Category Archives: History

Book Review: Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine

Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine (New York: Abrams Press, 2019)

Hager writes as a storyteller, rather than as a chemist. This makes a daunting subject much easier to approach. It also makes clear the significant progress medicine has made over the last several centuries. Though Hager argues that drug companies have already picked most of the low-hanging fruit, the next few decades will still see significant advances.

As he points out early on, he tells the stories of ten-ish drugs, not precisely ten. Each chapter is more about a group of drugs. The first chapter is about opiates and pain relievers, a category that likely includes more than ten notable drugs by itself. The good these drugs have done for surgical patients, women giving birth, and chronic pain patients is coupled with the problems of addiction and the inability of policymakers to deal with the problem with anything other than prohibition and restrictions. These policies, create more problems than they solve, which politicians are naturally proposing to address with more of the same.

Hager also tells the stories of antibiotics, which balance life-saving power versus rapid bacterial evolution; vaccines and inoculations, which have dealt with anti-vaxxer nonsense from the beginning of their thousand-year history; and other fascinating stories of progress and reaction, and innovation and suppression. The final category, of gene-based medicine, is flashing enormous potential right now, much of which is still unrealized. People with cancer, organ damage, birth defects, and genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia are all potential beneficiaries. However, they are threatened by a significant anti-science movement from both the right and the left.

This book came out in 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. If Hager writes an afterword or an updated edition on the 2020 pandemic, it would be fascinating to see his thoughts on how the speed of invention has sped up over time.

For comparison, smallpox first appeared in third century, B.C. Egypt. It took more than a thousand years for the first inoculations to be invented in 9th century, A.D. China. It then took another 900 years or so for people like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to popularize the practice in the 1700s, and then another 200 years to eradicate the disease entirely. In modern times, HIV/AIDS took decades, rather than centuries, to move from a death sentence to a chronic, usually manageable condition. Time will tell if COVID-19 is ever eradicated. But its timeline took a little more than a year from the disease’s first appearance to its vaccine being taken by millions. This is a big deal. For all the pain 2020 has brought, this record speed should be a strong source of optimism for dealing with the next pandemic—and for further progress with existing diseases.

Hager does a good job of staying neutral in his stories, though on several occasions he shows the intellectual’s common distaste for the idea that someone, somewhere, might be making a profit by helping people. Fortunately, he doesn’t go much into public policy in this book. He would likely have little to add that would help patients, speed innovation, or reduce costs—all of which profits incentivize.

Book Review: Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Scribner, 2019)

A dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as a history of the instruments that bear their names. Fender, whose full name was Clarence Leonidas Fender, got his start in radio repair. He founded his own company in 1946 and began building his own PA systems and amplifiers for local musicians. By the 1950s, he was building the first mass-produced electric guitars. He was heavily influenced by his love of Hawaiian music, an dsome of Fender’s first electric instruments were Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars with pickups that wrapped around the strings in a circle. Today’s guitar pickups are typically flat slabs underneath the string. Fender’s customers were mainly working musicians who need instruments that were loud, reliable, and easy to repair.

Before Fender, most electric guitars were hollowbodies. They were built similarly to traditional acoustic guitars, but with pickups. Fender’s solidbody designs were almost impossible to destroy. They are also easy to mass produce, since they are essentiallu flat planks of wood carved into a standardized Telecaster or Stratocaster shape. The necks were a bolt-on design, which meant they were interchangeable and easy to replace if they broke—or if the player preferred the feel of a neck from one instrument, but preferred the body of another.

A pre-Fender guitar’s glued-in neck was permanent. One stage mishap could mean the end of the instrument—and a hefty expense for a musician who might not be able to afford it. Fender’s guitars also had a thinner, brighter, treble-heavy sound that belied his Hawaiian influences. In this way, 1930s Hawaiian music had an underappreciated influence on everything from country music to Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar solos.

Fender also created the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass. As with Teles and Strats, these were designed for gigging musicians. Electric basses are far, far smaller than a traditional stand-up bass. They were also far louder, which meant they could keep up with modern rock bands—especially when played through a Fender Bassman amp. They had frets, which inspired the “Precision” name. A few years later Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, which has a slightly offset body shape and a brighter, more articulate sound. The two designs remain the standard choices for genres ranging from Motown blues to metal.

