World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


James Carter and Richard Warren, Forging the Modern World: A History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xv + 391. Credits and Index. $39.95 (paper).


     The quickly growing field of World History presents many challenges for both instructors and students. For the instructor, the greatest challenge often centers on the question of what to cover in a survey course. Oftentimes we find ourselves facing the question, "do I include this or not?"  Moreover, the emergent global approach to teaching these courses makes selecting a textbook that mirrors the instructor's preferred topics more critical than ever. Students need a text that helps them to see the global connections between different peoples, cities, nations, and empires. Forging the Modern World does an excellent job of creating a course outline that both students and instructors will find manageable and inclusive of a significant amount of global history. The authors do this in a creative and accessible manner.

     Authors James Carter and Richard Warren have created a text that thematically is focused on the idea of "forging," as the title suggests. They write in the introduction that they purposely chose the word "forging because it conveys the sense of active creation that applied to both historical actors and historians" (2). The book is an attempt to balance the broad trends of world history with the historical outcomes that happen because of human agency (16). The book is at its core wrestling with what most World History instructors face each time they give a survey course – how to integrate the study of these enormous macro-level forces and of the humanity in history.

     The organization of Forging the Modern World reflects this balance. Rather than regionalizing topics, with rare exception, chapters are thematically centered around the idea of forging and progress over time as the organizing feature. This is done quite successfully throughout the text, which is no easy feat. The authors acknowledge that parts of the world will not get equal coverage in the text, but they try very hard to offer a balanced narrative throughout the book. Each chapter starts with a story-like narrative that sets the scene. These are well constructed and introduce key leaders, decisions, and situations that are important to that chapter's key concepts and events. I found these openings to be strong access points for students generally, and a good avenue for humanizing large-scale topics. This weaving of the topics into a singular narrative is critical and generally quite successful. A missed opportunity in these introductions is found with the accompanying maps, which do not always obviously reflect their opening discussions. A clearer link between narrative and geography is always helpful when teaching World History, especially when bringing multiple regions together in a singular narrative chapter. I am constantly amazed at how often students do not know global geography, which limits their ability to think spatially about history and the interconnections that are at the core of texts like this one. The inclusion of a good number of maps throughout the text makes clear that the authors see this as important.

     Representative of the topical chapters, Carter and Warren's coverage of the Cold War in global context was especially well done in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen. This conceptually challenging topic is always hard for students to connect to decolonization, and the author's decision to use cases India and Kenya, although limited to former British colonies, was extremely well done. This is a good example of the authors taking care to explain the costs of progress to those on the receiving end of colonialism. Their discussion of French and American experiences was much briefer and represents another missed opportunity to discuss proxy wars that American students would find stimulating and familiar. Given the excellent coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan found in Chapter Thirteen, I cannot help but think that a similar case-study of the Vietnam conflict in Chapter Twelve would be very helpful to students trying to understand the different experiences of superpowers and occupied peoples during the Cold War.

     Some additionally helpful features of the text include, at the end of each chapter, a timeline of major events and a list of what the authors call, "A Few Good Books."  These bibliographies offer half-a-dozen key scholarly monographs that they are clearly utilizing, which would be great for steering students to research for papers. I can easily envision assigning students the choice of one or two of these books as a foundation for assignments outside of class.

     As I read, I found a clear global picture full of interconnections forming in my mind's eye. Progress is both one of the key words the authors use to describe their own work and to situate their coverage of the growing interconnections they explore as they move through the eras. This progress is not necessarily positive, and they do a good job giving a balanced accounting of the costs of progress. The macro level is certainly the focus of this text, and its analysis is very well executed. Social and cultural experiences or individual voices are rarely heard. However, the book is largely accessible and undergraduates should be successful in navigating the sometimes dense text. This is not a textbook with many visuals. However, this less-frills attitude makes the book very affordable, and visuals can easily be provided by the instructor in lecture. Forging the Modern World would make an excellent choice for a survey textbook if the instructor wants to take a thematic and era-driven approach to teaching this vast history, especially if it were paired with a primary-source reader that offered a cross-section of relevant individual voices. Those of us who teach World History survey courses can only hope that a similar title will emerge for teaching the Ancient World as well.

Josh Lieser is an Associate Professor of History at Oxnard College where he teaches United States, World, and American Sports History. His research focuses on the intersection of sports with politics and cultural commodification during the Cold War. You may contact him at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use