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Category: The Orient

Book Review: How Civilizations Die (David Goldman)

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.

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Book Review: Agents of Empire
(Noel Malcolm)

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.

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Book Review: The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization (Richard Baldwin)

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.

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Book Review: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Graham Allison)

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.

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Book Review: The Great Divergence (Kenneth Pomeranz)

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?

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Book Review: A History of Islamic Societies (Ira Lapidus)

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.

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Book Review: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Pankaj Mishra)

Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James.  She said it was the best book she had ever read.  Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum.  The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand?  But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile.  A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.  As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.

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Book Review: Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (Justin Marozzi)

I, and many others, have been exhausted in recent months by the nonstop political noise machine. So I pulled this book off the shelf, figuring that a biography of the 14th Century warlord Tamerlane would be pretty much non-political. Maybe not as non-political as a coffee table book about, say, flowers, but close, and to me more interesting. I was not disappointed. This book proved an informative escape—depressing at times, certainly, like any tale of violence, but at least I didn’t have to think or talk about 21st Century politics at any time, and won’t in this review. For like all of us, I am weary unto death of all that (though not weary enough to not return to it).

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Book Review: Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (Toby Huff)

Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.

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Book Review: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)

The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners.  This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West.  For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West.  Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men.  And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.

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