12 Days of Books: Big Bang, Big Brains, Big History

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.


  • mrspie

    The new book also sounds fascinating. This 12 Days thing (even if is on the wrong side of Christmas) has been the best kind of disaster for my book budget.

  • http://profiles.google.com/r0bb2323 Robert Beatty

    I’m already vaguely familiar with this story, but I would love to know more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mithradates Mithradates Eupator

    fascinating subject, very interesting inspiration for a book

  • librarypat

    I had not heard of this book. I can remember discussion of this topic when I was in high school. This should be an interesting exploration of the topic and the lives it affected. Thank you for participating.

    • librarypat

      I am not sure how my comment for another book ended up on this post.

  • http://twitter.com/Jack_ElHai Jack El-Hai

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I look forward to sending a copy of the book to two of you.

  • PG

    I’ve been a fan of Jack El-Hai for years. His topics are fascinating and his prose is graceful. What’s not to like?

  • cregal

    Both books sound intriguing. The histories of science and medicine are a Pandora’s Box of horror and delight. Your process as a writer is of interest, too. I spent 10 years in Minnesota, a most fascinating place full of quirks and quivers.

  • Kimberly

    What an interesting premise for a book. Sounds interesting…

  • http://www.talknewstome.com/ Matthew Brown

    Excited to have heard about this on Twitter…Looking forward to reading, signed or unsigned!

  • http://twitter.com/SusyGage Susy Gage

    This is amazing. I am fascinated by the entire story, beginning with Moniz and the Nobel Prize. I *must* read this, so you’re wasting a free copy if you give me one, because I’m buying it too lol. Horrifying… but needs to be told. Thank you for writing this!

  • Jen R

    Sounds really interesting. I’d like to read this book!

  • http://twitter.com/truebookaddict Michelle Miller

    I have always been horrified, yet strangely fascinated, by the concept of the lobotomy. I would love to read this book. Thanks for the chance!

  • Joey Conway

    History has so many dark corners full of fascinating stories.

  • Elissa Lindberg

    Looks fascinating, if a bit gruesome. The evolution of mental health as a concept and the treatments used is so interesting!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tarotbyarwen Stephanie Arwen Lynch

    What a fascinating insight into how the story came to be.

  • http://profiles.google.com/r0bb2323 Robert Beatty

    Normally I wouldn’t give something associated with the history channel a second look. But if wonders and marvels thinks I should I’ll give it a try. Wonder if it’s on netflix. To the net!

    • http://twitter.com/Jack_ElHai Jack El-Hai

      Robert, have no fear! The Lobotomist tv documentary was for PBS American Experience, not the History Channel. Netflix has it as a DVD, but not for streaming.

    • http://twitter.com/pdtoler Pamela Toler

      Thanks for being willing to check out the book, and the program.

  • Judith

    This will be the perfect gift for my brother-in-law!

  • http://twitter.com/jlwf Jennifer L.W. Fink

    So interesting a hear a bit more about what it was like to write this book! Would love to win a copy for my household.

  • River

    I would love to try my chances at winning this book. Sounds absolutely fascinating!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1215497712 Patty Leonard Woodland

    Wow. This one does sound absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the chance to win

  • Bob Mrotek

    Sounds like the History behind History. I am intrigued…

  • Carol M

    I’d be thrilled to win a copy of this book! I’ve always enjoyed history. Thank you for the giveaway!

  • Sheila

    Pick me please! I really want this one.

  • Kimberly

    This one looks great! Very intriguing!

  • http://twitter.com/pdtoler Pamela Toler

    Thanks for all the comments, folks. I’m really glad we’re choosing winners randomly. :)

  • http://twitter.com/truebookaddict Michelle Miller

    I caught the first couple of episodes of this series, but then didn’t have time to keep watching. Hope to catch again some time. Would love to have this companion book! Thanks for the chance.

  • http://twitter.com/darwinsbulldog Michael Barton

    This book would be great to have!

  • http://twitter.com/Trepanatus Liam Moore

    I’d love to see your take on this. I teach world history, and the question of what to leave in and what to leave out is very maddening.

    • http://twitter.com/pdtoler Pamela Toler

      What to leave in and what to leave out is the big, unanswerable question for all of us. Maddening indeed.

      • http://twitter.com/Jack_ElHai Jack El-Hai

        But it’s thrilling, too. It’s the most creative part of writing history and biography.

        • http://twitter.com/pdtoler Pamela Toler


          • http://twitter.com/Trepanatus Liam Moore

            And of course integrating specific themes (What is empire? What is the connection between religion and political thought?) with specific civilizations and the broader connections between civilizations is a tough nut to crack.

          • http://twitter.com/Trepanatus Liam Moore

            This is interesting. My comments are appearing on the threads for both Jack’s and Pamela’s books. I do want a chance at both of them.

  • Adam

    OK, this is something I would really love to read. I’m in! And many thanks for the chance :).

  • http://patrickdjoyce.com/ Patrick D. Joyce

    Sorry to hear about the Indus Valley civilization Pamela! But the book looks fascinating. I can think of several people of my holiday gift list who’d like it too!

  • http://twitter.com/DDisciplines Mari Miller

    I love interdisciplinary work- this sounds right up my alley!

  • http://twitter.com/ChewDigestBooks Gwen@ChewDigestBooks

    I have been wanting to read this since it flew by my radar quite a bit ago. The treatment of mental illness in history is a fav topic of mine since I suffer from it:)

  • librarypat

    I caught some of this series, but not nearly enough of it. This is the way I like my history. I don’t want to know just the what, but the why and how they are connected. I will have to check our local libraries to see if any of them have the DVDs. This looks like a great book. I have found the companion books to many of the PBS, History Channel, and Discovery Channel series to be excellent and enjoyable.

  • Meridth Gimbel

    Loved the series, this book sounds just as exciting!

  • A Philosopher

    This is an important story to be told. I’ve read _Great and Desparate Cures_, and the problem of passionate people who propose a quick technical “fix” for a problem for which people are desperate is always with us. I definitely want a copy of this book.

  • Meridth Gimbel

    I had no idea that lobotomies where still preformed in the 1960s. That blows my mind. This sounds like a very interesting read.

  • librarypat

    What luck. The History Channel started running this series this week and will continue it over the next week. Started watching the episode with Captain Cook. Very good. They cover so much in such a short period. I kept saying “but I want to know more.”

    • http://twitter.com/pdtoler Pamela Toler

      I think if it leaves you wanting to know more, it’s done its job.

  • Emily Jane

    Sounds awesome! This book would be a very welcome addition to my collection of gore filled history, and also very helpful in my MA studies this year in the history of science and medicine at Kent.

  • jbena27

    Looks neat, would love to check this out.

  • Lindsey Karm

    Sounds good.

  • http://twitter.com/ChloeOkoli Chloe Okoli

    Sounds like a great book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mona.sydd.yma Mona Everett

    Missed the TV show–would prefer the book, anyway!

  • http://www.davidsfinch.com David Finch

    The book sounds awesome!

  • http://twitter.com/Jack_ElHai Jack El-Hai

    Please see the update in the post above for the name of the winner of the copy of the signed book. Thanks, everyone, for your interest!