October 29, 2004

The Fourth Turning

The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe

This is one in a series of books by Strauss and Howe (Wikipedia) that looks at American history based on the cycles of generations, such as GenX, Boomers, etc.. It proposes a theory that history goes in cycles, with 4 types of generations, and they name and describe all of the generations going back the 1300s. They call my generation, Generation X, the "13th Generation" because it is the 13th American generation, and somewhat unlucky in its place in history. It is a "Nomad" generation, and the last Nomad generation was known as the "Lost Generation" which was born between 1880 and 1900. We are broadly characterized as hard, scrappy, cynical and tough. Strauss describes all the prior generations and patterns, but it is also a prophecy of where events are headed. Roughly every 4th generation there is a major crisis event (Revolutionary War, Civil War, Depression/WWII) and we are now due for the next crisis which will occur during the prime of life of the Nomad generation. The book was writen in 1997 and he predicted the crisis event could be a terror attack in the USA by no latter than 2005. Crisis events occur over a roughly 20 year period, so 9/11 was just the begining with a WWII-scale crisis occuring no later than 2025.

The book is fascinating. One has to approach it on the same level as predicting the future of the stock market. Based on historical data, looking at patterns, it attempt to lay a theory of history based on prior events.. seductive, enlightening, but always with a degree of caution. The first 30 pages of the book pretty much lay out the entire idea, with the rest of the book providing supporting facts. One often hears people say "it feels like somthing big is on the horizon" and this cycle of history may help explain the feeling of dread.

Posted by stbalbach at 09:50 AM | Comments (1)

July 22, 2004

Arctic Grail

Arctic Grail, by Pierre Berton

I first read this book in 2000 when it was out of print and tracked a first-edition copy down through the used book network, which then got ruined suitably in a flood. It has since been reprinted in paperback with a snazy cover and getting the rave reviews it deserves. It is generally considered the best book on Arctic exploration. Anyone interested in polar adventures other than the Shackleton story this would be right up there at the top on books to read, in many cases the stories make Shackletons ordeals look tame simply because many people die, unlike with Shackletons skillful rescue. If your into that kind of thing this book will leave you with a lifetime of many adventures to explore further. And it is relevant to the headlines of today anything happening in the Arctic this book provides the historical trail to understand, such as the recent discovery of Franklins grave site.

Like the sweeping wide-open spaces of the Arctic, this book covers a lot of territory. Foremost is a survey of Arctic exploration from the begining when the maps were blank and theories of warm northen oceans and pathways to China ran wild in post-Napoleon pax-Britania, to the final controversy of American Admiral Peary reaching the North Pole (or not), it is an examanation of explorers and the lessons to be learned applicable to every person who travels: Live off the local environment. Travel light. Adapt to locals customs. It is a triumph of human spirit over adversity equally balanced by human failings. Berton brings historical accuracy to the legends, we see the good side and bad side of the explorers through page-turning edge of your seat descriptions of tragedy and triumph.

Pierre Berton is a Canadian historian and all his books seem to get solid 5-stars on Amazon hope to read more if his work in the future.

Posted by stbalbach at 07:07 PM | Comments (1)

July 17, 2004

Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World

Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansk.

My Dad, an old sea salt, handed me this book and I rolled my eyes like how interesting can a book about a fish species be. The version he gave me is a Penguin Classics, a James Beard winner and a New York Times top 25 books of the year which was a good sign this is no ordinary book so I took the plunge and well, they are all right this is a most interesting and charming book. The length of the paperback is 200 pages with lots of photos and fish recipes so it can be digested quickly but more so the writing is outstanding never boring and reads like a mystery unfolding. And the tales to be heard are actually important to our lives, the entire history of New England and eastern Canada is wraped up in the Cod, it was only recently that the Bostonian "Cod Aristocricy" the old Pilgrim line that ruled New England from its founding till the early 20th century died out but ask anyone who the Cod Aristocracy is today and you get blank stares. New England is known for its mercantile character and it was the Pilgrims and Cod that started it all. It's a global story one that touches Europe and indeed the author shows us the Basques were fishing off the Grand Banks 100s of years before Columbus arrived, keeping the productive fishing grounds a secret. And in the end it is a bitter tale of ecological disaster the hubris of man a modern lesson for us all when we fish the last fish from the sea and still can't understand why none are left.

Posted by stbalbach at 03:52 AM | Comments (2)

July 09, 2004

The First World War

The First World War, by Michael Howard

The First World War is recently making a renaissance with a flood of books coming on the market on the heels of new material previously unavailable to historians and new revisonistic theories to its origins. Everything I know about World War One is from popular culture but I still have some big questions: How did the War start? Why was the Middle East carved up like it was? Was it a war about Nationalism and how did the idealogues that followed arise from the ashes?

This book by Michael Howard is 170 pages long and the size of a small paperback it's really more an extended essay in length. Howard is editor of the Oxford First World War book and a leading expert in the field and has managed to create what amounts to a summary of all the important points and theories of the war in a highly readable compact form. Every sentence is highly efficient in getting an idea across and flows clearly. It's like a Cliff Notes of the War but not simply facts but excellent state of the art analysis and conclusion about the meaning and signifigance of events.

In a world of information overload it is a pleasure to find deep answers about world events in such an enjoyable and easy to read compact summary. I may go on to read other books about the war which cover areas in more detail, what was once a seemingly boring and complex subject has suddenly become very interesting and relevant to current events.

Update: New Yorker has put out an excellent survey of books out on the market now. It can be found here or archived here

Posted by stbalbach at 01:43 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2004

The Jouney Of Man: A Genetic Odyssey

The Journey Of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells

This book is amazing. It's a laypersons overview of the current technology and understanding of DNA research into the origins of man. We have discovered a lot very recently about when and where man came from answering age-old questions. There is a set start-point, 60,000 years ago, when people started populating the globe. We know when regions were first settled and where they came from. Linguists have tried to do this for a long time but DNA sets the record straight and there are surprises. This is an easy read about 200 pages, you will come away an expert in how DNA technology works without much strain, and have a deep understanding of the migration paths man took in populating the globe where and when. I believe a lot of new multi-disciplinary work could and will come out of this, it is a gold mine of ideas for further study.

Posted by stbalbach at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)