Barbara Holland’s “Gentlemen’s Blood” is a series of jaunty anecdotes about dueling through time and around the world. Most of it focuses on America and Britain, with side tours into Germany, France and Russia, touching on famous duelists like Pushkin (who ended up the worse for wear as a result). The book is interesting for those anecdotes, and reading it is a reasonable way to kill some time and get a glimpse, if a circumscribed and brief one, into the ways of the past. But it is most interesting as an exploration of honor, a concept today generally viewed far too simplistically.
Most of us have only the dimmest idea of Russian history prior to the Soviet era. We’re vaguely aware that there were some Mongols, then Ivan the Terrible (not a Romanov), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and then a mass slaughter by the Bolsheviks. Along the way there was lots of unpleasantness; Napoleon was somehow involved too. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs” fills in all the gaps, at least from 1613 onward. And then it fills the gaps some more, until the flood of information becomes nearly overwhelming—although, at the same time, the reader is aware that the book is only scratching the surface with regard to any particular decade in Russian history. But at the end, the reader’s knowledge is vastly improved, and really, can you ask for any more?
“Paper” is a book of interesting anecdotes, loosely linked by its theme. At the end of the book, the reader may say “what’s the point?” But, really, there is no point. To seek one is a mistake. Rather, all of Kurlansky’s books, which include “Salt,” and “Cod,” follow a satisfying formula. They are travelogues through time and space, where the reader follows not the author’s travels, but the evolving, and sometimes meandering, topic. Your job is to come along for the ride, if the topic interests you.
Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.
This is a magisterial book, pulling together innumerable threads into a coherent, cohesive whole. It is actually a different book than I expected—it spends much more time on the sociology and philosophy of science, in the abstract and as tied to and generated by each society, and much less time on individual scientific inventions and advances. Those do appear, of course, but more by way of illustration than discussion. So if you’re looking for a catalog of inventions, you may be disappointed (though Huff apparently has a later book that is more that), but you’ll probably learn more with this book written the way it is.
I really wanted to like this book. It’s regarded as a classic, from a time before the study of history became corrupted by political correctness. From a time when the ascendancy of a civilization was taken for granted as a good, and history was not dominated by gender and race “studies,” but focused on the reality of history and what could be objectively learned from it.