Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton
At the end of the nineteenth century a small Belgian scientific expedition got stuck in the ice off Antarctica and spent the sunless winter trying to survive. This is the story of great human suffering and growing insanity. It’s a moving story with especially vivid descriptions of the moving ice.
Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition
This is a humongous Great Courses text that spotlights highly influential authors from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the twentieth century. If you like literature, there’s something of use in these 84 lectures for you. I found that for my particular interests, I became less interested after we left the Renaissance, finding my interest piqued when the lecturers discussed authors I know well and less so when they discussed people I hadn’t read. I also found myself disappointed that there weren’t twelve more lectures to bring us closer to the present day. But don’t let those “disappointments” discourage you. I suspect that no one loves the entire canon of western literature, but there is so much here there has to be something to interest you.
In Alpha Order by Author
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.
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 Space Race by Colin Brake, et al.
This book, narrated by Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager fame, walks the reader through the history of the development of the space programs in the U.S. and the USSR with the final chapter being an imagining of an interstellar future for humanity. It’s a credible overview, but nothing special, and I thought that the final chapter was particularly weak, spending more time on imagining philosophical issues with interstellar travel rather than focusing on how it might actually happen.
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.
So, Anyway… by John Cleese
This is the first half of the autobiography of John Cleese of Monty Python fame. It covers his life up until he got well known. In other words, it stops right before he starts Monty Python. But don’t let that discourage you. Cleese is a genuinely funny individual and his take on life will have you smiling from beginning to end of this book.
The Irish Identity: Independence, History, and Literature by Mark C. ConnorHow did the Irish maintain and enrich their sense of identity under nearly a millennium of English occupation—an occupation that turned especially brutal in the seventeenth century and continued in that regard until independence in the twentieth century? Mark Connor seeks to answer that question through an intriguing combination of historical narrative and exploration of Irish poetry and literature. The result is a fascinating meander though the last couple of centuries of Irish history that can be both painful and inspiring. As a member of an Irish American family, it was especially interesting to fit little pieces of family lore (my great-grandfather was killed by the Black and Tans) into their historical context.
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.
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.
Notorious London by Paul Deslandes
Rather than a serious historical work, this Great Courses text comes off as a sensational account of the history of sections of London. It’s the sort of history that you expect to get from a tour guide—very fun to listen to but not very nuanced or accurate. If you’re going to London and are trying to decide what places you want to visit, this book will help you. If you’re trying to learn a few interesting tidbits about one of the world’s great cities, this book will also serve. But if you want a serious account of London, it’s history, and what happened in it, this is not really the place you should be starting.
The History of Sugar by Kelley Dietz
Sugar is one of the most important crops currently harvested in the world. Not only is it in just about every modern food, cultivating it was a major motivator for the settlement of the western hemisphere by Europeans. Sugar is one of those commodities for which demand seems to increase the more that is produced. Often called “white gold”, the desire to cultivate sugar “justified” Europeans greatly expanding the slave trade from Africa. The process of turning the cane into sugar was brutal and dangerous contributing to the very high mortality rate of slaves in the Caribbean islands.
This book covers it all, including the production of rum—another product of the sugarcane. The lectures are short, to the point, and interesting, bringing are obsession with this highly addictive substance right up to the present day where the author touches upon the health problems that accompany our overconsumption of this product.
Island of the Lost by Joan Druett
This is two adventure tales in one—each with very different outcomes. Both involve shipwrecks on Auckland Island, one of the most desolate places on earth. In the first shipwreck, the crew pulls together, survives, and eventually escapes the island. In the second, the crew fights among itself, turns to cannibalism, and eventually dies—all within twenty miles of the other crew. (Neither group of castaways knew the other existed.)
What happened is extraordinary. Unfortunately, the book is a little dry in relating these events.
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.
The World Was Never the Same by J. Rufus Fears
Here are 36 moments in human history that had a profound and lasting impact on the world. Fears works hard not to make all of the events military or political. We see legal innovations, the birth of religious movements, the founding of higher education, the creation of works of art, battling economic theories, and so much more. The book does focus very heavily upon developments in the western world but while one could certainly quibble with many items on the list, they are all unquestionably influential occurrences.
