By Johannes Fried
Published in October 2016
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book was excruciatingly boring. It took me 3 painful months to read, and I wimped out and didn’t finish the last quarter.
Johannes Fried opens by saying clearly that “this book is fiction.” Many historical details are missing, so the best Fried can do is make educated guesses based off of the sources. Fried attempts to reconstruct Charlemagne’s life in extreme detail.
There are many fascinating nuggets - especially information about the geopolitics of the time and how Charlemagne came to power. However the endless pages of details about Christological debates, political minutia, and architectural history prevents the good information from really coming onto its own. Even as an amateur historian of the Middle Ages, I also thought that the book lacked enough context to draw me in. I wished that there was more explanation of the technology, of the legacy of Rome, and of the era as a whole.
This book was originally published in German, then translated into English. That probably accentuated its problems. I’ve read several biographies of Charlemagne, and this one is probably the worst. I really cannot recommend this book to anyone, not even the most hardcore Charlemagne fans.
The Supply Chain Revolution
By Suman Sarkar
Published in June 2017
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
The Supply Chain Revolution is a cookbook-style second person explanation as to why supply chains matter for businesses. This book’s core thesis can be summed up like this: supply chains are extremely important. Businesses that ignore them do so at their own peril - they are something that the top management of companies should consider first and foremost, not something to be outsourced to a small company.
One aspect of the book that I really liked was that it was rife with specific examples and case studies. The most memorable case study was that of Apple. Apple put its supply chain first and foremost, in order to ensure quality products. By using vertical integration, Apple was able to ensure that the quality remained consistent at every level of the chain. Steve Jobs would be replaced by Apple’s former head of supply chain, Tim Cook.
The thing I disliked the most about The Supply Chain Revolution is that the book is written in the second person. It reads like this “the most important thing for your business.” Second person books always feel slightly condescending. There is also something slightly scammy / salesy about them. That alone made this book hard for me to engage with.
Overall, I don’t really recommend this book. It is too complicated for a novice, too irrelevant for most business owners, and too simple for a professional. It uncomfortably lies across several niches without satisfying any.
Proof of Heaven
By Eben Alexander
Published in October 2021
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
In 2008, famous American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander contracted bacterial meningitis. He then slipped into a coma for three months. While in a coma, Eben Alexander believes that he went to heaven and spoke to God.
I’ve had this book in my audible library for roughly five years, and thought that I would give it a crack.
After reading the first third, I had to put it down. I wish that the author had spent more time talking about his own experience and the neuroscience behind it. Instead, he pontificated about his own life experience, his adoption, his emotions, etc… I hate reading self referencial books, and find them somewhat narcissistic. The book was incredibly saccharine, oozing with sentimentality for strangers that I don’t really care about.
Overall, it was quite boring, and I decided not to finish it. Alexander’s conclusions and science may or may not be good; but I didn’t ever go there.
History of the Langobards
By Paul the Deacon
Published in the late 8th century AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
This book was a real slog. I couldn’t find any audiobooks, so read it as opposed to listening to it. I don’t recommend this book to anyone except for the most hardcore history nerds out there.
Paul the Deacon was a Lombard (aka Langobard) monk who lived around the time of Charlemagne’s conquest of Italy and subsequent destruction of the Langobard kingdoms. After Charlemagne’s conquest, Paul the Deacon decided to write a history of his people.
The history starts with the Langobards’ distant origins in Norway, then covers their slow migration into Germany. The Langobards then settle in Pannonia (modern day Croatia), where they become mercenaries for the Eastern Roman empire. They fight against the Italian Goths on behalf of emperor Justinian, eventually themselves settling in Italy.
The Langobard domination of Italy consists of roughly 200 pages of sacks, rapes, slaughters, massacres, and wanton destruction. Whatever traces of Roman civilization had survived the fall of Rome, reign of Odoacer, and Gothic wars were completely wiped out by the Langobards. This is further compounded by constant invasions of Avars (a successor state of the huns), Slavs, Bavarians, and Franks.
My comprehension of the text was quite low.
Paul the Deacon is constantly making reference to antiquated place names, making it very hard to follow where the action is going on. At first I found myself constantly consulting maps, before finally giving up, and deciding to just ignore the locations. The names of the kings, dukes, and other characters are no better; an endless succession of obscure Germanic medieval figures makes following the action incredibly difficult. Finally, the translation I was reading used really long and complex run on sentences.
By book five, I found myself skimming the text rather than reading it, which only made my comprehension worse.
As with nearly all medieval texts that I’ve read, there are many fascinating nuggets of information. Old men (aliens?) sleeping in a cave, priests smiting then healing the warriors who come to execute them, dragons leading armies of serpents to siege the city of Rome, wives poisoning their husbands, and many stories of hidden treasures. The nuggets would make for a great podcast episode, but don’t redeem the book as a whole.
The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders
By Peter Heather
Published in March 2014
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Restoration of Rome is a history of the numerous attempts at restoring the Roman Empire during the early Middle Ages. It is a fascinating and well written book, although for people who are just getting into medieval history might not be the best starting point.
