Wanted: Books which (attempt to) explain EVERYTHING.

See, I love books which attempt to explain EVERYTHING. All of history, all of philosophy, the human condition - life, the universe and everything.

A perfect example would be Oswald Spengler’s The Decline Of The West.

To be clear, I don’t actually care if the “grand thesis” is correct or incorrect - the universal scope and ambition itself is what attracts me.

So, does anybody have some book recommendations along those lines?

The Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas

Just in time for Easter!

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of these.

I’ve heard criticism about its accuracy, but I can tell you it’s a good read.

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything
In spite of the title, it is the shortest, most concise summary of his work.

On the humor side, Dave Barry Slept Here is his own personal account of (US) history from the beginning of time up to when Regan was president.

Umm, The Bible?:wink:

I came in expecting someone to have recommended Guns, Germs, and Steel. I haven’t read it yet, but from reading about it seems like it might be up your alley.

Some sort of travel guide perhaps?

Snap! My thought too.

And its pretty accurate coming from a layman writer. I couldn’t fault it at all.

Another excellent book with a vast scope is Richard Dawkins “The Ancestors Tale”. This is a careful climb up (or down if you prefer) of the evolutionary tree back to approx 2 billion years ago.

There have been various books called How Things Work that try to be omnibus explanations for how devices run. Probably most people are famuiliar with David Macauley’s version The Way Things Work:


But a great many more things are covered, more seriously in the one from the 1960s translated from a German original:


Of course, the grad-daddy of these things is Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia:



Come to think of it, Encyclopedias are arguably the best (although not the most interessting) answer to the OP’s question. Would Wikipedia be the ultimate answer?

There’s a second volume of the German encyclopedia, byu the way. We had both volumes:

There are also a number of other, later volumes relating to other topics, I see. But I’m not familar with those

The reader comments, by the way, seem to have this book confused with Macauley’s – this book’s got no wooly mammoths, and a lot of kids would find its “nuts and bolts” descriptions boring.

Doubt: A History

A detailed treatise on the role that skepticism has played throughout history. Really fascinating stuff.

To help assess such works, you may find it useful to apply the concept of the Kimstu Superficiality Quotient.

This is a formula that I devised after years of patient research (okay, after one annoying afternoon in a major chain bookstore) for a rule-of-thumb estimate of how shallow a putatively serious and scholarly work is likely to be.

Take the number of years in the chronological range spanned by the book’s subject. Multiply it by the approximate number of pages the subject would be allotted in a comprehensive encyclopedia. Divide by the number of pages in the book.

A KSQ value greater than 10 suggests that the topic is too big for really informed serious treatment in a book that size, while a value less than 1 indicates a fairly esoteric and/or specialist work.

Example: let’s say you’re looking at a 500-page book claiming to be a history of poetry throughout the human literary tradition. Conservatively estimating the time period of human literacy at about 4500 years, and estimating the topic of poetry (including different cultural traditions and social functions, technical issues of prosody, etc.) to require maybe 5-10 pages in the Encyclopedia Britannica or some such, you get a minimum KSQ value of 4500*5/500 = 45. Not quite Reader’s Digest, but hardly an in-depth treatment.

Ah, yes, but see what really gets my juices flowing is when the book has, at its center, some kind of grand theory which, in the author’s eyes, explains how all the different parts fit together.

All of history/society/religion/philosophy/art/etc. explained by, say, “the class struggle” or evolution or instinctual repression or childrearing (!) or, uh, auditory hallucinations (!!!).

I probably should have made all that clear in the OP! :smack:

Ok – then you’re not really looking for “books about everything”, but (often kooky) books about how some odd little fact or detail is extremely important in explaining a great number of phenomena.
Julian Jaynes’ book, for example, doesn’t purport to be an “attempt to explain everything”, and I would never have thought to include it from your OP. But it is an atempt to push an odd little theory that claims to explain much about the way our brains work and a lot of features of human culture.

Can’t beat Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision on that score. All of ancient astronomy and most mythology and folklore derived from one (completely imaginary) planetary geophysical oopsie!

For something that more or less qualifies for the “Theory of Everything” category but is really well-researched and informative, although with an as-yet-undetermined percentage of crazy, I heartily recommend Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road, or Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun Were Just Misunderstood (okay, that last bit is not really part of the book’s title).

The author’s main thesis is that from prehistory up to the early modern period, semi-nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes were much more significant players in the development of human civilization than they are generally given credit for. He argues that the littoral cultures like Greece and Rome etc. were really comparatively peripheral in more senses than one, but their influence has been exaggerated due to their cultural descendants developing worldwide sea trade and thus ushering in modern versions of globalization. Consequently, their biased perspective on Central Asian peoples as vicious barbarians has become conventional wisdom.

According to Beckwith, continuities in Central Asian culture explain everything from the spread of Indo-European languages to kingship customs as far apart as Japan and Ireland, as well as pre-modern global trade and cultural exchange. He even connects the decline of Central Asian states to the rise of international cultural/political trends such as modernism, communism, and post-modernism, all of which he dislikes, including (inexplicably) Picasso.

Although this latter part of the argument does look quite wackyboots, Beckwith is a very knowledgeable and serious scholar and packs a hell of a lot of fascinating information and intriguing insights and speculations into the earlier sections of the book. If you do read Empires of the Silk Road, you’ll be talking about it for a while.

Yep, more or less. Going from the examples in the thread so far, Summa Theologica, Guns, Germs, and Steel and A Theory of Everything have all piqued my interest.

ETA: Oh and Empires of the Silk Road sounds great too!

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” sounds like exactly what you’re looking for. Kahneman is one of the most influential psychological researchers of the twentieth century, and this book lays out the theory of mind that he and his colleagues developed.

I would like to propose “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe and William Howe. It attempts (successfully in my opinion) to explain all of American history (with a nod to ALL of history) in terms of their theory of generational cycles.

It is now impossible for me to see anything that happens in the news without fitting it into their framework.

Daniel Boorstein has some wonderful books, one is called The Discoverers which is about scientists and explorers throughout history. Then he wrote The Creators which is about artists, storytellers, composers, throughout history. Then he wrote The Seekers which is about philosophers and religion throughout history.