Black’s academic style can drag readers down in certain dry and wordy sections. However, his scholarly outlook on history...



A dense study of counterfactualism and its use in the practice of history.

The method of examining past events with the knowledge of the circumstances that affected decisions is a powerful tool to understanding what happened. Seeing the uncertainty, the “unknown knowns,” and outside forces that affected historical incidents help us divine why things happened as they did—as well as what might have been. Black (History/Univ. of Exeter; The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World, 2014, etc.) asserts that counterfactualism is more pronounced in Anglophone nations than in those cultures without the freedom to question definitive histories. Even so, he explores and explains its use and the approach to history in cultures as varied as the Mongols, Chinese, Muslims, Ottoman Turks, Finns, and Danes. Readers will need a background in world history, as the author cites battles and wars over the last two millennia. There is a long and interesting chapter on the rise of the West and how Europe took precedence in world affairs. Black explains that assertive, definitive history quells debate, and its need to explain all serves only to mislead. It is better to know the role of the individuals involved, the timing of significant events, and the short- and long-term effects of a counterfactual. Certain disciplines do not respond well to counterfactuals—e.g., social history since it affects too broad a cast. It is more appropriate and useful for military and political history and a boon for teaching. The author’s illustrative examples of “what if,” “how,” and “why” will make readers sit back and wonder—the whole point of counterfactuals.

Black’s academic style can drag readers down in certain dry and wordy sections. However, his scholarly outlook on history today, its ambiguity and uncertainty, the need of analyzing, interpreting, and reinterpreting events, makes it well worth fighting through slow patches to appreciate his extensive store of knowledge.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-253-01704-8

Page Count: 252

Publisher: Indiana Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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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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