How do you feel about history books that subvert your prior beliefs? Because there are a few very good ones out there. 1493, by Charles Mann, is one...moreHow do you feel about history books that subvert your prior beliefs? Because there are a few very good ones out there. 1493, by Charles Mann, is one of them. His earlier best-selling 1491 probably is as well, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet.
Briefly, 1493 examines how the world changed due to, and very soon after, the initial contact between the Americas and the rest of the world in 1492. The term “Columbian Exchange” reminds us that the change was bidirectional. We are all familiar with the devastation the Old World’s diseases caused in the Americas, but there is so, so much more. Mann starts in his New England garden, pointing out that nothing in it originated within 1000 miles. Near the end, he points out that the same is true of the gardens in the Philippines, despite their cherished evocations of homely tradition.
The role China plays in the book will probably startle many. Even more dramatic is how far the interaction and mixing of the “Red” and “Black” got, long before “White” Europeans arrived in sufficient numbers to become culturally dominant. Long before the Pilgrims even got to New England, there were entire cities composed of those resisting European subjugation. The scope of the Columbian Exchange is staggering. It affected the collapse of Chinese empires and the timing of the Protestant Reformation, neither of which are explored, as far as I remember, in college history classes, much less in grade school.
Most of the United States was settled later, and by different cultural forces, and so I wonder if those south of the Rio Grande (or perhaps in the eastern subtropical portion of the United States) would find this even more revelatory.
P.S. A complimentary book I would recommend is Colin Woodard’s American Nations, which dissects the United States into largely discrete and somewhat divergent regions, based on their culture of their “effective” founders. Woodard’s book has more flaws than Mann’s — the author’s personal allegiance to New England gets in the way of an unbiased analysis — but is in many ways a more important book, at least to North Americans, with a significant bearing on the caustic partisan contemporary environment in the United States. Mann’s book highlights a few of the biases implicit in Woodard’s telling, but the real goal of the pair is to force the reader to reexamine old beliefs about the history of the Americas.(less)
Does anyone out there have access to the Indiana Magazine of History?
Apparently there was a review of Woodard's book in Vol. 108, No. 4 (December 201...moreDoes anyone out there have access to the Indiana Magazine of History?
Apparently there was a review of Woodard's book in Vol. 108, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 424-426, by James Rubenstein. I've been trying to find reviews by historians to see if there are any substantial complaints of the history that he portrays here, but haven't found much yet.
Buying the book and formulating review. But: get a copy of this. It will explain so much of what is perplexing in U.S. politics and culture, as well as illuminate some of the contrary-to-received-history of the founding of the country — such as: the word "United" in "United States" was more wishful thinking than realistic. Fascinating. Very highly recommended.
This is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906...moreThis is a mostly delightful tour of geology, earthquakes and plate tectonics, with an emphasis on California's infamous San Andreas Fault and the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I can highly recommend it.
Much to the delight of info gluttons, Winchester as always ranges widely from the nominal focus of the book. Any reader looking for an in-depth history of the whys and wherefores of the earthquake and fire will be more than satisfied, as well anyone wondering about the broader surrounding topics.
Of course, if you want your author to go straight to the heart of the matter, this isn't your book and, furthermore, you really should forego any of Winchester's books.
By the way, this book was more personal to me than to most of you out there: I've lived in San Francisco for almost my entire adult life, and I'm a third-generation Californian (and almost a third-generation San Franciscan). I've backpacked for many years in the Sierras, thrown up millions of years ago by the mechanisms he describes in the book, and I felt connected to every scene he describes in the city.
Still, my reaction to this book isn't unalloyed praise. I think there were several false notes. The more obvious one was the connection to Pentecostalism. I agree it was an important phenomena of the time — actually, I wouldn't be here if my mother's parents hadn't found each other while attending a Pentecostal church during the depression. But the movement almost certainly would have taken off with or without San Francisco's earthquake; that kind of exuberant religiosity seems to be a fundamental part of U.S. culture. Despite the specific anecdotes that tie the two stories together, I felt it was really a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of connection, and detrimental to the book's focus.
