This book not only illuminates Sir Walter Raleigh’s life, but also illuminates his times in a way that brings real benefit to the reader. The author, Raleigh Trevelyan (who died in 2014), does an excellent job of making Raleigh’s story compelling, maintaining focus on his protagonist while bringing in enough of the historical and political background to put Walter Raleigh in the context of his times. (Although if you don’t like poetry, you may not like frequent quotations of Raleigh’s poetry—but those also illuminate the points at hand, and so are well worth paying attention to.)
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.
Whether this book is good or bad depends largely on what you expect it to be. If you expect it to be a cautious attempt to open up to discussion the subject of the existence of distinct races and genetic racial differences, and how those might affect social structures and institutions, you will think it is good. If you expect it to be a definitive proof of one interpretation or another of those same matters, you will think it is bad, for it is nothing of the sort. And, of course, if you are stuck in the old politically dictated paradigm that all differences among humans are purely random or cultural, and that “race is a social construct,” you will think it is mad, bad and dangerous to know.
I was hoping to find real insight in this book. I didn’t. Not because the authors are not well-informed—they are very well informed about their topic. Nor because the authors are not well-intentioned—they are very well-intentioned. Nor do they appear to be wrong about most or all of their facts. But despite all their effort, coupled with constant and justified moral indignation and calls for global justice, they fail to confront the real reasons and solutions for the problem they outline.
This is an interesting book, because it’s a book of (pessimistic) analysis and predictions made long enough ago (mid- to late-1990s) that some judgment can be made of its accuracy. It’s a book of several essays of varying lengths on varying topics, based largely on direct observation from Kaplan’s travels, but all generally focused around the future structure and stability of the world. Kaplan is a very vivid and incisive writer, so just on that basis alone the book is worth reading. He’s also a very pessimistic writer, or realist as he would say.
This book is part of the sub-genre that might be titled, if being honest, “Why Are All Today’s Rich People Europeans, Actually or Honorary”? It’s fascinating, though ultimately has, if not holes, lacunae that still need to be filled in before the argument becomes compelling.