Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years

By Jared Diamond

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot in this book to wrap your head around. The basic premise tries to look at human history since the last ice age to determine the ultimate causes of why the shape of human history evolved as it did: why has Eurasia, and Europe in particular, dominated recorded history and spread and conquered so much of the world.

The answers that Diamond comes up with are interesting and thought-provoking, looking at geography and biogeography over “race”. His four basic conclusions involve the availability of suitable plants and animals for domestication; the orientation of the major axis of the continents and how this affects diffusion of both things (plants, animals, people) and ideas between and across continents.

Obviously, a book of about 450 pages can’t cover a subject this big in great depth, but the thesis seems compelling to a layman like myself, with its explanation of why Europeans were the ones to develop the guns and steel and bring germs to the lands they conquered. The book while being moderately academic in tone is still very readable and has lots of real-world examples. (However, it’s still one that I had to read moderately slowly, breaking it up with lighter reading material.) The major caveat that I have to admit is that I am a layman and although Diamond’s hypothesis makes sense to me, I have no idea what other ideas are in out there in the field, and how seriously this one is taken compared to others.

The book is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its publication and it would be interesting to see an updated edition to see how our understanding has changed in that time, thanks to developments in archaeology, genetics and anthropology over the last couple of decades.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage
Year of publication: 1997

Space Helmet for a Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1963-1989)

By Paul Kirkley

Rating: 4 stars

This is an engaging book, informally written, with lots of snarky asides to the reader and imagined conversations between the figures that form this history. I’m a confirmed fan of many years standing, but there was still a fair bit in here that I didn’t know. Kirkley admits in the acknowledgements at the end that he relied heavily on secondary works, but for a book like this that’s perfectly reasonable. And he provides his references in a comprehensive source section at the back.

Although I didn’t really get into the fandom properly until later, I’ve always tended to go along with the general notion that John Nathan-Turner wasn’t good for the programme, but Kirkley is sympathetic to him and I find myself coming away with a much more nuanced view of the chap. The higher echelons of the BBC in the 80s, though, come in for a drubbing.

One thing that the book sorely needs is an index. There are so many names that it’s difficult to keep track of them all, so an index to let you flip back and check up on them would be invaluable. Without it, it makes it hard to use as a reference. In saying that, the book is clearly intended as a narrative history, not a scholarly one, so the omission is understandable.

So overall, this is an entertaining history of the fascinating story of a remarkable television programme. One that somehow managed to survive its first couple of disaster-laden episodes and is still going strong, more than fifty years later.

Book details

ISBN: 9781935234173
Publisher: Mad Norwegian Press
Year of publication: 2014

Ten Cities that Made an Empire

By Tristram Hunt

Rating: 4 stars

It appears that this book has taken me exactly five months to read. Not because it’s difficult, or complex, or dull, but I just have trouble with non-fic, especially history. I tend to read a chunk, put it down, meaning to pick it up again the next day and get distracted by a graphic novel or space opera. Still, I’m very glad that I did eventually get through this book, which uses ten cities to provide a breakneck tour of the history of the British Empire, from its first phase in the Americas through its turn towards the east, and right down to its end and the impact on Britain itself.

It’s an odd mix, but the architecture of the cities is only ever there in the background and never as important as you think it’s going to be, but still, weaving together the history of the cities with the wider context of Empire is fascinating. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hunt, as he seems to be on the right wing of the Labour Party but his history seems balanced. He talks about how the British Empire alternated between waves of free trade imperialism and more traditional conquering imperialism, but is never flag-waving. He never shies away from the dark underbelly of the Empire, particularly the slavery that formed the basis of the West Indies economy for so long, and the racism that was evident in India (and elsewhere), compared with the ‘white colonies’.

My knowledge of the Empire has always been patchy, and this book has helped fill in some of those gaps, particularly the broad brush of its rise and fall across a few hundred years and its actions and behaviour in India. Indeed, the Indian chapters were amongst the most interesting for me, especially the comparison between Calcutta and Bombay (as they were then), with New Delhi being the Empire’s last hurrah, despite the triumphalism that went into its building and its architecture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141047782
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age 1550-500 BC

By Paul Collins

Rating: 4 stars

This book is nothing if not ambitious. It aims to cover a thousand years of history of the near- and middle-east in a little over 200 pages, while also sprinkling a liberal dose of (quite stunning) pictures of items and exhibits, mostly from the British Museum, from the era.

How well it achieves this lofty aim is a matter for discussion. Covering a century per chapter, the book can only but be very broad brush in its coverage of history, giving a general sweep of which empires were in the ascendency and what their relations were with their neighbours. In this, the maps dispersed around the book are very useful, but could be hard to find when I needed to refer back to them (which was often). Perhaps a separate ‘maps’ section at the start of the book may have helped here.