While Fender’s company had a rough going in its early days, the success of the Telecaster, introduced in 1952, and the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, and its basses, allowed Fender to sell his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars.

CBS was a negligent owner and allowed the quality of Fender’s guitars to decline, to the point where the company was at risk of going by the 1980s. Once the company regained its independence, it upped its quality control and embraced overseas manufacturing, established a custom shop, and began a renaissance that continues to this day. Fender is now the largest instrument maker in the world, and is a studious caretaker for other famous guitar brands such as Jackson and Gretsch that had also fallen on hard times.

Les Paul, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was one of the first people to make a solidbody guitar. Though he was not the first, as he liked to claim. He built his famous “log” guitar similar to Fender’s. he was the tinkering type, and after moving to New York he convinced the Epiphone guitar to give him the run of their workshop after-hours. He gave his log guitar a more conventional appearance by attaching the sides of an Epiphone hollowbody guitar to the log’s center block. Today’s semi-hollowbody designs, such as Gretsches and the Gibson ES-335, use this center-block approach to reduce feedback and give a different tone.

By 1952, the Gibson guitar company saw Fender’s success, and approached Les Paul about being the endorsee for its first entry into the solidbody market. That guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, remains in production today and has been favored by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Carcass’ Bill Steer.

Les Paul was also one of the first people to use overdubs and multi-tracking, which are now staples of modern recording. When he and his then-wife Mary Ford were at the peak of their popularity, Paul’s production techniques made their sound instantly recognizable.

Paul and Fender knew each other, though their careers were centered on opposite coasts, with Fender in California and Paul usually in New York when he wasn’t on the road. They were usually on good terms, although Fender and Gibson remain the two largest competitors in the instrument business.

Port is a gifted storyteller. While he usually treats Fender and Paul separately, he deftly points out common themes in their careers and their instruments. It helps that both men were a bit quirky. Fender was a bit of the nutty professor type, happier in his shop than working on the business side of his business. Paul was not the best husband to Ford, and he didn’t handle his decline in popularity very well. In his later years he became a gregarious elder statesman, and his talent for spinning a yarn made him particularly endearing, even when he was clearly exaggerating. While musicians will obviously get the most out of this book, it also makes a good case study in invention. As with most other ideas, including calculus and the steam engine, the modern electric guitar had multiple near-simultaneous inventors. There was trial, plenty of error, and the whole process was messy and unplanned. As befits the rock music Fender and Paul helped to make possible—even though neither of them even liked it.

2020 Was Difficult. It Was Not the Worst Year Ever

It’s been a hard year, and I am hardly alone in being glad it’s almost over. But was 2020 the worst year ever? Over at Inside Sources, I argue it was not.

COVID-19 is a novel disease. No human caught it before 2019. Scientists created effective vaccines in about a year. By comparison, smallpox has been around since at least Ancient Egypt in the third century B.C. The earliest evidence of inoculation dates to 10th century China. That’s more than a thousand years between smallpox’s first appearance and its first effective treatment—for a disease with a 30 percent fatality rate. But inoculation was rarely practiced until the 18th century, so it didn’t help very many people for its first 900 years or so.

When Abigail Adams had her children inoculated in 1776, it was still a scary, new technology for most people. It was an act of courage for her to set a positive example like that. And it took an additional two centuries for smallpox to be eradicated altogether, in 1977. Our generation’s COVID timetable is unimaginably better than with which our ancestors had to deal.

Read the whole thing here.

It is important for us to learn the right lessons from our COVID-19 experience. We need cultural and political institutions that are open and adaptable. These will make us more resilient against future crises, and make it easier to apply new things we learn as quickly as possible. CEI scholars spent the better part of 2020 compiling these sorts of ideas, which you can find at neverneeded.cei.org. Former CEI Julian Simon Award winner Johan Norberg offers further perspective in a recent piece in the UK’s Spectator.

