A quirky but always delightful social history that will convince most readers that social revolutions have been happening...




Most observers agree that the 20th century saw dazzling changes: the automobile, airplane, atom bomb, antibiotics, computers, space travel, the internet, and hundreds of other amazing advancements. What century can match that? Every one since 1000, responds veteran British social historian Mortimer, and he makes a convincing case.

Following his format of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (2013), the author rewinds the clock for a fascinating, century-by-century Eurocentric argument that stuff more world-shaking than cellphones has been happening for a millennium. In much of the 11th century, the Holy Roman Emperor had the power to appoint and remove popes. By 1100, the papacy was an elected position, and Christendom dominated Europe. A powerful church supported powerful monarchs, whose armies finally drove off raiding Vikings, Magyars, and Mongols. Violence diminished, the population prospered, and cities expanded. By 1200, medieval Europe was enjoying a renaissance. Famine and plague devastated the continent after 1300, but an even bigger renaissance followed. The humanism movement, which glorified individual achievement, produced an explosion of art and science but also, for the first time, diaries and personal letters. By 1800, almost everyone had enough to eat, in itself a unique development. Mortimer’s chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries are lengthy and familiar but contain a few jolts. The author emphasizes that revolutions have a terrible record in promoting justice. Single-issue crusades—e.g., anti-slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, the eight-hour workday—do much better. Throughout, Mortimer focuses on changes that affected everyone. Thus, the revolution of printing didn’t fully catch on in 1450 with the invention of the printing press (early books were expensive and in Latin) but rather with the avalanche of cheap, vernacular Bibles a century later.

A quirky but always delightful social history that will convince most readers that social revolutions have been happening for a long time.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-68177-243-1

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Sept. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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