Before I go on a partial blogging hiatus, I want to review the books I’ve recently read. So, in no particular order, here is what I’ve been perusing.
1. The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe (by Timothy Blanning) – This is one of the books in the Penguin History of Europe series, and it covers Europe between the years of 1648 and 1815. The organization of the book is mostly thematic, though there are also chapters on specific historical events (like the French Revolution). This is nice, as it means there are some very rich, thorough chapters on topics not generally presented in standard histories of the period. For example, Blanning provides detailed looks at regional infrastructure and European garden culture. Organizing the book thematically as opposed to strictly chronologically means that one can jump between most of the chapters without missing much, though this does prevent the book from developing a strong narrative punch. Blanning is also one of the best writers I have ever encountered. His prose is masterful and rich (he always seems to possess the perfect word), and I was consistently drawn into the book despite its somewhat daunting size. I am not sure this is the best general history of the period – it is a tad too broad and esoteric – but it is an excellent volume with which to expand and deepen one’s period knowledge. The best part is that the end of the book has a rich selection of (somewhat dated) recommended readings, which is an excellent feature that more books should implement.
2. The Origins of Globalization: World Trade in the Making of the Global Economy, 1500-1800 (by Pim de Zwart and Jan Luiten van Zanden) – This is a well-argued, somewhat dry, economic history of early globalization. The central argument is that globalization began much earlier than is generally accepted, and in some ways the book comes off as a critique of Findlay and O’Rourke’s famous work on the history of global trade. I found The Origins of Globalization to be quite persuasive that early trade had an outsized impact on the cultures and power structures of people throughout the world – moving from near autarky to even limited levels of trade is a significant jump – and appreciated the authors’ detailed, chapter-long examinations of trade’s impact on the different regions of the world. I nevertheless struggle to accept the broader argument that 1500-1800 was a period of globalization, as the level of international trade was simply too small during most of those years for me to consider it a “globalized” world. Regardless, I think the chapters are well-researched and thought-provoking, and the book is succinct enough to make it accessible to a wide range of readers. While I would not recommend this work to a lay audience, it is certainly worth checking out if you are interested in economic history or the expansion of the global economy.
3. The European Economy Since 1945 (by Barry Eichengreen) – This book is a comprehensive economic history of post-WWII Europe, and it is excellent. Eichengreen is one of the greatest and most prolific economists of our time, and that shows in this imminently readable volume. Detailing the post-war recovery, the golden age of European capitalism, the doldrums of the late 70s and early 80s, and the move toward monetary union, The European Economy Since 1945 provides an excellent synthesis of contemporary scholarship on European political economy. While the book focuses primarily on Western Europe, there are two solid sections on Eastern Europe as well. The historical narrative presented by Eichengreen is based around several interrelated arguments. First, Europe was able to significantly benefit from catch-up growth in the 50s and 60s. Second, countries with centrally organized labor unions performed better, as they were able to more effectively coordinate in a way that protected labor’s interests while also keeping labor costs competitive. When cooperation between labor, the state, and industry began to falter, so did Europe’s economies. Finally, Europe tended to prioritize extensive growth as opposed to America’s focus on intensive growth. In other words, Western European countries sought to exploit and perfect existing technology while the United States worked to push the technological frontier. Outside of these general themes, Eichengreen also includes some fascinating, highly detailed examinations of the economies of specific European countries. There’s really not much more to say except that everyone should read this book!
4. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII (by John Dower) – This might be the single best history of postwar Japan available in English. Dower presents a compelling and thorough account of Japan’s transition from a broken, militarist state to a commercial democracy by blending traditional political history with cultural history. Given its length and depth, this is not an easy read. The book’s sometimes meandering approach also makes parts of the narrative a bit of a slog. That being said, I appreciate the sociological and cultural approach adopted by Dower, as I found his account of Japanese efforts to make sense of the new political situation to be absolutely fascinating. From attempts to repackage old ideas in new forms to conservative bureaucrats’ struggles to preserve as much of the Meiji state as possible, the book is full of examples of people grasping to understand what happened to their country. They were forced to ask why so much was sacrificed for so little. Dower also masterfully captures the political machinations that occurred immediately following Japan’s defeat, and he does an excellent job of explaining American motives throughout the occupation. In short, Embracing Defeat succeeds in providing a nuanced and balanced account of postwar Japan that, while effectively capturing the political elements of the occupation, never forgets that Japanese culture and society are at the center of the story. By detailing how the Japanese people adapted and evolved throughout the occupation period and beyond, Dower presents a compelling picture of Japan’s rebirth.