The other significant annoyance was that several times the author referred to San Francisco and other places in close proximity to the fault as "very dangerous". Now, maybe when the Big One hits I'll change my tune, but substantially fewer than 1000 Californians have died in earthquakes in the past century. As I'm writing this at the end of April 2013, and the New York Times just reminded me that three years after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which killed 63 in the region), Los Angeles lived through the Rodney King riots, which killed 54. And, of course, at least 15 (and possibly many more) have just died in the explosion of a fertilizer company in Texas. Frankly, life is dangerous; everyone dies in the end.
Living in an earthquake zone does slightly raise the likelihood of dying prematurely (or being seriously injured), but there are many, many other factors that affect mortality rates even more. Coastal California — right along the San Andeas Fault — has a famously benign climate, for example. I suspect the overall health of the locals is higher because of it, and probably lengthens their life expectancy more than the earthquake risk shortens it. Winchester even makes fun of the residents of Portola Valley, a town that lies directly upon the fault line — amused at how they argue endlessly about whether and where to move this building or that, only to go back to sipping their sauvignon blanc. He agrees that their "way of life [is] quite unrivaled in its quality anywhere in the world", yet still thinks that there can be "no greater monument to hubris" that the choose to live there.
I suppose he really thinks they'd be better off somewhere else, but I think there's a lot of hubris in his assertion that he is right and several million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are being irrational. Perhaps he should have asked the scientists at the Menlo Park's USGS — the same folks he thanks for helping in his studies. After all, their office is on alluvial soil about eight miles from Portola Valley, and they undoubtedly live in the area. It apparently did not occur to Winchester to ask them what they feel about that risk.
I'll take the certitude of a quake and its consequent increase in my mortality over living elsewhere, thank you.
This is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and...moreThis is a sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes ecstatic narrative of the dramatic era that brought San Francisco through some incredible times and changes.
If you love San Francisco — or you're interested in rock 'n' roll, gay history, traumatic 70s racial politics, or even the 49ers football team, you'll probably find this book riveting.
If you're a San Franciscan, the public library has 52 copies to share out, although as of Christmas 2012, there are 206 requests outstanding, so you still might have to wait a while. Update, 27 April 2013: the public library has declared this a "On the Same Page" book, which means they want as many people reading it as possible at the same time to foster discussion. So there are now 120 holds on the first copy returned of 472 copies.(less)
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth and...moreThe Black Count is an incredible history book.
Its subject is someone whose mere existence is fundamentally fascinating, and with engaging breadth and depth.
The précis can be grasped from the blurb, so I won’t bore you with that.
This staggeringly interesting yet hitherto under-appreciated man is obviously the nominal focus of the story, but that focus drifts quite widely. The racial politics of the era and of revolutionary France is a central theme, but the major villain, Napoleon, really only shows up in the second half of the story and quite often takes center stage. When appropriate, interesting lessons on international political economy are handed out — do you have any idea how important sugar was at the time?
The author also uses juicy digressions to spice things up. At one point Napoleon is under examination, and we get the background on his reasons for his Egyptian campaign, which then ties to a short story about an Indian sultan, which then gets a footnote about how that sultan aggressively used primitive rockets against the British, who then stole his techniques in time to use them in the War of 1812 with the young U.S.A., where they used them and left us with the line about “rockets red glare” in our Star-Spangled Banner. A few pages later, we get a fun little digression on the Maltese Falcon. Other footnotes deal with the history of the enema and the Mameluke sword.
If you don’t like this sort of thing, the author shows good discipline: once the digression isn’t related significantly to the story, it is relegated to a footnote. Personally, as long as the factoids are interesting, I love this kinda stuff. But they are certainly signs of how deeply the author dove into the subject matter, and how much passion he has for what he learned.
