Just read, The War of the World, Niall Ferguson

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Major achievement, I’ve finally managed to read all the Niall Ferguson books I had on the shelf – well Colossus and The War of The Worlds, I’d bought them as soon as they came out in paperback, must be 7-8 years ago. I thought The War of The Worlds might come in useful as I’d been studying empires and decolonisation and am currently planning my last essay for the course. While not particularly useful for what I’ve decided to write about (using ‘decided’ in a very loose sense here), I rather enjoyed it and would pause every now and then and think to myself that Ferguson, whatever you think of him and his ideas, does make sense. He really hammers home the genocidal tendencies of the twentieth century, everyone seems to have been involved. Difficult as this may be to comprehend, there is a good quote from Sigmund Freud at the end of the book about man’s destructive tendencies that helps. I guess the reason I’ve enjoyed a number of Ferguson’s books now is that he underpins his arguments with a diverse range of writings – Freud, for example or a number of early twentieth century novelists and their experiences of WWI. I immediately wanted to go and read All Quiet on The Western Front again. Haven’t read it since school. I have a feeling that my grandmother’s copy is still about, that I had enough sense to ask mum to post it to me in the ‘best of childhood/ growing up’ edit box before their move. Might look for it over summer although, being quite old, it would need a good airing prior to reading.

I’d also found Victor Klemperer’s story particularly moving because I’d recently read Slaughterhouse 5, which deals with the bombing of Dresden, the effects and aftershocks felt by the US POWs present. I think this is why Ferguson is such a successful writer, he gives you the hard facts and analysis but he is also very readable, regardless of whether you find his arguments convincing. He includes characters outside the political power plays and this adds not only a level of humanity but also brings closer the events he writes about. This is a good thing for me as my next course (starting in the autumn) is all about the twentieth century. Now I just need to get this last empires essay out of the way and then I can seriously get on with clearing the ‘pile of shame’ of books, which has only grown and grown over the past few months. Current size: utterly ridiculous and totally shameful!

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Just read, Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal

IMG_0495A proper ‘ripping yarn’ this, aptly subtitled Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. The exploration part was fascinating, I knew a bit about exploration of Africa from reading about Mungo Park and David Livingstone but this book brings in a host of other characters, from Henry Morton Stanley to lesser known explorers such as John Hanning Speke, their guides, translators and helpers, tribal chiefs and many more. It is absolutely fascinating. The ‘scramble for Africa’ part at the end is no less fascinating and quite tragic. What really comes across is how the explorers genuinely thought they were opening the continent to ‘commerce and Christianity’ as Livingstone famously put it and all campaigned to end the slave trade, once the continent was ‘opened up’ other ideas, ideologies and political games took over. Despite the sad reality of later imperialism, I’m very glad I read this book, it’s very well researched and a rewarding read.

Just read, Restoration by Rose Tremain

IMG_0494Oh what a lovely book, why on earth have I not read it before? I’ve read and loved Music and Silence years ago and then The Colour a few years back when it came out in paperback. It’s only when I read reviews for Tremain’s new book, Merivel: A Man of his Time about a late seventeenth century physician that I realised this was a sequel to Restoration. Am so ignorant sometimes, Charles II and Restoration period is one of my favourites because I have a soft spot for Robert Hooke, Pepys, Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, the founding of the Royal Society. Not that any of this features in Restoration but I do love reading about that period. So much so that when Merivel describes the heat and the plague of summer 1665, I thought I remember this! Like I was there… Anyway, this is a wonderful book and Merivel is a brilliant character. The book is funny, clever, beautifully written and researched and very human. What I particularly loved is that somewhere, just before the half way point I suddenly stopped enjoying the book and left it for a week or so, thinking I might not even finish it. Then I went back  to it and of course, within 10-20 pages I was totally gripped again. So much so that I then finished the book in one go. That is mastery, I thought, you have this character who is amusing and sort of loveable but also quite ambiguous, then he reaches a low point (this is where I stopped enjoying the book) and then he develops. The story is told with great style and set in one of the best periods. Now, of course, I want to immediately read Merivel, the sequel too. This does not bode well for my ‘pile of shame’ of books, which increased quite a bit with Christmas presents although thankfully, the sequel is not yet out in paperback.

Just read, Guns, germs and steel, Jared Diamond

IMG_0466I really wish I’d read this book years ago. Earlier this year, I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and very much enjoyed it but I didn’t enjoy this book quite so much for several reasons. Firstly, and this is why I wish I read it years ago, the ideas and theories it discusses have become fairly well established since the book was first published in 1997. Namely that the onset of food production led to formation of organised societies, which could then dedicate people and resources to development of technology, statecraft and culture, and this ultimately led to conquest of the New World and other parts of the world by the Europeans (to simplify). Furthermore, that the onset of food production and animal domestication was influenced by a variety of environmental factors including geography, continent orientation (East-West and North-South axis) and isolation. So, some peoples ended up having more of a head start in development through pretty much being in the right place at the right time. While Diamond didn’t originate some of these ideas, he does provide a very good synthesis by applying studies of environment, ecology, linguistics and so on to history. Of course, these ideas now make a lot of sense and I was perhaps hoping to learn more from this book, especially as I’ve just been studying conquest of the New World. So, basically this book was not quite in the right place at the right time for me, which really is a shame. The other reason why I didn’t enjoy it quite so much was its repetitiveness, which did get a bit infuriating at times. I did, however, like the conclusion very much and there’s no doubt that this is a very good book.

