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Book Review

July 6, 2020 July 2020 No Comments


I was fortunate to be loaned a considerable number of books to help me get through the shutdown. With so much reading time ahead I decide to start with a weighty tome and what a lucky choice that turned out to be. Niall Ferguson’s Civilization has just about everything a reader could wish for in a book. 

This is not a typical facts and figures history book, rather it reads like an exciting novel, which really brings history alive. 

Commencing with the ancient Chinese civilisation he moves through the next two thousand years explaining the reasons why and how the Chinese civilisation was by far the superior at the time but then overtaken by a clearly weaker one. A pattern which was repeated more that once in the ensuing years. Also while some moves to dominance are well defined by conquering forces more often the changes are over a long period with old and new civilisations overlapping. 

Niall points out that indeed historians have differing views on what constitutes a civilisation. For his book rather than defining chapters he has six sections each dealing with the triggers for human progress. These are not era specific but rather common to all the advances in civilisation and the political changes along the way. 

Commencing with Competition he details how the natural competitive spirit has thrown up leaders who rally the people to support their aims. Or, for instance,  how in the race to find a sea route to the spice islands led to better ships.

In a chapter on science he shows how inventions have changed countries’ frontiers.  The of the both peaceful inventions such as in transport or in the time of war the making of new and better weapons or being able to plan superior strategies. 

A desire for property has been another common driver in change along with finding better ways to utilise the land. An interesting section in this compares the differing methods and long term results of the colonising of North and South Americas, one by the  British the other by Spain  

Chapters measure the advances in health knowledge and medicines which have also been an obvious  huge driver in change. 

Likewise have the patterns of consumption from the  hunter gathers to todays consumer society. The final chapter  compares work ethics of different nationalities and how these have shaped society.

Time and again the each page has some fascinating new fact or a correction on what was previously commonly thought.  Clearly an incredible amount of research has gone into this book.  There is so much to take in when reading Civilization that I think a re-read in a bout a years time would be just as interesting.

Mike Beckett

Photo caption: Note, the library copy has a different cover to the re-print copy which I read, shown here. 

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