A History of India by Michael H. Fisher
I think that India proved to be too vast and complicated for a single Great Courses Text. Fisher gives a good try starting in prehistory and going to the present day, but I always felt like he was jumping around and rarely making connections between his topics. The first sixteen lectures are a highlights reel of events before the sixteenth century. Then he slows down a little, but I still felt like we were leapfrogging through history trying to cover just a smattering of events in the last five hundred years. The best part of the course focused on the twentieth century—especially when Fisher looks at India and Pakistan after they win their freedom from Britain. If nothing else, Fisher shows just how complex the subcontinent and its peoples truly are.
Cultured: A World History of Cheese by Janet Fletcher
There was a lot more here than I wanted to know, but that didn’t keep the book from being interesting. It just turns out that I have been exposed to a lot less cheese than I would have thought and I’m probably happy that way. Still, I can’t pretend that it wasn’t fascinating exploring both the history of this food, how it’s produced, and just a lot about the different forms it takes around the world.
The Bering by Sean Flynn
Ever since I read The Perfect Storm some decades ago, I have been interested in accounts of real-life catastrophe. (Heck, maybe it really goes back to those “Scouts in Action” articles in Boy’s Life Magazine. The Bering fits well into this proud tradition, recounting the sinking of The Ranger Danger in the winter in arctic conditions. It’s frankly remarkable that anyone was able to be rescued. That so many survived boggles the mind.
Flynn interviews many of the rescuers and the survivors in this podcast and it’s impossible not to be moved by their experiences. You can’t catch the emotion in a voice on the printed page, but when you hear these people describe their struggles and how the crisis is still with them today, it’s utterly remarkable.
Property by Raymond Frey
Here’s an excellent account of the development of the notion of property starting with John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume just before the Enlightenment and continuing through Marx into modern times. Without taking sides, Frey discusses the arguments for and against private property and when others, mostly the government, has the right to take that property. It’s a truly interesting discussion.
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.
Money by Jacob Goldstein
This is a great guide to the creation, use, evolution, and expansion of money from the very beginnings right up to the present day. Goldstein has a knack for breaking the reader out of the simple acceptance of money as a natural commodity and repeatedly making the point that it is an arbitrary thing without natural value. In addition to describing the introduction of the concept, the problems of silver versus gold, and the first paper currencies, he shows how larger economic events like the Industrial Revolution impacted money.
Goldstein is at his best in talking about banks, how they came into being, how they came to issue paper money in the United States and elsewhere, and the kinds of trouble they got into because of this. He also talks about Central Banks (the good and the bad) and how they fit into the modern economic picture.
For me, the most interesting sections were on the modern economy, the monetary causes of the 2007 Recession and the growth of crypto currencies. Overall, this is a great guide that I expect to read again.
How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England by Ruth Goodman
Ruth Goodman presents six packed chapters on how people annoyed their neighbors in Elizabethan England. It’s an excellent resource for novelists and moviemakers in its encyclopedic density. It’s not, however, easy reading. It really is like an encyclopedia—an important reference but not something I’ve tried to read cover-to-cover since I burned out in the first volume of Compton’s Encyclopedia during the third grade. That doesn’t mean this book isn’t good, it’s just not light reading.
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.
The Berlin Wall by Hope M. Harrison
Harrison provides a quick overview of the Berlin Wall, starting with the political situation that led to its creation and ending with the aftermath of its demolition. The account is punctuated with both exciting and heart-wrenching tales of real people who risked (and often lost) everything in an attempt to move from east to west. Harrison provides a lot of details I didn’t know. Perhaps most striking was that the wall was initiated by the East Germans without the approval of the Soviet Union—that sort of independence is not something the stereotype of the Iron Curtain led me to expect. I was also surprised by just how much official transit went on between East and West through the wall and how dependent the East German government was on the revenue that they gained from taxing those they let visit from the west. I was also surprised to learn that West Germany was in the habit of “purchasing” the freedom of many East Germans convicted of trying to escape to the west. On this level, communist East Germany was actually quite capitalistic.
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.
