1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
By Eric H. Cline
Published in September 2015
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
1177 BC, despite the potentially “clickbaitish” title, is an excellent book.
The book covers the history of the bronze age collapse. The century from roughly 1250 BC until 1150 BC is marked by the fall of the hyper-authoritarian palace states that appeared around the Eastern Medeterrainian. The date of 1177 BC was chosen somewhat arbitrarily as the date of the bronze age collapse, but the book covers the broader period.
Cline begins by painting a picture of the rich cultures and civilizations of the Eastern Medeterarian on the eve of the collapse. He then proceeds to systematically cover the events of the collapse, culminating with an overview of the ensuing dark ages.
The causes of the bronze age collapse are not well understood. It is known that several devastating earthquakes trembled the region, and that mysterious “sea peoples” raided the coastline. Other factors such as climate change, revolutions, and technological change may have also played a part.
What I really enjoyed about this book was that Cline walks the fine line between explaining the historiography as well as telling an entertaining story. Many history books, such as those by Harold Lamb, tell a story without reference to the evidence and sources to the point of making me cringe. Others go into pure historiographical minutia without telling any stories or capturing the key points of interest in an era.
Cline does a great job at telling a story while keeping the historiography in mind. He is constantly telling us about archeological findings, inscriptions, and different primary sources.
Overall, this has to be one of the best written historical books I have ever reviewed.
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
By James Scott
Published in August 2017
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Against the Grain is another brilliant book written by the always excellent James Scott. Against the Grain is a popular history written to survey and summarize the academic literature explaining the rise of the state.
Scott also advances a number of more controversial points, likely informed by his anarchist background.
The main thesis made in Against the Grain is that the early states arose when small scale “guerilla” farmers were coerced into city states. He points out that hunter-gatherers had more free time, more food, and healthier lives than their compatriots living in cities. He concludes that the only reason why a small scale farmer or hunter-gatherer would adopt the lifestyle of a sedentary farmer is due to coercion.
Based on these assumptions, Scott also concludes that the periodic collapses of the early palace states actually often resulted in better living conditions for the masses. He concludes that the collapses must have been non-violent and that the ensuing “dark ages” were actually much freer and more prosperous.
Most controversially, this line of reasoning also leads him to condemn state-building technologies such as writing.
Due to my lack of historical knowledge of the period, I have no means by which to access Scott’s claims. On one hand, it seems plausible that hunter-gatherers were coerced into states and that the people on whose backs the states were built suffered. On the other hand, Scott’s condemnation of writing and technology seems dubious. I simply do not know what to make of Scott’s arguments.
Either way, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the origins of the state.
The Alchemy of Finance
By George Soros
Published in 1987
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I initially picked up this book because I was interested in hearing what the much reviled George Soros had to say about finance. That being said, The Alchemy of Finance was a huge disappointment.
I neither got insight into any of the conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros nor did I get much value out of reading the book.
Soros opens up his treatise by explaining that he had set out to apply his philosophical ideas to finance. He explains his affinity for the scientific method and for thinkers like Karl Popper. He also makes a fascinating point: because financial markets have profit and loss, they can be used as an arena to test the objectivity of various theories.
The rest of the book is a lengthy explanation of Soros’ theory of reflexivity. Simply put, a reflexive system is one where the participants are both influenced by and influence the system.
Reflexivity as it applies to financial markets has many practical implications. For example, rising paper stock prices may bring real business benefits to a corporation. Suppliers might see the rising prices, and offer the corporation better deals. Customers might be attracted to the firm due to the stock price. This could cause a virtuous cycle.
The style of writing is incredibly boring and difficult to understand. It reminds me of the semi-autistic libertarian treatises on economics that I used to read.
I didn’t get many insights from this book, and do not recommend it.
Equality: The Impossible Quest
By Martin van Creveld
Published in March 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
I’ve had this book lying around in my audiobook library for a few years, so I decided to finally take a crack at it. All I can say is that it was very disappointing.
The first few chapters of the book made me optimistic: the book is branded as a cursory overview of how ideas of egalitarianism evolved throughout the ages. The topic seemed fascinating, and Martin van Creveld has written several other books which I’ve really liked.
However, I found that the quality of the historiography was very poor. He makes broad statements such as “no non-Western civilizations have ever come up with egalitarian ideals” which are blatantly untrue.
