The fourth edition (2002) of I.M. Lewis' A History of the Somali is described on the back cover as "Somalia's most definitive history updated," and it is indeed a comprehensive survey of Somali history, opening at about the tenth century A.D. Those interested in reading the book for the insights it might provide about the Somalia of today will probably find most of this history to be of little interest, and evidently to some extent the book's reputation rests in part on its being among the first English language studies of the subject. That said, however, there are detailed discussions of colonialism in Somalia, colonial boundaries and administration, Somali independence, Siad Barre's regime, the 1977-1978 Ogaden War with Ethiopia, the United Nations intervention in the early 1990s, and the "descent into chaos" beginning in 1991, all of which are important to understanding Somalia in the 21st century. The book also covers some of the subsequent efforts to create a new, viable Somalia, however, seven years after publication there is now much more that could be said on that subject.
The book's comprehensive discussion of clans and clan politics is another strength. It is no exaggeration to say that in order to fully understand any historical event in Somalia it is necessary to know the clan affiliations of those involved. Lewis consistently discusses the role of the clans in his analyses of post-colonial historical events in Somalia, and this emphasis both helps communicate the clan's paramount importance and explain various outcomes. If it weren't for clan insights being distributed throughout the book, it would be possible to pick up A Modern History of the Somali, read the later chapters, and come away with a working knowledge of modern Somalia, but as it is it's best to start at the beginning.