Henri Pirenne – Mohammed and Charlemagne
The Pirenne thesis is that barbarian invasions didn’t collapse the Roman Empire in 476 AD—economic isolation did, two centuries later.
Most barbarians wanted to assimilate, not destroy. They eventually became soldiers, senators, and even emperors who gave their lives fighting for the Empire, sometimes against their own former countrymen. Government and everyday life stayed pretty much the same after Romulus Augustus’ 476 overthrow.
The real change happened about two centuries later, when Arabs conquered most of the southern, eastern, and western Mediterranean. The new conquerors were uninterested in trading with the Romans, and mostly ignored them. This isolated the old Empire from existing long-distance trade.
Isolation from trade caused Europe’s economic decline, as the archaeological record shows (later historians have since confirmed this in detail). Papyrus was replaced by costlier parchment, and churches were lit by ineffective wax candles instead of oil-burning lamps. What once was open became isolated, and that’s what caused the Dark Ages.
Highly recommended, and relevant to today’s trade and immigration policy debates.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – Oration on the Dignity of Man
This short text is informally called the manifesto of the Italian renaissance. Pico della Mirandola was a brash twenty-something when he wrote this, and more than a little bit of a pedant. But all the hallmarks of renaissance thought are there—human-centered rather than god-centered; engaged with Greek and Roman classics, previously forbidden or forgotten in the Christian world; ditto Arabic and Jewish texts; a flowery, ornate prose style; a belief in progress and perhaps even the perfectibility of man; and a general spirit of can-do audacity.
All of these were breaks with medieval tradition, and an important step on the way to Enlightenment-style modernity.
Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space
A book-length Q&A session with an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station. The tone is friendly and conversational, and the questions are good—Peake drew from public responses using the Twitter hashtag #askanastronaut.
His answers cover everything from training, liftoff, the various irks and quirks of life on the ISS, from food to using the bathroom, what space smells like, what happens when you sweat inside a spacesuit in zero-gravity, and the scary thrill of reentry. I can see this book appealing to younger space enthusiasts, too.
Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants
In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.
Motley Crue – The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band
This collective autobiography unintentionally provides powerful arguments for staying in school and not doing drugs. That said, it is quite entertaining. I read the whole thing despite not being a big fan of their music.
Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu – The Spirit of Laws
One of the most important texts of the French Enlightenment. Interested in human progress, Montesquieu sought out larger laws of history that might explain why some countries are rich and others poor, why some have despotic governments while others use a lighter touch, and why social customs differ—and how this might affect future progress.
Montesquieu also offers a defense of free trade, which he called doux commerce, or sweet or gentle commerce. The theory is that trade and economic interdependence foster peace and prevent war, a sentiment U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull very much had in mind in attempting to rebuild post-Depression trade infrastructure and prevent World War III.
Montesquieu also offers an early version of the quantity theory of money. Finally, he in ludes lengthy narrative histories of Roman and French law.
If all that sounds a little scattershot, that’s because it is. The book almost has a stream of consciousness quality, as though Montesquieu, like Montaigne before him, simply wrote down whatever arguments and facts he had in his head as he sat at his desk.
Giles Milton – When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain: History’s Unknown Chapters
A bit like going through a museum of curiosities—Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum especially comes to mind. The book consists of short vignettes about unusual and improbable happenings, and historical oddities both great and small. While quite morbid, Milton has a sharp sense of humor and an eye for the absurd.
Milton’s When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank: History’s Unknown Chapters is more of the same.