The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Patrick N. Allitt
It’s hard to study the world history of the past few centuries without encountering the British Empire which was so encompassing that the British could proudly proclaim that the sun never set upon it. This Great Courses series attempts to look at the empire in its totality, which it does by bouncing around the globe in different time periods and observing how different pieces of the empire were obtained, evolved, and eventually left again. So the study is interesting, but for me, I never felt like it was adequately pulled everything together. Rarely did I feel as if I was reading about one empire. Instead, we were always looking at various pieces of it.
I also would have liked to have had a longer exploration of the comparisons of the British Empire to others around the world—Russia/Soviet, China, Aztec, Rome, Carthage, the list goes on and on. I also would have enjoyed a much more thorough look at the impacts—positive and negative—the empire had on the regions it ruled and the globe. Allitt makes a stab at this, but I would have preferred much more detail. Finally, I would have liked substantially more detail on why the empire was viewed as necessary in Britain and how they held onto it (from a domestic/political perspective) for so long.
Overall, a good course that left me wanting much more on the topic.
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppe by Kenneth W. Harl
The great tribes of the steppes from the Huns to the Mongols and beyond, have had a huge impact on the civilizations that border them—some positive and some negative. This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on those empires and their impact. It’s a fascinating book, but unfortunately, the records to do not give us a good look at how these empires functioned without the government bureaucracies that Rome and China depended upon. The empires adopt the already existing institutions in territories they conquered, but how did they govern themselves and the other stepped tribes they conquered?
In Alpha Order by Author
The Decisive Battles of World History by Gregory S. Aldrete
This is one of the best Great Courses audiobooks that I have listened to. Aldrete offers a thoughtful look at more than three dozen major battles and argues for why they changed the course of the world. So not only do you get an introduction that provides the context of the battles and a description of the battle itself, you get a conclusion that cogently lays out how the battle altered the status quo in a way that affected an area for decades and often centuries. A wonderful account all around.
History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons they Teach by Gregory S. AldreteWhat makes this book interesting is that it flips on its head how we generally look at military battles. After all, each of these terrible blunders resulted in an amazing victory for the other side in the battle. But Aldrete is looking for lessons in how not to blow tremendous military advantages and so he examines the totally avoidable mistakes that often lead to dismal failure. Over confidence, hostility within a chain of command, failures of intelligence, unclear orders—it’s a fascinating look at the other side of a lot of battles you’re probably already familiar with, plus a few you may well have never heard of yet.
The Industrial Revolution by Patrick N. Allitt
When I teach the industrial revolution in my Western Civilization class, I spend about three hours covering it. In this superb Great Courses book, Patrick Allitt spends a little more than eighteen hours covering one of the most important phenomena in all of human history. Allitt doesn’t hide from the negative consequences that go hand in hand with industrialization, but neither does he lose track of the hugely consequential goods that have accompanied it—a population eight times the size of the preindustrial world, a standard of living unimaginably good in comparison to what came before, longer and healthier lives, greater security, greater leisure and entertainment possibilities, and the list goes on and on.
Allitt walks you through not just the impact on production, but social, political, and environmental changes that resulted from industrialization as well. It is a genuinely positive book looking to how the unintended negative consequences of industrialization are being tackled to make a better world for everyone. It’s a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the subject.
The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt
Prince Albert was much more than the consort of Queen Victoria, he was her primary advisor. In this Great Courses volume, Patrick Allitt uses the prince’s life as a vehicle to explore many important moments in nineteenth century English history showing how Prince Albert learned to work behind the scenes to help his adopted kingdom navigate many difficult times. Military reform, foreign policy, relations to Parliament—Albert played a critical role in all of these. Touchingly, he and the queen also appeared to have enjoyed a genuinely loving relationship—something uncommon in a time of arranged political marriages.
A History of British India by Hayden J. BellennoitIf all you know about the British interventions in India can be summed up in the words Plassey, Sepoy Mutiny, and Ghandi, you’ll want to read this Great Courses book. It offers a fascinating look at how Britain influenced the subcontinent and its people in both positive and negative ways, and how British policy changed over time. It also shows the birth of modern India and Pakistan as opposition to British rule grew. All in all, this is a quick, fascinating look at one of the archetypal imperial states.
Medical Mysteries across History by Roy Benaroch
This is a great idea for a Great Courses book. Roy Benaroch presents ten sets of medical symptoms, each taken from a different historical figure, then slowly fills in details that doctors would seek out regarding the patients’ lives on his way to making a diagnosis. In addition, the reader also gets to guess who the historical figure is. (I got 7 out of 10, which naturally made me feel good, especially when I had never heard of one of the three I missed.)