Paper by Mark Kurlansky
I didn’t intend to read this whole book. I was just interested in the introduction of paper, but Kurlansky caught me up in his narrative of how the introduction of writing changed the globe, inspiring quests for new technologies to make writing easier and better, which in turn changed the globe again. And again. And again. It’s an interesting book taking the reader from clay tablets to modern printing methods.
Ireland in the 1990s by Ed Lengel
As an Irish-American whose great grandfather (by family legend) was murdered by the Black and Tans, I always enjoy learning more about Irish history. This Great Courses text by Ed Lengel walks the reader through one of the most difficult times in Irish history and does so with a depth of understanding for the many sides in the conflict. (That’s actually one of the things Lengel does very well—continually illustrate how this was so much more than Irish vs. English, or Catholic vs. Protestant. There were a very large number of interest groups complicating everything. So if you want to understand how a completely intractable problem shockingly transformed into the relatively peaceful and stable situation enjoyed today, this book is a great guide.
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.
Witchcraft in the Western Tradition by Jennifer McNabb
I discovered this book because Audible started playing it right after I finished another book. I usually find this annoying, but this time I listened to the whole book and am really glad I did. McNabb takes her readers though the historical evolution of the belief in witches, showing how witchcraft came to be viewed as evil and threatening, and how society continues, even into the present day, to under grow crazes of persecuting witches. It was both enlightening and an excellent book to read in October as we approach Halloween.
Women Who Made Science History by Lela McNeill
There are a lot of books like this one that attempt to humanize science by giving summaries of the contributions of individual scientists. What makes this one stand out is its focus on a handful of the thousands of women scientists who quietly advanced the field while their male peers took all the credit. McNeill does an excellent job of not only giving some well-deserved attention to these figures, but in describing the prejudices that handicapped them in the performance of their jobs. It’s a short read, but worthwhile.
2000 Years of Papal History by John O’Malley
This book wasn’t quite what I expected. I think I thought we would walk through the reigns of most popes, starting with what we know of Peter and moving forward. In doing so, we would watch the Roman Catholic Church, the government’s it interacted with, and the people it serves evolve toward the modern day. That isn’t really what we got. Instead, we covered briefly only two of the first 31 popes, getting glimpses into what life was like in the early church. Then we took a long look at Emperor Constantine and his important contributions to establishing fourth century Catholicism. And then we started jumping forward again, taking a quick look at Charlemagne, exploring the Nadir of the papacy when popes (mostly unqualified for the office) were murdered and deposed with regularity, and continuing to leap frog throughout history until the modern day.
I was disappointed in O’Malley’s coverage of the Investiture Controversy. It struck me that, despite his promises in the beginning of the book, he really couldn’t throw off his own understanding of what is proper for the church to explore this important church-state struggle. While Catholics today agree that the state should not have a role in appointing bishops, it was a traditional function of secular rulers at the time. Gregory’s attempt to exclude Henry IV from appointing his own bishops was a radical act. Instead of making this point and exploring how the understanding of the papacy and Christian society changed as a result of the Investiture Controversy, O’Malley spends a lot of time talking about Henry IV’s arrogance. While it is true that he was arrogant, it is also true that he was fighting for the traditional rights of his office. After all, his father was the one who ended the Nadir of the Papacy and started the Gregorian Reform movement by throwing a corrupt pope and antipope out of office and appointing his own pope.
On the other hand, his coverage of the first French pope, Clement V, shows in admirable detail how he was under the thumb of the French king, Clement V, and how his corrupt policies (making five of his relatives cardinals) helped to make the Avignon Papacy last for decades. (This is something that often gets only passing reference in many overviews.)
So there’s a mixture of strong and weak coverage and lots of gaps, but it’s still an interesting read. If you’re interested in what happened at major church councils, matters like the papal states, the pope’s actions during the French Revolution and World War II, and in general how the office of the papacy evolved over time, O’Malley gives a pretty good overview.
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.
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.
The Great Ideas of Philosophy by Daniel N. Robinson
This book is an amazing collection of the ideas that built and directed western civilization. In 60 lectures, Robinson guides the reader on a tour de force of western philosophical thought. I knew the basics about the majority of the philosophers mentioned, but a few were totally new to me. What was especially fascinating was following the threads that tied these great thinkers together as they react to and built upon each other’s work.
