, Afrikaans sounds Germanic, what's up with that", "I've been listening to a song about this guy for months, but I don't know wtf he did" etc.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 September 2015 11:47:30PM -1 points [-]

So study the big picture. Who ruled when and in which particular year did a battle take place are not very useful for that.

Comment author: Gram_Stone 28 September 2015 02:13:57AM 1 point [-]

Would you be willing to share the titles and authors of those books?

Comment author: Vaniver 28 September 2015 03:47:36PM 1 point [-]

The Substance of Civilization by Stephen L. Sass

A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Note that many contest the claims on comparisons to China, claiming that the pressures detailed were even stronger there.)

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fisher (there is a more recent book on a very similar subject that I have not yet read here, but it has fewer pages and covers more groups, so I imagine it has less details but may be worth reading with / instead of Albion's Seed.)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 28 September 2015 12:34:30PM *  1 point [-]

Can't recommend a book I've read, but I've had J.M. Roberts' The New Penguin History of the World on my reading list for a while now. It's more big picture than facts.

If you're after rulers, dates and the like, just diving into wikipedia, starting from high-level articles and taking your own notes might not be a terribly bad approach.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 September 2015 04:04:15PM 1 point [-]

If you're after rulers, dates and the like, just diving into wikipedia, starting from high-level articles and taking your own notes might not be a terribly bad approach.

I actually expect that this is a very good way to approach learning world history.

Comment author: gjm 29 September 2015 11:39:06AM 0 points [-]

Is the fact that it's been on your reading list for some time but you haven't read it a strike against it? E.g., does it indicate that it's intimidating rather than engaging?

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 30 September 2015 11:10:55AM 0 points [-]

No, it's just indicating that I haven't made any sort of concentrated effort at clearing my reading list or maintaining some sort of FIFO discipline on it. The Complete History of the World in Impeccable Engaging Detail tends to not do very well against a Warren Ellis comic book about shooting aliens wearing human skin suits in the head with flesh-eating bullets when picking random media to consume during idle time.

Comment author: gjm 30 September 2015 11:32:24AM 0 points [-]

Yup, understood. (My own to-be-read shelves have maybe 350 books on them, and I have the same failure mode where mind candy gets consumed faster than meatier fare. If it actually is a failure mode, which maybe it isn't.)