“My book has no thesis, and any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing, perhaps the most meaningful being that Hitler was far more complex and contradictory than I had imagined. ‘The greatest saints,’ observes one of Graham Greene’s characters, ‘Have been men with a more than normal capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly evaded sanctity.’ Deprived of heaven, Adolf Hitler chose hell – if, indeed, he knew the difference between the two.”
In this long essay, Freud examines the puzzling phenomenon of individuals in civilised societies pointing to civilisation as the root of all evil. If you want to discover the meticulous, erudite, prescient scientist behind the caricature that Freud has become in contemporary culture – this succinct, clearly-reasoned analysis marrying history and psychology is a good starting-point.
“Existing meanings are not ours to command. When we use a language, we inherit & reproduce, usually unintentionally, the language’s cultural legacy & moral attitudes… This is the way in which language as it exists necessarily imposes limits on thought.”
Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat a key book, arguing that advances in communication technology, transportation, supply chain management, & geopolitics – have empowered people across geographical & class boundaries to educate themselves, find or create fulfilling work, run their own businesses, recruit teams & supplies across boundaries, & keep learning new skills.
Tristram Shandy dazzles with linguistic innovation, effervesces with humour ranging from situational to risque, paints portraits with a brush fine but kind, and offers illuminating glimpses into the history of science. But Tristram Shandy, reputedly the world’s first postmodern novel, does not work as a novel.
Terry Eagleton’s Very Short Introduction to the Meaning of Life is a delectable, digestible introduction to landmark schools of thought whose debates on big questions have shaped European cultural history; and, via that route, global political history.
Mein Kampf (1925; 1926) is a rambling political manifesto, disguised as autobiography. This book offers an insight into the long roots and broad appeal of extreme ideas – and, given the persistence of nationalism, racism, religious extremism, and conspiracy theories – should be required reading for every citizen of a contemporary democracy.
Via case-studies across history, Collapse offers a series of engrossing narratives, informed by impressive scholarship across multiple disciplines. Collapse illustrates how fragile is the balance between a society and its ecological environment; and offers actionable lessons in how we, as citizens, can demand that our own societies function more sustainably.
Why is it that Eurasians colonised the Americas? Why, until European colonisation, did the Americas lag behind the Old World in population density and social organisation? Jared Diamond explores the far-reaching consequences of geographical differences on the emergence of densely populated, militaristic civilisations in Eurasia vs. the Americas.
In this article published at Qrius, I explore the continuing relevance of BBC journalist Mark Tully’s book of essays on India.