Best Books of 2020: Joseph Henrich – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)

It’s early, but The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich will likely be one of the new decade’s most influential books. Henrich complements work by Joshua GreeneRichard WranghamJonathan HaidtSteven PinkerMichael Shermer, and others on the psychological underpinnings of modern liberalism—liberalism in the more-or-less original sense of the word.

Henrich’s book has two main arguments. One is historical: The Catholic church, completely unintentionally, set off a social chain reaction that created modernity. The second is psychological: People in modern societies are psychologically distinct than people in traditional kin-based societies.

He uses the acronym WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, to describe the unusual people in modern market-liberal societies. If you are reading this book review, then you are probably WEIRD, and so is nearly everyone you know. But we WEIRD people are the outliers in human history. Outside of Europe, East Asia, and North America, there are very few of us.

Most human societies are built on kin-based structures. This was true during our hunter-gatherer past, which was about 190,000 years of our 200,000-year history—95 percent of our species’ time on Earth. Societies remained kin-based through the agricultural revolution, and through the birth of cities about 6,000 years ago. And it is still true today in most countries. Despite occasional flowerings, there were no enduring WEIRD societies in human history until about two centuries ago. This is maybe one tenth of one percent of human existence, and even then, most societies remain kin-based. Again, it is WEIRD people who are unusual.

What is a kin-based society? In these, business partnerships, social networks, and marriages are confined to networks that rarely stray outside the extended family or clan. People tend to be wary of non-kin, and have a strong in-group-vs.-out-group worldview. People tend to look out for their clan’s collective interest over their individual interest. In kin-based societies, nepotism isn’t frowned upon; it’s the norm. WEIRD Americans today look askance when a president appoints inexperienced family members to be senior advisers. But in most other societies, this would have been acceptable, even normal behavior.

By contrast, WEIRD people are more individualistic and more trusting of outsiders. Kin-based families often arrange marriages for their children. WEIRD people usually marry for love. Kin-based people are expected to enter the family business. This is why so many of us have occupation-based surnames, such as Smith, Baker, or Fisher. WEIRD people usually prefer to choose their own line of work, which is one reason why today’s Smiths, Bakers, and Fishers rarely practice those occupations.

Kin-based people are reluctant to do business with strangers and foreigners. WEIRD people are more open to trade and more trusting of potential business partners they have never met. Nobody is purely meritocratic, but WEIRD people are closer to that ideal than most people.

So now that we know the difference between most people and WEIRD people, what is Henrich’s historical argument about the Catholic church accidentally making today’s WEIRD-ness possible?

The Catholic church blew up traditional kin networks through what Henrich calls its unofficial “Marriage and Family Program (MFP).” In short, the Church prohibited cousin marriages. The incest taboo is a human universal. But its boundaries vary from place to place. The church decided to push them progressively further out over a period of centuries. In many places, it eventually prohibited marriages closer than second and third cousins. In a few places it briefly went as far as eighth cousins.

This was a bigger deal than it sounds. Back in, say, the 12th century, people lived isolated lives. Few people lived in cities. Many people lived their entire lives within a 30-mile radius. They met few, if any, people outside of their extended families. And the wanderers they did meet were often beggars, vagrants, or outlaws. The Church’s MFP forced these isolated people to look outside their villages and kin groups for marriage partners. This forced openness, in the long run, ended up wiring people’s brains differently.

Young people are impressionable. When they are of marriageable age and are forced to meet and interact with strangers, and travel among them, traditional closed-kin psychological barriers gradually break down. They are gradually replaced with growing degrees of WEIRDness. It is a long, gradual process with many degrees. But over centuries, the effects add up.

None of the changes Henrich describes are genetic. None of them are racial, and none of them are peculiar to Europe. The conditions that make individuals WEIRD are cultural, intellectual, and psychological.

Using cousin marriage rates as a stand-in for how strong the Church’s Marriage and Family Program operated in different regions, along with historical records, Henrich finds that the MFP was the single biggest cause of everything from per capita GDP to interest rates to murder rates. Interestingly, regional cousin marriage rates closely track religious divisions and regional church influences. Henrich himself was skeptical about the MFP’s cultural influence, so he checked his results every way he could.

