As summer collapses into fall across the northern hemisphere, Five Books editor Sophie Roell takes a look at the nonfiction books that have been published over the last three months. Reading serious nonfiction books remains the easiest way to get up to speed on not only things you're already interested in, but lots of things you didn't know you didn't know.
There have been stacks of nonfiction books published these past few months, and the process of picking out a few has, as usual, been daunting. New biographies had a strong showing, as did books about ancient Rome. This is a round-up of the ones that I’ve been drawn to. Apologies, as always, for the good books and interesting topics I’ve missed.
The Roman Empire
For those, like me, who enjoy thinking about the Roman Empire there has been an array of new books to choose from. The most analytical in approach is probably British classicist Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome. This book focuses not on any individual but is a general look at the job and what it entailed. The book takes its material from a 300-year period, starting with Julius Caesar and ending with the Lebanon-born emperor Alexander Severus. The analysis is divided into chapters like “Power Dining”, “Time Off?” and “Emperors Abroad.” It’s neatly done and captures Beard’s abiding interest in image and projection of power (one of the illustrations is of an earring with a picture of a Roman emperor on it).
If you’re looking for more of a narrative read, the third volume in Tom Holland’s Roman Empire trilogy is now out in the US. Following Rubicon and Dynasty, we now have Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age. This is the heyday of the Roman Empire from 68 (the year Augustus’s last male descendent, Nero, committed suicide) up to the death of Hadrian in 138. It covers ‘the year of the four emperors’ (Galba, Otho, Vitellius), the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian) and the Antonine emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian). At 360 pages, this is not a book to read if you want to quickly find out what happened. It’s for anyone who really enjoys going up the Rhine with Vitellius and learning about the armies stationed in Upper Germany or reading about local politics in Pompeii in the run-up to the eruption of Vesuvius. Tom Holland knows a phenomenal amount about ancient Rome, and he shares his knowledge generously in the book.
One interesting book for fans of the great epic poem of the Augustus years, the Aeneid, is a literary biography of its author, Vergil. Vergil: The Poet’s Life is by American scholar and translator Sarah Ruden. Other than his poem, we don’t know much about the author, so Ruden has to do a lot of heavy lifting, but why not? Ruden recently translated the Aeneid, and you can read her Five Books interview about Vergil here.
Delving further into the past and much broader in scope is a new book called Ancient Africa: A Global History, to 300 CE by Christopher Ehret, a professor at UCLA. Ehret rejects the “artificial separation of our human story into something called ‘history’ and something else called ‘prehistory’” and starts his story in 68,000 BCE. I love this approach and just wish it was taught more in school. As he writes, “Barely more than fifty thousand years ago, the primary ancestors of every single human being alive today lived in eastern Africa. World history to that point was African history.”
Another new history book that’s reliant on other disciplines is the latest by Cat Jarman, a bioarchaeologist. In her book, The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo Saxons, she turns her attention to chests at Winchester Cathedral that are purported to contain the bones of various kings—and one queen, Emma—of the kingdoms that sprang up in the British Isles after the Romans left. Winchester was in Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, and one of the more powerful ones. As in her previous book (about the Vikings), Jarman likes to combine straight history with imagining what it must have been like. The new knowledge that DNA brings to this period, when England was so much in flux, is fascinating.
There have been a host of new biographies out recently. If you like reading about tech bros, Walter Isaacson, author of the fantastic Steve Jobs biography, has turned his pen to Elon Musk. It’s not as good a book—it’s doubtless hard to write with the distance a biographer needs about someone who is not only alive but very vocal and opinionated—but the chapters are short and it’s a very easy read for an overview of where Musk came from and how he got to where he is. Also out is a book by the great Michael Lewis on Sam Bankman-Fried, the one-time cryptocurrency billionaire who is now on trial for fraud. As always with Lewis it’s a good read for anyone who wants to understand what that was all about and the sheer scale of money involved. However, in the preface, Lewis admits to having been completely taken (in) by Bankman-Fried, who is always referred to in the book as Sam.
