By Pamela Toler (Wonders and Marvels Contributor)
Mankind: The Story of All of Us is the history of the world from the Big Bang to the 21st century—told in six two-hour television episodes and one 437-page book.
Writing the companion book for a television series is different than writing a book based on your own concept. You have to work within the constraints of other people’s visions of what the book should be. You have to match the style and structure of their vision while still creating something that stands on its own and is recognizably yours. You have to leave stuff out that you really, really want to include. (Alas, the Indus Valley civilization did not make the cut.)
I will admit that I was slow to catch on. “Think the Bourne Ultimatum” made me want to bang my head on the table. “Think Man as the hero of his own story” made me grind my feminist teeth. But “Think Big History” caught my attention. This was a concept I could work with.
Big History integrates many academic disciplines in order to look at human history as a tiny part of the history of cosmos. Basically, it’s the opposite of the academic mantra “not my field”. This TED talk by Big History promoter David Christian sums up the general principles:
In a true Big History book, homo sapiens would appear in the last chapter. Maybe even on the last page. Obviously that wouldn’t work in a book called Mankind. But the principles of Big History did encourage me to ask different questions. Not just how the salt trade functioned in ancient times, but why our bodies need salt. Not just when did farming start, but how was grain domesticated. Not just the role of fire in making tools, but the role of fire in making modern man.
Ultimately Big History helped me write big history.
Pamela Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history, a large bump of curiosity, and a red-hot library card. She is the author of The Everything Guide to Socialism and Mankind: The Story of All of Us, a companion book to the History Channel Series of the same name.