So, while openness is the real engine of WEIRDness, in Europe’s case, Church doctrine was what drove the process of opening up.

The differences between kin-based and WEIRD people show up in psychological tests. The Church’s MFP turns out to have changed people’s personalities and psychological profiles. In my recent review of Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi’s excellent Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?, I noted their finding that people from market societies play decision-making games differently than do people in non-market societies. Henrich argues that this is because they are psychologically different.

From birth, WEIRD people from market societies have been more exposed to outsiders and more likely to trust them. No wonder they tend to play lab games that way. They tend to be more trusting of other players and more willing to use long-term strategies. People from kin-based societies are more likely to do the equivalent of a dine-and-dash from a restaurant. If the other player is not from their in-group, they feel fewer compunctions about cheating that other player.

Kin-based and WEIRD people even assign blame differently. Most WEIRD people see classroom teachers’ disciplinary tactic of punishing an entire class for one student’s offense to be morally wrong. Kin-based people see this as normal, and are fine with it. They think more in terms of collective responsibility than individual responsibility. In fact, criminal justice systems in many kin-based societies punish whole families for one member’s crime.

There is a reason for this. In most human societies, life was precarious. One bad harvest could mean starvation. Very strong conformity norms were a survival advantage. Collective punishment helps to reinforce conformity norms. Maybe someone does have a new idea for planting a crop differently. But if it fails, the stakes are life and death. It’s probably not worth it. Better to make sure that everyone sticks with what he or she knows works.

When most people’s only experience with foreigners is with either castoffs or invading armies, they probably aren’t going to trust them. They’d probably return the favor when possible. Unlike trade, theft and war are zero-sum interactions. When these are someone’s sole experience with out-groups, they are less likely to trade with foreigners and realize the benefits of division of labor. Safer to do it all yourself.

Henrich has written a provocative book that builds on an already robust literature. Despite its deep historical and psychological content, The WEIRDest People in the World is also highly relevant to modern public policy. The regulations and legislation that groups like CEI deal with on a daily basis do not come from a vacuum. They come from longstanding political institutions. And these system-level institutions in turn come from culture. All three of those levels matter. A reformer who works on only one of them will fail. Henrich has come up with a plausible framework to explain how they interact over the long run, and how they can shift. Where people are relatively WEIRD, people will build relatively market-oriented political institutions—and eventually, policies. Where they are kin-based, they probably won’t.

Without the Church’s unofficial Marriage and Family Plan, European culture likely would have remained insular and kin-based. That tendency still exists, and is expressing itself in the European Union’s trending towards becoming a protectionist trading bloc. Reformers need to push back and remind people that WEIRD-style openness has massive benefits, especially for the poor.

What about the rest of the world? Fortunately, the Church’s MFP is not the one and only way for people to become psychologically WEIRD. Ideas can be imported and exported, same as goods and services. America was a relatively WEIRD society from the start, as was Australia. The Asian tigers such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, saw the economic success of WEIRD countries, and followed their example. China is at a weird midway point psychologically, and its institutions are still extractive and kin-based by WEIRD standards. This may limit China’s future growth as a global power.

The point is that setting a good example can do a lot more good than people think. This puts today’s nationalists and economic protectionists in an awkward position. They are not the future. They are throwbacks to an impoverished, unhappy past.

The post-1800 Great Enrichment that billions of people are enjoying today has deep and distant causes operating at multiple levels. Henrich’s thesis of WEIRD psychology, cultural openness, and economic prosperity will have a major impact on future work in geopolitics, economic development, political polling, immigration, and free trade for a long time to come.

Book Review: Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German pastor who became a prominent resistor to Hitler’s Third Reich. He helped people to escape Germany, was part of a group that plotted to assassinate Hitler, and died in a concentration camp.

This book would have been about two thirds shorter if it had stuck to its subject. Instead, much of the book is theological discourse. A hero’s courageous life story was regularly interrupted with digressions on obscure theological interpretations and debates—including an out-of-nowhere rant about abortion during a chapter on Bonoeffer’s time in Tegel prison.