In other reading related news, I am really enjoying Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale, although am getting through it quite slowly (has been relegated to ‘occasional bed reading’ as Diamond took priority for being ‘important for study’). Am going to read Niall Ferguson’s Colossus next as ‘important for study’, it’s referenced in my course books and I’ve had it for years so may as well get on with it.

Just read, Conquistadors, Michael Wood

This book accompanied Michael Wood’s BBC series of the same name, Beloved said we saw it. I’ve no memory of it but then it was shown in 2000. Very odd how my brain chooses what sort of information to keep, for example, I remember his series on Alexander the Great much better and think that may have been shown in the ’90s. Anyway, thought I’d read Conquistadors as I am studying empires and imperialism, currently on early modern empires and someone on my course mentioned it. I’d just been reading from a number of accounts written around the time of the Spanish conquest of the New World and Beloved said he had this book. Didn’t even mind if I ‘defaced’ it (underlined and wrote in margins, at least I only ever do this in pencil).

It’s an easy read, part travelogue part popular history and it’s pretty good, especially in helping to understand the world of Aztecs and Incas, their culture and beliefs at the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. It does pretty well in bringing those worlds back to life and contrasting them with the greed of the Spanish. However, without going into too much detail, it’s more of a basic introduction and wasn’t quite what I was looking for. No causality as my tutor would say. It was quite an enjoyable read (although frustrating in parts when I knew Wood skipped or didn’t clarify some detail or other) but don’t think it’ll be useful for the essay I’ve got to write in the next few weeks. Having said that, it didn’t take long to read and I am still ‘on schedule’, although not for much longer it seems…

At the start of this month, I promised myself I could buy more books if I read certain titles from my rather large ‘pile of shame’ and I started off very well. Have been reading Conquistadors on bus to work and am also reading The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald at home. I have to admit to cheating though, have already bought the new books I wanted – felt obliged to, was ordering some Christmas presents from Amazon and thought I may as well get the books I ‘desperately’ need. Now undecided whether to keep them under wraps, I fear that if I open the package, my reading schedule will never be fulfilled! Thing is, I now finally have (yay!) Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, have wanted to read it for ages and think right now, it may actually be the perfect time to read it, may come in useful for essay. See, this is what happens, I really am a hopeless case, I have the best intentions to read all the books I have but get so easily distracted… at least I will finish Penelope Fitzgerald, it’s quite good you know (note to self: must also get the one about Novalis, The Blue Notebook).

Just re-read, Empire, Niall Ferguson

This is turning out to be a week of book posts and I am on the way to fulfilling this month’s reading task (self-prescribed), feels like being back at school proper!

 I’ve read Empire: How Britain made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson before, bought it when it first came out in paperback around 8-9 years ago, it was one of the first popular history books I’d bought and I remember finding it hugely interesting at the time. In a way, it helped lead me to study history proper. Coming back to it now (it’s on the background reading list for an imperialism course I’m doing, hence I thought I should read it again), I can see why it was popular in the first place – Ferguson throws in some interesting characters from the history of empire, some mad, bad and dangerous to know, some genuinely fascinating, adds a few key events, some thoughts of other historians (from the period and 20th century), which he doesn’t always credit and makes it all into an enjoyable read. He does tend to fit in events and personalities to his own argument though and sometimes his arguments don’t show the whole picture – and this I’ve only realised on second reading, now that I am a bit more familiar with the subject. I couldn’t help thinking that he is a bit of a preening peacock. Still, it’s a pretty useful book regardless of whether you think empire was a good or bad thing. After I read it the first time, I did buy some of his other books (Colosus and the one about money) but have not read them, the preening peacock impression too strong in my mind… Maybe I will, one day but first, Michael Wood’s Conquistadors. Less than 300 pages that one, perhaps reading plan for November will work and that’s all very exciting.

Just read, After Tamerlane, John Darwin

John Darwin’s After Tamerlane, The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400-2000 was recommended as background reading for a new history course I’ve just started and it is absolutely brilliant. Funnily enough, I read it straight after George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and, to be honest, was actually easier to read than George Eliot. Darwin’s book, although somewhat general (it would have to be at 500 pages) is great at looking beyond Europe and also summing up causes and effects and major events that led to globalisation today. Fascinating read, highly recommended for anyone interested in history of global empires and imperialism.