His story jumps from tribal societies, to the ancient Greeks, straight to the Enlightenment and modern era. He entirely skips the many egalitarian experiments of the Middle Ages, notably ignoring the fiercely egalitarian Islamic societies of the era.
The book is structured in the following way: van Creveld gives a historical example, shares a few hot takes, and moves to the next example.
Part of the issue might be that writing good survey histories can be extremely difficult, especially if they are relatively short. One book that did this quite well was “Against the Gods” a survey history of statistics.
Overall, I found this book to be very disappointing. It is clever enough to mislead someone with a cursory understanding of history, and too shallow to please someone with any deep knowledge.
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
By S. Frederick Starr
Published in June 2015
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Lost Enlightenment is the single best history book that I’ve read in 2020.
It was the perfect conclusion for all three major topics that I studied this year: the Islamic Golden Age, the crusades, and the Mongol empire.
Lost Enlightenment tells the story of how extremely technologically advanced societies existed in Central Asia from the conquests of Alexander the Great (312 BC) until the reign of Tamerlane (1405 AD).
The Central Asian region of Transoxiana has been conquered by many empires: Persia, Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, China, Kushan Indians, Muslims, and many more. Despite these conquests, Central Asian culture became known for its ability to produce many prominent intellectuals.
The intellectual ascent of Transoxiana was most prominent from the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate (approx 800 AD) until the Seljuk Conquest (1080 AD). This roughly 300 year long period sees a golden age of Islamic thought, science, and philosophy.
Muslim Transoxianian thinkers dominated the Islamic golden age. Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) who lived from 980 AD until 1037 AD was a staunch Aristotelian and is likely the most famous.
However, the thinker who fascinated me the most was al-Biruni. Biruni was an early proponent of natural selection, anticipating Darwin by 800 years. He also was a great historian. He would eventually move to India, where he would write about the ways Hindu religion compared and contrasted to Islam. His hobbies included geology, astronomy, physics, optics, and math.
Eventually, the Islamic golden age came to an end. First, Turkish regimes came to power and promoted extreme forms of Islam that stiffled out any free speech. Then, the Mongol conquests physically destroyed most major cities. Finally, tyrants like Tamerlane committed acts of genocide that would snuff out what little room for free thought was left.
This is the best book that I have read about the Islamic Golden age. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of their historical interests. A fascinating, albeit somewhat lengthy, book that should be considered a key part of anyone’s historical education.
Shadow of the Silk Road
By Colin Thubron
Published in July 2008
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
I’ve really had an incredible run of bad books lately. The reason why I didn’t like this book is my fault though.
When I bought it, I only read the title, not the description. I was hoping to find a book about the history of the silk road. Instead, it is a travel book, recounting the adventures of Colin Thubron as he travels throughout the remnants of the silk road in modern day China. He mostly gives long winded and somewhat boring descriptions of places he visits.
I’ve actually been to some of the places he describes in the book. I was not impressed by what he wrote at all. I quit reading this book roughly halfway through the second chapter.
Tamerlane: Conqueror of the Earth
By Harold Lamb
Published in 1928
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
These old fashioned history books really make me cringe. Instead of historiography, they make stuff up to fill the gaps. The book starts with this semi-anachronistic detailed description of Tamerlane’s early life.
Nowadays, many non-Western historians blame turn of the century British writers for making up facts and perpetuating stereotypes. Harold Lamb is definitely guilty of this.
I’ve read many Harold Lamb books, and they almost all suffer from the same problems. They are spiced up to make them more entertaining at the expense of truth.
The dated pre-WW1 comparison at the beginning between Tamerlane and Mussolini made me laugh out loud.
However, this book wasn’t cringy enough or entertaining to be worth reading. I didn’t finish it.
The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire
By Randall James Sasaki
Published in February 2015
Thibault’s Score: 1/5
I like technically detailed books. But sometimes, too much is too much.
Yuan Sino-Mongol emperor Kublai Khan attempted several naval invasions of China. His army consisted of Mongols, Koreans, Chinese, and Muslim forces from every corner of the known world. Each time Kublai Khan’s armies attempted to attack China they faced serious military defeats on land. During these invasions, many ships were sunken and destroyed.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, underwater archeologists began the painstaking process of excavating and conserving the remains of Kublai Khan’s fleet. Randall James Sasaki, the Japanese-American author of this book, is one of the underwater archaeologist who excavated
This book was a bit of a wasted opportunity. Sasaki concludes that the archeological finds are not particularly important. The conclusion is fine, however the book still could have been more interesting.