Even while listening to the Audible narration at 2.25x speed, there was a great deal of tedium, and not enough about the remarkable man whose name is in the book’s title. There are occasional flashes of (possibly unintentional?) humor, as in Hitler’s description as an “irascible vegetarian.” These moments are few, though.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a prosperous, intellectual household with several siblings, including a twin sister. His childhood was happy, his parents raised him right, and Bonhoeffer showed high character from the start. He also had enough musical talent to seriously consider becoming a professional musician.

He instead decided to become a pastor. He received his doctorate at age 21, and was ordained at 25. Though protestant, he was tolerant of other denominations, including Catholics, making friends and attending their services. Bonhoeffer’s ecumenicism made him stand out as a little bit of a liberal hippie type by the standards of the day, though a straight-laced one.

The young Bonhoeffer also had an adventurous spirit. He traveled to Rome and Spain, though he spent much of those trips attending church services and in theological study. He was also able to spend a great deal of time studying his favorite sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, located in the Vatican.

While on a trip to America, Bonhoeffer took a 4,000-mile road trip from New York to Mexico. Bonhoeffer did not know how to drive, and failed a driving test right before the trip. He drove anyway, though with a friend, and essentially taught himself on America’s highways.

During this period he read Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front and saw its movie adaptation. To that point, it was the 20th century’s best-selling novel. Bonhoeffer lost an older brother during World War I, and Remarque’s frank depictions of things his older brother experienced, and the way he humanized the soldiers, helped to turn Bonhoeffer into a pacifist.

Bonhoeffer and his similarly liberal-minded family were disturbed by Hitler’s rise from well before he took power, but didn’t take him very seriously until it was too late. But the problems were far larger than one man.

A German Christian movement arose in Germany, embracing the trendy new nationalism and supporting Hitler. Bonhoeffer denounced the movement—which did not come naturally to the inclusive Bonhoeffer—and began to earn a higher profile, and the attention of the authorities. In a theological distinction that actually mattered, Bonhoeffer argued that Hitler was converting the German Christians, not the other way around.

He also struggled with depression, starting around the mid-1930s. In 1939, before the war started in September, Bonhoeffer managed to escape Germany and return to America. But he was restless and unhappy, because he knew that he could help the resistance. So he ended up going back to Germany. He would not survive the war.

He joined the Abwehr, an underground resistance group that ultimately aimed to assassinate Hitler. They nearly succeeded several times, most famously in the failed Valkyrie plot. They also whisked away Jews and others to safety outside Germany, and tried to communicate clandestinely with Allied governments.

Bonhoeffer took seven trips over the Swiss border and back helping the Abwehr cause. He was imprisoned in 1943, just seven miles from his parents’ house. He also became engaged to an 18-year old, though he was 36 at this point. They wrote each other frequently, but saw each other in person a total of 17 times during his imprisonment. As the tide of the war turned against Germany, they both believed Bonhoeffer would spend a year in prison at most.

They were not far off. In February 1945, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp, site of some of the Nazis’ worst medical experiment atrocities. He was hanged on April 9, 1945. Allied forces liberated the camp two days later. He was 39. Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison were published posthumously, and remain in print today.

Book Review: Tim Mackintosh-Smith – Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

Tim Mackintosh-Smith – Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

A very good survey history written by an Oxford-educated Brit who has lived in Yemen for much of his adult life. This book is especially interesting when read with Azar Gat’s thesis on nationalism in mind. Gat is worth summarizing to better understand Mackintosh-Smith. Gat views nationalism as both ancient and based on ethnicity. Ethnicity, for Gat, is broader than race or genetics, though it includes both of those things. Ethnicities share, in varying degrees, things like language, culture, religion, dress, dietary customs, and more. The list is long, and it can vary, though language is often the most important. The common thread is that taken together, these cultural markers are strong enough to band people together in an in-group that is easy to distinguish from out-groups.

