I picked this up because I knew almost nothing about the Reformation, and I felt like I should at least have the basic history straight for events whiI picked this up because I knew almost nothing about the Reformation, and I felt like I should at least have the basic history straight for events which were so vital to the shaping of the modern world.
And, it mostly covered me for that. He did an excellent job of putting you inside the very alien worldviews and socio-cultural arrangements of the time, and illustrating just how revolutionary and sudden a change the Reformation really was. He gave engaging and detailed sketches of most of the main actors involved in the religious, political, and cultural arenas. He covered enough of the intricate theological problems which developed and were fought out, but not so much as to make my eyes glaze over. And he did an excellent job of taking you down to the level of everyday people and looking at how and why they embraced such a sudden change in such a vital part of their existence, and what the consequences were for their way of life going forward.
Where he fell down just a bit was in connecting the ground-level with the elite, and the religious with the political and especially the military. He did a good job on the elites insofar as they related to religion, but the political history was pretty thin. He also certainly covered all of the major conflicts of the time, but they always seemed like something that happened in the background and only flashed into full view at a few crisis points. I came in with a vague idea of how and why the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, and the 30 Years’ War were fought, and left with a not much clearer one.
Of course, any one of those conflicts can and has merited many an extensive history of its own, but I think he could have done a better job of fully describing them and linking them more thoroughly and organically with the political, social, cultural and religious turmoil that caused and sustained them. The 30 Years’ War especially seemed to be elided over. Constraints of space were probably a big concern, as the book still came in at over 700 pages, but I would have rather read another 100 or so and been left with a more complete picture.
Still, pretty minor quibbles for a book that taught me lot about a subject I came in with little background on, and that had plenty of major strengths to outweigh that one notable weakness. Definitely read if you want a solid social, cultural, religious, and basic political history of the Reformation from a modern point of view. If you’re more interested in the military history or in any of the specific conflicts, pick up a more specialized history of the case in question....more
I really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in thI really enjoyed his “Birth of the Modern” book, about world history 1815-1830, and how that time and the personalities who made it were pivotal in the the birth of the modern world as we know it, so I thought I would check out his take on US history. I knew from the previous book that he was conservative, and had his biases(pro free-market, pro religion, pro-individual) but that was fine with me… I liked that he was opinionated and I liked getting a good devil’s advocate argument for the other side from what seemed to be a pretty honest broker.
And that held up for most of this book. He made a great case for why those values were integral in making America a great nation, and he told the story up to about FDR with balance and verve.
Post New-Deal though, it just turns into a bitter screed, and loses all sense of balance. FDR and Kennedy were corrupt charlatans(sure, they definitely had their major flaws, but that is all he looked at), Vietnam would have worked if only we had been willing to wage total war(probably would have, but that doesn’t make that a good idea), Nixon got a raw deal and Watergate was nothing but a witch-hunt, as was Iran Contra. Political correctness and affirmative action were creeping authoritarianism as opposed to well-meaning and ultimately pretty insignificant efforts to continue down the road of the civil rights movement that went a bit overboard. Moral equivocation of the anti-abortion movement with the anti-slavery movement. Praise for The Bell Curve, and breezy dismissal of the likes of C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, etc. And so on.
I realize he doesn’t like a lot of the postwar trends in the US and Europe, but he also makes no effort to engage the historical forces that caused and shaped them, or the good that came out of them(he spends very little time on the civil rights movement, for example.) He does things like applauding the US for engaging the world and taking its rightful place as a superpower postwar, and then turning around and criticizing the inevitable expansion of the bureaucracy that resulted from that, without connecting the one to the other. Or like saying that things like the EPA and the Clean Air act were probably necessary and desireable, even though they slowed the economy, but then praising Reagan’s economic genius in rolling them back. Feh. He just fails to engage the complexities and ambiguities and compromises that are a necessary feature of the postmodern, globalized world. He’s very good at writing history about the times when WASPS ruled the earth, before everything got complicated by race, gender, sexual orientation, colonialism, and on down the line. He acts like these are invented abstractions, as opposed to social and political realities and changes that were being grappled with in very nasty and difficult ways throughout the latter 2/3rds of the 20th century.
So, disappointing in the end. But, if you want a good lively, opinionated, sympathetic history of the US up to about 1929, you can’t go wrong with reading the first 3/4 of this. Even better, read it together with A People’s History of the United States, and compare/contrast. You should get most of the story between the two of them....more
An incredibly thorough look at the British literary and cultural experience of the Great War, and how this shaped modernism and the rest of our culturAn incredibly thorough look at the British literary and cultural experience of the Great War, and how this shaped modernism and the rest of our culture ever since. Reading some excellent weblog retrospectives on WWI around Armistice Day turned me on to this one....more
A very important book. The first thing I’ve read that systematically gets Al Qaeda right, as far as I can tell. That is, that Al Qaeda is essentiallyA very important book. The first thing I’ve read that systematically gets Al Qaeda right, as far as I can tell. That is, that Al Qaeda is essentially Western; another breakdown in Western society in response to Modernity, in the same way anarchism or nihilism or militias or other extreme movements were. It has the same vision of a revolutionary vanguard that will remake the world that Marxism, Fascism, and other radical modern political movements have had. It’s like a fusion of Fundamentalist Islam and Bakunin. Grey correctly locates the fundamental danger of the modern world in the urge on the part of any group to use technology to radically remake society. Also, he emphasizes Al Qaeda is another consequence of post-nation-state globalization(and probably the first of many similar movements), and must be addressed as such. It is an ideology and a movement, not a discrete group of people and not ultimately defeatable by attacking states or killing individuals. He paints a bleak picture of the coming decades, but I’m afraid a largely correct one....more
A savagely hilarious satire of the intersecting worlds of sensationalistic journalism, politics, and high society. Possibly even more relevant today tA savagely hilarious satire of the intersecting worlds of sensationalistic journalism, politics, and high society. Possibly even more relevant today than when it was written....more