A masterpiece of autobiography. I would urge anyone to read and learn from this brief, lucid, gripping account of the life, captivity, and eventual esA masterpiece of autobiography. I would urge anyone to read and learn from this brief, lucid, gripping account of the life, captivity, and eventual escape and emancipation of an American slave. His prose, like his personality, sparkles with wit and perspicacity, and his shrewd and careful observations of human psychology are endlessly illuminating with respect to racism, power, and social justice. Douglass was a very great and inspiring figure, and this book instantly joined my shelf of cherished classics. ...more
This book offers what is to my knowledge the only complete general historiography of Tibet from its prehistory to the present day. It's competently wrThis book offers what is to my knowledge the only complete general historiography of Tibet from its prehistory to the present day. It's competently written and paints an extremely valuable portrait of the Land of Snows, and should most certainly be read by anyone with an interest in Tibetan culture who still subscribes to a romanticized view of pre-invasion Tibet as a peaceful Shambhala of gentle, enlightened monks and cheerful nomads going about their lives in simplicity and quiet. Of course the real story is far more complicated - the Tibetan region is vast, borders several great and highly distinct regions (Central Asia, India, and China), and is subject to all the movers of history that drive events in any land, including factional politics, oligarchs, warlords, peasants, and so forth.
Anyway, it's not the purpose of this review to summarize its contents, but simply to recommend it as the best and only available source for the general reader who wants a survey of Tibetan history. Kapstein is a competent scholar, but he writes in wooden prose and his translations are stilted and utterly devoid of beauty, so I would stop short of hailing this book as a classic of the literature. But it's a much-needed contribution to the field, and there are few non-specialists who will come away from this book without substantially revising at least some aspect of their understanding of the region. ...more
Jenkins presents us with a serviceable and opinionated historical sketch of England from the Anglo-Saxon invasion through the present day. By necessitJenkins presents us with a serviceable and opinionated historical sketch of England from the Anglo-Saxon invasion through the present day. By necessity, this brief book leaps and bounds at full speed through its course. It would be dangerous to read this book in isolation, but it provides a useful big picture view, and I found it a useful framework for pursuing areas of interest for further study. ...more
Often entertaining and sometimes illuminating, this book is an imaginative attempt to ground Shakespeare's works in his times. It will be of special iOften entertaining and sometimes illuminating, this book is an imaginative attempt to ground Shakespeare's works in his times. It will be of special interest to readers who are equally drawn to the history of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's work, as the purely historical exposition constitutes a large part of the book. Surveys works written in and around 1599, which Shapiro identifies as Henry V, Julius Cesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. I liked some of his closest readings best, and particularly found his reading of As You Like It insightful. I was somewhat disappointed with his reading of Hamlet - he went to some length to set up the context for reading it as about the transition from the old age of chivalry to the new age of modernity, but ended up focusing on revisions Shakespeare made to the play, which was less compelling.
Taken with a grain of salt, it's a worthwhile read. ...more
Bennison's study of the 'Abbasid Caliphate is a useful survey of the history and culture of one of the great periods of the Islamic world. She offersBennison's study of the 'Abbasid Caliphate is a useful survey of the history and culture of one of the great periods of the Islamic world. She offers an admirable if conventional account of the various peoples, events, and ideas that shaped this pivotal moment in world history. My favorite parts were the early sections focusing directly on historical events, and some of the later discussions dragged a bit.
The book was marred somewhat by Bennison's obvious tendency to read Muslim history in the best possible light at every occasion. One can certainly understand why a specialist in this area working in these times would feel defensive, but here we are, reading this book, after all. Her actual audience probably doesn't need common disclaimers to the effect of "If you think what the Muslims were doing in these times was bad, you should see what the Christians down the way were doing." The tone is at times somewhat didactic, and I ultimately had no choice but to question her objectivity.