Ethnicities are similar to the small tribal groups our species has lived in for nearly its entire 200,000-year span, just larger in scale. Nation-states, which are historically a very recent concept—just a few centuries old in most of the world—are an additional step up in scale. They are simply one more way for our evolutionarily-ingrained sense of ethnicity to express itself. A lot of today’s nationalism-related troubles are due to square political pegs not fitting into round cultural or in-group holes, which are always moving around and changing shape anyway.

With Gat’s framework in mind, Mackintosh-Smith’s affectionately argued thesis in this book suddenly makes a lot of sense. To Mackintosh-Smith, Arabs are simultaneously among the world’s most unified and its most fractious peoples. They have the Arabic language in common—Gat’s most important unifying ingredient. People in Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Tajikistan, and as far East as Pakistan can all speak to each other in Arabic and have little trouble understanding each other. But High Arabic is also a bit like Latin was in post-Roman Europe: a formal, stilted lingua franca. Many Arabs speak a different local language at home and in everyday life. So Arabs are at the same time united by language, and not.

Arabs also have Islam in common. But the Sunni-Shia split still has echoes today, and sets Shi’ite Iran apart from most other Arab Islamic countries. Just as Christianity has its million and one different flavors of Catholicism, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and Orthodoxy, Islam has its different flavors of Sufism, Wahabbism, and on down the line, each with ancient, modern, moderate, and radical versions. So Arabs are at the same time united by Islam, and not.

One thing most Arabs have in common is a nomadic heritage. This has made imposing the new convention of national boundaries very difficult, if not impossible. Not only do some people still move across the new boundaries with some mixture of indifference and impunity, the very notion of national boundaries is a very new concept in Arabs’ 3,000-year history. So Arabs are at the same time united by their nomadic history, and divided by it.

Also in the mix is a cultural divide between the few remaining nomads and the now-majority city dwellers, and there is another ingredient in the unified-but-not mix.

Mackintosh-Smith, though likely unfamiliar with Gat’s work on nationalism, is aware of all those competing dynamics. At each stage of his chronological narrative, most of those facets of Arabic life are there, from the establishment of settled agriculture to pre-Islamic empires, to Muhammad himself and the Ummayad caliphate, its succeeding Abbasid caliphate, its eventual displacement by the Ottomans, and on to today’s independent states, unity and discord are always there in tension with each other. It is a fascinating story.

Book Review: Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes

Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

An entertaining collection of retold Celtic myths. I listened to the Audible version. Freeman offers some historical and cultural analysis to go along with the stories. The added context makes it easier to appreciate stories with cultural norms very different from ours. It also puts them in proper historical context, mostly stretching across a period stretching from Ireland and Britain’s time at the periphery of the Roman Empire up until Northern Europe’s economic revival around the time of Charlemagne.

The cultural and textual similarities to Nordic myths and Icelandic sagas was surprising. They are both very violent. Women are relegated to the sidelines, but occasionally flash independence and deviousness. And they are clearly honor and kin-based cultures. This was more for fun than for research for me, but there is plenty there at both levels.

Then again, during this period and after, as Michael Pye argues in The Edge of the World, the areas ringing the North Sea were almost their own distinct civilization, just as was the Mediterranean region to the south. The sea connected the British Isles to what is now northern France and Germany and the Lower Countries, whose traders would later form the Hanseatic League. Norway and Sweden were on the eastern edge of this ring. And Iceland was settled by their more adventurous sailors, and brought their language, customs, and stories with them. The Celtic tradition Freeman shares is distinct, but also part of this larger whole.

Book Review: Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s

Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2015 [1931]).

A history of the 1920s, but written in 1931, when the memories were still fresh. The title is almost literal. I read part of it in undergrad and revisited it recently. Many historians would write this type of near-real time history by simply discussing the major news stories of the day in order. Allen goes for a more thematic approach. A typical chapter covers the entire decade from beginning to end, but covering a different theme. Topics include sex and morality, fashion, Prohibition, business and the economy, technology, leisure, sports, politics, and more. But Allen also sees larger overarching themes that tie all these mini-themes together—and this is what makes his book so compelling.

