A chewy study of the preservation and transportation of classical Greek thought. See Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom...

ALADDIN’S LAMP

HOW GREEK SCIENCE CAME TO EUROPE THROUGH THE ISLAMIC WORLD

Freely (Storm on Horseback: The Seljuk Warriors of Turkey, 2008, etc.) profiles the various caliphates that fostered scholarship and scientific inquiry during Europe’s Dark Ages.

As the eighth century drew to a close, the author writes, Baghdad became a beacon illuminating classical antiquity. The Abbasid caliphate, which had held sway there for several centuries, reached its peaking during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786–809), when Baghdad’s scholars plumbed the known world for long lost books and documents, including many from the ancient library at Alexandria. In Baghdad’s library, known as the House of Wisdom, Greek texts were painstakingly translated into Arabic. But Islamic scholars did more than just translate, the author notes; they critiqued Greek thinkers from Archimedes and Aristotle to Zeno. They questioned ideas on the nature of reality, corrected astronomical observations and probed medical tracts and mathematical theorems. In once instance, three wards of a Baghdad caliph marched a measured distance from north to south in the desert until the elevation of Polaris had changed by exactly a single degree; multiplying by 360, they arrived at a circumference of the earth only 92 miles short of what today’s science confirms. In time, Cairo and Damascus succeeded Baghdad as centers of Islamic study, flourishing from the tenth into the 14th centuries under the Fatimids and other dynasties. Umayyad caliphs ruled the region of southern Spain known to Arabs as Al-Andalus, which offered another tolerant, enlightened bastion for scholars. As Christians came there to study, Greek texts that had once flowed into Arabic were poured into Latin, and the early flame of the European Renaissance flickered. Freely extensively documents Islamic works that gave us words like algebra and algorithm and dusted off the even more ancient Hindu numerals now universally employed.

A chewy study of the preservation and transportation of classical Greek thought. See Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom (2009) for a more accessible account of the Arab influence on Western civilization.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-26534-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2009

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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