The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution is a massive tome written by a historian who believes, convincingly, that the scientific revolution was the defining event in history. It is not an easy book to read: if you expect fast-moving stories of hero scientists, go elsewhere. Indeed, the author goes on for dozens of pages on whether the word revolution is indeed appropriate for the events of the 16th through the 18th century, a discussion that is probably interesting for specialists, but not so much for the general public.
That said, the book does a great job of demonstrating how changing the way we looked at the world changed the way we thought about knowledge itself, from something we know to something we are forever seeking. I would quibble with some of the author’s interpretation of how differences between English and French shaped the scientific discourse but his knowledge is encyclopedic.
It seems pretty obvious that Christianity has left a deep mark in Western societies, so it’s not exactly clear why we would need a book to discuss this, but the author argues, rather strenuously, against atheists’ claims to the contrary . In any case, I did not really understand The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values. It is certainly written by someone with impressive knowledge of history but I could not grasp its arc.
In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies tackles the widespread opinion that we must never forget difficult moments because it will somehow inform a better future with incisive examples that show that it’s not always the case. From the Edict of Nantes to 9/11, from King’s Philip’s War to the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, the author fearlessly examines well-known and obscure examples to show that history curricula are highly selective, on the one hand, and that a little bit of forgetting can help greatly with the forgiving part of building the future. Expect erudition and nuanced moral judgments.
The hyperactive subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers announces it: this book may be focused on the Pacific Ocean, but adeptly serves stories as diverse as navigating without instruments, how Larry Ellison spends his money (apparently paying someone to retrieve basketballs shot from his yacht), the discovery of entirely new life forms at the dark bottom of the ocean, and how a mostly unknown American Colonel divided Korea into two countries. There are lighter moments, such the history of surfing, but each chapter cleverly moves from a specific anecdote to a larger topic. Entirely enjoyable, even for readers who do not live right by the Pacific.
Warning: although it is August, this is far from beach-reading fare. And if you think you know how California natives were exterminated (by the bad Franciscan missions, right), you are wrong. Yes, the missions enslaved them in what has been described as “Nazi concentration camps”, but between roughly the Gold Rush and the Civil War they were just about decimated. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 takes us through the horrific political decisions (including by the US Congress, which funded a lot of the anti-Indian activities by militias), savage attacks, routinely on women and children, and forced removals to reserves that occurred during those years. It’s impeccably documented, chilling, and I have to say a little too detailed to be of interest to the casual reader. But it seems to me that some version of the story should be included in all California history textbooks.
Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First is an ambitious, sweeping, and long (700 pages!) history of our collective hoarding for centuries, and across many countries, including many in Europe, the US, China, Japan, and the ex-British Empire. The author has looked at death inventories, the content of New York City trash cans, the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and consumption, housing, and leisure activities. The book is surprisingly easy to read considering its scope, although occasionally statistics could be anchored better. 225 gallons of water per person in Atlanta in 1884. He says that’s a lot — but what do we consume today? And cross-country data presented in line graphs would be much easier to consume if placed on a map. Still, an enjoyable synthesis of evolving lifestyles.
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them tells the story of the chess pieces on the cover, most of which reside in the British Museum in London and whose origin is debated by the scholars. The book focuses on a newer hypothesis, that they were carved in Iceland, by a woman, Margret the Adroit, but along the way tells many other stories about the Vikings’ cultural history and Iceland’s Golden Age, circa 1200.
You don’t need to know anything about chess, or know much about the Vikings to thoroughly enjoy the story.