Histories with Sweep

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Crave the really big picture? Four books offer visions and revisions of the past. -- Alan Cooperman


From the Big Bang To the Present

By Cynthia Stokes | Brown New Press. 288 pp. Paperback, $17.95

Ordinary stars turn hydrogen into helium, helium into carbon, and so on. But only supernovas can create elements beyond iron; the elements that make life on Earth possible originated in giant exploding stars. Thus, Cynthia Stokes Brown writes romantically, "we quite literally are made of stardust." Alas, romance doesn't last long in Brown's brief history of everything. The "universal ancestor" -- the first living cells on our planet -- may have been related to today's blue-green bacteria. So we are stardust, yes; but we are "pond scum," too. Not to mention farmers: The earliest crops planted in the Americas include chile peppers and pumpkins. And voyagers: The Polynesians who reached Easter Island about 1,600 years ago must have landed on American shores long before Europeans did. How else could sweet potatoes have been introduced to the Polynesian islands? There's much to argue about in Brown's account, and much to discover.


An Irreverent Romp Through Civilization's Best Bits

By Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand | Collins. 416 pp. $23.95

Forks have been around since the 11th century, but they caught on slowly: A 1307 inventory of English royal cutlery listed thousands of knives, hundreds of spoons and just seven forks. Ball-point pens are recent, but they caught on quickly: Hungarian newspaper editor Lazlo Biro and his chemist brother Georg patented the idea in Paris in 1938, and Lazlo's birthday (Sept. 29) is celebrated in Argentina as Inventors' Day. OK. But so what? This volume truly is mental floss -- trivia posing as knowledge. It's impossible to read it as a narrative, because there is no narrative. A moronic section on Einstein ("Like everything else, he wanted to find out what made himself tick") follows the entry on ball-point pens. No footnotes or sources are supplied. The aim may be irreverence; the result is irrelevance. At the end, we learn that one of the authors once got airsick and threw up "on the shoes of the state attorney general's wife. It may have been his greatest personal contribution to world history." Agreed.


By Chris Harman | Verso. 729 pp. Paperback, $19.95

Civilizations come and go, but class struggle is forever. That's the assumption behind this condensed but unsweetened milking of history. Chris Harman is so clearly writing for people who share his worldview that he sees little need to present evidence. In ancient Egypt, he writes, "the impoverishment of the exploited classes" by the rulers "must have caused clashes between the two. But, to be honest, we know little about these." In other words, absent any facts, let's just presume there was class warfare. Though utterly devoid of humor, after a while this "People's History" becomes humorous. Jazz, we learn, expressed "the anguish of atomised existence in a world built around the market" and was brought North by a wave of black migration "from the cotton and tobacco fields to the cities of the world's most powerful capitalism." Nevermind that jazz was rooted in urban life, or that it appealed to people of many nations. By Harman's reckoning, it was borne around the world "on the tide of capital accumulation."

48 LIBERAL LIES ABOUT AMERICAN HISTORY (That You Probably Learned in School)

By Larry Schweikart | Sentinel. 300 pp. $24.95

Let's start with "Lie #22: The Early Colonies Were Intolerant and Racist." According to Larry Schweikart, "there was no original concept of racial slavery when the nation was first settled by Europeans." At first, colonists looked to white indentured servants, not African slaves, as a source of labor. "In 1664, some southern colonies declared slavery hereditary," Schweikart writes, but "they weren't inventing a new way to be racist. They merely had returned to a practice that was . . . accepted across the entire globe." Now let's parse that: Schweikart is saying our country didn't start out racist, and when we turned to slavery, we didn't invent the idea, we got it from others. Phew! I feel so much better, I practically forgot for a moment that by 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States. There's even better news in "Lie #37: Global Warming Is a Fact, and It's a Man-made, American-Driven Problem." Turns out, "hysterics on the left" have ignored the "widespread positive effects such a warming trend could have."

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