So this book teaches you a bit about modern medicine, historical medical practice, and a bit of history on top of everything else. A very pleasant way to spend your afternoon.
The Hijack by Owen Bennett-Jones
This ten episode podcast shows a lot of the potential of the podcast medium as Bennett-Jones explores what occurs when three men hijacked airplane in 1981 in an effort to force democratization in Pakistan. In many ways, the cause is one that reverberates well in western civilization—the quest for political freedom and the rights that come with it—however, kidnapping and murder are not tools that human rights advocates favor. In each of the ten episodes, Bennett-Jones explores the background to the crisis and the day-by-day development of the event through a combination of narration and actual interviews with survivors and even one of the hijackers. The whole thing is a tragedy however you look at it, but the podcast is absolutely riveting.
A History of Christian Theology by Philip Carey
Theological disputes within Christianity have been a critically important part of the development of Western Society. They were at the root of the Nike Riots, countless anti-heresy conflicts, the Albigensian Crusade and, of course, the Protestant Reformation. Philip Carey isn’t interested in the political fallout of these disputes, but he gives a wonderful, highly comprehensible, series of lectures on the development of theology from Gospel times to the present day including spending approximately one third of the book exploring changes in and differences between the various Protestant denominations.
As a medievalist, I felt very comfortable with the pre-Reformation
theology before starting the series, but I was totally captivated by the
discussion of Protestantism and Catholicism over the last five hundred
years—especially the ways in which Catholics and Protestants have been drawing
closer together over the last century.
The Catholic Church by William R. Cook
Even people who are knowledgeable about the long history of the Catholic Church can benefit from this Great Courses series of lectures. Cook sets out to describe the major ups and downs, and ins and outs, of the two-thousand-year-old institution. He spares no punches, calling out shameful practices quite often, but he also takes the time to dwell on the inspirational moments and to explore the context in which the various actions of the church were taken.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the lectures was the inclusion of the non-Roman rites of the Catholic church, highlighting a diversity of the Catholic faith that many have forgotten or never knew existed. But there is much more worth learning about in these lectures and Cook makes it very easy to follow the institution and many of the people who comprised it through the ages.
That being said, there were moments when Cook throws out a tangential fact that was not accurate. This often happens when historians veer out of their specialty, but it always makes me wonder what else they’re getting wrong that I missed because it came in an area where I’m not as well read.
Caesar’s Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins
I like the idea behind this book, which traces the Tenth Legion from its creation until it was disbanded. Most of the book is dedicated to the legion’s role in fighting for Julius Caesar, which means Dando-Collins gets to walk the reader through a number of famous battles. This is both a strength and weakness of the monograph as for much of the book it feels as if we are really getting a sort of bio of Caesar, but then suddenly Caesar is wrapped up at extreme speed and killed and the legion goes on to other things.
There were two other things I found disappointing about the book. I would have liked to have seen a lot of time put into what life in the legion was like, and I just never got that sort of day-to-day life view I was hoping for. Also, Dando-Collins chose to use modern ranks like colonel and general to describe Caesar’s officers. I understand he’s trying to make these men’s roles more accessible to the modern reader, but I found it jarring every time a modern rank was mentioned.
Rise of the Novel by Leo Damrosch
I love the Great Courses, but this particular set of lectures didn’t work for me. It focuses on 24 books that show different aspects of the growth of the form of the novel. I hadn’t read most of the books, but even for those I had read, I had difficulty getting more than halfway through each lecture. Generally, I felt that Damrosch made his point in the first few minutes of each and the rest of the detail just didn’t interest me.
Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt
I started playing Dungeon and Dragons in the sixth grade with the basic boxed set and quickly graduated to the Advanced Players Handbook and the related books. In eighth grade, I started gaming with a guy whose older brother had started playing in college and using the original books—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc. We were all very proud of that connection and considered ourselves to be second generation gamers. So it was with great excitement that I stumbled across this book on the history of Dungeon and Dragons by David M. Ewalt.
Ewalt’s greatest strength is that he provides a coherent history of the development of the game from its beginnings as a war game, to those early days in Gary Gygax’s basement, to the development of the first of many iterations of TSR, to the intense infighting within the company, and its eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast. He also traces the development of the game through multiple editions and the influence of major figures. He even goes into some of the spinoff events and talks about the scandals. Overall, he builds the case that the introduction of D&D was a transformational event in the history of playing games.
