I love Goodreads. It makes it so easy to discover new books and create reading lists.
Sometimes, it’s too easy to select books on Goodreads. Recently, I made a few selections based solely on the book’s title because my small, shattered iPod screen makes reading Goodreads reviews inconvenient. I say “never judge a book completely by its cover”, but on three occasions recently, I did just that—and I regret it.
If the title were an accurate representation of the book, however, then this wouldn’t happen… if only books were labelled as strictly as, say, medicines or wines. Never mind.
Unconvincing. 376 pages, ★
I found this book inaccessible partly due to my disappointment that it was not a “case for God” at all. The title was lying and I never really forgave it.
This book should be called, “A meticulous history of some major religions” instead.
What did I learn? That religion requires “perseverance, hard work and practical action”. We Buddhists agree.
I read half of this book then skimmed the rest when I realised that not only is it an academic book rather than a religious one, but also that it contains no “case for God” whatsoever. I recommend this book for Philosophy of Religion students only. ★
Epic cross-section of all of human culture. Fact-dense. 680 pages, ★★★★★
It’s so hot in Australia right now. The sun melted my chocolate yesterday. Today, my trusty iPod displayed the word “Temperature” instead of a map, before promptly shutting itself down in the car.
Chasing the Sun was thus a very apt book choice. It dances through science, but weaves in a lot of culture as well. British doors have sunrise-shaped windows. The Statue of Liberty wears a sun-shaped hat. Images as diverse as Jesus, Charlie Chaplin and Chairman Mao have all personified the sun in some way to imply power (be it spiritual, comical or political). Twenty countries currently have suns in their flags, and even the swastika was originally a line-drawn representation of the sun! According to Google Music, 2,500 copyrighted songs have been written about the sun (how many can you think of?), and nearly 500 trademarks feature the sun in their logo. The sun permeates our lives in ways that we are seldom aware.
This book is therefore relevant to everyone.
Like the sun itself, Chasing the Sun is dense. Reading it, I felt like one of the zillions of photons that takes 150,000 years to permeate the sun’s dense core, before finally reaching the surface (i.e. finishing the book) and zooming out at the speed of light. I read my next book very fast.
Author Richard Cohen is loaded with theories, such as Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Daisy World, the evolution of ancient calendar systems, and natural therapies involving tomatoes (which protect against sunburn but get sunburned easily themselves) and TB (which was alleviated somewhat by sunlight exposure). Best of all, he touches on the theory that solar maxima (peaks in the natural fluctuation of our sun’s intensity) coincide with peaks of ‘hot-headed’ human activity. Certainly, the upheavals of 1905, 1917, 1948 and 1989 coincided with solar maxima. Coincidence, perhaps?
Richard Cohen’s work is in the same category as Bill Bryson, but is much more fact-laden. On one occasion, (on page 528) he even corrects Bill Bryson’s math! He balances science and culture in a way only paralleled by Arnold Taylor’s The Dance of Air & Sea. This book took 8 years to write, involved research trips to 17 countries and includes input from dozens of world-leading academics. Don’t let this much wisdom pass you by. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★
Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children. 305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback)
A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.
Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.
I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.
E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and morelike a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.
I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the Worldlends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★