Tag Archives: Jared Diamond

Books that helped me understand the world

During the last several years — mostly after I bought my first Kindle — I’ve spent a great deal of time reading, roughly half of it fiction, the other half non. I’ve gotten through hundreds of books and have reviewed the last 200 or so in this blog. It feels like a good time to cast a backwards look and identify those books that remain vivid in my memory — books that helped me understand the way the world works. Though most of the fiction I’ve read has been simply enjoyable, a few have touched me. None, though, have really nestled deep into memory and changed the way I view life and the world. I learn mostly from nonfiction. Whatever that says about my character — so be it.

Here, then, are the 20 nonfiction books that have impressed me the most in recent years. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Those I’ve reviewed are boldfaced and linked.

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow. A shocking survey of the consequences of America’s so-called War on Drugs and the racism in our justice system

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. A rigorous and balanced view of both top-down and bottoms-up development policies in the light of field research

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. History as I like it: painted in broad swaths across the millennia, rejecting the myth that the “West” was destined to rule the world

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. A brilliantly original view of world history from a geographer’s perspective, ascribing variable levels of development primarily to environmental and geographical factors

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The case against foreign aid and top-down development, by a former World Bank economist

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. The liveliest and most insightful of several books on social entrepreneurs

Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The seminal book on understanding “six degrees of separation” and the way networks work

Harden, Blaine, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. A riveting tale of the North Korean gulag, spotlighting the reality of repression in the Kim family’s private kingdom

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. One of the most troubling books I’ve ever read about the legacy of colonialism: the harrowing story of how the Belgian King destroyed the Congo and murdered millions of its people

Johnson, Chalmers, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. A scholar and former U.S. official demonstrates how the U.S. dominates the world through hundreds of military bases, undermining our nation’s reputation and robbing our society of the means to address pressing social problems

Larson, Erik, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. An eye-opening account of U.S. official anti-Semitism in FDR’s Administration that shackled our Ambassador in Berlin who witnessed the outrageous acts unfolding in Nazi Germany

Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A revisionist view of Native American society in both North and South America, offering proof of huge populations and sophisticated civilizations in the present-day U.S. and in the Amazon Basin

Miller, Brian, and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. A clear-eyed look beyond the bounds of Right-Wing ideology at the immeasurable benefits and services every “self-made man” has received from U.S. society

Mukherjee, Siddhartha, The Emperor of All Maladies. An oncologist’s brilliant history of cancer and of the medical profession’s slowly developing success in treating it

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. How a former psychiatrist, laboring face-to-face with $1-a-day farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries, helped 17 million families escape from poverty

Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. A Pulitzer-Award-winning Washington Post reporter and her researcher rip the cover from the enormous intelligence establishment built after 9-11

Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A science reporter’s captivating ten-year search to understand the consequences of a medical crime committed in an overtly racist era before the rise of medical ethics

Ward, Vicky, The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers. The most intimate and candid account of how Wall Street played the central role in launching the Great Recession

Wrong, Michela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. A vivid account by a Financial Times reporter of how corruption holds sway even in one of Africa’s most developed economies 

1 Comment

Filed under Commentaries, FAQs & Commentaries

Is history too important to leave to historians?

A review of Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Something strange was afoot. A mere geographer, Jared Diamond, had had the temerity to publish a history book, upending centuries of historians’ speculations about the reasons why civilization first developed in the Middle East. It was 2005, and the book was Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Five years later an archaeologist, Ian Morris, wrote another history book (for the general reader!) called Why the West Rules — for Now. Building on Diamond’s thesis, Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century.

While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving not just into geography but also (in Morris’ case) into biology, sociology, and archaeology. In fact, Morris has little patience for the Great Man Theory of History: “the most that any of these great men/bungling idiots did was to speed up or slow down processes that were already under way. None really wrestled history down a whole new path. Even Mao, perhaps the most megalomaniac of all, only managed to postpone China’s industrial takeoff.”

As you may surmise, this is not a dry college textbook. Just for example, the author advances what he calls, tongue in cheek, the “Morris Theorem” that “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.” There are times when the pace drags, as when Morris follows the endless rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, but on the whole the book is lively and eminently readable.

Like Diamond, Morris set out to understand why what today is called “the West” has dominated the planet for at least the past two centuries. The standard historical explanation is that sometime around 1800, the Industrial Revolution caused a sharp increase in development in Europe and North America. As Morris explains, however, “this upturn was itself only the latest example of a very long-term pattern of steadily accelerating social development.” In Why the West Rules, he explores the state of society and the quality of life in both West and East since long before the onset of written history in the first millennium BCE — in fact, since the passing of the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago. With a four-factor analytical tool of his own, Morris measures “social development” since then in each of the two broad regions a thousand years at a time, concluding that “the West has been the most developed region of the world for fourteen of the last fifteen millennia.” (His four benchmarks are “energy capture, urbanization, information technology, and war-making capacity.”)

It is that exception — a period of about 1,200 years from the Sixth Century until the 18th, when the West finally wrested itself out of the legacy of the Dark Ages — that Morris seizes upon to refute those who assert that the West has always “ruled” and is destined to do so forever.

As telegraphed in his subtitle (The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future), Morris’s ultimate goal is to discern the shape of times to come. His conclusion is noncommittal: “The great question for our times is not whether the West will continue to rule. It is whether humanity as a whole will break through to an entirely new kind of existence before disaster strikes us.”

To be precise, Ian Morris has been a Professor of Classics and History at Stanford for more than 15 years. However, he describes himself as an archaeologist and his interests are clearly more expansive than those of the typical college history teacher. In Why the West Rules, he draws upon insights and examples from science fiction, popular film and television shows, and from his own personal experience on excavations in Sicily.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Nonfiction