Ever-nimble historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, 2008, etc.) examines the factors that led to the rise of the West rather than the East.

The author boldly takes on 600 years of world events, keeping an eye always to the pertinence of the material in relation to the modern era, so that the history lesson remains fresh and compelling. The consideration of why Western Europe took predominance from around 1500 onward is not new, for example, having been undertaken by the likes of Samuel Johnson and Max Weber. Ferguson’s six factors are fairly standard, yet tidily presented and contextually developed in discrete chapters: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Although China had developed enormous innovations early on—in medicine, the printing press, paper and gunpowder—the colossus had closed its door to exchanging ideas with the rest of the world; the Arab world, despite being the custodian of classical knowledge, innovator in mathematics and astronomy and conqueror of many lands, was finally turned back at the Siege of Vienna of 1683, marking the long Ottoman eclipse and the ascent of the West. While the “heirs of Osman” began looking at freethinkers and scientific inquiry as blasphemous to the Koran, England and France had established scientific academies sponsored by the crown, and rulers like Frederick the Great of Prussia welcomed religious tolerance and free inquiry. The Enlightenment took off, and through numerous brilliant works which Ferguson touches on briefly but comprehensively, important civilizing tenets were encoded in the West, such as the separation of church and state, the importance of literacy, the protection of private property, the rule of law and representative government. The author looks at the effect of the Protestant work ethic and compares it to the Chinese sense of labor and thrift—culminating in projections of similar ascent for China. A richly informed, accessible history lesson.


Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59420-305-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2011

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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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