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!

Just read, The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks

IMG_0484Every new Culture novel by Iain M. Banks is welcomed by a whoop and I like to read them as soon as possible. Hugely enjoyable, so fabulously imagined, just a great little bit of escapism – although they tend to be quite heavy (physically) so perhaps ‘little’ not the best word to describe them. Having purchased The Hydrogen Sonata a couple of months ago, I’ve finally read it. This is the best bit of Christmas holidays – the amount of time I have for making friends with sofa, blanket and books.

The book, by the way, was very enjoyable and well imagined, funny too in places, just not quite as fabulous as some of the others. I do love it when Culture novels heavily feature ship Minds, which The Hydrogen Sonata did, just thought perhaps the story was a tiny bit weak. Not a disappointment by any means, just not one of the best. Have also realised that I’ve never read Use of Weapons, which seems to be a favourite with many Banks Culture lovers so have got that too. Won’t be reading it straight away though as ‘pile of shame’ of unread books has grown quite a bit with some lovely Christmas presents.

The other book I’ve also just finished but not posting separately is Niall Ferguson’s Colossus about America and (un)imperialism. Had it for ages (‘pile of shame’) and it bore some relevance to the course I’m doing at the moment so I thought I might as well read it. It was pretty good too.

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 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.