The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor.

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SAPIENS

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) provides an immersion into the important revolutions that shaped world history: cognitive, agricultural and scientific. The book was originally published in Israel in 2011 and became a best-seller.

There is enormous gratification in reading books of this nature, an encyclopedic approach from a well-versed scholar who is concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated, and open enough to entertain competing points of view. As Harari firmly believes, history hinges on stories: some stories for understanding, others prompting people to act cooperatively toward common goals. Of course, these stories—“ ‘fictions,’ ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’ ”—can be humble or evil, inclusive or self-serving, but they hold the power of belief. Harari doesn’t avoid the distant past, when humans “were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish,” but he is a skeptic and rightfully relies on specific source material to support his arguments—though he is happy to offer conjectures. Harari launches fully into his story with the cognitive revolution, when our brains were rewired, now more intelligent and creative, with language, gossip and myths to fashion the stories that, from politicians to priests to sorcerers, serve to convince people of certain ideas and beliefs. The agricultural revolution (“lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers”) comes next and firmly establishes the intersubjectivity of imagined orders: hierarchies, money, religion, gender issues, “communication network[s] linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Throughout, the author revels in the chaos of history. He discusses the good and bad of empires and science, suggests that modern economic history comes down to a single word (“growth”), rues the loss of familial and societal safety nets, and continues to find wonder in the concept that “the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system.”

The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0062316097

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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

NIGHT

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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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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