The book is very much ‘kings and empires’. There is no social or sociological history here. In part that’s inevitable given both the scope of history under discussion, and the time period: recovering much of the social and cultural history of these peoples would be much more difficult than who was king and what he was doing, just because that sort of information is much more likely to have been written down.

The images accompanying the text are lovely, although the items photographed rarely have any relation to the text. It is, however, always astonishing to me just how beautiful some of these objects were and how fine the craftsmanship on them was, for items produced so long ago.

I was trying to think of the best way to describe this book and it occurred to me that it’s best described like an animated map, showing the rise and fall of empires across a millennium. I wondered if such a thing existed, and, of course, the Internet didn’t fail me. The first third or so of this map covers the period of this book (in about 30 seconds!). The map shows the empires, but the book still adds nuance and some depth to the relationships, although it’s easy to get lost in the many kings, countries and city-states that emerge and disappear within a few pages. It’s difficult to remember that a civilisation that only lasted a few pages was probably around for decades (or even longer) of real time.

That’s an inevitable problem, I suppose, with condensing history as much as this book does, but it’s still a great short introduction to the cradle of civilisation and holds up a mirror to the international wrangling that our own civilisation continually goes through.

Book details

ISBN: 9780674030961
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Year of publication: 2008

The Scottish Nation, 1700-2007: A Modern History

By T.M. Devine

Rating: 4 stars

This is a well-written, readable book, impeccably sourced and researched. It’s taken me quite a while to get through it, although that’s mostly because I’d put it down for months at a time so that I could read something lighter.

Devine takes the history of Scotland over the last three hundred years or so and breaks it down by era and then within the era, he looks at different aspects of the social and political history of the country. So the first is roughly around the Act of Union and its consequences, then the early industrial era, taking us up to the start of the Victorian era. This is followed by the largest section, covering the Victorian and Edwardian eras, bringing us to the edge of the second world war, and the final section brings us right up to the present day (or at least up to when the book was written in 2007, updated to the eve of the Indyref in 2012).

There’s a huge amount of research here, and it covers many subjects, from the ‘traditional’ history of geopolitics, kings and the Great and the Good, to the rise of the lowland cities, the end of clanship, the place of women, migration (both into and out of Scotland) and much more.

As well as covering the Highland clearances, Devine looks at the effects of the underlying causes on the Lowlands as well. He covers the period of Scotland’s (and especially Glasgow’s) ascendency as ‘the world’s workshop’ and ‘second city of the empire’ and looks at its decline and the roots and causes of that.

All in all, the book is very comprehensive, readable and has definitely given me an overview of the modern history of the country that I have chosen to call home.

Book details

ISBN: 9780718193201
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1999

One Summer: America 1927

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, Bryson’s aim is to show us how much went on in the summer of 1927, and his thesis is that this was an astonishing summer for America, where world-changing events all collided. It makes for a very entertaining read, but I’m not entirely sure that I agree that 1927 was as extraordinary a summer as he makes out. I’m sure that cases could be made for other years, other seasons and other countries, but this is the year that Bryson has chosen and I’m happy go with him on the trip through it. Starting from June of that year, he picks a couple of major players, Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth, and winds the rest of the narrative around them. That’s not to say that they dominate the book, but Bryson uses them as touchstones and jumping off points to discuss other events.

Something that this book does get across is just how different a world that America of 1927 was. This is a world before television, where even radio is only just emerging as a medium. Prohibition is in full swing and eugenics is a respected science. There were literally thousands of newspapers and millions would turn out to see a man who had flown an aeroplane across the Atlantic ocean.

Bryson also touches on the somewhat random nature of celebrity and notoriety as he describes the vast amount of newspaper attention given to the sash weight murder case, which was dull and obvious compared to other crimes of the era, but seemed to completely grip the nation.

Babe Ruth is one of the two principal protagonists of the narrative, and while I was interested in the earlier segments, describing his youth and personal life, the latter segments are mostly breathless recitals of numbers, apparently related to baseball. As someone who has little interest in sport and no knowledge of baseball, this left me a little cold. It’s a good thing, then, that the other principal of the book, Charles Lindbergh, has a more interesting story.

