I loved Homo Sapiens. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, not so much. I suppose that the author gave himself an impossible task in predicting the future. Strike 1. Strike 2 is that the book is a muddle, fun to read (at times, when I was not enraged but the wild theories being put forward) but without a clean construction or purpose, meandering. If you approach it as a compilation of essays on various historical trends, and you are not bothered by the aforementioned wild theories, you might like it…
(And if you are worried about the string of one-star reviews this week, come back tomorrow. I have not finished the book I will review yet, but it’s a good one!)
70,000 years of history in 400 pages. That’s the challenge that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind tackles, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, successful at showing coherent themes with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. It’s fun to read, and the illustrations are well-chosen and not the same old ones we have seen dozens of times. Still, some will quibble that some important aspects of humanity are not covered at all (looking at you, art), and that interpretations of archeological data can be uncertain. Still, it’s very satisfying to get through so many years and so many concepts (empires, the market, religion, law, ecology) in a concise way.
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.