For example, I would have loved to hear more about Sasaki’s individual experience as an underwater archeologist. He does devote some space to it, but I thought that there could have been more. I would have loved to hear about the team, the dangers of the trade (if any), issues they faced, etc…
Reading about the process of sorting through the recovered debris was interesting, but boringly written. Most of the archeology consists of sorting and classifying the wooden debris of the Yuan ships. Among the debris several objects and remains of objects were also found. They reflect the utilitarian military nature of the expedition, as they are all ornamented. Their diversity also reveals the multicultural nature of the expedition.
This book may literally be the most boring history book I have read since I started this blog. The tragedy is that the topic is fascinating.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire
By Jack Weatherford
Published in 2010
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
This fascinating book really changed my perception of the Mongol era. The history of the Mongol and steppe nomad treatment of women is fascinating. On one hand, this book describes a semi-matriarchal society where women control vast trade empires. On the other, there are horrible incidents where thousands of women are raped, stripped naked, and forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of soldiers.
Another interesting aspect is that of historiography.
There are dozens of books, documentaries, and movies that have been made about the lives and times of Chinggis Khan. Very few cover the later Mongol period, after the empire fractures in 1241.
The latter 2/3s of the book cover the period of time from 1242 until 1509 when women seize control of the various fragments of the empire, and enjoy mixed success in maintaining the progress made by Chinggis Khan and his successors.
Mongol society is constantly confronted with the paradoxes of reproduction by forcible rape and matriarchical management of society. It is a society where the worst atrocities committed against lower class women are ordered on the whims of higher class women.
Mongol society is almost impossible to classify as either pro or anti-woman by modern women's rights standards. The atrocities committed against women are very hard to understand for moderns living in a more civilized age. The power exerted by women is somewhat familiar in our world, although it is far less ubiquitous than the influence of women during this time.
I appreciate that Weatherford makes a serious effort to take a nuanced view. The book neither glosses over nor exaggerates either the pro or anti Mongol side. Instead, Weatherford understands that practices differ by time and place within the vast collection of post-Mongol states.
This is by far one of the most interesting books that I have read about the Mongol empire. If there is only a single book that someone would read about the Mongols it would be this one.
Defending Heaven: China’s Mongol Wars 1209 - 1370
By James Waterson
Published in June 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. It is an incredibly informative read, however my lack of background knowledge about Chinese history didn’t make it as productive as it could have been.
However, in terms of understanding Western history as well as the Mongols, this book could not have been any better.
First, I was fascinated to learn that Chinese Song Dynasty in the Middle Ages had a fully formed state. One chapter in particular struck me: the government has well organized ministries and departments. One of these ministries deals with tea, the other with the acquisition of war horses for the army. These two departments were merged with the goal of facilitating the acquisition of horses. The scheme involved buying tea from peasants at below market rates then bartering using the tea with non-Chinese groups like the Tibetans for horses.
What is fascinating is how modern this scheme sounds. It is unlike anything I have come across in my studies of European and Middle Eastern history during this period. China appears to have been a society governed by laws and officials more similar to ours than to the relationship-based lawless anarchy of medieval Europe.
The Mongols, and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, by contrast are far more similar to the more primitive forms of governance that I have encountered elsewhere. Waterson argues that the Chinese Song Dynasty had a fully formed state, while all subsequent dynasties until the 19th century reverted to feudalism. He blames long lasting Mongol influence for the destruction of China, and the subsequent long term stagnation of the nation.
Waterson also insinuates that the anti-Yuan resistance was essentially proto communist, while the Mongols were mercantile capitalists. He also uses the Mongol invasions to make convincing explanations about the origins of various modern Chinese cultural flaws such as its xenophobia.
Defending Heaven is mostly focused on military themes. Although the book is well written, clear, and has great nuggets, I wished it focused less on the military aspects of the conflict and more on the economic and social dimensions of the conflict.
Overall, I enjoyed the read, and recommend it highly to anyone interested in studying Mongol history. However, I personally found it difficult to follow due to my lack of background knowledge about medieval China.
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