H.G. Wells, An Outline of History 
Academic historians considered this the work of a dilettante when it first came out, and it is now certainly outdated in many respects. But in a relatively short span you get the whole story of humanity as seen by one highly perceptive member of the race. There is much to be gained from reading a history that represents a personal viewpoint, assuming that the author is reasonably knowledgeable and a good writer (which is certainly the case with Wells). If nothing else, this provides a narrative coherence that is often lacking in bland academic compilations that have only too obviously been written by committees of scholars, or in trendy blockbusters that have been geared for sensationalism.
[Rexroth essay on H.G. Wells and Henry James]
Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization (11 vols.)
Much the same could be said about this immense history. I found it interesting enough that I read the whole thing. Like most world histories until rather recently, it deals primarily with Western history, but it does include a fat opening volume on Eastern societies.
William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West
Despite its title, this is the first major world history that really is one, in that it focuses approximately equally on the four major centers of civilization: China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. (The title refers to the European rise to dominance during the last 500 years.)
Atlas of World History
Few books are more continually fascinating than a good historical atlas. The best is probably the latest edition of The Times Atlas of World History. It is also the most expensive. Well worth splurging on, but there are many other adequate ones published by Oxford, Penguin, etc.
C.W. Ceram, Gods, Graves and Scholars
Stories of the major archeological discoveries of the last two centuries (Egypt, Sumeria, Troy, Chichén Itzá, etc.). A more recent survey, L. Sprague de Camp and Catherine de Camps Ancient Ruins and Archeology, covers several newer discoveries.
Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical
Civilization (3 vols.) [1987/2006]
A fascinating work. Despite what the title might lead one to think, this is not one of those crackpot contentions that everything originated in Africa. It presents what seem to me (granting that I am no expert in these areas) to be very cogent arguments that the Egyptian and western Asian influences on classical Greece were much greater than was previously thought (due in part to the racist ideology that developed during the centuries of slavery and colonialism, which naturally tended to treat Greece as a white European civilization that miraculously burst forth out of its own genius and owed virtually nothing to other races or cultures).
The first two volumes are the most interesting and accessible. The third volume (“The Linguistic Evidence”) is also interesting, but longer and much more technical, filled with complicated etymologies among numerous ancient Middle Eastern languages. Bernals replies to his critics are included in Black Athena Writes Back.
Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars
[ca. 450 BC]
Herodotus is one of the most readable of historians and his subject, the Greeks defeat of the Persian invasions (500-479 BC), is one of the most crucial and fascinating moments of history. He builds up to the exciting climax in dramatic fashion, but in the process he presents a leisurely examination of the cultures and customs of all the surrounding regions, from Egypt to Scythia.
Get The Landmark Herodotus (ed. Robert Strassler), a superlatively designed book whose hundreds of maps, illustrations and annotations make it by far the best edition for getting a convenient grasp on every aspect of this marvelous story.
[Rexroth essay on Herodotus]
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Where Herodotus is chatty and digressive, Thucydides is more rigorous and intense, as is his subject, the disastrous war among the Greek city-states (431-404 BC) that followed their victory over the Persians. His terse narrative makes only one concession to dramaticality: In order to set out the conflicting interests with the greatest clarity, he composes speeches for the statesmen, generals, ambassadors and other key protagonists, presenting their arguments perhaps even more cogently than they actually did (what they would have said had they been totally lucid). This gives his history a dramatic form that owes something to the Greek tragedians and foreshadows Platos philosophical dialogues. In all these cases we are seeing expressions of the beginnings of democracy, with issues that were previously decided behind closed doors now being publicly debated.
The Landmark Thucydides (ed. Strassler) is recommended for the same reasons as the above-mentioned edition of Herodotus.
[Rexroth essay on Thucydides]
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
[ca. 110 AD]
Vivid short biographies of the movers and shapers of classical times. I followed Rexroths recommendation and read the lively Elizabethan translation by Sir Thomas North, which Shakespeare cribbed from for his Roman plays; but there are several modern versions if thats more to your taste. For starters, you might try reading Plutarchs life of Julius Caesar, then Shakespeares Julius Caesar, then Caesars own writings (see below).
[Rexroth essay on Plutarchs Lives]
You will really be missing something if you dont read Herodotus, Thucydides, and at least some of Plutarch. The great Roman historians are perhaps not quite so essential, but they still make interesting reading, each in their very different ways. Livy covers the early period of the Roman republic (The Early History of Rome; The War with Hannibal). The former volume is probably mostly legendary, but it includes many classic stories that reappear in later literature. Julius Caesar wrote terse, urbane reports on the wars in which he himself took part (The Gallic War; The Civil War). They have an air of objectivity he even refers to himself in third person but were of course ultimately motivated by his own political agendas. Tacitus, chronicling the decadent lives and reigns of the first emperors (The Annals; The Histories), is more somber and cynical. You might want to compare Robert Gravess excellent historical novels about the same period: I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
[Rexroth essay on Tacitus]
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
This is probably the greatest history ever written. In fact, it’s one of the world’s greatest works in any genre. Gibbon may at first seem stodgy or pompous, but this is just because we’re no longer accustomed to the elegant eighteenth-century style, with its leisurely rhythm and carefully balanced sentences. After you’ve read a chapter or two you get used to it, and in fact come to savor it. Practically every sentence is a delight, no matter what his subject. Set aside a quiet time and read the Decline and Fall at about the same pace as if you were reading out loud. In fact, you might try actually reading it out loud I have some friends who went through the whole immense work in that manner. This is a marvelous way to experience any great work, particularly narrative ones like novels and histories, as well as being a pleasant way for the listeners to pass the time while they are taking care of repetitive sedentary tasks. (In Victorian England this was done not only in peoples homes, with the family sitting around the fireplace, but sometimes even in the workshops, one person being chosen to read aloud the latest installment of a Dickens novel while everyone else worked.)
