History

Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China (Forthcoming 2017)

September 12, 2016
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Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China (Forthcoming 2017)

Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China won’t publish in North America until March of 2017, but the book is already making waves (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) in the UK, where it was recently profiled by the Economist: THE Chinese mental compass is oriented not north-south as with the rest of the world, but west-east—a consequence of tectonic forces that threw up mountains in inner Asia from which rivers seek a course down through China to the sea. “Twisting around ten thousand times but always going eastward,” said Confucius: it seemed a law of nature. Philip Ball argues in his new book, “The Water Kingdom”, that the two greatest waterways, the Yellow river that flows across the north China plain and the Yangzi that charges through the heart of the country, are both “symbols of the nation” and, for millennia, have been the “keys to its fate.” . . . Nearly all cultures have flood myths and legends. China’s are unusual in that at the heart of them are the engineering challenges of flood control. The first attempts to tame the Yellow river are ancient; the huge Three Gorges dam, which a decade ago turned a fast-flowing stretch into a reservoir the size of . . .

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Our free e-book for August: Rising Up from Indian Country

August 1, 2016
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Our free e-book for August: Rising Up from Indian Country

Our free e-book for August is Ann Durkin Keating’s Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago. Download your copy here. *** In August 1812, under threat from the Potawatomi, Captain Nathan Heald began the evacuation of ninety-four people from the isolated outpost of Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne, hundreds of miles away. The group included several dozen soldiers, as well as nine women and eighteen children. After traveling only a mile and a half, they were attacked by five hundred Potawatomi warriors. In under an hour, fifty-two members of Heald’s party were killed, and the rest were taken prisoner; the Potawatomi then burned Fort Dearborn before returning to their villages. These events are now seen as a foundational moment in Chicago’s storied past. With Rising up from Indian Country, noted historian Ann Durkin Keating richly recounts the Battle of Fort Dearborn while situating it within the context of several wider histories that span the nearly four decades between the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which Native Americans gave up a square mile at the mouth of the Chicago River, and the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, in which the American government and the Potawatomi . . .

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In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)

July 19, 2016
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In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)

William H. McNeill (1917–2016)—historian, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where he began teaching in 1947), and prolific scholar—died July 8, 2016, at age 98. One of his most notable works, The Rise of the West: A History of Human Community, was the first University of Chicago Press title to win a National Book Award, and is often considered a major force in resituating “western” civilization in a more global context. From the New York Times: Professor McNeill’s opus, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), took 10 years to write. It became a bestseller, won the National Book Award for history and biography and was lauded in the New York Times Book Review by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. “This is not only the most learned and the most intelligent,” he wrote, “it is also the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind.” McNeill went on to write several books for the University of Chicago Press, including Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081–1797; The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000; The Islamic World (coedited with Marilyn Robinson Waldman); Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of . . .

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Love Game in the New York Times

June 10, 2016
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Love Game in the New York Times

From a recent review of Elizabeth Wilson’s Love Game: A History of Tennis from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (or, In Defense of Scholarly Publishing) in the New York Times: Wilson drop-shots mini-essays on broader intellectual topics like corporate dominance (“McDonaldization”) into the mix, and occasionally hits the mark, as in a paragraph on punk culture: “When Nastase and Connors brought the spectators into the drama this was a distinctly punk tactic, whether they realized it or not.” Caveat emptor for tennis fans, however: It’s an indication of the content and tone of the book that the Baader-Meinhof Group receives two mentions while the late tennis writer, historian and commentator Bud Collins shamefully gets none. No shame in the Indexical Cultural Context (Love) Game. To read more about Love Game, click here. . . .

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Rachel Havrelock on the Sykes-Picot Agreement for Foreign Affairs

May 26, 2016
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Rachel Havrelock on the Sykes-Picot Agreement for Foreign Affairs

  The Sykes-Picot Agreement, ratified on May 16, 1916, was a concord developed in secret between France and the UK, with acknowledgement of the Russian Empire, that allocated control and influence over much of Southwestern Asia, carving up and establishing much of today’s Middle East, along with Western and Arab sociopolitical tensions. The real reason for the divide? The region’s petroleum fields, and the desire to share in its reserves, but not its pipelines. Rachel Havrelock’s book River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line considers the implications of yet another border in the region, the river that defines the edge of the Promised Land in the Hebrew Bible—an integral parcel of land for both the Israeli and Palestinian states. With her expertise in the ideologies that undermine much cartography of the region (her book includes a map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement’s splitting of territories), Havrelock understands how the demarcation of influence was central to the production of very specific oil-producing nation states. In a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, appearing a century after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Havrelock writes about the potential for the region to remake itself, in the self-image of its peoples and their local resources: The dissolution of oil concessions could hold the key to . . .

