As is my habit each year at this time I publish, over this week and the next two, a listing of the best books I have read since November of 2020. Today, subjects both historical and current.
Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow offers a new way to think about the origins of the modern world. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its authority. They enjoyed extraordinary military dominance and monopolies over trade routes; they controlled more territory than any other world power. In effect, they forced the Europeans out of the Mediterranean and to the New World.
Mikhail presents a needed recasting of Ottoman history focused on a biography of Sultan Selim (1470-1520). The fourth of his father’s 10 sons, he was never meant to inherit the throne. But, with charisma and military prowess, he claimed power over the Empire in 1512 and nearly tripled the area under Ottoman control. What he built lasted into the 20th century. At the same time, he fostered religious diversity, encouraged learning and philosophy — while penning verse. A fascinating and eye-opening work.
Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire both informs and stimulates. This is a significant reappraisal of the empire a century after its collapse in 1916, as its legacy continues to resonate across the nation-states that replaced it in central Europe.
Judson does not agree with the stereotype of a hopelessly dysfunctional assembly of constantly squabbling nationalities. Rather, he stresses the many achievements in law, administration, science and the arts. A good read.
Lawrence C. Smith has put together a thoughtful volume Rivers of Power.
Rivers, even more than roads, technologies, or political leaders, have shaped the course of human civilization. They have opened frontiers, founded cities, settled borders and fed billions.
While they can promote life, and forge peace, they can also capriciously destroy everything in their path.
Smith, a noted geographer, explores the timeless yet underappreciated relationship between rivers and civilization as we know it. This is a beautifully written essay with an expansive scope.
Robert D Putnam, together with Shaylyn R. Garrett, has written a remarkable and insightful book, The Upswing, that documents how the United States has swung from an individualistic “I” to a more communitarian “we” society and back again between 1880 and the present.
Putnam, through sharply-focused research, draws inspiration from a dedicated group of reformers who, in the first half of the 20th century, put the nation on a path to building a society based upon community.
Given that the U.S. is presently experiencing great inequality, sharp political polarization and a fraying social fabric, many Americans consider this to be the worst of times.
The authors spell out why they believe an upswing can happen again. This is an engaging, revelatory work and well worth reading.
Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley is a memoir of her time working in Silicon Valley. In her mid-20s, broke and looking for meaning in her work, she quit her job in New York and moved to San Francisco.
She landed a job at a “big data” start-up in Silicon Valley and experienced firsthand its bubble of surreal extravagance, dubious success and young entrepreneurs hellbent on glory and wealth.
Wiener arrived amidst a massive cultural shift in the tech industry that was rapidly transforming into a locus of wealth and power that rivalled Wall Street.
Part a coming-of-age story, part a portrait of an already-bygone era, this is a rare first-person glimpse into high flying, reckless start-up culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance and accelerating political power.
This is a cautionary tale and an interrogation of an industry reckoning with consequences its designers are only just beginning to examine and understand.
John McPhee is, to my mind, an exceptional writer of non-fiction books on a range of subjects.
One of his earliest, published in 1968, was The Pine Barrens, which portrays the essentially wild centre of the densely populated state of New Jersey.
The passage of time has altered much of the region, but McPhee captured the flavour and dynamics that existed more than half a century ago. It was a joy rereading it and several other of his works.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.