BHP Team

Take it from Big History teachers: Once you start teaching BHP, you begin making connections to texts everywhere. What follows is a list of teacher-recommended books—one per each of the course’s 10 units—generously compiled by veteran BHP teachers Ben Tomlisson and Scott Henstrand. Summer break is the perfect time to deepen your content knowledge! Enjoy, and share your thoughts with the BHP Book Club on Yammer!

Unit 1: What Is Big History?

What Is History? by Edward Carr
Such a beautifully short and precise book for remembering what we do as historians.

Origin Story, by David Christian

Set to be released in May of this year, David Christian’s book offers scientific discoveries in a wonderful narrative that ties nicely into the Big Historian’s work with all human origin narratives.

Unit 2: The Big Bang

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin

In her story of “drive, ambition, curiosity, conflict, tenacity, [and] defiance,” Janna Levin details the search for the gravitational waves once theorized by Einstein. This book lays out the pitfalls and victories along the way to this great discovery, a massive endeavor that came with a huge budget and risks to match.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

Brings the wonder and awe inherent in the deep discoveries of physics. Lyrical and accessible.

Unit 3: Stars and Elements

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, by Dava Sobel

Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Annie Jump Cannon. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Antonia Maury. Williamina Fleming. The story of five women whose astronomical discoveries changed our understanding of this great Universe we inhabit.

Unit 4: Our Solar System and Earth

A Most Improbable Journey- A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves, by Walter Alvarez

Where does a geologist get off writing like this? Where science and poetic thinking meet.

Unit 5: Life

On Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin

So many wonderful texts out there on life. We should all read some Darwin. A great, short piece that captures the gist.

The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, by Nick Lane

In true Big History spirit, biochemist Nick Lane asks questions that lead to more questions. Why is life the way it is? Why is it that all complex living organisms share certain features, like aging and death? Do the same rules hold in the cosmos? A true collective learner who builds on the ideas of a hundred others, this is a fairly technical but still accessible read on new ideas surrounding evolution and life’s origins.

Unit 6: Early Humans

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

A great “Big” history of humanity, Harari asks interesting questions like: Why us? Why was it Homo sapiens that came to dominate this planet? He makes a number of claims to answer these questions, not least that it was our increase in cognitive capacity that enabled us to form language, religions, and achieve other complex innovations.

Unit 7: Agriculture and Civilization

Collapse, by Jared Diamond

A fascinating overview that will answer one of the key questions of this unit: Why do civilizations fail? What environmental and political factors are at play and can we learn from the collapses of past societies?

Unit 8: Expansion and Interconnection

The Columbian Exchange, by Alfred Crosby

A multi-disciplinary account of the real impact of the Columbian exchange, including the long-term effects of the biological exchanges of hemispheres.

Unit 9: Acceleration

Adventures in the Anthropocene, by Gaia Vince

“It took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last 10 years to add the latest billion.” The recent explosion in human population, and our related activities – from airplane travel to improved farming methods—has prompted many geologists to declare we are in the dawn of a new era: the Anthropocene, or Age of Man. Vince brings us along for an adventure that isn’t just doom-and-gloom.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

An extraordinary tale of the problems caused by the Modern Revolution, a story of the cholera outbreak in London and how old ideas like miasma and the four humors prevailed in the age before germ theory. The story centers on two individuals who used logic and evidence to solve the mystery of what caused this dreadful disease, but then had to overturn authority figures who disputed their claim.

Unit 10: The Future

The Sixth Extinction,by Elizabeth Kolbert

In Big History, we look at patterns of the past to decipher where we might be going. Kolbert looks to five past extinction events – moments in our planet’s history when sudden change caused diversity to plummet – to draw fascinating, albeit frightening, connections to the present. Are we on the verge of a sixth mass extinction?

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

This novel is set in the year 2045, on a planet Earth teeming with social problems and economic despair in part driven by energy depletion and global warming. A teenage kid who found little success in traditional school, now attends it in a virtual reality setting. He quickly becomes distracted by a worldwide videogame mission. If you like video games, 80s pop culture references, and dystopian (or is it Utopian?) future, this one’s for you!

Cover image: Reading, by Almeida Júnior, 1892. Public domain.

2 thoughts on “Big History 2018 Summer Reading List

  1. Looking for a Big History-themed summer read-aloud to curious middle school children. Would any of these books work?


    1. Hi there! Great question. This list was compiled with adult educators in mind. “Ready Player One” is a novel from the list that could be middle school appropriate, but if you’re looking for something more directly tied to the Big History narrative we’d suggest “Big History, Small World: From the Big Bang to You” by Cynthia Stokes Brown. It was written with a 9th-grade audience in mind.


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