I suppose that the author of Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages felt he had to start by defending the Middle Ages from the usual contempt of readers who think that the Renaissance is the interesting period, but his book is so fascinating that prejudices will fall away. Drawing from documents and artifacts from the Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic traditions, in multiple languages, he explores illness, conceptions of the body and brain, competitiveness amongst saints (pro tip: the more extreme the martyrdom the better), race, the crazy mechanics of bleeding patients, and chiromancy. The result is that we enter into the logic of medieval people, in a kind, not mocking way.
My favorite part of the books was the set of medical textbooks he references, some actually kinda correct, others very entertaining and always beautifully illustrated.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World presents twelve manuscripts, some breathtakingly beautiful and others surprisingly modest looking, that illustrate important periods, concepts, or owners. The author investigates myriad of details about each, including (to my great delight) how the book is handled by its current library and whether its guardians supply appropriate foam holders or gloves to handle it. (It turns out that different libraries have very different approaches, which was a surprise to me. Surely someone should have figured out by now what the best mechanisms are!)
I cannot present I remembered all I read, as we learn about how to prepare animal skins for manuscript, how the books were copied and illustrated (often by different people), and of course the minute textual differences between copies of supposedly the same text. It’s probably best to read the book in small increments, something I did not do.
I suspect that the many self-avowed readers of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment may have skipped a few pages or fifty. This is dense prose. Fukuyama takes us all the way back to Socrates (to end up, unsurprisingly, at Trump, who seems to have fired up all kinds of resentment) but the main idea is that one of the main human motivation, at least today, is for respect and dignity, both for the individual and for various subgroups. This desire, the author thinks, creates all finds of dividing politics and we would be better off building national identities. While his thesis of identity and recognition-seeking sounds very convincing, it’s a little hard to see how organizing by nations would necessarily be better (hello, traditional cross-nation wars?) But I would encourage you to read what he has to say about the quest for dignity.
Let’s start with what does not work so well in Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past: the author’s repeated insistence that DNA analysis will change every field of inquiry (please show us, don’t tell!), and his decision to include minute details of how his team conducted various analyses he describes in the book.
Apart from that, the stories are fascinating: who invaded, who introduced new technologies, who imposed draconian restrictions on marrying outside the group, can be revealed through DNA analysis, with the main obstacle being the availability of ancient DNA. Indeed, many of the theories (and boy, do geneticists like theories!) seem to be built on very small data sets, suggesting that they will likely be toppled as we find more remains. I was most interested by the idea that humans, even very ancient ones, roamed a lot, so that the ancestors of people living in a given regions routinely came from very far away. This seems to be a very inconvenient truth to racists everywhere, as well as to nationalists. Let’s find and analyze more ancient DNA!
The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World tells the fascinating story of how engineers managed to create more and more precise tools and measurement devices to create widgets of increasingly stunning precision. With humble beginnings manufacturing accurate rifles all the way to the dizzying precision of computer chip making, the author retraces inventions and inventors with verve — and often rather abstruse, impenetrable vocabulary for the initiated. Sample: “The slide rest is necessarily placed between he lather’s headstock (which incorporates the motor and the mandrel that spins the workpiece around) and the tailstock (which need the other end of the workpiece secure).” A diagram might help, right? I don’t want to say that the whole book is as perplexing. In particular, the explanation of how GPS works is one of the clearest I have read.
A perfect book for our favorite geeks.
The subtitle of The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is probably backwards, in the sense that the author mostly shows that the quest for economic domination shaped the food of Britain rather than the other way round. She builds each chapter of the book around a specific meal eaten in a particular place and time that defines some kind of new historical development, some well-known but others not so much, such as the mass importation of British indentured servants alongside African slaves into in the West Indies. And she does not ignore liquid nourishment, from rum distilleries in Massachusetts to pale ale beer in India. It’s a lot of information, spanning 400 years — and with sometimes surprising rationalizations of the greatness of the empire…
Overall, the good news is: as a group, we are eating much better than we used to!
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!)