But be forewarned, there’s so much here it is actually hard to digest. While it’s definitely helpful to listen to the lectures in quick succession, this volume will be just as useful for a quick primer on any of the great philosophical thinkers of the past three thousand or so years.
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.
Wolves and Werewolves in History and Popular Culture by Shannon Scott
It’s October, so what better to read than a set of Great Courses lectures on the subject of Wolves and Werewolves? It’s a great subject, but way too many of the lectures were focused on the ancient origins of wolf stories then on the modern popular cultural representations of them. More has probably been written on werewolves in the last twenty years than in the 2000 before that and only the last lecture in the series really touches on these modern representations. I think a better balance would have been to squeeze the first nine lectures into four or five and devote the last half of the book to modern popular culture.
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.
Chile & Argentina by Mark Szuchman
This is a great introduction to two important South American countries. I didn’t know a lot about either one. The histories are really from the Spanish conquest forward and too short to get into much detail, but they do provide succinct overviews peppered with excerpts from personal accounts of the events. They definitely succeeded in making me want to learn more about these nations.
Somebody Saved Me by Pete Townshend
I started listening to The Who back in the seventh or eighth grade because the cool older brother of one of my best friends loved their music. Decades later, I’m still listening to their music. Along the way, I saw their movies, and generally put them in the category of top bands of all time. I do not, as it turns out, know just about anything about the people who made up the band. So when I stumbled across this short work by Pete Townshend, I was happy to give it two hours. It’s a good mixture of Townshend playing some of his songs (the best in the audiobook is his new interpretation of Eminence Front) and talking about his life—the good and the bad—roughly from the time that Keith Moon died to the time that John Entwistle died. It’s interesting for any fan of the band. Townshend had a good life that he periodically messed up but always put back together. He struck me as being quite honest about his blunders and actually fairly humble about his successes—all while pointing out that it was a lack of humility at the time that helped fuel his screwups. In the final analysis, his screwups are fairly tame by rock star standards and I suppose that makes the book less exciting, but no less interesting. If you liked the band or Pete Townshend’s solo music, you’ll enjoy this book.
The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman
I’ve enjoyed Barbara Tuchman’s books over the years, but this one didn’t work for me. Instead of an in-depth examination of folly, I felt like this work rambled from incident to incident, often spending very little time with them. It’s an interesting idea, but not, in my opinion, successfully implemented.
The African Experience by Kenneth P. Vickery
Here’s a wonderful overview of mostly Sub-Saharan African history from the dawn of humanity to the present day. That’s a heck of a lot of material to cover and Vickery does a masterful job of exploring the highlights of early human existence, Africa in the pre-colonial period, the colonial period, and the post-colonial struggles. Vickery also struggles for balance in his presentation, so this is neither overly romantic nor overly negative. All in all, it’s a fascinating overview of huge continent and the people who inhabit it.
Left for Dead by Beck Weathers and Stephen G. Michaud
In 1996 several climbers died on Mount Everest during a terrible an unexpected storm. I’ve read several books on the disaster (Into Thin Air, The Climb, and I think there were more). All of them mention the bizarre fate of Beck Weathers—who was left for dead on the mountain, recovered consciousness, and made it into base camp where he somehow survived to return home and undergo a painful recovery including reconstructive surgery for his horrendous case of frost bite. Left for Dead is his story and it is both moving and exciting—an important chapter in a terrible disaster.
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.
36 Revolutionary Figures of History by Many Authors
This is one of those Great Courses compilations that borrows a lecture here and there from many of their books and throws them all into one volume in a way that both informs and advertises their many books. The result is 36 short bios of people who have made a major impact in the world which is worth reading even if you think you know a lot about the historical figures. For example, just about everyone has heard of Jesus Christ and knows something about him, but I had never thought about him specifically in terms of how revolutionary his idea of the Kingdom of God was.
The big drawback to this collection is that the chapter titles in the audiobook form do not mention the subject of each chapter. This greatly reduces the utility of the book for rereading. This is not the sort of volume that I think most people will want to listen to all the way through a second time. But it is the sort of volume where you might want to refresh your understanding of specific historical figures and the lack of a subject with each chapter title makes it difficult to find the person you’re interested in.