The Gunpowder Age succeeds in its lesser goal, which is convincing the reader that the common belief the Chinese only used gunpowder for fireworks is wrong. But it fails in its greater goal, which is convincing the reader that except for a brief period in recent history, China has been the equal of the West in the technology of warfare. And, in the wreckage of its failure, it confirms and reinforces the accurate perception that China has, for a thousand years, been lacking in scientific and cultural innovation. Since a lack of innovation has negative implications for the Chinese future, and by modern Western standards is a negative judgment on Chinese society, this is probably not the effect that the Sinophile author of this book, Tonio Andrade, intended to achieve.
This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession. True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement. So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales. But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.
Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism. At The Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.
I have a confession to make. The first history I learned about the Vietnam War was from watching the move Rambo, in 1985. Around the same time, and viewable on VHS (what’s that, Daddy?) if you missed it in the theater, were movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, the latter set during the battle that is the focus of this book. From these movies, naturally, I learned little real history, and haven’t learned much more about Vietnam since. In fact, when I was a young lawyer at a giant law firm, I used to amuse myself by needling the senior partners, rich, aging hippies all, by telling them that I thought of World War I and the Vietnam War as roughly contemporaneous, and equally relevant to the modern age—that is, not at all. They were not amused.
I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times. His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read. But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author. Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column. The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such. David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.
When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists. Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans. If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi. I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers. This book, however, has changed my perspective.
This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space. The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures. In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before. All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct. But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop. Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus: a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and sometime government functionary, is clearly a man who thinks a great deal of himself. On the other hand, most of his pride in himself actually seems justified by his experience and thought, and in these Trumpian days, perhaps immodesty is the Spirit of the Age. Therefore, if you can get through the scenes in Destined For War where Allison talks down to and instructs David Petraeus like a schoolboy, as the latter sits behind his CIA desk; and the passages where Allison exhaustively and irrelevantly enumerates the great men who have benefited from his role as “special advisor,” this book is actually very informative and thought provoking.
It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more. This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier. There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”? Is it England? England and parts of the Continent? How does America fit in? When exactly did this takeoff begin? Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West? But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?
This is a famous book. Together with Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam, it is the touchstone of modern long-form histories of the Islamic world. A History of Islamic Societies, as its title implies, covers both history and theology. Given that I like history, and that I have a particular interest in comparative theology (primarily as between Christianity and Islam, with forays into other religions, living and dead), you would think reading this book would be, for me, an ideal way to spend my time. But it nearly defeated me.