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Barry Schwabsky on Kristin Ross’s May ’68 and Its Afterlives

May 20, 2016
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Barry Schwabsky on Kristin Ross’s May ’68 and Its Afterlives

Barry Schwabsky on Kristin Ross’s May ’68 and Its Afterlives at Hyperallergic: Okay, but when she dismisses a detractor’s charge that “nothing happened in France in ’68. Institutions didn’t change, the university didn’t change, conditions for workers didn’t change — nothing happened,” I have to wonder. Yes, something happened in the moment, with echoes that went on resonating for a few more years — but really, what long-term upshot did it have? That it’s hard to point to one is sobering, and to brush that aside seems to me too much like turning an uprising into (an unfortunate understanding of) a work of art: useless, complete in and of itself, to be admired, wondered at, and taken as exemplary. From May ’68 to the Arab Spring and Occupy, these beautiful apparitions, so easily quashed, can seem in retrospect a great argument for Leninism, and I can’t help sympathizing with, of all people, the embittered Maoist veteran of May, quoted by Ross, who came away from it with the lesson: “Never seize speech without seizing power.” Except that anyone who thinks they know how to do that is probably deluded. To read the Hyperallergic piece in full, click here. To read more about May ’68 and . . .

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Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

February 10, 2016
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Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

Below follows an excerpt from “Flint’s toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making,” Andrew R. Highsmith’s op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, which builds on the scholarship of his book Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis. Read his piece in full here. *** As with so many environmental disasters, this one was preventable. Evidence suggests that the simple failure to use proper anti-corrosive agents led to the leaching of lead into the city’s water. It has also become apparent that the slow responses of local, state and federal officials to this crisis — as well as their penchant for obfuscation — prolonged the lead exposure. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Flint’s predicament is simply the result of government mismanagement. It’s also the product of a variety of larger structural problems that are much more difficult to untangle and remedy. Over the past three-quarters of a century, waves of deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation eviscerated Flint’s tax base, making it all but impossible to improve — or even maintain — the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Flint — which once claimed 200,000 residents — now contains fewer than 100,000, nearly half impoverished, more than half African American. . . .

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Free e-book for February: Outside the Gates of Eden

February 3, 2016
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Free e-book for February: Outside the Gates of Eden

Our free e-book for February: Peter Bacon Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now Download your copy here. *** Exhilaration and anxiety, the yearning for community and the quest for identity: these shared, contradictory feelings course through Outside the Gates of Eden, Peter Bacon Hales’s ambitious and intoxicating new history of America from the atomic age to the virtual age. Born under the shadow of the bomb, with little security but the cold comfort of duck-and-cover, the postwar generations lived through—and led—some of the most momentous changes in all of American history. Hales explores those decades through perceptive accounts of a succession of resonant moments, spaces, and artifacts of everyday life—drawing unexpected connections and tracing the intertwined undercurrents of promise and peril. From sharp analyses of newsreels of the first atomic bomb tests and the invention of a new ideal American life in Levittown; from the music emerging from the Brill Building and the Beach Boys, and a brilliant account of Bob Dylan’s transformations; from the painful failures of communes and the breathtaking utopian potential of the early days of the digital age, Hales reveals a nation, and a dream, in transition, as . . .

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WJT Mitchell on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

January 21, 2016
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WJT Mitchell on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

From WJT Mitchell’s review of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, live at the LA Review of Books: The Pet Collector reminds us of the most fundamental role of language: the ability to name things, and by doing so, to make them belong to us, and we to them. (The naming of and “dominion over” animals are central to Adam’s role in the Garden of Eden.) But the Collector doesn’t just take possession of his adopted family of animals; in his excessive abundance of attachments, he is clearly also possessed, and appears to be a fearful hoarder of living things. Arlo, by contrast, only needs his one companion, Spot, and he is comfortable with letting Spot go when he finds a human family to join at the conclusion of the film. All this reeks of what anthropologists used to call totemism, the adoption of natural things (animals and plants) as kinfolk and symbols of kinship in so-called primitive cultures. The problem is that dinosaurs were unknown to primitive cultures; they are a thoroughly modern discovery, never named, classified, or adopted until the British paleontologist Richard Owen proclaimed their existence in 1843. Could it be that modern cultures need totemism too? Freud’s Totem and Taboo argued . . .

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Free e-book for January: The Thousand-Year Flood

January 4, 2016
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Free e-book for January: The Thousand-Year Flood

Our free e-book for January: David Welky’s The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio–Mississippi Disaster of 1937 In the early days of 1937, the Ohio River, swollen by heavy winter rains, began rising. And rising. And rising. By the time the waters crested, the Ohio and Mississippi had climbed to record heights. Nearly four hundred people had died, while a million more had run from their homes. The deluge caused more than half a billion dollars of damage at a time when the Great Depression still battered the nation. Timed to coincide with the flood’s seventy-fifth anniversary, The Thousand-Year Flood is the first comprehensive history of one of the most destructive disasters in American history. David Welky first shows how decades of settlement put Ohio valley farms and towns at risk and how politicians and planners repeatedly ignored the dangers. Then he tells the gripping story of the river’s inexorable rise: residents fled to refugee camps and higher ground, towns imposed martial law, prisoners rioted, Red Cross nurses endured terrifying conditions, and FDR dispatched thousands of relief workers. In a landscape fraught with dangers—from unmoored gas tanks that became floating bombs to powerful currents of filthy floodwaters that swept away whole towns—people hastily . . .

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