As usual every year at this time I publish, on this week and the two following ones, a list of the best books that I have read since November 2020. Today, both historical and current subjects.
Alan Mikhail’s Shadow of God offers a new way of thinking about the origins of the modern world. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its authority. They enjoyed military domination and extraordinary monopolies on trade routes; they controlled more territory than any other world power. Indeed, they forced the Europeans out of the Mediterranean and into the New World.
Mikhail presents a necessary overhaul 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 his charisma and military prowess, he claimed power over the Empire in 1512 and nearly tripled the area under Ottoman control. What he built lasted until the 20th century. At the same time, he fostered religious diversity, encouraged learning and philosophy – all while writing verse. A fascinating and revealing work.
Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire both informs and stimulates. It is a significant reassessment of the empire a century after its collapse in 1916, as its legacy continues to resonate in the nation-states that replaced it in Central Europe.
Judson disagrees with the stereotype of a hopelessly dysfunctional assembly of constantly conflicting nationalities. Rather, it emphasizes the many achievements in the fields of law, administration, science and the arts. A good read.
Lawrence C. Smith has prepared a well thought-out book Rivers of Power.
Rivers, even more than roads, technology or political leaders, have shaped the course of human civilization. They opened borders, founded cities, established borders and fed billions.
If they can promote life and forge peace, they can also capriciously destroy everything in their path.
Smith, a renowned geographer, explores the timeless but underestimated relationship between rivers and civilization as we know it. It’s a beautifully written essay with a wide scope.
Robert D Putnam, along with Shaylyn R. Garrett, wrote a remarkable and insightful book, The Upswing, which documents how the United States went from an individualistic “I” to a more communal “we” and back again between 1880 and the United States. here.
Putnam, through cutting-edge research, is inspired by a dedicated group of reformers who in the first half of the 20th century set the nation on the path to building a community-based society.
With the United States currently experiencing great inequality, strong political polarization, and a unraveling social fabric, many Americans consider this to be the worst of times.
The authors explain why they think a recovery can happen again. It is a fascinating, revealing work that deserves to be read.
Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley is a memoir of her work in Silicon Valley. In her mid-twenties, broke and searching for meaning in her job, she quit her job in New York City and moved to San Francisco.
She landed a job at a big data start-up in Silicon Valley and experienced her bubble of surreal extravagance, questionable success and young entrepreneurs hungry for fame and wealth.
Wiener arrived in the midst of a massive cultural shift in the tech industry that was rapidly transforming into a place of wealth and power that rivaled Wall Street.
Partly a coming-of-age story, part a portrayal of an era already bygone, this is a rare first-person glimpse of a high-flying, reckless start-up culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance and acceleration of political power.
It is an uplifting tale and questioning of an industry taking into account the consequences that its designers are just beginning to examine and understand.
John McPhee is, in my opinion, an outstanding writer of non-fiction books on a range of subjects.
One of his first, published in 1968, was The Pine Barrens, which depicts the mostly wild center of the densely populated state of New Jersey.
The passage of time has changed much of the region, but McPhee has captured the flavor and dynamic that existed over half a century ago. It was a pleasure to reread it as well as many other of his works.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.