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New history books (May 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Ancient, Books by Alex L. on July 3, 2012

History off the Book header

Origins of institutions

Book coverFour years ago, I wrote my senior history thesis about the beginnings of philosophical ideas in three ancient cultures. One of the most satisfying experiences in studying history is to learn the backstory of something ancient that still has a prominent place in current life. The following new books describe the origins of long-lasting institutions. Andrew Shryrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s new work, published last November, combines essays about language, food, kinship, and other topics related to life before humans started writing.

Half a year before that, political theorist Francis Fukuyama released a popular book about how bureaucratic and democratic political systems evolved from tribal societies and why imposing these sophisticated institutions on tribal cultures today causes problems. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s book, also published last year, about the evolution of religion seems a bit dry to read, but the ideas of this ambitious project are worth considering (my senior thesis was equally ambitious but only benefited from a year’s worth of work rather than a lifetime’s). Finally, rounding out the list is a new work coauthored by Kent Flanner and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. They describe their take on the origins of inequality in various social contexts and how to prevent it in the future.

book-iconMoral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Christopher Boehm. Since the days of Peter Kropotkin, scientists have tried to restrain the impulse to turn descriptive Darwinism into prescriptive selfishness. Boehm here argues that altruism in human society is as favored by evolution as selfishness. (more…)

New history books (March 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on April 21, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Soldiers’ stories

Book coverGreat books temporarily lend the reader a new set of senses to experience a different reality. Sometimes as readers we recognize the types of books that propel us into a world that we have learned to enjoy, and we crave this release. Often I want to read military memoirs and observe how courageous individuals dealt with extreme adversity in moments of intense pressure. Of course I am witnessing their stories from a comfortable distance (often from a comfortable couch too) but then again I wouldn’t want to actually go through what those soldiers did firsthand. I just finished reading Tom Johnson’s excellent memoir, To the Limit, about his service as a Huey helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. It gave me — a fixed-wing aviation buff — a newfound appreciation for the skill and warrior spirit of military helicopter pilots.

In February, Vietnam veteran Philip Keith published a book about a unit of tank troops in Vietnam — part of the Blackhorse Regiment — that responded to a distress call from an encircled company of American infantry. This group of men who fought through the enemy-held jungle to rescue their countrymen was not publicly recognized for their courageous deeds until 2009 when President Obama awarded their outfit the Presidential Unit Citation. Accounts of tank combat are inexplicably rare and Keith’s seems like an engrossing one. (more…)