Blog Archives

A lively, engaging guide to music around the world, from prehistory to the present

Human beings have always made music. Music can move us and tell stories of faith, struggle, or love. It is common to all cultures across the world. But how has it changed over the millennia?

Robert Philip explores the extraordinary history of music in all its forms, from our earliest ancestors to today’s mass-produced songs. This is a truly global story. Looking to Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and beyond, Philip reveals how musicians have been brought together by trade and migration and examines the vast impact of colonialism. From Hildegard von Bingen and Clara Schumann to Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, great performers and composers have profoundly shaped music as we know it.

Covering a remarkable range of genres, including medieval chant, classical opera, jazz, and hip hop, this Little History shines a light on the wonder of music—and why it is treasured across the world.

“The impossible elegantly achieved: a history of music spanning five continents and thousands of years in just 278 lucid, friendly pages. Whether you are musically expert or you don’t know your opera from your hip-hop, it’s a joy to read.” – John Rutter, composer and conductor

“An engrossing, often surprising book that helps break the classical music silo. Philip places the development of the art form alongside contemporary social, political and religious developments and connects the European masters to issues of global identity and nationalism, with fascinating results.” – Petroc Trelawny, BBC Radio 3 broadcaster

“An astonishing feat of concision, this Little History covers all known kinds of music, ever, from everywhere. It’s written with fairness and balance, but also enthusiasm and love for the activity of music-making. The foregrounding of popular music in the twentieth century is particularly striking and original.” – Judith Weir, composer and Master of the King’s Music

A thrilling journey through 100,000 years of art, from the origins of mark making to art’s pivotal role in culture today

Why did our ancestors make art? What did art mean to them and what does their art mean for us today? Why is art even important at all?

Charlotte Mullins brings art to life by focusing on those who made it, from teenage prodigies to nonagenarians. This little history introduces us to overlooked artists, busts a few art history myths, and celebrates global networks of art, from Japan and India to South America and the Middle East.

Mullins shows us the first artworks ever made and early masterpieces such as the Terracotta Army and Nok sculptures. She tells the story of the Renaissance, from Giotto to Michelangelo, and introduces us to subsequent leading artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rembrandt, and Hokusai. Through the turbulence of the twentieth century, we see artists group together and break apart and meet trailblazers including Käthe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and Jacob Lawrence. More recently contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei and Shirin Neshat create art as resistance as they address today’s urgent issues. This extraordinary journey through 100,000 years celebrates art’s crucial place in understanding our collective culture and history.

“A crisp and informative narrative of art’s main trajectories and its leading figures . . . [Mullins] packs in a surprising amount of material.” – Michael Prodger, Country Life

“Author and art historian Charlotte Mullins aims to challenge the ‘myopic prioritisation of male Western art’ in earlier art history publications.” – Gareth Harris, Art Newspaper

You can find our interview with illustrator Mat Pringle, exploring his work on A Little History of Art, here.

A vital, engaging, and hugely enjoyable guide to poetry, from ancient times to the present, by one of our greatest champions of literature

What is poetry? If music is sound organized in a particular way, poetry is a way of organizing language. It is language made special so that it will be remembered and valued. It does not always work—over the centuries countless thousands of poems have been forgotten. This little history is about some that have not.

John Carey tells the stories behind the world’s greatest poems, from the oldest surviving one written nearly four thousand years ago to those being written today. Carey looks at poets whose works shape our views of the world, such as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Yeats. He also looks at more recent poets, like Derek Walcott, Marianne Moore, and Maya Angelou, who have started to question what makes a poem “great” in the first place. This little history shines a light on the richness and variation of the world’s poems—and the elusive quality that makes them all the more enticing.

What is archaeology? The word may bring to mind images of golden pharaohs and lost civilizations, or Neanderthal skulls and Ice Age cave art. Archaeology is all of these, but also far more: the only science to encompass the entire span of human history—more than three million years!

This Little History tells the riveting stories of some of the great archaeologists and their amazing discoveries around the globe: ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan ruins, the first colonial settlements at Jamestown, mysterious Stonehenge, the incredibly preserved Pompeii, and many, many more. In forty brief, exciting chapters, the book recounts archaeology’s development from its eighteenth-century origins to its twenty-first-century technological advances, including remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery techniques that have revolutionized the field. Shining light on the most intriguing events in the history of the field, this absolutely up-to-date book illuminates archaeology’s controversies, discoveries, heroes and scoundrels, global sites, and newest methods for curious readers of every age.

Our Little History of Economics is a lively, inviting account of the history of economics, told through events from ancient to modern times and the ideas of great thinkers in the field.

What causes poverty? Are economic crises inevitable under capitalism? Is government intervention in an economy a helpful approach or a disastrous idea? The answers to such basic economic questions matter to everyone, yet the unfamiliar jargon and maths of economics can seem daunting. Clear, accessible and even humorous, A Little History of Economics is ideal for young readers new to economics and for all readers who seek a better understanding of the full sweep of economic history and ideas. Economic historian Niall Kishtainy (former economic policy advisor to the UK government and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa) organises short, chronological chapters that centre on big ideas and events. He recounts the contributions of key thinkers including Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and others, while examining topics ranging from the invention of money and the rise of agrarianism to the Great Depression, entrepreneurship, environmental destruction, inequality and behavioural economics. The result is a uniquely enjoyable Little History that succeeds in illuminating the economic ideas and forces that shape our world.