The book concludes with the observation that "all those who insist upon the irreconcilable division between the 'West' and 'Islam' would do well to step down from their soap boxes to read a little history." I should say the author might have stepped down from her soap box to write a little. ...more
An masterpiece of early history, indispensable for the student of Roman-era Britain or Germany. It is a vital, clear, and stimulating presentation ofAn masterpiece of early history, indispensable for the student of Roman-era Britain or Germany. It is a vital, clear, and stimulating presentation of the history and culture of two regions viewed by the Romans as frontiers. The consensus today holds that Tacitus was as interested in criticizing Roman decadence as bringing other ways of life to light. But for all that, one shudders to think of the dark gloom of ignorance that would settle over these peoples and hide them from the light of historical knowledge, had this brilliant lamp been lost. ...more
A lovely catalog of the superb Artio bronze Gallo-Roman Celtic devotional statue found in modern-day Bern published by the Bern museum. Of all the CelA lovely catalog of the superb Artio bronze Gallo-Roman Celtic devotional statue found in modern-day Bern published by the Bern museum. Of all the Celtic statuary I've seen, it's by far the most impressive - quite overpowering. The book features excellent photographs of the statue along with its attendant (and also impressive) Capitoline Trinity sculptures, along with a historical analysis and thorough description of the artifacts' provenances. A nice brief treatment of an important find. ...more
Harari attempts to leap through hominid history in a few great bounds, organized into a few arbitrarily-chosen watersheds such as the scientific revolHarari attempts to leap through hominid history in a few great bounds, organized into a few arbitrarily-chosen watersheds such as the scientific revolution, and by so doing to illustrate through example his underlying conceptual framework, which is evolutionary humanism. We can therefore ask two questions of the book: is the high-level history he presents interesting and useful, and is the conceptual framework he employs persuasive?
For this reader, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding no. His two purposes are sufficiently at odds that his attempts to tell some kind of story of human evolution are erratic, arbitrary, and peripatetic, directed hither and thither as they are by his philosophical interests. After long trying I abandoned trying to hold the common thread of his story of human history when I at last concluded that there was no thread to follow, and the book instead consists largely of an assemblage of chronological anecdotes.
I was surprised to find that Harari is a professor of history, because his work is highly theoretical and shows little grounding in empirical historiography. He makes numerous errors, such as interpreting the Code of Hammurabi as though it were intended as an actual legal document, when we know from copious extant Mesopotamian court records that it was not used so. More surprising, his presentation of the concept of chivalry in the Middle Ages is so ahistorical that I was genuinely stunned to learn that he is not only a specialist in the European medieval period, but focused on political ideology and treated it in several books. It does not show from his gross generalizations that repeatedly border in outright distortion, or indeed, cross right over the line.
In tone, I found this book to be smug and off-putting in the fashionable "intellectual-who-knows-everything" style of countless insufferable TED talks and Big Thinkers a la Steven Pinker or Malcolm Gladwell, who similarly lack any evidence that they've mastered the fundamentals of the disciplines they deign to illuminate for us lay persons.
I could go on with my criticisms, but you get the message - I found it neither conceptually nor factually illuminating, learned little from his manifesto on atheist humanism as a conceptual paradigm, and generally was alienated by its tone. ...more
I read this book in preparation for a trip to Bern, Zürich, and the Berner Oberland - I wanted to get a sense of the country's history, and BirminghamI read this book in preparation for a trip to Bern, Zürich, and the Berner Oberland - I wanted to get a sense of the country's history, and Birmingham's approach of focusing on the small dairy village of Château-d'Oex in the district of Gruyère sounded more interesting than a conventional national history. I'm glad I took this approach - sometimes studying local history provides a richer sense of a national culture than you can get from a higher level, and given the striking social, political, economic, linguistic, and cultural diversity that characterizes Switzerland, it's probably particularly true in this case.
For my itinerary this book proved to be an excellent fit, covering the city-state of Bern in some detail and giving copious scrutiny to life in an Alpline cheese-making community. It was striking to visit national museums in Zürich and Bern and, in contrast with Birmingham's village-level focus, to get a sense of the markedly different ways in which the history of the region was understood by its urban centers versus how it occurred on the countryside.
Birmingham covers a period of some 800 years in his two hundred pages, basing evocative descriptions of the life and times of Château-d'Oex based closely on primary sources. This book is an excellent and illuminating read, and I was very pelased to spend some time with it. ...more
Ibn Khaldoun's Muqaddimah is frequently described as a work of proto-sociology and economics. There is a grain of truth to that, but the similarity liIbn Khaldoun's Muqaddimah is frequently described as a work of proto-sociology and economics. There is a grain of truth to that, but the similarity lies more in the subject matter than the manner of inquiry.
I think the scientific virtues of this book have been somewhat exaggerated, in part because of its enthusiastic reception by systematic historians such as Toynbee who were making their own effort to create or discover a general theory of history. But to my eyes, Ibn Khaldoun's method is more that of a speculative philosopher than a scientist. He infers general patterns on the basis of a small number of examples, and regards the patterns as prior to the actuality.
The scientific approach would be somewhat the other way around, where the empirical example would provoke a hypothesis that would then be tested on further examples. But Ibn Khaldoun moves very quickly to a state of epistemic closure, precisely of the kind I find endemic to the Islamic thought-world of his era, and beyond.
