The Best World History Books: The Top 20+ to Learn More about the Past

The Best World History Books

Exploring the complexities of the past can be captivating and enriching. So what are the best world history books out there? From Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” to Halil Inalcik’s “The Ottoman Empire,” countless reads offer unique perspectives on the events and trends that have shaped our world.

These best world history books delve into subjects ranging from the rise and fall of empires to the successes and struggles of humanity’s most innovative minds. Each one offers compelling insights, making narrowing down a definitive “best ” difficult.” But whether you’re a novice or a seasoned historian, immersing yourself in the narratives and voices of these books is sure to deepen your understanding of our shared past.

Why You Should Read the Best World History Books

The subject of world history is vast and complex, with countless events and personalities that have shaped the world we live in today. It is impossible to understand our current world without looking at its past. However, learning history is not always an easy task. Reading the best world history books is the best way to learn about the past.

The 20+ Best World History Books

The Best World History Books: The Top 20+ to Learn More about the Past


Choosing the best world history books is the perfect opportunity to understand the past better and allow us to comprehend and apply the lessons learned. Through reading, we can gain context and appreciate the vastness of the human intellect, which informs our present and future.

Below, I will list the best world history books to gain a deeper understanding of the past.

The Ottoman Empire has undeniably played a significant role in shaping the history of the world. Spanning over six centuries, this remarkable empire has left an indelible mark on the region and the world as a whole. In the book “The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600,” Halil Inalcik presents a comprehensive and insightful view into the dynamics, politics, and culture of this magnificent empire during its formative years. From the founding of the empire by Osman I in 1299 to the rise of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, Inalcik delves deep into a vast range of themes, including the growth of the Ottoman state, its economic and social structures, and the role of religion and culture in shaping its society. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in the history, politics, and culture of the Ottoman Empire.

The world of art can be an intimidating place for those who are not well-versed in its history and language. Luckily, E.H. Gombrich’s book, The Story of Art, offers a comprehensive and accessible guide to the evolution of art throughout the centuries. Gombrich’s writing is clear and concise, making even the most complex concepts understandable. He brings art to life with vivid descriptions and intriguing anecdotes, making it easy for readers to immerse in the subject fully. Gombrich’s words give the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation for the art of the past and its continued influence on modern artistic movements. The Story of Art is a must-read for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge of art and its history.

Rachel Swaby’s “Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World” is a fascinating read that shines a light on women who have made significant contributions to the world of science. The book explores the lives and achievements of inspiring women whose groundbreaking work has paved the way for future generations of scientists. With each page, readers are introduced to remarkable women like Lise Meitner, whose pioneering work in nuclear physics helped to uncover the secrets of the atom. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray crystallography contributed to the discovery of the DNA double helix.

These women and many others broke down barriers and challenged stereotypes to impact the fields of science and technology significantly. “Headstrong” is a must-read for anyone interested in science, history, and the power of determination.

The Russian Revolution was a significant event in history, one that altered the course of the world forever. And with October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville presents a detailed and gripping retelling of this historic event. Through his writing, Miéville offers readers a unique perspective on the revolution, showcasing the motivations and emotions that drove its key players. His prose is vivid, painting a vivid picture of the chaos, suffering, and hope of a nation in turmoil. Through the pages of October, readers are transported back in time to a period of political upheaval and social unrest, giving us a better understanding of the forces that shaped the modern world.

In his book “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, Neil MacGregor provides a fascinating insight into humanity’s journey through the centuries. Each object tells a tale of human ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance, from a miniature carved lion dating back to ancient civilizations to the telephone that revolutionized communication. The book is a captivating and exhilarating read that illuminates how these objects shaped the world we live in today. MacGregor’s exquisite storytelling provides readers with a unique opportunity to learn about history in an immersive and fascinating way, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the fascinating tale of humanity.

With a captivating narrative that stretches from the dusty plantations of the American South to the bustling textile mills of Manchester, England, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History offers an unflinching look at the widespread impact of cotton on the world’s economy and social fabric. Beckert deftly weaves stories of enslaved people, merchants, and factory workers, all tied together by the humble cotton plant. His nuanced portrayal of the industry’s tumultuous history proves that cotton’s reach extended far beyond its physical borders, forever shaping human history. Empire of Cotton offers a thought-provoking and richly researched exploration of an important pillar of the modern world.

Colors are all around us, but have you ever stopped to think about their hidden meanings and histories? In “The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair, readers are guided through the stories behind some of the most beloved hues. From the pastel pink used in Renaissance portraits to the vibrant green of Marilyn Monroe’s infamous dress, each color is explored in depth, shedding light on its cultural, social, and even political significance.

With captivating anecdotes and stunning illustrations, St. Clair offers a unique perspective on color’s role in our lives and the fascinating world of pigments and dyes. Discover the hidden secrets behind the colors you thought you knew and be amazed by the beauty and power they possess.

Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is a fascinating exploration of the humble mineral that has played a vital role in human society for thousands of years. From the ancient Egyptians to the British Empire, salt has been a cornerstone of culture and commerce, shaping economies and influencing politics. Kurlansky’s unique approach to history-weaving, with science, anthropology, and culinary history, creates a rich and nuanced picture of how salt has shaped human history. Whether you’re a history buff or a foodie, Salt is a captivating read that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for this essential mineral.

Imagine a conversation between a biologist studying birds and a local politician in New Guinea. It all began with a thought-provoking question: Why did white people have so much “cargo” while black people had so little? This question forms the basis of Professor Diamond’s exploration into the history of human, migration, and cultural adaptation. The result is an exhilarating journey through human history, from the Pleistocene age to the present, with a vision for a scientific approach to studying our past.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an ambitious endeavor, covering a wide range of topics. As a historian, I find myself trusting Diamond’s account of prehistory, despite having a European and Asian focus myself. According to Diamond, the most significant influences on modern history occurred long before the birth of Christ. The narrative he presents of human prehistory is plausible and well-founded, highlighting the impact of environmental conditions on the progression from hunting to settled agriculture.

The development of agricultural societies led to technological advancements, such as metallurgy and literacy, primarily in Eurasia and its surrounding regions. The concept of diffusion plays a crucial role here, with certain continents and regions benefiting from favorable internal and external connections. This advantage became evident when Europeans, armed with guns, germs, and steel, colonized the Americas, Oceania, and Southern Africa, overpowering and subduing local populations.

One of Professor Diamond’s key arguments is that the differences in material culture between regions should not be attributed to race. He rejects the notion that intelligence varies between races and instead emphasizes adaptability in harsh environments. His evidence includes personal anecdotes and observations of how “primitive” peoples excel in survival skills. This perspective aligns with an evolutionary biologist’s logical approach in a multicultural world.

Guns, Germs, and Steel includes thought-provoking photographic illustrations of human faces from different racial groups worldwide. These images serve to illustrate that adaptability, not race, is the determining factor in human history. No one claims that the activity of magpies diminishing song-birds in British gardens is due to their superior intelligence, but rather their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In summary, Guns, Germs, and Steel provides an engrossing exploration of human history, challenging simplistic explanations while highlighting the importance of environment and adaptability. It invites readers to question prevailing beliefs and consider a fresh perspective on the interplay of cultures throughout time.

The Drina River flows calmly through the lush, rolling hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a serene and idyllic scene until you learn about the atrocities along its banks during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. In her book, Genocide on the Drina River, Edina Becirevic sheds light on the horrific genocide in this region. Through detailed research and heart-wrenching stories, Becirevic paints a harrowing picture of the mass killings, rapes, and forced deportations carried out against Bosniak Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces. It’s a powerful and sobering read that serves as a reminder of the dangers of nationalism and the importance of recognizing and preventing genocide.

Which history books should I start with?

History is an incredibly vast and fascinating subject, and it can be overwhelming to decide where to begin. However, a few books are widely considered essential starting points for any new student of history. For starters, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson is exactly what it sounds like – a concise, accessible overview of various scientific discoveries and advances throughout history. 

A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn provides a different perspective on American history, highlighting the experiences and struggles of those often marginalized by traditional narratives. 

Finally, “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman is a gripping, detailed account of the first month of World War I that draws readers in and keeps them hooked until the very end. Whether you’re interested in science, social justice, or international conflict, these books are great places to start your journey through the vast and endlessly fascinating world of history.

How can I learn about world history?

Immersing yourself in world history can be an enriching experience. There are several ways to get started, from picking up a book, visiting a museum, watching a documentary, or attending a lecture. One important aspect of learning about world history is to be open to different perspectives and interpretations of historical events. 
It’s also helpful to connect with others who share your interest in history, whether that means joining a local history club or participating in online discussions. Ultimately, the best way to learn about world history is to approach it with curiosity and a willingness to explore. By learning about the past, you can gain a greater understanding of the world and the forces that have shaped it.

Are history books worth reading?

History books are often viewed as dry collections of facts and figures, but those who take the time to delve into them know they can be powerful and engaging windows into the stories and events that have shaped our world. Through the best world history books, readers can explore the triumphs and tragedies of humanity, gaining insights into the minds and motivations of heroic and notorious figures. 
Moreover, the best world history books offer the chance to connect with other cultures and periods, providing insights into worlds that might otherwise be lost. Whether studying the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome or gaining a deeper understanding of the events that led up to the American Revolution, there’s no denying the value of history books in broadening our understanding of the world around us. 
So, if you want to expand your knowledge and ignite your imagination, don’t hesitate to open a history book or two. You might just be surprised at what you discover.

How hard is world history?

World history can be a challenging subject to tackle, but it can also be a fascinating and rewarding experience. With such a vast expanse of time and cultures to cover, it’s understandable that some students might feel intimidated. However, diving into the stories of different civilizations can provide a deeper understanding of our shared human experience and the events that have shaped our world. 
Whether diving into ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, or the rise and fall of empires, world history can be a fascinating journey into the past that reveals not only the struggles and triumphs of our ancestors but also important lessons for the future. So while it may require some effort to master, studying world history can be a rewarding experience.

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Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.