In an era of hardening religious attitudes and explosive religious violence, A Little History of Religion offers a welcome antidote. Richard Holloway retells the entire history of religion – from the dawn of religious belief to the twenty-first century – with deepest respect and a keen commitment to accuracy. Writing for those with faith and those without, and especially for young readers, he encourages curiosity and tolerance, accentuates nuance and mystery, and calmly restores a sense of the value of faith.

Ranging far beyond the major world religions of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, A Little History of Religion also examines where religious belief comes from, the search for meaning throughout history, today’s fascinations with Scientology and creationism, religiously motivated violence, hostilities between religious people and secularists, and more. Holloway proves an empathic yet discerning guide to the enduring significance of faith and its power from ancient times to our own.

‘This lovable book is clearly modelled on a best-seller from the same publisher, Gombrich’s A Little History of the World … It takes you from the assertion that religion is something which “comes from the mind of the human animal”, and romps through the whole story, from the revelation on Sinai to the composition of the Vedas and the chronology of Hinduism and Buddhism, with short-summaries of their better known texts.’ – A. N. Wilson, The Tablet

How did a land and people of such immense diversity come together under a banner of freedom and equality to form one of the most remarkable nations in the world? Everyone from young adults to grandparents will be fascinated by the answers uncovered in James West Davidson’s vividly-told A Little History of the United States. In 300 fast-moving pages, Davidson guides his readers through 500 years, from the first contact between the two halves of the world to the rise of America as a superpower in an era of atomic perils and diminishing resources.

In short, vivid chapters the book brings to life hundreds of individuals whose stories are part of the larger American story. Pilgrim William Bradford stumbles into an Indian deer trap on his first day in America; Harriet Tubman lets loose a pair of chickens to divert attention from her escaping slaves; the toddler Andrew Carnegie, later an ambitious industrial magnate, gobbles his oatmeal with a spoon in each hand. Such stories are riveting in themselves, but they also spark larger questions to ponder about freedom, equality and unity in the context of a nation that is, and always has been, remarkably divided and diverse.

‘As a very readable rattle through the basic facts of a remarkable story this Little History is hard to beat.’ – Roger Cox, Scotsman

First published in English in 2005, A Little History of the World has sold over half a million copies and become one of the treasures of historical writing. In forty concise chapters, E.H. Gombrich tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colourful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science.

In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job, the 26-year-old Ernst Gombrich was invited to attempt a history of the world for younger readers. Amazingly, he completed the task in an intense six weeks, and Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser was published in Vienna to immediate success, and is now available in twenty-five languages across the world.Given his subsequent career, it is not a surprise that Gombrich’s text suggests illustrations on every page. This new illustrated edition brings together the pellucid humanity of his narrative with the images that may well have been in his mind’s eye as he wrote the book. With a revised preface, new maps, two hundred illustrations (most in colour), high-grade design and classic binding, this is both a sumptuous gift book and an enhanced edition of a timeless account of human history.

Little HistoryChapter 25 of the illustrated A Little History of the World


In A Little History of Literature, Sutherland introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humour as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984 and dozens of others. He adds to these a less-expected, personal selection of authors and works, including literature usually considered well below ‘serious attention’ – from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes to The Da Vinci Code. With masterful digressions into various themes – censorship, narrative tricks, self-publishing, taste, creativity and madness – Sutherland demonstrates the full depth and intrigue of reading. For younger readers, he offers a proper introduction to literature, promising to interest as much as instruct. For more experienced readers, he promises just the same. This tour de force tour round the literature of the world separates the wheat from the chaff to distil the highlights of three thousand years of writing.

‘I suspect that an expert like John Sutherland could have written this highly entertaining and informative history without recourse to any research at all, having it pretty much at his fingertips; and it reads extremely well, as though he is simply having a chat with us about literature and why it matters.’  Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday

Professor John Sutherland’s previous books include Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.

As today’s science make giant leaps of discovery, A Little History of Science boils down its long and complex history and links together its many different fields to tell the greatest story on earth. From the first civilisations who looked up at the stars and down at the ground, to present-day telescopes exploring the deepest depths of space and computers deciphering the building blocks of life, Bill Bynum effortlessly explains the discoveries and developments that have transformed the world and how we understand it. More than that, he also delves into the lives and passions of the amazing people who made it all happen.

But do you know your Einstein from your elbow?

Match these giants of science (A-F) to what they’re most famous for (1-6). Answers at the bottom of the page.

A  Marie Curie
B  Isaac Newton
C  Tim Berners-Lee
D  Galileo
E  William Harvey
F  James Watson and Francis Crick

1  Showed that the earth travels around the sun, not the other way around
2  First described the circulation of blood round the human body
3  Explained how forces like gravity affect moving objects, such as an apple falling from a tree
4  Discovered the element radium and radioactivity
5  Revealed the structure of DNA
6  Invented the World Wide Web

These are just a handful of the hundreds of remarkable scientists that you can find out about in our A Little History of Science – a bookful of ‘Eurekas!’


Answers: A4, B3, C6, D1, E2, F5