The end of the world, this varied and often vivid anthology reminds us, has always been largely a matter of personal interpretation. If one's society seems to be collapsing, this must inevitably mean that the larger world is tottering, too. Lapham, the editor-in-chief of Harper's magazine, has assembled brief reports from a variety of disasters (ranging from the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom up to the collapse of the Soviet empire) that offer firsthand impressions of the impact of natural and man-made disasters on society. Drawing from histories, letters, memoirs, and period reports, Lapham's anthology reminds us how important a role disaster has had in circumscribing a civilization's influence (from Rome to Russia). It also offers an often moving record of the way in which humans have struggled to deal with everything from invasions to the Holocaust. Lapham's decision to focus on gifted writers (a roster that includes Thucydides, Boccaccio, John Donne, Voltaire, the Shelleys, Karl Marx, Henry Adams, Sigmund Freud, and Primo Levi) makes for a particularly readable collection, though one somewhat lacking in a feel for the experience of ordinary humans in a time of woe. Nonetheless, an intriguing and stimulating collection.
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