The book covers four major attempts at restoring the roman empire during the period 500 AD to 1000 AD.
During the waning years of Western Roman imperial authority, a barbarian general Odoacer stages a coup. He announces that a Western Roman emperor is no longer needed, sending his Imperial robes back to Constantinople. This marks the official end of the Roman Empire. In the immediate aftermath, the Eastern Empire sends Gothic general Theodoric to depose Odoacer.
Theodoric’s regime marks a partial restoration of the earlier Roman Republic. The Senate once again becomes one of the most prominent institutions in Italy. Furthermore, many of the neighboring barbarian tribes who have settled in former Roman territory submit to his authority. Under his rule, Roman culture enjoys a brief second flourishing - authors like Cassius Dio and Boethius reinforcing traditional Roman values. Finally, his reign sees the birth of the institution that would slowly evolve to become the Papacy/
Theodoric’s brief renaissance comes to an end when Eastern Roman emperor Justinian decides to invade Italy. While Justinian is often hailed by modern pop culture as a great “restorer” of Rome, in reality his regime is authoritarian and despotic. His wars decimate Italy, marking the final death blow to Roman civilization. Worst of all, his reconquests prove fruitless. In many ways, Justinian’s death marks a good alternative end date for the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In the century after Justinian’s reign of terror, barbarian chiefs in modern day France and Germany begin consolidating their power. Because there has now been no Roman empire in centuries they decide to legitimate their authority. Charlemagne crosses the alps, destroying the Lombard barbarian kingdom which had appeared in the wake of Justinian. There, he “liberates” the papacy, and has himself crowned Western Roman emperor. He even attempts to marry the Byzantine empress in an attempt to reunify the Eastern and Western halves of the empire. Some of his successors, like Otto, would also feebly attempt to crown themselves Roman emperor, although by then it would be reduced to the status of a meaningless title.
Ultimately, the institution that would durably replace the Western Roman empire would be the Catholic church. Heather argues that it is in fact “barbarian popes” who would restore the Roman tradition of written law, once and for all superseding the need to restore the Western Roman empire.
The Restoration of Rome is a must read for any intermediate researchers who want to learn about the early Middle Ages.
The Rule of Saint Benedict
By Saint Benedict of Nursia
Published in 516 AD
Thibault's Score: 3/5
The Rule of Saint Benedict was the law that governed most medieval monasteries. Still today, many monasteries continue living under Saint Benedict’s rule.
It is a fascinating historical document that sheds a lot of light on life in the Middle Ages.
Most interestingly, it makes life seem really awful. Monasteries control every aspect of a monk’s life. Monks are totally cut off from the outside world; they have nowhere to hide. Few institutions in history seem as totalitarian as the medieval monastery.
After reading Procopius as well as some modern biographies of figures like Gregory the Great, I can’t help but get the general impression that life in late antiquity / the early middle ages was extremely totalitarian. I typically associate the late middle ages with an era of proto-libertarianism, especially when reading about the early Islamic societies and the crusades.
The rule of Saint Benedict is very short. I was able to finish it in just over an hour; for that reason alone I must recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome
By George E. Demacopoulos
Published in October 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Finishing this book was a bit of a slog; I only did so because I love studying the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great was the Roman pope at the end of the 6th century. He grew up during the Gothic Wars of Justinian, and was one of the first popes to reign under the newly restored Byzantine domination of Italy. His tenure would be troubled: during his reign, Rome had been reduced to a ghost town. Furthermore, Byzantine Italy was under constant threat by the Lombards and other Germanic raiders.
Reading this book really helped me understand the period. From Gregory the Great’s perspective, two contrasting viewpoints were apparent. First, Christianity was already ancient by this time. Jesus had lived nearly 600 years earlier, and the Roman Empire had already been Christian for 300 years. Second, it would have been easy for Gregory to perceive his own era as the end of times due to the devastated state of Italy.
This book could have been great - but the writing was bad, and the book was very poorly organized.
Instead of giving a chronological account, Demacopoulos gives a topic by topic account. This makes following the chronology extremely difficult. Even though I have extensively studied the period, I had to constantly go onto Wikipedia to follow the events.
He doesn’t give enough context or focus enough on the period. I wish there had been more discussion about the social and political context of Italy. Instead, much of the writing feels “navel-gazeley” and is focused on Christian theology.
The reason why Demacopoulos writes this way is because he isn’t focused on telling a good story, and educating the reader about history. He is more concerned with squabbling with modern academics about different interpretations rather than laying his own case.
I do not recommend Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome, even to historians interested in the period.
The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket
By Benjamin Lorr
Published in September 2020
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Knowing my interest in supply chains, my mom recommended this book to me. And what an amazing and eye opening book this is!
I haven’t read a book this interesting in a long time. It has completely changed my perspective on my own industry, on the fundamental pillars of Western life, and perhaps even on Western civilization as a whole.
Finding books about supply chains that are objective is hard. The literature seems to be either written by industry shills or left wing anti-industrial demagogues. It is hard to find a fair, balanced perspective that discusses both the good and the bad. This book is just that.