There is also a lot of Ewalt’s personal experiences with roleplaying games, which seems to be a necessary and expected part of any book of this nature. Gamers are storytellers and they love to share their stories as much as other people love hearing them. Those stories also permit Ewalt to give a little insight into the dynamics of game play and player interactions.
While I suspect that this book appeals much more to gamers than to the larger world, if you have some interest in the subject this isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, if you’re really curious about Dungeons and Dragons, the best way to learn about it is to join a game and start playing.
A Concise History of Germany by Mary Fulbrook
The advantage to a concise history of anything is that you can read it quickly and get a nice overview of the subject. The downside is that you never get enough information concerning the areas that truly interest you.
Studying Germany has always been problematic because Germany as we think of it today didn’t come into existence until the second half of the nineteenth century. And yet we talk about Germanic barbarian tribes and German peoples going back to the Roman Empire. So studying Germany makes the scholar deal with the very fundamental question of what makes a German and this is not an easy question nor is it answered very satisfactorily. Clearly part of the solution is in language, but there are a wide variety of German cultures and a dizzying array of political entities that included peoples that spoke Germanic languages and had an arguably German culture.
Still, it’s a very interesting exercise to meander through. I would have liked to see much more focus on the medieval period, but alas, it’s a “concise” history and the middle ages and before usually get cut to the bone. Fulbrook obviously has a deep mastery of her subject and she’s a good writer who can convey complex topics in an easy-to-follow fashion. If you’re interested in Germany, this is a good place to start.
Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Eamon Gearon
Let’s be clear about this—this collection of lectures is both well written and very interesting, but it also seems to be misnamed. First off, it begins with Mohammad and focuses very much on the growth of Islam as a political (and religious) force. Nothing that happens before Mohammad is even mentioned. It also covers events that happen in North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, areas that we do not classically think of as the Middle East. This led me to think that what Gearon was really writing was a history of Islam, but it’s truly that either as it doesn’t cover important events that brought Islam further around the globe.
The focus is also very heavily on the Middle Ages, and as such I thought was very light on the twentieth century. I would have liked to see an analysis of the ousting of the Shah of Iran and the resulting Hostage Crisis and radicalization of that country. The two Persian Gulf Wars also would have made interesting material. And I could go on. So this is a highly informative book about Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, and neighboring regions that would seriously benefit from an addendum that covers the region since World War I. This was a great start, but I feel it ended prematurely.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
Mali was a cultural center of Africa and the west in the late Middle Ages producing original works of philosophy, theology, history, literature, and a science, and developing a rich culture of manuscript production. In the centuries since the Middle Ages, that tradition has been damaged by a series of radical governments, many of which were hostile to the manuscript culture, driving hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of manuscripts into hidden chests and basements as their owners tried to preserve their heritage. This remarkable book is the story of both the development and decline of that culture, and of the astounding effort to find and preserve those manuscripts in modern libraries built to house them in Timbuktu. It is also the story of how an al-Qaeda inspired group of radical Islamicists took over Mali, threatening to destroy those manuscripts as representing a tradition of Islam they rejected. Finally, it’s the story of brave individuals who risked their lives to save hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable treasures of the past.
Rome and the Barbarians by Kenneth W. Harl
In Rome and the Barbarians, Harl flips the normal narrative around and looks at the impact of Rome’s neighbors—especially those they termed barbarians—on the development of the Republic and the Empire. This makes for a very unique experience in exploring the history of Rome and really illuminated aspects of Rome’s foreign policy that I hadn’t recognized before. Using their patron-client system on a national scale, the Romans managed to accumulate a mighty empire on the backbone of their legions—an innovative military constantly adapting to the threats they encountered. Harl also identifies the point in the fourth century when the legions start to break down, lose their discipline, and set Rome on its path to destruction, incorporating barbarian tribes wholesale into the military. It’s an absolutely fascinating way to look at Rome.
The Hidden History of Holidays by Hannah HarveyThis is the sort of book that you ought to listen to slowly, over the course of a year, as each new holiday occurs. It’s packed full of trivia about holiday celebrations and how they originated. It’s more for fun than deep thought, but who doesn’t need a little more fun in their lives?
The Real Sherlock by Lucinda Hawksley
This is a quick and informative biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What I liked most about it was the biographer’s decision to delve into Doyle’s Professor Challenger character and not just the more famous Sherlock Holmes. A significant amount of time is also spent on Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism—something that often surprises people who expect Doyle to be more like his character Sherlock. If you’re looking for a very quick look at a famous author’s life, this is an enjoyable one.
