British quiz-show scripter Higgs (The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, 2013, etc.) offers an idiosyncratic, always-provocative view of an era that many people would just as soon forget.
Yes, one plus one equals two. But how do we know? In part, it’s thanks to Bertrand Russell, who, on the evening that the 19th century turned into the 20th, scratched out a theorem “to prove beyond argument that 1 + 1 = 2 was not an arbitrary assertion, but a fundamental truth.” It didn’t quite work out, but within months, Albert Einstein would be reshaping mathematics, Sigmund Freud would be rewriting the rules of the mind, and the old verities would be overturned and overthrown one by one. The 20th century was a time of destruction, creative and otherwise; not for nothing does Higgs use a statement from Keith Richards as the tag line for his book: “We needed to do what we wanted to do.” From that declaration of independence, the author sketches out storylines that embrace art, culture, and commerce over a period that feeds directly into our own—and our own is strange enough, with respect to his title, as he observes when he notes that a recent brush with war in North Korea involved not just states, but also corporations, and foremost among them an entertainment corporation at that. “Strange,” in Higgs’ vocabulary, includes the domains of deviance and oddness but also a randomness that may not be entirely random. As he notes early on, the anarchist who inspired Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent may have had a perfectly rational reason for choosing a seemingly irrational target. While there is very little in this book that literate readers won’t have encountered elsewhere, Higgs crafts of disparate facts and anecdotes a story all his own.
Full of unexpected linkages and brightly written, this is an absorbing tour of the 20th century.