One for the books

My coping mechanism for the past year has been to read a lot of ancient history. It’s a great way to keep current events in context. It’s debatable whether Caligula actually nominated his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate, but many crazier things certainly happened.

In truth, I don’t read as much as I listen these days. Almost all my ingestion of new knowledge is via audio books. It’s a great way to get through my workout routines. Kind of killing two birds with one stone: exercising the brain and the body at the same time.

So, here are some highlights from my 2020 reading:

Ancient History

I’ve just finished with Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy. As the name implies, this is a survey of the glory years of the Roman Empire. It contains fascinating insights into the culture, customs and general life of that era.

A quick read that precedes this era and provides context for how the whole thing got started is: The Etruscans. And, of course, we know how it all ended. One book that explains this in detail is The Vandals, The History and Legacy of Antiquity’s Most Famous Barbarians. Both of these books are distributed by Charles River Editors, an online editing and publishing company that is something of the modern version of Cliff Notes. These are well written, accessible compilations of different eras in history. (Contrary to popular misconception, the Barbarians were not “barbaric.” They had laws, culture, religion, art, even their own form of democracy. )

Once Rome had been sacked and the world descended into the so-called Dark Ages, an interesting group of characters began roaming the earth. The Sea Wolves, A History of the Vikings is an enlightening portrait of the Nordic people, and how they became feared raiders and marauders who eventually settled many parts of Europe. And, like the Barbarians, they had many refined notions for creating a cultured society.

Well, that’s Ancient History. But what about the prehistoric times? I am fascinated with the fact that at one time on this planet, humans were not the only species of their kind. Neanderthals are probably the best known. There’s lots of speculation as to what happened to our nearest cousins. One take is this book: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.

Another species in our family is The Denisovans. Once again, Charles River Editors does a commendable job summarizing the theories on these beings, who apparently had highly sophisticated mathematical skills, among other very curious attributes.

Two more books that challenge the status quo regarding where we came from:

The Tangled Tree, A Radical New History of Life, and A Brief History of Everyone Whoever Lived, The Humand Story Retold Through Our Genes.

And, although it has been a few years since I perused Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, I would be remiss if I didn’t include it here. Author Yuval Noah Harari is breaking ground in his treatises these days. You can watch a synthesis of his thinking in the following interview:

By the way, I am fascinated with other eras of history as well, especially the period between 1850 and 1920. There is something about this timeframe that intrigues me. It is the period in which we made the transition as an agrarian society to a full-blown industrial society. And the period between 1950 and 1980 — the Cold War — also captivates the imagination. So in later blogs, I’ll come back and highlight some of what I have gleaned from those years.


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