July 11, 2005

Guns, Germs, Steel and Books: The Economist's list of best-selling history books and then some

I read in the online edition of The New York Times yesterday morning that PBS's three-part series based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies begins tonight. Unfortunately, our household won't be able to join in the PBS fun because we get only two TV channels, neither one of which is PBS and both of which have pretty crummy, snowy reception. I might ask my parents, in cable heaven (NYC), to tape it for us.

I gave the book to Tom several Christmases ago, and promptly borrowed it back as soon as it was unwrapped. An interesting read, and much to think about, especially Diamond's geography vs. biology argument, as the kids and I worked our way through volumes 1 and 2 of the Story of the World series; I tend to give a bit weigh things out more evenly between the two, but then I'm not, unlike Diamond, a trained geographer. Guess what Tom will be getting for this Christmas this year? No prizes for guessing what I'll be reading by New Year's.

Of course, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse made it on to The Economist's recent (July 2nd-8th) big books survey of bestselling history books. That issue also had a review of David McCullough's latest, which is summarized below. Here's the list:

1776 by David McCullough; according to The Economist: "A corker of a year that so nearly wasn’t. David McCullough, biographer of Truman and the Panama Canal, traces the rise and fall and rise of George Washington’s rebel forces, and explains how, despite the forces stacked against them, they came to win the day and make history." In the full review in the current issue, the Economist's book reviewer writes,
Mr McCullough, a popular two-time winner of the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, tells the tale of the reverses of 1776 with all the panache of his earlier books on Harry Truman and on the building of the Panama Canal. ...

[But] Although 1776 is a fine book, it is, in almost ever respect, inferior to David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, which was published last year and which has just earned the Pulitzer prize for history. Mr Fischer, a professor of history at Brandeis University, is Mr McCullough's equal as a writer but superior in capturing the full historical picture. He fully demonstrates something Mr McCullough ignores: notably the impact of British atrocities -- rape, execution and pillage -- on the people of New Jersey. The stress caused by the guerrilla warfare in which the locals engaged was a key factor in the subsequent British defeat.

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang with Jon Halliday; "A blistering portrait of the Chinese leader by the author of the bestselling Wild Swans, both of which are banned in the PRC. Not yet published here in Canada.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond; "An exploration of why societies fail because of long-term environmental factors, rather than short-term political ones."

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond; "An earlier long view of what leads to the rise of civilisations by the University of California’s most famous geographer."

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson; "The dark side of 19th-century Chicago is brought to life in a dual portrait of the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer who stalked his victims at the fair." I haven't read this one, just a few reviews, and it puts me in mind of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and also recalls architect Sanford White's murder at the hands of Harry Thaw.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn; "Blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters and poor labourers all find their voice in this elegant narrative." I'm not a fan of revisionist history, though Zinn has some good points and it's definitely a lively read.

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; "The naming of Deep Throat, 30 years on, revives a classic about the Nixon era." One of my old favorites, read the first time in 1980 in high school, when of course it made quite an impression.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage; "How beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola made the modern world, by The Economist’s technology editor." If you like this sort of book, try author Mark Kurlansky, whose Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World are fascinating stuff.

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis; "An emotional portrait of the icon that most Americans know only from dollar bills, quarters and Mount Rushmore." I haven't seen this one yet, but I liked Ellis's detailed biography of Thomas Jefferson and also his Founding Brothers.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln; "Jesus may not have died on the cross, but lived to marry and father children."

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen; "A critique of 12 American history texts currently used in schools bewails a long train of omissions and distortions." Not in our provincial library system yet, and because of the American subject I don't know if it will be. Since I dislike revisionist history about as much as I detest textbooks, I'll just mention that if you're really interested about the whys and wherefores of poor textbooks, try Diane Ravitch's measured The Language Police instead.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu; "History’s greatest military strategist advises how to overcome every adversary in war, at the office or in everyday life." A classic. I last read it in college and can still recall his advice, "Though effective, appear to be ineffective" and wondering if Inspector Columbo had read Sun Tzu, too.

The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith; "A highly readable digest of half a century of woes in the cradle of mankind." This one doesn't seem to be available yet on this side of the pond but appears to be quite timely. And I can see handing it to my kids when they get to the rhetoric stage in high school, if it lives up to its billing.

Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper by Jack Coughlin, Casey Kuhlman and Donald A. Davis; "The Marine Corps’ best sniper describes life on and off the modern battlefield."

A Picture of Britain by David Dimbleby; "A celebration of the British landscape and the art that it has inspired, from Constable and Turner to Lowry and Nash."

Alright, enough already. Go to a bookstore, your library, and hey, watch some TV.

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