“The Geography of Genius” is a bit of a puzzle. The author’s stated goal is “a search for the world’s most creative places.” A search is certainly what it is; as others have pointed out, much of the book is a travelogue, and a pretty interesting one. At the same time, the author aspires to find out WHY genius arises in specific places. But he’s coy about that being the goal, probably because the goal is too large. This makes the book somewhat frustrating as social analysis. Nonetheless, Weiner has a variety of interesting observations and insights.
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.
This short book is an interesting read, even if it’s really just a summary of the different impacts of Indian cooking spices around the world. The story isn’t new, of course—it’s well known that the migration of Indians around the world has resulted in a wide range of hybrid cuisines, some with very little resemblance to actual Indian cuisine. But reading details, such as the huge popularity of something called “currywurst” in Germany, brings home the global impact of what are generically called curries.
This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.
“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”
“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads.
Looking at other reviews of “The Arab Mind,” it appears readers divide into two camps. The first group, for whom ideology matters more than reality, hate this book. The second group, largely military, for whom their lives depend on an accurate perception of reality, love this book. This divergence alone suggests the book is worth reading.
William Easterly is a leading critic of traditional approaches to development—that is, of traditional approaches to bridging the Great Divergence. He, and everyone else studying development, want to know why and how the West and a few Western-influenced countries have become wealthy, and everyone else in the world has stayed poor, despite trillions of dollars spent fruitlessly over seven decades by the West to bring the poor out of poverty.
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.
This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of the book, you should run away as fast as you can.