In addition to the Vergil book, there are a couple of other books about writers out. Eva Hoffman has taken on the Polish poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Czesław Miłosz, in her latest book: On Czesław Miłosz. It’s a personal response to Milosz’s life and work, about a man who experienced firsthand some of the horrors of the 20th century.
Another is Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is an authorized biography and offsets some of the more negative accounts of his life as a train wreck which ended early (he died of heart disease at age 56). I’ve always enjoyed Fleming’s writing (which in addition to all the Bond books includes the children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and growing up, seeing the new James Bond movie was always a family event. Both my parents were Dutch and I suppose like others around the world we half-believed that James Bond/Ian Fleming was a typical mid-20th century Englishman. With this book, we find out a bit more what Fleming was actually like.
Other biographies published recently include one about the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). It’s called Schubert: A Musical Wayfarer by Lorraine Byrne Bodley, a professor of musicology at Maynooth University. Schubert famously died aged just 31, but striking early in the book is how old that was compared to some of his siblings. This book is written so it’s accessible to non-musicians, but this is a serious work of scholarship.
New Science Books
One genre that’s had a strong showing this quarter is science. The Globe: How the Earth Became Round by James Hannam looks at how human beings figured out the Earth was round, a nice read for those of us who are still impressed by that feat. Hannam points out the extent to which people misunderstand the history, including Barack Obama in a speech. As he writes, “The truth is that, after AD 800, we don’t know of anyone in western Europe with a modicum of literacy who didn’t think that the Earth is spherical.”
I can also highly recommend a book about the history of math, The Secret Lives of Numbers: A Global History of Mathematics & its Unsung Trailblazers by Kate Kitagawa and Timothy Revell. I love global history and mathematics is a really interesting lens to look at it through. Early on, we learn that we should perhaps not be calling it Pythagoras’ theorem, but the Gugou Theorem, as it had been earlier proved in China. Notable in the book is the extent to which similar concepts were discovered independently around the world. (I was also interested in the references to the I Ching, a book I was curious about because it features in the detective novel I’m currently listening to).
Finally, I’d like to mention a book by a friend, Caspar Henderson, whose latest book, A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous, is about sound. It’s a science book, but it’s also a book about appreciating nature and life. It’s beautifully, beautifully done. “For me, writing this book has been part of an attempt to listen more deeply and hold on to a sense of aliveness,” Caspar writes. You can read his interview with our deputy editor, Cal Flyn here.
New Economics Books
Growing up, one topic of debate at the dinner table (other than World War II) was Chile. My father and his brothers were all Delft-trained Dutch engineers, and one of them ended up living in Chile in the 1980s, as part of his work. He was sympathetic to the economic prosperity Augusto Pinochet had brought while my dad (who also ended up working in Chile in the 1980s, though he didn’t live there) focused on the human rights horrors and indignation at the role of the CIA in supporting Pinochet in his military coup against Salvador Allende. The Chile Project: The Story of the Chicago Boys and the Downfall of Neoliberalism would have added useful fuel to their debate. The book is by Sebastián Edwards, himself one of the Chicago boys—a Chilean-born economist trained at the University of Chicago—but he tries to be even-handed. Visiting Chile during the 2019 demonstrations he notes the furious crowds and graffiti around Santiago: “Neoliberalism was born and will die in Chile!” The book has a broader interest, beyond Chile, for the debate on neoliberalism generally and what it does and does not mean.
Two final books I want to mention are on inequality. In Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War economist Branko Milanović (who did a Five Books interview in 2011 on inequality) looks at how various economic thinkers looked at inequality, from Francois Quesnay and Adam Smith down to Simon Kuznets and Thomas Piketty. Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton offers a more personal account in his book: Economics in America: An Immigrant Economist Explores the Land of Inequality. It’s a collection of essays written over a quarter of a century but updated for the book. It’s a wide-ranging reflection on economics and the economics profession but ultimately downbeat about his adopted country: “The United States has become a darker society since I arrived in 1983. The hopes of the immigrant have been tempered by reality, but even more by the corruption of the American economy and its politics, a corruption that threatens our democracy.”
October 8, 2023
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