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Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  1,722 ratings  ·  231 reviews
In Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs argues that before 1900, history seemed to make sense. We can understand innovations like electricity, agriculture and democracy. The twentieth century, in contrast, gave us relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics, climate change and postmodernism.

In order to underst
Paperback, 356 pages
Published November 10th 2015 by Soft Skull Press (first published November 3rd 2015)
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Brandon Forsyth
Jul 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Not just one of the best books of the year, but potentially one of my favourites of all-time, STRANGER THAN WE CAN IMAGINE (or whatever they end up calling this) is a brilliant, piercing, funny travelogue through the ideas of the twentieth century, and a glimpse at the possible direction of the twenty-first. It's a book that dares to compare ULYSSES and the video game Grand Theft Auto V (and gets away with it), quotes Douglas Adams and Alan Moore, gently pokes fun of Einstein (while also providi ...more
Oct 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Anyone who has studied history can appreciate the uniquely strange and unprecedented nature of our present age. It is not that unexpected events didn't take place or that new technologies weren't invented in the past. But over the past century the rate and manner of change – both in the external world and in the inner lives of people themselves – has gone into wildly unmappable territory. To take one example, my writing this review on a glass screen which I will put away after I'm finished, and ...more
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having loved another book by John Higgs (aka J.M.R. Higgs) 'The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds’ I was keen to read more.

As I expected, I loved this well researched, engrossing, straightforward look at the ideas, inventions, politics, philosophies and social movements that made the 20th century such a turbulent and game changing century. Higgs covers a specific subject with each chapter, for example, Modernism, Sex, the Id, Science Fiction, Feminism, Teenagers, Nihili
Hilary Scroggie
Jul 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Weird, trippy and wonderful. Ridiculously interesting. Already mentally under the Christmas tree for at least two people in my family. One of those books where I read so much of it out loud to my husband out of context that he had to ask me to stop (possibly because it was quite late at night and he was trying to sleep).

However, it's actually more of a 4.5 star read for me for one reason: for a book about ideas, it should frame itself more clearly as a Eurocentric view of the 20th century.
This is not necessarily an alternative history of the 20th Century. It's just a history of the period which focuses on philosophical/artistic concepts more than on military/political ones. Enjoyable and easy to read, it does provide some insight into the previous Century. I would recommend it as a fast walk through for any history nerds. ...more
Azita Rassi
May 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant book, fantastically organized, and an absolute joy to read. Highly recommend it.
Rob Thompson
Stranger Than We Can Imagine bills itself as "an alternative history of the 20th century." Which raises the question: an alternative to what about the 20th century, exactly? John Higgs asked this very question when he found himself in his local bookshop watching a video of Barrack Obama. He was talking about whether the hacking of Sony Entertainment by the North Korean regime should be regarded as an act of war, on a thin slice of glass and metal he’d pulled from his pocket.

Looking over at the h
Liina Saar (Vahtras)
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Can’t remember how this book ended up in my ‘to read’ shelf, but very glad it did and thus sending my thankyous out there. Higgs’ subtle and humble erudition and almost undetectable humor make this book such an enjoyable (yet almost embarrassing) read for obvious reasons - how come I knew so little about some of the phenomena and movements that have influenced the way we live and think, how come I had never heard of some of the people who have shaped the world we live in. Reading this book will ...more
Jun 17, 2015 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
I tried. After hearing a ton of wonderful things about this from a ton of friends and coworkers, I really wanted to love it. But I've re-read the same pages over and over and it's just not working for me. ...more
May 26, 2017 rated it did not like it
I started reading this short history of the twentieth century. The first chapter about Albert Einstein abounds with mistakes. Einstein's paper on the photoelectric effect did not overthrow the theory of aether. Einstein's universe was not a universe of black holes; that they follow from Einstein's General Relativity was only understood in the 1950s, and the term was coined in the 1960s. I flipped the pages to the chapter on space exploration. A lot of pages discuss rocketeer John Parsons; Robert ...more
Feb 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A really incredible book. I'm not sure I agree with the premise that the 19th century was necessarily simple to understand -- I suspect this is more the case for Brits, as the 19th century was pretty much their century, and thus must seem like a much simpler time in retrospect -- nor am I totally convinced by his conclusions about the millennial generation (my generation), which strike me as maybe a bit optimistic (he mentioned having a kid who's a millennial in the beginning, so that might expl ...more
In Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs offers a map of the territory of the twentieth century—of how he sees it, anyway, which is important, because many if not most of the people, places, and events that he discusses center on England and the United States. The book, while interesting at times, was a bit of a mess. It wasn't just occasionally superficial, which became clear to me when Higgs discussed subjects about which I know quite a bit. This is perhaps inevitable, given the aims of the ...more
John FitzGerald
According to Higgs, what distinguished the twentieth century was that the single sources of authority characteristic of earlier Western society were replaced by multiple sources. However, undisputed sources of authority had been disappearing for centuries by the time the twentieth century arrived. The Reformation began in the 16th century, splintering the Western religious world into warring communities acknowledging a host of different authorities, and the long struggle between religious and te ...more
Aug 19, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
“There’s a moment for every generation when memory turns into history. The twentieth century is receding into the distance, and coming into perspective.” Giving charlatans—oops, I mean historians the opportunity to revise and reinterpret with less fear of contradiction.