Rather than reading this book as a progressive predecessor to the scientific revolution, I position it as a conservative work that attempts to maintain something of the rational-empirical method of the High Middle Ages in the face of its waning under the burgeoning influence of al-Ghazali. I see this book not as the forecast of the sciences of sociology and economics, but as a late example of the rationalism that had been typical of much of the thought of al-Andalus and the 'Abbasid caliphate.
I think few of his actual statements of fact will be too persuasive for the modern reader, from his position that the sun is neither hot nor cold to his view that blacks are well known to be less intelligent to his view that royalty proceeds from holy authority, and urban settled life proceeds from both. But this is a work of some interest to the intellectual historian. ...more
This is a very useful adjunct to a study of Chinese history with many excerpts from classical texts assembled and presented in highly-readable translaThis is a very useful adjunct to a study of Chinese history with many excerpts from classical texts assembled and presented in highly-readable translations. ...more
This book provides a serviceable overview of the last 3000 years of Chinese history, spending about half its length on the period leading up to the MaThis book provides a serviceable overview of the last 3000 years of Chinese history, spending about half its length on the period leading up to the Manchurian Qing dynasty, and the second half examining the development of modern China.
I appreciated how adeptly Roberts dealt with such an enormous amount of history in such a short space - particularly in the first half, which by necessity galloped through the decades at an alarming pace. I often thought in all seriousness than any single sentence could stand as the thesis for a doctoral dissertation.
On the other hand, I often felt that Roberts gave us too many trees and not enough forest, and at times this was frustrating. To take one example, I was genuinely stunned to find the final collapse of the Qing dynasty mentioned only elliptically, and in a complicated paragraph with a lot of details on officials shifting allegiances and so forth. I couldn't believe my eyes - the fall of the dynastic system that had provided the fundamental structure for Chinese society since 221 BCE fell apart after more than two thousand years, and he not only didn't pause to comment on its larger significance, he barely even noted that it happened. I read that section three times convinced I must be missing something, but there it is.
I was also a bit annoyed by Roberts's inflexible use of Pinyin as a transliteration scheme, even when the Wade-Giles equivalents are far better known. As a non-specialist, it actually took me a while to realize that Xianggang refers to what virtually every other English speaker would call Hong Kong, or that Jiang Jieshi is who I think of as Chiang Kai-shek. If you wish to stick to your transcription system, that's fine, but it's worth a parenthetical note on the first instance.
I definitely learned a lot from this book, but I would have preferred Roberts to tell more of a story and put less focus on a barrage of details I'm unlikely to retain. ...more
I was recently listening to a BBC interview with two historians on the An Lushan rebellion, and the interviewer read a passage from Pinker's book in wI was recently listening to a BBC interview with two historians on the An Lushan rebellion, and the interviewer read a passage from Pinker's book in which he argued that this Chinese civil war was primary evidence for his thesis that human violence used to exist on a scale we would find hard to believe, from our current perspective. When the interviewer read some of Pinker's fact and statistics about the rebellion, both of them spontaneously burst into laughter and one of them asked "What on earth is his evidence for that?"
What, indeed? Pinker relies throughout this book overwhelmingly on the death statistics for major historical events compiled by a librarian and published to his personal website in his spare time. If you think I'm exaggerating, look for yourself.
No, I'm afraid this book is the joke, and it makes a joke of its credulous audience, making specious, anti-empirical, and fatuous arguments fueled by breathtaking narcissism.
What if the situation were reversed? That is, what if a history professor wrote an eclectic book on cognitive linguistics that was fundamentally at odds with the consensus of linguists everywhere, and that relied overwhelmingly for support on a single source, which was itself entirely the work of an untrained amateur?
I think such a book would quite likely be universally regarded as a laughingstock. However, we live in a generation in which the increasing consensus among intelligentsia holds that scientists hold the answers to questions that used to be addressed by the humanities, and so Pinker's book is not only accepted as plausible, but widely lauded and championed.
I expect this is in no small part due to another factor - this is a work that very much flatters its secular humanist audience by suggesting we have learned our lesson and, by and large, moved past our brutish origins, carried on the wings of science, progress, and bourgeois values. ...more
In 1253, the Flemish Franciscan friar William of Rubruck made his way to the courts of the Mongol rulers Batu and Möngke bearing a letter from the FreIn 1253, the Flemish Franciscan friar William of Rubruck made his way to the courts of the Mongol rulers Batu and Möngke bearing a letter from the French Crusader king Louis IX. This book is an annotated a translation from Latin of his subsequent report to the king. It is a fascinating and rare glimpse of the life of the Mongols during the heyday of their empire in the aftermath of the conquests of Genghis Khan, and a true masterpiece of European medieval travel literature. William is a keen observer who writes throughout with clarity and discernment of the many wonders he encounters on his journey, and we see through his eyes as he makes the enormous journey to the fabled "Tent City" capital of the Mongols, Karakorum. Along his way he frequently rubs shoulders with Muslims, Nestorian Christians, soothsayers, and Chinese and Tibetan priests and monks, and makes what is very probably the first European report of the Tibetan system of reincarnating lamas.
