Visit Homepage
Skip to content →

The Worthy House Posts

Book Review: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
(Robert Louis Wilken)

I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read.  It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way.  It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters.  The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia.  On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia.  And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.

Leave a Comment

Book Review: The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (Charles C. Mann)

This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all?  The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.”  What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century.  The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize.  The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.

Leave a Comment

Book Review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why
(Richard E. Nisbett)

This is a short book with a sweeping thesis.  In essence, the thesis of The Geography of Thought is that many important cognitive processes dominant in East Asian (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) cultures are substantially different from those processes in Western (i.e., American and European) cultures.  This proposition explains a variety of dissimilarities in how people from each culture approach the world and each other, and it is also a partial explanation of the Great Divergence—why the modern world was created by the West, and by nobody else, to the lasting (so far) benefit of the West.  While the author, Richard Nisbett, goes to great lengths to not ascribe superiority to one type of cognition over another, his cultural analyses show why the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened in East Asia.  As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and perhaps the relative value of Western ways of thought has passed its use-by date.

2 Comments

Book Review: The Middle Ages
(Johannes Fried)

It is universally accepted today that the Dark Ages are a myth, roughly as believable as the Australian bunyip.  In fact, medieval Europe was far more dynamic and far more intelligent than it was once portrayed.  Certainly, post-Roman Europe underwent material decline, and it temporarily lost the high culture, and high thought, of Rome.  But soon enough it began to rebound and expand, both geographically and mentally.  Johannes Fried’s main theme in this book, which covers A.D. 500—1500, is the rebirth of “mental acuity and of methodically controlled thinking” in the West, and the creation thereby of a new thing, from which the modern world is made.

Leave a Comment

Book Review: The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (Niall Ferguson)

This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”).  Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end.  The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies.  The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.

Leave a Comment

Book Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph A. Tainter)

In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic.  Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918.  And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome.  Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising.  Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.

2 Comments

Book Review: The Betrayal of American Prosperity: Free Market Delusions, America’s Decline, and How We Must Compete in the Post-Dollar Era
(Clyde Prestowitz)

For decades, “free trade” has been the American orthodoxy across the mainstream of both Left and Right.  Some recent erosion has occurred, though, with the Bernie Sanders Left dividing from the neoliberal Left on this issue, and with the reactionary and Trumpian segments of the Right dividing from the corporatist Right.  However, cogent, clear-eyed intellectual support has been thin for the position that wholly unfettered and unguided free trade is not necessarily a wonderful tonic for every economy.  This 2010 book provides such support, and was an early entrant in a field that will, perhaps, become more crowded over time.

3 Comments

Book Review: Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (Christopher Caldwell)

This book, published in 2009, shows its age.  It was written before the mass immigration to Europe of the past few years, and also before the increase in Muslim terror.  While nothing the book says is wrong, and its analysis is sound enough (though it nowhere justifies, or even attempts to justify, the echo of Burke in its title), its problem is that nearly everything it contains is outdated.  The future has arrived, and it is much worse than Caldwell pessimistically predicted, though at least we can now look forward to a fresh future for Europe that will be even farther downhill.

3 Comments

Book Review: The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (Mark Lilla)

Mark Lilla’s books are all polished gems, perfectly and fluidly written, brief yet complete within the ambit Lilla sets for each of his works.  This book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, was written about a decade after the collapse of Communism.  From its title, the casual browser might think it was a general attack on intellectuals.  It is not that at all—Lilla is nothing if not an intellectual himself, and he sees a lot of merit in the world of ideas, if he also sees its limitations.  Rather, this is an examination of why brilliant men and women of the modern world so often willingly dance with tyranny, and an attempt to draw a distinction between mere intellectuals, who often toady to raw power, and true philosophers, who pursue virtue.

Leave a Comment

Book Review: Stasiland (Anna Funder)

The wicked reality of Communism has, over the past twenty-five years, been deliberately erased from Western education and, more broadly, from the Western mind.  This was entirely predictable.  The reasons behind the erasure are not complex.  The ruling classes and social tastemakers in the West at the time that Communism fell, and for decades before and since, had and have a lot of sympathy for Communism.  They were appalled by efforts, like Reagan’s, to actually end Communism, and  they had no real problem with it in practice.  To nobody’s surprise, today they have no interest in admitting their support for evil, or in exposing their guilt to a new generation.  Moreover, as Ryszard Legutko has explained at length, Communism has much in common with modern liberal democracy—far more than liberal democracy has with pre-liberal forms of political thought.  Education and the media are today controlled by these philo-Communists, throughout the West (with a few virtuous exceptions, notably Poland and Hungary).  As a result, from a combination of self-interest and ideological sympathy/compatibility, the vast majority of people under forty today have little idea that Communism was the most evil and most lethal political system ever derived, because the truth has been deliberately hidden from them.

One Comment