A leading thinker recommends five books about his or her field of interest. This month, the topic is the History of the Present, with books chosen by historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash.
Herodotus was, in a way, a historian of the present. He is the father of us all. Herodotus is really the first one who goes around with his eyes and ears and notebook open, recording all these fantastic stories and trying to put it all together to work out what happened and why. He is the first person who does this business of saying, “Well this is what the Persians say about it and this is what the Greeks say about it, so let’s try and work out what’s the truth in between.”
Modern readers of Herodotus can learn a fair amount about how history happens—the interplay of individuals, personalities and larger forces like economics, geography, technology and, of course, chance. It’s all there in Herodotus, along, it has to be said, with a lot of fantastical details, like ants the size of dogs, flying snakes and stuff like that. It’s also a lot of fun and there’s vigour in the prose.