I was certain going in that this would be a fascinating read, but I was surprised by how engaging and brisk it is. It is superbly translated and annotated by Peter Jackson and David Morgan, who unobtrusively offer excellent support in their rich footnotes, detailing the geography, politics, and cultural background with great erudition.
I believe subsequent generations of historians will take for granted a fact that we seem to be in the slow process of waking up to realize now - the mobile and dynamic cultures of Central Eurasia, including but not limited to the peoples of the steppe, are not peripheral or incidental to the history of Europe and Asia, but central to it. The dynamics of the high civilizations of the landmass cannot be understood on an elementary level without attending to the rich systemic interplay between its various centers, which inevitably plays out historically through the movements of these peoples. This book offers a rare first-hand glimpse at one of the greatest of these nomadic civilizations, and is a thrilling and illuminating work of a high order. ...more
I have many times experienced a pronounced cognitive dissonance in approaching the Norse religious and mythological material, as the summary literaturI have many times experienced a pronounced cognitive dissonance in approaching the Norse religious and mythological material, as the summary literature tends to present the various gods and legends as if they form a more or less well-ordered pantheon, analogous to the clean structural lines one finds in Homer's Olympians.
But when I turn to the matter itself, I find a source literature that is deeply bewildering - weird heterogeneous composites of Christian and pagan beliefs, fragmentary and elliptical poems, and dense, difficult narratives.
This close study of the evolution of a handful of key Norse symbols and constructs, tied to careful reading of the archaeological material, was enormously helpful in clarifying why I always find the source material so confusing - because it IS confusing, and these "Myths and Legends of the Norsemen" type books deeply obfuscate the profoundly problematic nature of the source material.
In reality, as Andren points out, we don't even know in the Prose Edda alone if we're reading of one cosmic tree or several trees. Are the tree of Mimir's well, the tree upon which Odin hung, and the World Tree one and the same? It's impossible to determine from the literary evidence, though it's often taken for granted that they are.
As an aside, I would note that it was typical of Wagner's genius that he maintained precisely that ambiguity with respect to the World Tree by making the foundation of Sieglinde's home an ash. But I digress.
The picture that Andren gives of Norse mythology is a shifting constellation of key images that are exalted, forgotten, rediscovered, lost again, and recovered from the outside over the long centuries. Some of the key symbols, such as the enigmatic divine twins that appear on a great deal of rock art, seem to be rooted in the same ubiquitous Proto-Indo-European motif that was known to the Greeks as the Dioscuri. Other symbols, such as the sun, may have originally come from the same root, only to be forgotten, and then restored to centrality after being reintroduced from without by the Roman legionaries and their cult of Sol Invictus.
The literary and historical evidence is so fragmentary and problematic that one can only sift carefully through the rubble, trying to contextualize as best one can the various meanings ascribed to different images, which may or may not persist over time, depending on how the material is read. For example, there appears to be a great cycle involving the cycle of the sun, as it travels through the sky by day, descends under the earth, and moves through the antipodes of the netherworld by night, only to re-emerge each dawn.
Can that cycle truly be read from apparently cosmological drawings showing a sun-like object at the apex, and flanked by twin figures? It is extremely hard to say.
All Andren can do is speculate, and if at times he perhaps makes more than is strictly possible from the skeletal evidence, at least he continually foregrounds the problems of evidence and interpretation, unlike many unwary practitioners of the archaeology of religion who are dead certain that the spiral is a symbol of the generative powers of the earth.
This book primarily centers on three close studies - of the world tree, the cosmological organization of rock forts, and the transformation of the solar myth. It's stiff academic writing and I wouldn't recommend it to a reader who lacks a significant appetite for that kind of prose, but I found it extremely enlightening on the whole. ...more
Outstanding basic collection of material from two extremely witty and influential dailies from London of yore, superbly annotated and amplified by extOutstanding basic collection of material from two extremely witty and influential dailies from London of yore, superbly annotated and amplified by extensive essays and contemporaneous material. Undoubtedly the best small collection currently in print - highly recommended for fans of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. ...more