The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a book with a reputation.  Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds.  It has also received its fair share of criticism.  Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.

In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up.  Something to bring back some sense of optimism.  Some sense of progress.  Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill.  It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.

Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious.  His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire.  The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011.  At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.

The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating.  Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world.  Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.

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Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes

Valens has a poor reputation as a Roman Emperor. Given that he presided over the disaster at Adrianople, this is understandable. This book goes some way to suggesting that although he could never be classed as a great emperor, he was a competent man who momentarily lost control.

Book CoverThe book starts at the last days of Julian’s reign and runs through the rule of Valentian I and his brother Valens.  Throughout most of the book Hughes takes a methodical, almost annalistic, approach.  The military campaigns and major events of each year are briefly described.  This is quite a dry style, but it does pay off when the author begins to draw conclusions later in the book.  The battle of Adrianople, and the campaign around it, is covered in more detail in the last few chapters.

Continue reading Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes

Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses by David Santiuste

Book coverFirst off, “and the Wars of the Roses” isn’t a subtitle used lightly. This 2010 release from Pen & Sword focuses very much on the military history side of things. It doesn’t function as a complete biography – his later reign is only skimmed through, and the details of his often extravagant lifestyle don’t really feature. It does however make a case for Edward being the most successful general of any English monarch.

His record is blotted by the fact that most of his campaigns were fought against his compatriots in civil wars and rebellions, rather than the French like Henry V (they were, of course, a much more acceptable target), but the achievements do stand up. He never lost a battle, and was equally willing and able to delegate command, negotiate, or retreat if necessary. When he did finally invade France it was a bit of a wash out, with the promised support from Burgandy disappearing – but his eventual peace treaty was a respectable end, and showed a level headed response to these problems.

After a brief introduction to the setting and the upbringing of noble children, the author gives a run through of the Wars of the Roses, with all its characters and machinations. Better tellings of the full story could be found elsewhere; here it is just average (but also necessary to understand Edward’s role). For the battles however, it is much more successful. Aspects of the preparation, tactics, and the aftermath are covered and paint a lively picture of the 15th century campaigns. Edward’s personality too does feel rounded, it may not elaborate but we get enough to understand his more playful or personal side. Despite the focus on the military and on Edward, other characters like Warwick “the Kingmaker” (his role much downplayed here) or Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, do come across well.

In all, it’s worth a read. The military side is very well written and there is enough insight to the politics, personalities and everyday life to keep the rest interesting – I just wish it had been a bit more complete in places.

Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates

Book CoverYet another of the slightly obscure biographies that I’ve picked up at the Last Bookshop in Oxford over the last few years; this book tells the story of William C. Oates, a confederate officer who was on the defeated side at Little Round Top in the battle of Gettysburg. He was a reasonably successful man in his own way, but in the grand scheme of things was a very minor player. However, history isn’t just about your Lincolns and your Lees (to use a Jamie Redknapp style syntax) and we can learn a lot from looking at someone like Oates; not just his role in (possibly) one of the crucial moments of the war, but also his general outlook and his life before and after the war.

Oates was born in Alabama in 1835 to a poor farming family, and had a bit of a wild life as a young man (and, to be honest, as an adult). He nearly killed a man in a drunken brawl and ran off to be a drifter in Florida, before being found by his younger brother John and returning to become a local lawyer. In many ways, he wasn’t a particularly likeable character (to put it mildly) – hot tempered, racist, sexist and arrogant – but he was also smart and determined. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 15th Alabama in the Confederate army and rose through the ranks. He was talented as an officer, if occasionally a bit too opinionated or headstrong to reach the level he felt he deserved.

Continue reading Post 38: Gettysburg Requiem

Post 27: Broadsides

The Age of Fighting Sail 1775 – 1815

Book CoverReleased by Nathan Miller way back in 2000, this book gives a general narrative history of one of the big eras in naval warfare – the kind of period populated by Horatio Nelson and Hornblower. I like to try to tie my reviews of different books together for a number of reasons – (selfishly) it might encourage people to read more of my posts, and (usefully) it provides a frame of reference for me to judge various aspects of the book. In this case, my reference point will be Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood. That was a quick and exciting romp through some of the figures, places and events of the 17th century Barbary coast. This is a slightly more subdued (but still populist) trek through naval warfare at the turn of the 18th century.

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Post 4 – The other side of the medal: How Germany saw the First World War

Temporary exhibition at the British Museum

9 May – 23 November 2014, Free

I happened to be at the British Museum the other day and this exhibition caught my eye. It’s just a small one in a little alcove off to the side of their Roman section but worth checking out if you happen to be in the museum in the next few months.

The exhibition contains a number of medals made by German artists between 1914 and 1919, and can roughly be divided into two sections – propaganda presenting a pro-German or anti-Entente view of the war, or expressionist art presenting views on the horror and destruction of the war. Both sections produce some very striking and thought provoking pieces of art, though not always for the reasons intended by the artists.

Continue reading Post 4 – The other side of the medal: How Germany saw the First World War