An ambitious attempt to bring order out of the chaos of the last hundred years. Spanning the gamut from astrophysics to po culture, Higgs finds patterns in the twentieth century which may help us understand how we got where we are
Sep 30, 2017 rated it liked it

It's sort of an Adam Curtis documentary in book form. Which is both a good and a bad thing. The trouble with putting Curtis' kind of 'unlikely connections between very different phenomena to produce a kind of occult history' approach into a book is that, given a little more time to think about it, one ends up more inclined to ask 'Yes, very clever. But is there really a connection between Einstein's theory of relativity and modernist art? Or are you just taking an idea and running with it..
May 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Studying objects which were two contradictory things at the same time was something of a challenge. It was like Zen Buddhism with extra maths.

What a fun book this was! Higgs sets out to explore the defining characteristics of the 20th century under the thesis that what broke it apart from previous historical periods was the (often sudden) dissolution of an absolute point of view. He then builds his examples and goes 'round and 'round, tying Dada and cubism to the space race, and Freudian the
Beth (bibliobeth)
Aug 17, 2016 rated it liked it
First of all, a huge thank you to New Books Magazine and for providing me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review. When I first read the synopsis for John Higgs' fascinating narrative about the twentieth and early twenty-first century I was instantly intrigued and had to know more. What I found within the brilliantly concise chapters was both interesting and highly educational with a dash of humour on the side and I really feel I've learned a lot about subjects I ha ...more
Stacey Suver
Mar 16, 2017 rated it liked it
There’s a lot to love here, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Higgs had me from the first page. The first five or six chapters are bold and insightful. I highly recommend them. Unfortunately the deeper he moves into the twentieth century the more he loses the thread and his thesis collapses. While I’m on board with the passages about LSD, chaos, and postmodernism, the chapters on Science Fiction and Nihilism are just stupid and the examples he offers don’t hold up. Also, why would a discussion o ...more
Jun 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An enthralling, mind-bending look at the twentieth century.

A history blurbed by graphic novelist Alan Moore.

John Higgs makes sense of a century that – from relativity, to the id, to LSD, to post-modernism – didn’t really make sense. You won’t find the depression, the wars, or Vietnam in here. Instead, you’ll read about the great ideas that shaped the century and threw down all the old certainties that had held the world together. Margaret Thatcher’s quoted as an environmentalist (but so was Mu
Alex Sarll
The author of that magisterial, mind-bending KLF book was always going to have trouble finding a comparably significant topic for his follow-up, but he very nearly manages it here, finding his theme in the era's repeated destabilisation of anything resembling an omphalos. If the book has a flaw, it's a tendency to overstate the novelty of twentieth century developments; there were genocides long before the word was created (indeed, likely before words in general were), the Sophists were making i ...more
Vinayak Mishra
Jan 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Brilliantly explains a lot of subjects that I only knew vaguely about, and also reveals new interesting details about other popular subjects like relativity, the space race, the cold war etc.
Love how John Higgs manages to weave seemingly unconnected topics into a common theme- that of changing perspectives throughout the 20th Century.
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oh my god I love this book. It's my favorite history book. It gives you a new perspective on the 20th century and thus our current world. At the end, I felt like I had a better, more historical view of the world and where we might be going. It's smart and insightful. most of all though, it's funny. funny and wry and refreshing ...more
Aug 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this book in two days. A weird multifaceted look at the twentieth century. If you like Adam Curtis documentaries. Or The Wonderbox by Roman Krznaric. Or just grand historical sweeping viewpoints this is a great book. It could do with a better index though.
Leigh Wright
Oct 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An essential guide to perspective.
Oct 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
For centuries, humankind boiled down to a guy (always) who decided everything; and everyone else, who pretty much did as they were told. The War to End All Wars changed all that, tearing down the empires, creating a world where multiple perspectives mattered. We came to understand perspective itself as a relative rather than an absolute thing, and a generation of "Modernists" - from Einstein to Picasso to Hemingway - rebuilt the world on that idea.

The loss of absolute truth was liberating, but h
Jun 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
I thought this was good. It felt like reading Yuval Noah Harari Jr.

Gibbs pulls a common theme (that of uncertainty) out of 20th century events. It’s a bit one-sided and almost certainly involved a lot of cherry picking, but Higgs’ perspective provides some nice food for thought without making the reader work for it.

Irreverent in the best way. As just one example, here is him describing why Schrödinger’s cat sucks (after providing a better analogy for quantum weirdness): “[Schrödinger’s cat] is
Nikhil Iyengar
This book succeeds in being a veritable omphalos on its own, bringing in fields and subjects as diverse as individualism, existentialism, nihilism, postmodernism, feminism, psychology, war, space, and manages to squeeze in quantum mechanics for good measure too. Not to mention that this work is meant to be a history book. Replete with content that very few would be confident of knowing in its entirety, finishing three hundred pages has never been this stimulating to my mind, and it is praisewort ...more
Ruben Hekkens
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Entertaining book that chronicles the twentieth century as an interesting rollercoaster ride - amusingly connecting the stories of the important events without boringly droning out every single fact and year like the average history book does. The careless way in which developments from different fields are lumped together by the author as a general trend (who equals Picasso to general relatively because they both emphasize the role of the observer) feels artificial to me: they are not the same, ...more
Mar 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A history of the twentieth century that highlights the chaos, the grounding assumptions that, over the last hundred years, have been lost to us. Art, politics, finance, religion, so much has been lost, changed. Some for the better, no doubt, but it has created a world adrift.
Nov 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fun time. John Higgs is a guy that you’d like to listen to explain anything, and he has a great way of tying disparate things together, and he thinks abstractly about things in ways that are imaginative and fresh. This was a very engrossing and stimulating book.
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