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David Kyle Johnson
Free Will, Time Travel, Pacifism, Euthanasia—these are only a few of the topics that David Kyle Johnson introduces to the reader through the use of science fiction movies and television shows. It’s frankly an inspired way to help people to both engage in important philosophical topics and to show them that philosophy is very present in the major issues of our life. On that level alone, this book is well worth reading.
Yet it’s not the only reason to pick up this Great Courses volume,
because Johnson also introduces you to many great science fiction movies and
series and, in the event you have already seen them, helps you to see them in a
new way. In doing so, he’s given me a new appreciation of many shows I was
familiar with and encouraged me to go out and experience many others.
Welcome to Undershaw by Luke Kuhns
I thought I’d picked up quite a bit of information about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the various introductions to his books, but this delightful short biography showed me how wrong I was. Doyle was a much more complicated man that I had realized. He longed for adventure but rarely found it. He hated his character Sherlock Holmes because he didn’t feel his mystery stories were quality literature. He trained as a physician but was totally unsuccessful at creating his own medical practice. And so forth…
This book is a very quick read, but it really brought Doyle to life for me as a sympathetic and interesting figure. It also introduced many of his stories and novels by showing what was happening in Doyle’s life when he wrote them. And it sets all of this around the home he had built for his chronically ill wife in a way that was both interesting and endearing. What it doesn’t do, is bring the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle beyond his estate of Undershaw, ending the biography when he sold the family home.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
The Great Trials of World History by Douglas O. Linder
I enjoyed this book, but it’s important to recognized that it is badly misnamed. All of these trials have to do with western civilization and the vast majority have to do with the United States. That being said, I very much appreciated the chance to walk through the working of many interesting cases—several of which I had only a passing acquaintance with. So whether it’s an obscure trial such as that of Giordano Bruno or the far more well-known courtroom dramas of Nelson Mandela or the Scottsboro Boys, there’s a tremendous amount to learn in this Great Courses volume.
Tiger in the Sea by Eric Lindner
Tiger in the Sea chronicles the crash landing of a Flying Tiger in the frigid Atlantic Ocean leading to a tremendous struggle for survival in merciless conditions and a high stakes rescue operation that captivated the world. The accident occurred due to a combination of bad luck (one engine went bad) and human error (a pilot shut down the wrong engine). It was a miracle that the pilots were able to land the plane at all in the turbulent conditions. Then the passengers and crew struggle to get out of the plane into the water and from there into the life rafts—something many of them failed to accomplish. Finally, Lindner covers the daring rescue operation.
Interspersed throughout all of this is a lot of biographical information and transcripts from the review of the incident. This added a lot of depth, but also slowed down a very exciting story.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
I always enjoy a chance to think about the way that the world is constructed physically and how that impacts geopolitics. Prisoners of Geography is a nice introduction to the topic for anyone who hasn’t thought about it very much. It’s also a nice quick overview of the geopolitics of the world. What it is not is a deep, insightful, account that will change the politics of nations or the way in which history is taught. It is not nearly in depth enough to have any hope of accomplishing that.
But as a brief overview, Prisoners of Geography is a pleasant, easy to digest guide. While there are plenty of little points to quibble with, I enjoyed the book over all.
Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary
Autism is an increasingly prevalent part of our world. If you don’t have an autistic member of your extended family, you almost certainly know someone who is autistic or has autism in their family. If you’re looking for an opportunity to gain some understanding into their experiences and relate them to your own life, this is a great place to start. After all, who hasn’t felt tremendously uncomfortable on occasion? Sitcoms are built around social awkwardness and feeling out of place. And with that same sort of self-conscious humor, Michael McCreary walks us through his own life from his initial diagnosis of autism, through his difficult school years, and into the start of his career as a standup comic. He has the remarkable gift of making you feel empathy while simultaneously making you laugh. It’s a remarkable talent that will help you through the genuinely tough times he also describes. McCreary is still young. I’ll look forward to him updating his story in a few years.
The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F.X. Noble
I’ve been teaching Western Civilization for nearly twenty years now and I always enjoy listening to another expert talk about the development of the west. Noble gives a highly coherent account of why western culture is important and of the many factors that contributed to developing it. He doesn’t just spend his time discussing the major players—Greeks and Romans and the developing states of England and France. He takes the time to explore the important contributions of many of the smaller groups of ancient peoples like the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, and other European peoples such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Iberian kingdoms, the Islamic states, the Byzantines, the various Italian city-states and kingdoms. This gives a broad view of the developing political, economic, and intellectual developments that led to the creation of the western civilization we now know. This is a very good introduction to an important topic.
