As usual, it has taken longer than expected for me to get these reviews out, but hopefully you will find this post to be worth the wait. I’m about to begin another internship, and I’m working my way through some heftier books, so I doubt there will be any reviews in July or August. There will, however, continue to be intermittent posting over the coming weeks, so be sure to look out for those.
1. A War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (by James McPherson): This book represents exactly the kind of approach to history that I enjoy: an analytical one. While relatively short, A War that Forged a Nation does an excellent job of covering the major thematic questions of the American Civil War – its causes, its relationship to slavery, its conduct, and its legacy – and helps guide readers through the myriad debates and interpretations of the conflict. The book also does an admirable job of highlighting important actors who, at least as far as I can tell, are often forgotten by the general public. Unfortunately, the analytical, thematic approach of the book means that McPherson is perhaps overly parsimonious in his coverage, neglecting discussions of several important campaigns and events throughout the conflict. That didn’t matter to me, as the lack of detailed chronological coverage was more than mitigated by the brevity and novelty of his approach. That being said, if you are already fairly well versed in the conflict, you may find this book to be of less value.
2. The China Questions: Critical Insights Into a Rising Power (edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi): Despite my initial hopes, I found this book to be fairly underwhelming. I found very little of its content novel or provocative, though there certainly are nuggets of interesting information and analysis buried within. In fairness to the book, it does not claim to be a thorough examination of China, but rather a comprehensive handbook for those seeking a basic understanding of the different elements of the country. In this, the book certainly succeeds. Including essays on economics, society, international relations, history, environment, and politics, this fairly slim volume is a great reference to have on your shelf, especially if you know very little about the PRC and its people. If you are already quite well versed (or mildly versed?) in Sinology, you can probably skip this book without missing too much.
3. The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (by Bryan Caplan): This book has made quite a splash among the American intellectual class, and it certainly is captivating and provocative throughout. I think many will find Caplan’s core argument uncomfortable and, in all likelihood, wrong. Indeed, there are already several great responses available online that I think present powerful counterarguments. But regardless of how one evaluates Caplan’s argument, one must be impressed by his thorough reading of the literature and clear, stimulating presentation. Moreover, the data he cites is extremely interesting. For example, Caplan presents some disturbing statistics about graduates’ ability to recall information and skills taught in school. He also demonstrates that the wage premium of education is not correlated to years of education but to graduation years. In other words, someone who drops out after their junior year of college receives far less than 75% of the wage premium enjoyed by college graduates, suggesting that employers care much more about diplomas than actual knowledge. This book comes to some questionable, and indeed dangerous, conclusions, but it also does an admirable job of attacking sacred cows and challenging many of the faulty assumptions we hold about education. For that, at least, it is worth a read.
4. We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution (by George William Van Cleve) This is an excellent book that anyone with a passing interest in early American history should read. We Have Not a Government is not just valuable for students of American history, however, as it also contains more general lessons on political compromise and cooperation. Indeed, I originally purchased this book because of the lessons I thought it might present for policymakers in the E.U. The core thesis of Van Cleve’s work is that the Constitution was created largely out of desperation and due to a hefty amount of luck, not because of the benign magnanimity and genius of America’s founders and the interest groups they represented. The causes of the early Americans’ desperation are manifold – regional conflicts over trade, zero-sum debt politics, tensions with Natives and European powers due to westward expansion, etc. – and they are comprehensively traced and explained by Van Cleve. Throughout the book, in fact, I had the recurring feeling that the proto-United States was going to collapse even though I knew how the story ended. For me, the biggest takeaways were the importance of linking self-interest with collective interest and the contingency of early American history. Once one realizes how precarious things were for the early United States, it becomes at once both more difficult to hold on to the overly romanticized founding myths we are taught in school and much easier to see the value in preserving and improving what was created in 1787.
5. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millenium (by Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke) This is a voluminous, thorough, and interesting book that traces the growth of trade during the second millennium. While the breadth of this book necessitates that the coverage of individual topics is sometimes a tad light, I was thoroughly impressed by the ability of Findlay and O’Rourke to so adroitly mesh economic developments inside a global historical framework. Indeed, whereas most of these books tend to be Eurocentric, this book does a good, though not perfect, job of covering the economic history of regions throughout the globe. Power and Plenty is also impressive in its treatment of all the relevant academic debates and interpretations of the periods and events covered, and its application of economic theory to historical data is useful in connecting empirical facts with textbook models. In short, this tome will be valuable for a massive range of readers. I must confess, though, that despite the quality of the writing and the interesting topics addressed in this book, I found parts of Power and Plenty to be a bit of a slog. I guess that’s the price you pay for reading such a comprehensive work: For all the content that one finds stimulating, there will inevitably be at least a few topics contained within that simply are of little interest. The length and breadth of the book mean that I would likely not recommend this work for a casual reader. However, for those interested in history, especially as it relates to economic development, trade, and colonialism, this should absolutely be on your shelf.