The 1920s saw shared mass culture arise in a way that hadn’t been seen before. It would be a while before there was a television in every room. But every town had a movie theater, and the radio was mass-adopted more quickly than perhaps any other technology. Radio, along with maturing telephone and telegraph networks, enabled instant mass communication. Mass-produced automobiles meant that people lived their lives in a much broader area than before. For the first time, people could live in one city and work in another. Daytrips or weekend trips to other states became commonplace.

This led to an explosion of shared culture. The 1920s were filled with fads, sensations, and cultural icons—flappers, Babe Ruth and his home runs, title fights like Dempsey-Tunney, Mahjong, crossword puzzles, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh and other aviators, and more. Nothing like this had ever happened before, at least on such a scale.

Allen also notes the very different starting and ending points of the 1920s. It began just after the end of World War I, and ended with the onset of the Great Depression. These natural bookends are grist for occasional meditations for an almost life-cycle view of the decade. A young nation began the decade eager and optimistic to rebuild and make something new after the war was won. This exuberance gave way to an industrious middle age filled with work and reward. Finally, a jaded old age kicks in as youthful excesses brought economic ruin. I share the historian William McNeill’s skepticism of these types of stories. Nations and cultures are never young or old, individuals are.

A lot of Only Yesterday is surprisingly contemporary. Maybe not so much the bits about the annual rises and falls of women’s hemlines, where an inch’s change towards or a way from the knee was a major national event. But Allen’s description of how people reacted to the rise of mass media sounds an awful like how people are reacting today to the Internet, smartphones, and social media. People had all kinds of overblown reactions to it, both in favor and against it. And the technologies drove all kinds of fads. Back then, it was Mahjong. Today, it’s Candy Crush. People were able to pay much closer attention to national events than before.

There was a lot of handwringing about the changes in the news and media industries, and the effect this saturation would have on people’s health and happiness, and on America’s political system. Despite all the melodrama, people got through it—just as our generation will. Today’s generation is hardly the first one that needs to calm down about the media industry.

This is one of those books that is surprisingly hard to put down. Allen’s biggest shortcoming is a common cultural failure—an unthinking condescension towards business and commerce. Like a lot of people, he took Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt a little too seriously. And he frequently—almost reflexively, without really thinking about it—makes cutting remarks at businessmen, peoples’ work lives, or almost anything having to do with finance. The unspoken implication is that the author is above such earthly concerns, and his readers should be as well. This tendency is off-putting, and distracts from an otherwise superb volume of history.

Book Review: David Christian – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

David Christian – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2018).

A breezy, big-picture history of the universe in the tradition of Bill Bryson. On the plus side, Christian’s approach is less sensationalistic than Bryson’s. On the downside, that means it is a little less entertaining as well. But that’s only in relative terms. In absolute terms, this book is highly enjoyable, and I liked it better than Bryson’s. The early chapters, from the Big Bang on up to the early solar system, are strong on cosmology. From there, the emphasis changes to geology, cellular biology, anthropology, and then a little bit of economics and sociology and a guess at where technology is headed. Maybe not a book for specialists, but they would gain perspective from engaging outside their specialty—which is good all-around life advice as well.

Book Review: Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (New York: Doubleday, 2020).

A wide-ranging world history told through the lens of cities. Wilson bounces around between Asia, Europe, and America, and concludes in Lagos, Nigeria, which is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s major urban centers. Wilson feels at home discussing subjects as diverse as the Epic of Gilgamesh and its relationship to Uruk, the first big city; coffeehouse culture in 18th century London, with its undercurrents of political dissent and rebellion against social norms; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their fast but difficult recovery; and the birth of skyscrapers in jazz age New York and the dashed grand plans for remaking social orders in glass and steel. For a Brit, he is also surprisingly well-versed in the early history of hip-hop.

Wilson is a cheerful tour guide and has a conversational prose style that reads quickly. Metropolis would go well with any number of books, ranging from James C. Scott’s Against the Grain about the close relationship between early agriculture, the first cities, and the first governments; Monica Smith’s very similar Cities: The First 6,000 Years; and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, the influential urban economist who took on Robert Moses’ machine politics in New York City in the mid-twentieth century.