The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





The Buried Book by David Damrosch

This book can easily be broken into three parts and a rather rambling epilogue. The first part details the lives and careers of two British Museum archaeologists—George Smith and Hormuzd Rassam. The second takes a look at the court life in ancient Babylon in roughly 2500 BCE. The third is a short summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And the fourth is a brief account of the epic’s influence in modern times. The result is not a book on the rediscovery of the first great epic poem, but a rather jumbled set of accounts on the above topics. To give Damrosch credit, he starts very well, but the whole account quickly loses steam as the book seems to veer off topic repeatedly. The little side routes are interesting, but they distract from the overall sense of unity that I expected the book to achieve. At many times I kept asking myself when the Epic of Gilgamesh was going to reappear in Damrosch’s account.

Lost Worlds of South America by Edwin Barnhardt

Edwin Barnhardt is Great Courses principal expert on the native peoples of North and South America, and in this volume he walks the reader through a primer on the ancient peoples of the far south—people who appear not to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge and who had to invent agriculture and everything else that comes with a civilization all on their own. They were isolated from the rest of the world and had no models to follow—not that that slowed them down. Barnhardt’s tour of these ancient peoples is absolutely fascinating and I quickly discovered that I knew almost nothing about them—especially pre-Columbus. It’s an extraordinary world that we’ve only scratched the surface of.

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.

A History of British India by Hayden J. Bellennoit

If 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.

Coal Country by Jessica Blank

Blank offers us a concise and often painful look at a devastating coalmining disaster. The short book is filled with personal accounts of individuals involved in the crisis while using music to try and add a flavor of the culture of the miners. She succeeds in highlighting the very human elements and consequences of this disaster. Coalmining continues to be a dangerous occupation made more so when corporate leaders put profits over safety.

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 Irish Identity: Independence, History, and Literature by Mark C. Connor

How 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. 

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.

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.

Living History by Robert Garland

Garland attempts to give the reader a glimpse into what life was like in the past by focusing on individuals and telling their stories. The result is mostly a collection of short biographies of important people from ancient and medieval times. The bios are interesting, but there didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the subject matter and I really don’t think that “living history” is an accurate description of the course. If you are interested in roughly 24 short biographies of important figures from the past, you’ll enjoy this book.

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.

Writing the Bible by Martien Halvorson-Taylor

This is what a Great Courses book is supposed to be. Rather than get bogged down in faith stories as so many historical books looking at the bible do, Halvorson-Taylor jumps right into the problems of discerning where and how the books of the Old Testament were written and compiled and in doing so teaches us a lot about the history of the regions.

People tend to think that the great religions of the world began in their present forms rather than evolved over time. The thing I liked most about Writing the Bible was how Halvorson-Taylor shows again and again how the interests of the people writing about periods that happened centuries earlier put their own worldview on to the historical actors. A really interesting example was King Solomon, who is presented in the Old Testament as having abandoned his monotheism and worshipped other gods. However, those accounts were written centuries after his death. It is much more likely, based on an analysis of the texts and when they were written, that Solomon ruled at a time when the Jews were not yet staunchly monotheistic—something that later authors either didn’t know or couldn’t accept.

Another fascinating insight conveyed by Halvorson-Taylor was how the written word did not originally appear to be given the same trustworthiness as the spoken word, but that over time with the literate gaining in influence, the written word became viewed as much more dependable.

All in all, this is a wonderful book. I hope she does a sequel on the New Testament.

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 Hidden History of Holidays by Hannah Harvey

This 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.

The History and Archaeology of the Bible by Jean-Pierre Isbouts

I was very excited to start this book. A lot of the histories I have been reading lately have had moments in which they shed light on biblical events and I really looked forward to having someone take me through the bible, adding historical context to major stories, but while Isbouts did do that, it never felt like it was his primary purpose as I listened to this audiobook.

Isbouts really just tells the biblical story. For the first six lectures (25% of the course) he does little more than make reference to other ancient stories with similar themes as he walks the listener through Genesis and Exodus. I would recommend simply skipping these first six lectures.

After that, matters improved somewhat, especially when Isbouts gets into discussion of the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms, their origins, and to what extent they were truly united under Saul, David, and Solomon. I also found his section on Pontius Pilate and King Herod and the extent of their various authorities quite fascinating. But overall, I felt like the lectures were heavy on the story and light on the historical context.

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.

Mongoose Bravo: Vietnam by Tim McCullough

This is an autobiography of the author’s years fighting the Vietnam War as an infantryman, but it often reads more like an adventure story. It mixes telling about the day to day drudgery of life in the war with those moments of intense fear and excitement when McCullough and his fellow soldiers encountered the enemy. Most surprising to me was the large number of times McCullough was injured or grew sick in his years in the army—a constant reminder of how very dangerous the war truly was.

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age by Jason McInerney

There are a lot more books on Alexander the Great than on the age he began, so this Great Courses book was a welcome opportunity to take a look at how Alexander’s conquests influenced so much of the world. It includes a couple of chapters on Alexander, a few on the major successor states, and then starts to go much deeper, looking at topics like literature, philosophy, the idea of kingship, and the impact that the Hellenized world had on the development of Rome and the west. My favorite two chapters dealt with the Maccabean Revolt in Judea. Overall, this is a fascinating look at the world between the conquests of Alexander and Rome.

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.

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.

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.

The Iliad of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver

If you’re like me, you’ve read The Iliad once or thrice over the decades and of course seen references to it a few million additional times. It is without doubt one of the great works of world literature and Elizabeth Vandiver will show you why, taking her listeners though the story, helping us to understand the actions of the protagonists on both sides of the war in the context of their day. For example, it is not just that Achilles had his feeling hurt when Agamemnon publicly took his slave girl away—Agamemnon was attacking his very legitimacy as a warrior in Greek society. Similarly, Vandiver helps us understand Greek values of the time and how so many of the emotions and motivations portrayed in this epic poem still speak strongly to modern audiences 2700 years after this story was first written down. Along the way, she will also help you understand the profound impact the book had upon first Greek and then later societies. (The comparison to the bible while not perfect is helpful.) Perhaps most importantly, she’s made me want to go back and reread one of the great works of literature.

The Odyssey of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver

I’ve read The Odyssey more frequently than I have The Iliad. It’s always been primarily an adventure story for me and in addition to the text, I’ve enjoyed reading about the places that might have inspired the fabulous lands discovered in this poem. What Vandiver does in this Great Courses book is give you the substance behind the epic that makes it clear why this book has resonated with audiences for millennia and why the ancient Greeks turned to it again and again as a guide to proper behavior. For this is a book that explores in remarkable depth the meaning of what modern audiences would call proper hospitality. It also, and I’m shocked I never picked up on this on my own, depicts what happens to a land when all the fathers go away to war and never come back again. This is a wonderful exploration of one of the all-time great works of literature and is worth listening to again and again.

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 World

The 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.