When Karen Christensen founded Berkshire Publishing in Great Barrington, Mass., in 1998, to package encyclopedias, the term "big history," which refers to a multidisciplinary approach to world history that begins with the big bang, was just starting to gain traction. But, when Berkshire was ready to launch its own publishing program in 2004, big history was becoming such a hot subject in academic circles that it became an integral part of Berkshire’s first book, the five-volume Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (2005). It also led Berkshire to a rather fruitful relationship with one of big history’s biggest proponents, David Christian, a professor whose work on the subject matter has thrust him into the spotlight and, in turn, shone a light on Berkshire.
Christian, who teaches world history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has published several books with Berkshire. In addition to contributing to the aforementioned encyclopedia, he also published This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity (2007), which became the first book in the series This World Is Ours; he also did, with Berkshire, a slightly longer look at the subject, Berkshire Essentials: Big History. Lately, Christian has been making headlines for his relationship with Bill Gates. A recent profile in the New York Times Magazine explored the billionaire philanthropist's decision to invest millions (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in something called the Big History Project, which aims to bring Christian's approach to teaching history into high schools.
Gates, who blurbed This Fleeting World and called Christian a "gifted scientist and teacher," isn't the only one who's been taken with the professor, either. Christensen wound up changing her publishing approach after working with Christian on the 2005 encyclopedia. When Christensen met Christian, she dared him to write something for that first five-volume encyclopedia that would be brief, yet serve as a bridge to all of world history.
The resulting series of essays Christian wrote, together with a specially written prequel, were later spun off into This Fleeting World, a 122-page look at big history. The book’s success led Christian to introduce a new series of short histories. The subjects range from China to Islam, and a new book on sustainability, This Good Earth, is about to be released.
“[This Fleeting World] transformed our thinking about our backlist content,” explained Christensen, who is using a similar model for an upcoming project on Chinese cuisine. She is planning to publish it as a multi-volume encyclopedia with a partner publisher. For her, food is a way to help others learn about Chinese culture.
Although Christensen subsequently expanded the initial encyclopedia into six-volumes, in 2010, the story of big history pulled from it, This Fleeting World, continues to sell; it went into a fifth printing last month. In part, sales have been propelled by Christian’s 18-minute TED talk in 2011. Another boost was provided by an appearance he made on The Colbert Report in November.