So another year is drawing to a close, a year of books again. I thought I might share my reading experiences with the blogosphere, given that the book industry relies heavily on this period for sales. So first, non fiction. Fiction to follow.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction to be honest. I read enough dense things in my day job that when I hit the Luas or the sofa I just want to escape somewhere. That said, I have read some crackers this year.
For me the standout book was without a doubt Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. It is a tour de force, reminding us that the centre of the world is at one and the same time geographic and mutable. The story of the last twenty years has been the resurgence of China, and it is prominent here. Equally however it is hard to overstate the sense of accident that propelled the littoral nations of western Europe to geopolitical prominence. Reading this we are reminded that for a long time all roads didn’t lead to Rome, but to places like Merv and Samarkand, to Kashgar and to poor raped Palmyra. It should be read by all aspirant geopolitical leaders and commentators. The book is beautifully written and intensely scholarly, but in the best tradition of writers like Bury and Schleisenger is accessible and witty. It is without doubt the book of the year for me, and a strong contender for the book of the decade I think.
Similar in scale and ambition, but not new, is Ian Morris, Why the West Rules (for now). A grand history, in every sense, that again should be required reading for anyone who doesnt quite get that history moves in cycles. It is not as easy, to read, to my mind, as Frankopan but as a counterpoise and complement it works a charm.
A reread, and one that gets better and more impactful each time I read it , is Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West. Rome fell, but why? Simple question but one to which there is no simple answer. Goldsworthy doesnt give one, but goes close to saying that it basically ate itself in civil war aided and abetted by declining military comparative advantage. The howling waves of barbarians faced by the early empire had given way to larger and much more militarily competent polities. Its a good counterpose to Heather’s book on the fall.
Still on Goldsworthy, another exellent read is Augustus – From Revolutionary to Emperor. How did a diffident, sickly teenager move to being the Emperor of Rome and the founder of a whole new polity. The answer is complex, but we see Augustus move and harden, eventually achieving a avuncular mien, but never ever for a moment relenquishing his grip on power. Its a fascinating read, and even for those that know the broad sweep of his life has new insights. I had not appreciated quite how tenous was his hold on power for some considerable time as he bode time to face Anthony; equally of interest is the clear sense that the foundation of the Augustan state, the principate, was a dyarchy. One suspects that without Agrippa Augustus would not have lasted long. In many ways its a story of a mafia godfather and his consiglieri.
A natural follow on from that is Dynasty by Tom Holland. Holland has now completed a wonderful dyad of books on the fall of the roman republic – Rubicon shows us why it fell, or was pushed, Dynasty shows who was there to pick it up. If you ever doubted that power corrupts, read this book. The Julio-Claudians pretty much went from bad to worse to OMFG. We walk, ever more appaled and fascinated from Caesar a cold calculating amoral politician, to Augustus a murderous teenager who grew through war and murder to a sinister and evil old man masked in the glow of propaganda, through Tiberius’s gloomy mien and hatred of the job he only got too late to really enjoy (think of that…), into the unhinged psychosexual darkness of Caligula, the pallid light of the fretful, fearful, grasping creepiness of Claudius to the world beating mania of Nero. Its a book that now and again makes you stop and go “What! WHAT!” and reads like the DSM-V crossed with House of Cards. A great book but one that sobers you.
Although I have read a few other non-fiction books, the last I want to recommend is Thomas Asbridge’s William Marshal- The Greatest Knight. In many ways William (the) Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, son in law of Strongbow and founder of New Ross was the preeminent military and political figure of the early plantagenets. This was again despite an unpromising start, as at the age of 5 he was taken to be hanged as the son of a rebel but spared for no clear reason. He had an extraordinary life; he nearly killed the as yet uncrowned Richard the Lionheart who was then rebelling against his father; he nearly died and lost a leg from a lance wound but saved it through what we might call battlefield expedience; he married Isobel de Clare the daughter and heir of strongbow, and imposed an iron grip on the McMurrough ancestral lands in Leinster in doing so cementing the norman presence; he fought for and then against King John forcing him to the table to sign Magna Carta; he led a conroi, or team of knights, in professional tournament fighting all across europe and remained undefeated; It was a fascinating, violent, and utterly alien time and this is a great introduction to the period and personalities.