The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a complex one that provokes dissonance in most thinking Americans. And, yeah, we all kn...moreThe relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a complex one that provokes dissonance in most thinking Americans. And, yeah, we all know there’s some sort of a crisis brewing in Saudi Arabia, but most of keep our gaze averted — as long as there’s no overt trouble, it’s much more comfortable to pretty much just ignore everything. Read the New York Times review of House’s book, Closed Kingdom — even if you don’t ever intend to read this book — just as a tiny primer.
The Times reviewer mentions that Saudi Arabia is similar to North Korea in its absurd conservatism and rule-bound society. The more germane comparison (made later in the review) is to the Soviet Union:
The country’s calcified government, its sullen populace, its youth bulge, its outdated religious requirements and prohibitions, the collapse of the information bubble and the dying off of the current line of geriatric rulers are all bound to coalesce into a perfect storm sooner or later.
House doesn’t make any prediction; just warnings. She leaves a sliver of hope that something will permit reform instead of collapse, but given the litany of difficulties she amply illustrates, I can’t imagine many people thinking there is much hope of that. And if the country falls, it will probably fall a long ways and trigger many interrelated calamities. The region is, frankly, a pretty messed up place.
This book is actually very easy to read. The colorful stories House tells to make her case are interesting enough to almost call riveting, and the book is neither long nor complex enough to call difficult. One book on the middle-east won’t make you an expert, but this one will provide an easy and important lesson. (less)
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de...moreHave to eventually read this, of course.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.
The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […] The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea. — [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]
What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage.
Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.
First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.
Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.
In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.
Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country.(less)
Everyone in San Francisco, native or visitor, knows the Ferry Building and the Transamerica Pyramid and the city's other iconic structures. In Cityscapes: San Francisco and its Buildings, a collection of his columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, John King explores other, less well known but decidedly noteworthy buildings.
Cityscapes is a guide book of sorts. It discusses buildings that you don't find in regular guides and it shows how, in San Francisco, the past integrates with the present and allows for the changes of the future. It opens our eyes and make us appreciate the vibrant, architectural kaleidoscope that is San Francisco.
In its April 20th, 2011, issue, the Economist did an incredible eight-article special issue on California’s seriously dysfunction economic and governa...moreIn its April 20th, 2011, issue, the Economist did an incredible eight-article special issue on California’s seriously dysfunction economic and governance quandary. See here for an index (it appears to be outside the Economist’s pay-for-content wall).
This book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is listed first among the article’s sources.
Why would this series of articles (and probably this book) be of interest to anyone outside of California? The principle culprit is argued to be “direct democracy” — the ability of the impassioned mob to impose its will. My thesis is that the past few decades has transformed mass culture — television, then the web — from a relatively conservative elitist institution into one that now tremendously accentuates and empowers that same mob rule. If it arouses passions, it can be turned into profit, and the profit will be higher if those passions are further inflamed. The dysfunction that started in California for other reasons is spreading like a metastasizing cancer throughout American democracy.
Abandoned. I'd still like to read on this topic, but this was the wrong biography to start with. Steinberg set out to illuminate the inner Bismarck, and I've still got to catch up on the politics of the era, not the personal demons and neuroses of its key player.(less)
The New York Times review (see The Final Conflict, by Orville Schell) of this epic work includes this paragraph in describing the book’s conclusion:
...moreThe New York Times review (see The Final Conflict, by Orville Schell) of this epic work includes this paragraph in describing the book’s conclusion:
The competition that East and West have been pursuing for so long, Morris warns, is about to be disrupted by some powerful forces. Nuclear proliferation, population growth, global epidemics and climate change are in the process of radically altering old historical patterns. “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history,” he says.
After hundreds of pages of description, the author apparently surprises the reader by ending with heartfelt prescription: our global civilization is caught between the dream of transformation away from all of the problems that have historically beset mankind, and the nightmare of collapse. The “Singularity” is apparently emblematic of the former, and “Nightfall” represents the later. Unfortunately,
For the Singularity to win out, “everything has to go right,” Morris says. “For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.”