The History of Video Games by Jeremy Parish
Parish provides a quick, if dry, overview of the development of video games. It will interest anyone who has more than a passing interest in the subject, but I was disappointed that the lectures were not more captivating. I listen to a lot of Great Courses books and this one had a subject matter that I expected to enthrall, yet it never fully captivated my attention.
The Real History of Pirates by Manushag N. Powell
This is a fascinating Great Courses text which explores primarily the Golden Age of Pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the Caribbean. It’s extensive, looking at myth, legend, and the reality as we currently understand it. From there it turns to eastern hemisphere pirates and shows how, like in the west, piracy depends tremendously on the political events happening on the land around it. Finally, and in some ways the most interesting, it offers a far too brief look at piracy today.
I enjoyed the book, but came away far from wholly satisfied. When a book called The Real History of Pirates has a blurb discussing Alexander the Great and his encounter with a pirate, I think it’s reasonable to expect the work to make a serious effort to discuss piracy throughout human history, not just in the last few centuries. While Powell does make the occasional reference to Vikings and historical acts of piracy, she doesn’t deal with these events in any serious way, which I think was a tremendous lost opportunity.
I also wonder why she would choose to include Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, as a “Pirate Queen”. Yes, she was a powerful ruler in Anglo-Saxon England, but that doesn’t make her a pirate. If we’re going to go down that road, almost any ruler with a fleet would qualify as a “Pirate Monarch” because Powell was quite effective in pointing out that the label “pirate” is often dependent on perspective. Victims often see their antagonists as “pirates” even if the antagonists would not use that term to describe themselves.
The History of Spain by Joyce E. Salisbury
I’ve been very interested in the history of Spain since my Freshman year in college when I took a course on the Reconquista and Salisbury does a wonderful job of detailing the history of this fascinating peninsula from the earliest human peoples to the modern day. Her lectures are engaging and informative and the course moves very quickly. If you have an interest in Spain, this is a great place to flesh out your understanding of its history.
Central Europe by Ralph Racio
If you’re looking for a lightning guide to the history of Central Europe, this is a great book for you. It starts back in the days of Rome and goes through the fall of the Iron Curtain and while there is very little dwelling upon any single period, it will help you see the overall story of several peoples holding on to their identity while various outside powers occupy their lands. The narration is punctuated with many quotes from original sources that contribute well to the overall account. This book makes for a very quick but informative read.
Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories by Michael Shermer
There is no denying that this is a fascinating book, but it is not the book I expected it to be. Where I was expecting each lecture to be dedicated to a famous conspiracy theory or two, most of the book is dedicated to the psychology of people who believe in conspiracy theories and trying to understand what attracts them to them. It turns out that everyone believes in conspiracy theories of some sort—the political left and right, the rich and the poor, people of every race, people of every religion, the young, the old, and everyone in between. The book is a lot of fun, but you won’t come away knowing a lot more about specific conspiracies and conspiracy theories.
Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Andrew Wilson
This Great Courses series offers brief overview of the thoughts of many of those great military minds you’ve doubtless heard of but don’t really know anything about—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Jomini, Clausewitz, and more. These are men who built the foundations of strategic thinking in the military world and its interweaving with political thinking. It’s a fascinating discussion made more so as author, Andrew Wilson, adds into the conversation the advances in warfare—steam navies, air power, nuclear weapons, terrorism—that forced strategic thinkers to evolve their views. As an added bonus, he covers not only some of the major battles of history—Midway, the Peloponnesian War, Napoleon’s Campaigns—but a number of smaller but equally fascinating military actions such as the War for Irish Independence and the Algerian War for Independence. If you’ve an interest in the development of strategic thinking in the military, I think you’ll find this an engrossing overview.
36 Books that Change the WorldThe Great Courses publishers have compiled 36 lectures from throughout their many series on books that have made a major impact on the world. Some of these books live up to the billing. It’s difficult to argue that the Koran, or Wealth of Nations, or The Communist Manifesto didn’t have a major impact on the development of the world. Other books clearly do not meet that standard. For example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a fascinating insight into a Roman Emperor written by his own hand, but as the professor admitted in the lecture, it was not published during Aurelius’ life and was barely known for more than a thousand years after his death—hardly a book with tremendous world-shaking impact. At the bare minimum, this collection is an opportunity to learn about 36 major works of literature. Odds are high that you don’t already know about all of them.