Saturday, October 28, 2017

History For The Curious

It has been some time since I wrote a blog. So, to get back in the groove, I thought I'd recommend some books (in no particular order) for those curious about history.
1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
If there are lessons to be learned from the past, some of those discussed in this book have been forgotten or, conveniently, swept under the proverbial rug. As its title suggests, this is a glimpse at new revelations about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. It offers devastating new evidence to destroy the myth the first inhabitants were ignorant savages who could only benefit from the civilizing influence of their conquerors.
Humankind by Alexander H. Harcourt.
A fascinating examination of how we (humans) became who/what we are.
Harcourt, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, traces the journey of the human species out of Africa and describes the biological and geographical forces which have shaped the beast into what it is today in all its glorious variety.
In the process he never shirks from noting differences of opinion or separating theory from established fact. His explanations of how environment, biology and even culture have shaped the differences between members of the same species across the world are lucid and backed by the latest scientific thought. Evolution is an ongoing process and more changes lie ahead.
Millennium by Ian Mortimer.
Despite resulting hardships, man has seldom chosen to benefit from the lessons of history.Those harsh lessons have failed to sway us from a tenacious belief technological advances will save us from the problems of the past.
British historian Ian Mortimer assesses what he considers the most important changes in Western civilization in the last thousand years, predicts a dystopian future if we don't end our reliance on fossil fuels but hints at a more optimistic stance pending some hard changes in our lifestyle. His conclusions on what changes and which historic characters had the most influence in each century from the eleventh to the twentieth may surprise, even shock, the reader, but he does so in an erudite, entertaining and convincing style.
A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston.
A remarkable man died sometime in 1715 in London and was buried in an unmarked grave.
This would be of little note were it not for the fact he was one of the greatest explorers of all time, a pioneering navigator, a naturalist, hydrographer, travel writer and--probably to his disadvantage--a pirate. His maps were used by James Cook and Horatio Nelson, among others; his work as a naturalist influenced von Humboldt and Darwin, and his writings stirred the imagination of Defoe, Coleridge and Swift. William Dampier circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore Australia.
The World of Washington Irving by Van Wyck Brooks.
This is my favorite of the series of books Brooks wrote on the literary history of the United States.
Irving, one of my early favorites, was the first American writer to live by his pen. This book by Brooks focuses on the world in which he lived and introduces some fascinating Pennsylvanians, including Charles Brockden Brown, the first true American novelist; Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Charles Wilson Peale, Alexander Wilson and others.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
Most recognize the Wright brothers as aviation pioneers, but know little about them on a personal level.
Fact is, on a personal level, Wilbur and Orville were generally reclusive, work-obsessed, idea-driven and with apparently little time or interest in people outside their closely-knit family and a carefully chosen group of friends with similar interests. In a word, they were nerds--who would have struck a majority of their fellow creatures as odd in any time period.
Defining The World by Henry Hitchings.
When Americans say "dictionary" they usually mean Webster. In the UK, the Oxford English Dictionary would more likely come to mind.
A few might realize that for more than a century the term meant Johnson to our ancestors.
For most, dictionary is like the 10 Commandments--writ in stone, accepted without question and its origin rarely considered. It may be hard for many to realize there was no such authoritative reference before Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published on April 15, 1755. It took Johnson eight years (five more than he'd anticipated) to complete the work.
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Historic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester.
Winchester set out to write a book explaining all there is to know about the Atlantic, which he considers to be our most important ocean. An overwhelming task and one might doubt it's even possible. He may not have succeeded in his initial goal but he comes as close as anyone in writing a biography of our ocean.

He explains how the ocean was born, how people living on its shores reacted to it and how, most importantly, it has influenced the development of the civilized world. To do this, he tells tales of man's first attempts to go out on the water, pirates, naval battles, the development of sea-going commerce and other topics. He also includes numerous anecdotes from his personal experience with the ocean.