A few quotes (incidentally, some of his most amusing remarks are in the footnotes): About St. Augustine: His learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own. About religion: The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. About Patriarch Gennadius: “His defence, at Florence, of the same union, which he so furiously attacked at Constantinople, has tempted Leo Allatius to divide him into two men; but Renaudot has restored the identity of his person and the duplicity of his character.” About King Gordian: Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the production which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation. (Footnote: By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible.)
[Rexroth essay on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall]
[Rexroth essay on Gibbon’s Letters]
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
The classic cultural and historical study of this period, by the friend and teacher of Nietzsche.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince; The Discourses
Machiavelli is not so Machiavellian as he has been made out to be, just an honest analyst of how power and governments actually work. The Prince is short and essential. The Discourses flesh it out with more detailed examples drawn from Livys early Roman history.
[Rexroth essay on Machiavelli]
Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium
Standard work on the millenarian movements of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation.
Kenneth Rexroth, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century
Excellent account of communalist tendencies throughout history, including the millenarian movements but also a great variety of subsequent utopian experiments. The book is long out of print, but it is online at this website.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down
This is the book I most recommend about the English Revolution (1640-1660). I made a few brief remarks on it here. Hill wrote several other interesting works about the same period on Milton, Cromwell, Bunyan, etc. and edited a collection of writings by the Digger Gerrard Winstanley.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America (2 vols.)
As a child I was fascinated by the Great Age of Exploration (ca. 1480-1600) and, at the risk of seeming politically incorrect, I still am, even though I am quite aware that the actions and motives of the European explorers were usually more sordid than they were let on to be in our high-school textbooks. Morisons history is probably still the best, though I expect that many current readers would complain that he is not critical enough of the Europeans.
A splendid supplement to Morison is The Times Atlas of World Exploration (ed. Fernandez-Armesto). It is not limited to the Great Age, but also covers other eras before and since, including explorations setting out from China and other non-European countries.
William Prescott, The Conquest of Mexico; The Conquest of Peru
Prescott is one of Americas three great historians (the other two being Parkman and Henry Adams). His Mexican history in particular is one of the most astonishing adventures ever told one of those stories that, if presented as fiction, would be scorned as too unrealistic to be credible.
Francis Parkman, France and England in North America
This series of seven books (recently collected in two hefty Library of America volumes) covers the French exploration and colonization of North America from the St. Lawrence River through the Great Lakes region and down the Mississippi, the relations with the Indians, and the confrontations with the expanding English colonies, culminating with the French and Indian War and the dramatic siege of Quebec (1759). If the complete work seems too long, there is a Viking Portable Parkman.
[Rexroth essay on Parkman]
* * *
Ssu-ma Chien, Records of the Grand Historian of China
[ca. 100 BC]
Selections from the ancient Chinese history, translated by Burton Watson. One- and two-volume editions were published in the 1960s. A revised edition (with the authors name given in the different form Sima Qian) appeared in 1993.
Marco Polo, The Travels
The fascinating account of a medieval Venetians journey to China and back (1271-1295) a unique moment in the history of intercultural encounters.
Matthew Ricci, China in the 16th Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci,
Three centuries later the encounter picks up again. Matteo Ricci was the leader of the first Jesuit mission in China. His journal is an intelligent and urbane account of the meeting between the two cultures at a point when they were still relatively open to each other. Ricci and his colleagues adopted Chinese clothing and manners, learned Chinese, studied and translated the Chinese classics, had a fairly sympathetic opinion of Confucianism, and tried to present Christianity in Chinese terms. This tolerant ecumenical approach was soon put to an end by the Catholic Churchs decision to insist on rigidly European styles and dogmas.
[Rexroth essay on Riccis Journals]
Joseph Needham et al., Science and Civilization in China
This immense work, one of the most remarkable scholarly achievements of all time, has been in progress for over half a century. The twenty-odd volumes that have been published so far are prohibitively expensive, but they can be found in some libraries. The first two volumes constitute an excellent general survey of Chinese culture; the others make fascinating perusing.
Robert Temples The Genius of China: 3000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention sums up Needhams findings in much briefer and more popular form. There is also an interesting book about Needham’s life, Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China.
[Rexroth reviews of Science and Civilisation in China]
A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India
An excellent survey from the earliest times through 1200 AD. A second volume by S.A.A. Rizvi, which I havent read, continues the history from the Muslim conquest to the coming of the British.
Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (3 vols.)
A highly regarded scholarly history of Islamic societies. Ive only read the first volume (The Classical Age of Islam), but the other two are probably also good.
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah
Introductory volume of one of the worlds major histories. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes a bit dry. Ibn Khaldun was the first historian to operate on what we would now call scientific principles, with considerable attention given to geographical and economic influences and rather subtle insights into internal cultural and political dynamics.
Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa; A History of West Africa; A
History of East and Central Africa [1959, 1966, 1969]
Hard evidence on African history is frustratingly limited, but Davidsons books (he has written more than a dozen) seem to be among the most reliable. Of the above-mentioned ones, The Lost Cities deals with the oldest centers of African civilization, the other two cover more recent centuries.
Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).