Lorr follows several iconic real life characters as they each embark on their own tiny part of the global dietary supply chain. The characters are incredibly memorable, and each of their experiences enlightens the reader, filling in part of the gap.
First, Lorr covers the adventures of a female truck driver. She is fat, a chain smoker, and carries around a pink revolver. Lorr talks about how proud she is to be one of the 5% female drivers in a masculine industry. He talks about how little money she makes, sexual harassment, and the unfair training practices. But he also describes the sense of freedom truckers experience, their pioneering spirit, and sense of self reliance. He also constantly reminds readers that without truckers, modern civilization as we know it would practically collapse as almost all goods that are used are ultimately shipped via truck to their end destinations.
Second, Lorr follows an entrepreneur desperately trying to promote a wacky new food idea. This entrepreneur has created an odd blend of coleslaw and salsa which she believes will revolutionize the condiment industry. For years, she struggles to get her product out, visiting trade show after trade show. Anyone who has ever been a struggling entrepreneur will inevitably relate. Lorr also visits the industrial kitchen where the product is made. Finally, when she succeeds, Lorr is there to witness her in all of her glory.
Finally, Lorr follows a slave fisher from Myanmar. Forced labor, although rare, still accounts for a significant percentage of the workforce in certain niche industries. This fisherman came from a poor background in Myanmar. When the war broke out, he fled to Thailand to seek out a better life. There, he was tricked into joining a fishing crew which enslaved him. On the boats, he was unable to leave, and subject to harsh physical punishments. At sea, he would lose a hand and see many comrades die slow painful deaths. Finally, he escapes, with the help of an NGO.
Lorr follows many other characters: the founder of Traders Joes, architectural consultants, human rights activists, Whole Foods trainers, just to name a few. All reveal a unique fascinating aspect of the dietary supply chain industry, slowly painting a picture of the whole.
Every single side of the supply chain is covered. The good, the glorious, and the downright miraculous; as well as the dirty, the ugly, and the evil. This is one of the rare books that truly can change the world, because it is so enlightening.
This book is a hands down must read for anyone in the supply chains business.
Procopius' Secret History
By Procopius of Caesarea
Published in 550 AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
Procopius was one of Emperor Justinian’s advisors. He wrote several histories of the emperor during his lifetime, all of which praised him. However, once Justinian died, he wrote a final “secret” history, repudiating everything he had written earlier.
The secret history is a long laundry list of reasons why one should hate Justinian. Procopius hurls every conceivable insult at Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his other officials. He accuses Theodra of being a prostitute, implying she would participate in orgies. He calls Justinian bloodthirsty, reminding the reader of how much the emperor likes war and raises taxes to pay for such wars.
Procopius goes as far as alleging that Justinian is a literal demon. He brings up rumors that Justinian didn’t need to sleep or drink. He also points out that the emperor would metamorphosize into a faceless monster. Finally, Procopius blames Justinian for the earthquakes and plagues affecting the empire.
I love reading primary sources. But this one was very boring. Every chapter reads like the previous one - another reason to hate Justinian. The history doesn’t feel objective, reading like an anti-Obama hit piece from Breitbart.
The period is quite interesting - the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages is apparent. Procopius still views himself as a Roman, simply living in a world where Rome itself has become a foreign nation. His religion is nominally Christian, but the way he writes is more reminiscent of a Tacitus or a Polybius.
This book is a must read for the serious historians of the period, but should probably be skipped by amateurs.
By Mary Beard and Keith Hopkins
Published in March 2011
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Mary Beard is one of my favorite historians, and she never disappoints. The Colosseum is a short history of the famous monument in Rome. The book is concise and to the point, containing no fluff whatsoever.
I expected the book to start with a history of the colosseum in chronological order from its construction to the present. Instead, Beard starts with a focus on the 19th century when the monument first gained international fame. The history of the colosseum in the Middle Ages and early modern era is almost more interesting than the history of the monument during antiquity.
The colosseum was popularized by Lord Byron, and became a popular attraction among the Victorians. It immediately became filled with tourists and the scammers who inevitably accompany them.
The colosseum was built by emperor Titus around 80 AD. It would be used to host a wide variety of games until the late 6th century, at which point it fell into disrepair. While the most well known games were gladiatorial, the gladiator matches were infrequent. Historians now believe that gladiators only fought in the arena ten days per year. More common, would be other games of bloodsport, mostly involving animal hunts. Other nonviolent shows may also have been held in the arena.
During the Middle Ages, the colosseum became a giant quarry. The denizens of Rome used it as a source of raw material to build their homes. In the 16th century, the pope attempted to convert it into a cloth factory to rehabilitate former prostitutes. The scheme fails, with the colosseum instead being used to create a much smaller glue factory.
Finally, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it became a Christian pilgrim site. Christian visitors would go there to pray in the name of the martyrs who they supposed had died there. This led to a partial restoration of the colosseum, based mostly off of the imagination of the pope and Roman municipal government. As a result, much of the building you can see today actually is less than 200 years old.
This is a must read for anyone who plans to visit the monument.
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