Bryson writes with a light touch and witty, engaging style that makes this book easy to read (excepting the sporting numbers) and it succeeds as a narrative history covering a single summer in a single country. Its importance for me lies in the fact that that country was America and this book goes some way to describing events that made America the confident leader of the world that it became during the 20th century.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552772563
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2013

The Transformation Of Ireland 1900 – 2000

By Diarmaid Ferriter

Rating: 2 stars

I found this book very difficult to read. I don’t know if it was the structure or the language or something else entirely, but it’s taken me about 18 months to get through it. Also, and this isn’t the fault of the book, I don’t think it was what I was looking for. I don’t know very much about the history of Ireland, and this book, while trying to be an overview of the turbulent 20th century, seems to assume a lot of knowledge that I didn’t have.

Things that I would consider to be fairly major events: the Easter rising, the war of independence and civil war, the transition from Free State to Republic, the Troubles, didn’t get really get much space. In a book as ambitious as this, trying to cover social and cultural history, as well as political, I guess it’s inevitable that you can’t go into huge levels of detail, but I was hoping for a decent overview of modern Irish history before delving into more depth on individual topics, and I don’t really feel that I got that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781861974433
Publisher: Profile Books
Year of publication: 2004

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

By Thomas S. Kuhn

Rating: 0 stars

I bought this book for an adult-education course on scientific paradigms which was cancelled. Since it seemed like quite a slim volume I decided to read it anyway, but found it very hard going. It’s written in a dry, academic style which I found very difficult to read more than a few paragraphs at a time of, and retained even less, so I eventually gave up, just a few chapters in. Maybe I’ll finish it someday, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Book details

ISBN: 9780226458083
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Year of publication: 1962

The Vietnam War

By Mitchell K. Hall

Rating: 4 stars

Having been on a short course about the Vietnam war I found myself wanting to know more and the course tutor recommended this slim volume. It’s a short book (the main text is less than a hundred pages) but it clearly and concisely covers the major events and people of the war, with a timeline, dramatis personae and (very handy) list of acronyms.

The book is split into sensible chapters, starting with the roots of the war, which discuss the Vietnamese independence movement following the Second World War and American growing paranoia over Communism. Then it moves on to the growing American involvement in South Vietnam until it was fully committed. The third chapter discusses various turning points of the war, including the antiwar movement and the Tet offensive. Chapter four covers the beginning of the end, as America looks for a way to withdraw from the quagmire with some dignity and then we have the conclusion and legacy of the war.

For me, the major thing I got out of this book was the complete lack of understanding shown by America at all stages of their involvement in Indochina. Their obsession with the Cold War led them to frame the Vietnamese independence movement in those terms and their blinkers prevented them from any other interpretation. This also led them to prop up corrupt governments not just in South Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia (including, later, supporting the Khmer Rouge guerillas following Vietnamese occupation). In the end, the ‘domino theory’ was proved incorrect but only after millions of lives had been lost and millions of tonnes of bombs had been dropped.

The book is supported by extracts from various relevant documents referenced to in the main text and there is a list of further reading at the end. This book is both a great way to get an overview of the war, and as a jumping off point for a more in-depth study of the war that redefined how America thought of itself.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405874342
Publisher: Routledge
Year of publication: 1999

Joystick Nation

By Joystick Nation (Paperback)

Rating: 3 stars

I found this going cheap in the perpetual book sale in my University Library. It’s a pop-history of video games that was published in 1997 which, given the rate of development of computers, makes it practically medieval. Even so, it was an interesting read, covering the development of games from the very early mainframe games through the arcades of the ’80s right up to the newest consoles of the time (the N64 and Sega Saturn).

The book was written by an American and so focusses very much on North America, missing some of the developments that happened on this side of the Atlantic, particularly, I feel, in the ’80s when the 8-bit computers such as the BBC, C64 and Spectrum were so popular here. It covers several sociological trends that were probably transnational and still makes for interesting reading, even if it is heavily biased towards the US.

What I found slightly odd about the book is that the author did seem to mostly consider gaming to be an occupation for children, but then the 20- and 30-somethings who play games now were kids when the book was written and the games industry itself wasn’t as mature as it is now, when it caters to all ends of the market (the best example of a girl-oriented game that the author could come up with was Ms Pacman!).

Also, the book came out just when games on CD-ROM were starting to become popular for PCs, but the PC gaming market still hadn’t really taken off, so focussed a lot on consoles, although the chapter on the “military-entertainment complex” was interesting (basically suggesting that most of the development into game graphics and complexity came from the military).

I found the tone of the book quite odd. It had footnotes and references to academic papers all over the place, but the narrative tone was distinctly personal and popular, even throwing in the odd swearword, perhaps to be ‘edgy’. It mostly worked but sometimes the juxtaposition was somewhat jarring.

Overall, this was an interesting, if somewhat dated, history, from a trans-Atlantic point of view. I’d be interested in reading a more up-to-date edition, and one written from a British perspective.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349107233
Year of publication: 1997

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