With the holidays upon us and with a long Thanksgiving weekend for the lucky among us, I thought I’d recommend some books for your reading pleasure. In the distant past I did a lot of book reviews on TPM. But in recent years I get hung up because I often don’t have the time to do a proper review or I didn’t read the book with the thought of doing a review in mind. In other cases, I loved a book but I read it two years ago so I’m rusty on all the particulars. So I’m just going to recommend these eight books, with just some brief notes about why I found them interesting rather than a comprehensive review. But each of these books is one that I found engrossing and learned a great deal from. A number of them had a transformative effect on how I think about and understand a given topic.
One more caveat or explanation. These choices are all driven by my personal reading interests, which tend to be very focused on history and usually history that is at least a couple hundred years old. It’s very seldom that I read anything, in book form, about the contemporary world and especially contemporary politics. So take it as a given that some people who are avid TPM Readers will see this list and find it totally obscure and uninteresting.
With all that, here goes.
The cauldron and promise of Eastern Europe.
As I noted, I’m generally not interested in reading about contemporary history. And things from the last 100 years I generally see as contemporary history. But I’ve been interested lately in the recent history of Eastern Europe and the aftermath of World War I. These are two very different but related books. Vanquished is about the aftermath of World War I in the East – the relevant point being that the war really didn’t end in the East until the early 1920s. In many respects there were continuing cycles of brutalizing violence in the East that continued – with only a relatively brief interruption in the late 1920s – right through into World War I. This is critical to understanding the origins of fascisms and all the subsequent history of the continent. An engrossing, really important read.
The Reconstruction of Nations goes back into the Early Modern period. It’s largely a history of and a paean to a certain strain of cosmopolitan, multi-national Polish history. I have a general knowledge of the very different path to the formation of nation-states in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe. This book helped me understand that history at a much, much deeper level. It also greatly deepened my understanding and perspective on the current struggle between nationalism and multinationalism which is roiling Europe and in many respects the entire globe. These are both books I highly, highly recommend. (I also did a podcast interview with the author of Reconstruction of Nations.)
* By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia
* Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration
* The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
History from one certain understanding begins with writing. Writing is when most of the things that historians use to understand the past come into view, when some of them even come into existence. But of course the human past did not begin with writing. Writing is a fairly recent development and in some parts of the world it’s extremely recent. Indeed, writing itself, certainly in its literary permutation, is often less reliable that modern archeology, at least on the things archeology lets us see clearly. These are three books that look at the distant past, often spanning thousands of years, mainly before the advent of writing. By Steppe, Desert and Ocean is simply the last 10,000 years of Eurasian history, the vast and surprisingly integrated stretch of land from the Pacific coast of China to Spain – where did human civilizations first develop over this expanse, how did they came into contact with each other, what were the key drivers of change. Excellent book.
Pathfinders covers some of the same territory but from a different vantage point. We tend to think of the history of exploration as the history of largely Western Europeans traveling to the Americas, Africa and Asia starting in the 1400s. There’s a whole complex and political debate about whether this counts as discovery versus conquest. But set that all aside. People have been traveling and settling new places for thousands, even tens of thousands of years, starting from the initial migrations out of Africa and culminating in the island explorers who spread out from southeast Asia to populate most of the islands of the Pacific. Basically, how did humans go from an origination point in one part of Africa to populate almost the entire globe, all long before the history of any kind of writing. Almost all long before Western European exploration. That’s this book. Fascinating read.
The last of these three is one of the densest books I’ve read in a very long time but also one of the most transformative in my understanding of numerous topics. It’s so dense that I would recommend reading it even if you read only the first half and then find it simply too tough going after the first half. (That’s what happened to me the first time. Then months later I went back to try to tackle the second half.) Because to me it went from being very dense and complex to almost impenetrable. That probably doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation. But, a transformative learning experience about the history of language, archeology, history and much more.
About half the world speaks an Indo-European language. It’s by far the biggest language family. That is largely because the ancestor language “proto-Indo-European” is the ancestor language of major languages in India, Iran and most of Europe. From Europe, English and Spanish came to dominate the Western Hemisphere. That’s a lot of people. But where and when did this language come from and how do we prove it? The premise of this book is that the speakers of this original language began in the steppe lands north of the Black Sea, which is to say modern southern Ukraine and southern Russia with Romania, Moldova and a few other countries in the mix. I don’t even know where to begin in explaining the book. But that’s what it’s about. It’s not an easy read but I found it a deeply fascinating and transformative one.
* SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
* The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (History of the Ancient World)
* The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 (The Penguin History of Europe)
Here are three books on Rome. We begin with the city itself in its republican period and end up with the civilization of Rome in which the city of Rome itself had become a peripheral part. SPQR is a new treatment of the whole civilization from one of our leading contemporary historians of Roman history. A very good read. The Triumph of Empire is a new look, a new interpretation of what we once called the early decline of the Roman Empire. That is what we might call the long 3rd century that takes us from high imperial years of the Antonine emperors – Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius – to the breakdown of the third century and reconstitution of the empire under Diocletian and Constantine. I found it a very interesting discussion and history of just why this happened, the mix of successional breakdown, invasions, the rise of a new, more aggressive dynasty/state in Iran, the changing structure and personnel of the empire beginning in the early third century which anticipated the very different composition of the imperial government starting in the 4th century. If you’re interested in this period, I found it an illuminating, interesting read.
Finally, Chris Wickham’s book on the Late Antique period and the ‘Dark Ages’. The concept of a ‘dark ages’ has been under assault by historians for decades. From another perspective, it has progressively had its historiography colonized by historians from the classical period. All of these histories are – broadly speaking – efforts to understand this period on its own terms rather than just a long period when everything went to shit between the Classical era and the Renaissance or at least during the High Middle Ages. Wickham looks at the period as parts of an evolution from the classical world, still deeply formed by many of its basic assumptions. He is also attempting to push off efforts to look at this period as the proto-history of modern states. So looking at the societies and states or quasi-states of 8th and 9th century Gaul isn’t a way to understand the deeper history or origination of … say, modern France with all its nationalist mythologies. As with all these histories, modern archeology is making itself felt at the expense of the literary record which was always incomplete and wanting. Anyway, another really illuminating and pleasurable read, like every book I’ve read by this author.