MixedThe Nation... a work of dizzying ambition, one that seeks to rescue stateless societies from the condescension with which they’re usually treated. Yet it succeeds better in uprooting conventional wisdom than in laying down a narrative of its own. The result is a book that is both thrilling and exasperating, showcasing the promise and the perils of the anarchist approach to history ... Our forebears crafted their societies intentionally and intelligently: This is the fundamental, electrifying insight of The Dawn of Everything ... Graeber and Wengrow cede no ground and fight at every corner ... This relentless revisionism can be exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting ... It’s hard not to wonder whether this book, which zips merrily across time and space and hypothesizes confidently in the face of scant or confusing evidence, can be trusted. Certainly, the part closest to my area of expertise raises questions ... Graeber and Wengrow can indulge in outsize claims and pet theories because they don’t need to always be right. The Dawn of Everything aims to shoot holes in the myth of the inevitable state, to deflate the notion that advanced societies can’t function without leaders, police, or bureaucrats. The 700-page book is a hail of bullets; if only some hit the target, that’s enough.
PanThe New Republic... the Paleolithic has become oddly relevant. Suzman’s book shows the appeal, but it also shows the difficulty of making plausible claims about the distant past—and why social criticism grounded in prehistory so often falls short ... Work, for all its promised insights of long-term thinking, ends with surprisingly tepid conclusions. Suzman criticizes ballooning executive pay and pointless jobs, yet these appear in Work less as targets for activism than as symptoms of our mixed-up modern world. This is a book about work that treats slavery and the gendered division of labor as minor topics and says virtually nothing about unions ... From Suzman’s galactic perspective, there’s disappointingly little to say about labor ... James Suzman’s marquee fact, upon which the edifice of his 300,000-year history precariously balances, is astonishingly squishy. Seeing how he got there shows how much caution is required in writing of the distant past. Caution, unfortunately, is not one of Suzman’s strengths ... Work...uses the distant past—in its fun-house mirror way—to highlight some pathologies of our age, yet without giving much understanding of how to cure them. As Suzman doesn’t recommend returning to foraging and hasn’t pointed to any levers with which to change things, his book ends with a weak injunction to think creatively. Here, blue-sky thinking collapses into something near fatalism.
RaveThe New RepublicEnnos specializes in biomechanics and writes with an appreciative eye for wood’s physical qualities ... We are, in profound ways, shaped by wood. Binocular vision, hands rather than paws, and differentiated front and hind limbs, Ennos notes, are not human features so much as they are animals-living-in-trees features ... Ennos points out that the largest ship in the world in 1514, the Henry Grace à Dieu in the English king’s fleet, was no larger than the great ships of antiquity. The age of wood had been an age of relative stasis, with limited outlooks and constrained possibilities. Wood, for all its wonders, is a stubborn material, better suited to time-consuming artisanal work than mass production. By replacing it, first as a fuel and then as a material, the British exited a long era of placid economic growth and entered a dizzying time of unbounded possibility ... The age of wood is over, yet Ennos hopes that aspects might return. Psychologists have suggested that being around wood is calming, and, compared to its fossil-fuel rivals, it’s easier on the environment.
PositiveForeign Policy[Bland Fanatics] lays out the case in essays dating back to 2008. Reading them now, while trapped in an apartment surrounded by strategic reserves of canned food and toilet paper, it’s hard not to think: You know, he might have had a point.
PositiveThe New Republic...[an] engaging, bracing, and moving new book ... There is something about scouring classified documents for long-hidden military secrets that attracts a certain type of obsessive. Nicholson Baker, who once wrote a 147-page essay tracking an archaic use of the word lumber through centuries of Anglophone literature, is that type ... Baker’s learned notes, down-the-rabbit-hole digressions, and verbal flash have invited comparisons with the virtuoso meanderngs of David Foster Wallace, though Baker comes off as gentler, less tormented by his demons, and, frankly, nicer ... What’s missing is the last and vital link, the official document that says, \'Yes, we did it. We doused turkey feathers with Songo fever and spread them around people’s homes. We introduced contagious new diseases into the land we were trying to help. And then we scooped up all the test animals from our germ warfare laboratories and threw them out of F-82s onto inhabited villages because we wanted to scare the bejeezus out of people, even if those people were children.\' .... Baker has no such document, and he doesn’t pretend to. Yet if that evidentiary gap weakens his case that the United States probably waged small-scale bacteriological war, it strengthens his case for declassification ... It’s not just a matter of settling historical debates. It’s a bare-minimum requirement of a democratic foreign policy. Of having a government that, when contemplating a horrifying course of action, would think of posterity and choose something saner.
MixedThe NationIt would be better, Shah suggests, to drop the labels, recognize human beings as a migratory species, and build institutions around that fact. This is a far-reaching argument, yet when it comes to specifying what those institutions might look like, Shah has disappointingly little to say. The sole policy she endorses in her book is the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration ... But it does not abolish borders or establish anyone’s right to cross them ... It’s hard to see how such an approach could suffice in an age of climate change or how it could free us from the myth of the sedentary world. There are also deeper questions raised by the history Shah explores that go unaddressed. Racism doesn’t manifest only in border controls, which Shah discusses at length, but also in colonial conquest, removal, gentrification, and dispossession, which she says much less about ... If The Next Great Migration does not resolve such issues, that is because its aim is more to trigger a conceptual shift. The world isn’t fixed in place, Shah rightly argues.
PanNew RepublicUpheaval examines such large countries as the United States, Finland, Japan, and Chile, and mainly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through them, Diamond hopes to show how nations have made it through destabilizing crises. But what we see instead is how poorly suited his approach—honed on nonindustrial and isolated societies—is for large, connected ones in an age of globalization ... What remains is a \'narrative survey,\' speculative and loose ... The problem isn’t merely that Diamond has jettisoned statistical analysis. It’s that the crisp explanations that populated Guns, Germs, and Steel...are missing ... Diamond isn’t noticeably wrong in these judgments, vague as they are; it’s just that he adds little to our understanding by them ... There are joys here, particularly in Diamond’s historical accounts. He narrates Finnish guerrilla tactics against the Red Army in World War II with infectious glee ... He applies a similar gusto to the tale of nineteenth-century Japan ... Yet the closer he gets to his own time and place, the less brightly this crazy Diamond shines ... the meandering accounts that follow offer mainly middle-class nostrums and bland conventional wisdom ... Diamond seems unsteady in a world illuminated by iPhone screens. Complex countries, global economies, and international politics strain his \'nations are like people\' view of things.