Love, family, and tuberculosis in 18th century Germany. A lovely novel.
Book: The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice
Book: The Victorian Internet
Book: The Collapse of Complex Societies
A thorough analysis of alternate theories of societal collapse is followed by a presentation of the author’s own theory, with examples drawn from past collapses including the Roman Empire and the Mayan Empire. The book is at its best during the initial analysis of other theories, which come under rigorous scrutiny. Particularly entertaining are the author’s evisceration of “mystical” explanations (the people lost their vigor!).
The theory of collapse presented is centered around the notion of declining marginal returns on investment in complexity. Essentially, the author posits that societies become vulnerable to collapse when the returns on societal complexity decline or turn negative. And that in fact such “collapses”, rather than always being a disaster from the point of view of the people involved, represent a rational response to a situation where complexity is no longer providing returns that justify its costs, thus making a switch to a simpler society a better choice economically.
It’s an intriguing theory and the author uses four separate historical collapses to support it. Although a purely economic perspective on collapses surely leaves out important contributors to collapse, it nevertheless seems to shed significant light on the phenomenon.
The author also touches on the possibility that modern societies may collapse and largely dismisses it. The reason is simple: there are too many complex societies for any one to collapse, since another neighboring society would simply take over in resulting power vacuum. Perhaps!
Book: The Shape of Time
A curious book about the unfolding of history, in particular the history of made objects, especially art, but touching also on the relationship between artists and artisans and their place in a historical series. The author argues against the use of analogies between an artistic movement and a lifetime, i.e., the “birth”, “growth”, and “senescence” of some movement such as Impressionism. Instead, the history of a physical form should be understood as the development of the internal logic of the form itself as it is applied to some problem, artistic or practical.
Here’s a part of history I was totally unaware of: The Society of Mutual Autopsy, a group of free-thinking atheist anthropologists in 19th century France who pledged to autopsy each others’ corpses after their death. And they did, too! They also had a huge influence on noted French thinkers and politicians of the time. Hecht’s history includes a healthy dose of insightful but readable analysis. Must read more of this author!
Book: Midnight Riot (Peter Grant)
I was pretty underwhelmed by this set of essays. At least judging by this single collection, MacDonald seems to have been a latter-day H.L. Mencken, only not as good a writer. Like Mencken he was an unapologetic elitist and a sneerer at popular culture. There are even parallels with their musical taste. Mencken found no value in jazz but MacDonald did, jazz having been digested for him by the time he got to it. But MacDonald couldn’t hear anything good in what he called “Rock’n’Roll”.
But I’d much rather read Henry Louis than Dwight. Even when Mencken was wrong, which was a lot, he was still wonderfully entertaining. I found MacDonald to be a bore when right, and simply a boor when wrong.