Holiday Book Ideas — Four That Are Good to Go

I’m late, late, incredibly late on four books that authors gave me to review. That doesn’t mean that I can’t give credit where credit’s due … in plenty of time for the book-buying frenzy before the holidays. With luck, I’ll finish off the full reviews in December but since *I’m* buying copies of these books for friends and family, maybe one or more of them might fit someone on your list. All recommended for the categories of people headlined.

Economists, Physicists, History of Science buffs

Newton and the Counterfeiter describes Isaac Newton’s multi-year battle with one of London’s most successful counterfeiters. No surprise who wins in the end, but it is surprising how well Levenson provides background on the protagonists … without overwhelming the reader. Recommended for students or professionals with an interest in the history of money, finance, or just a fascination with what the great Newton did after he polished off the Principia. The counterfeiter’s “colourful” life precludes giving this book to a pre-teen but all others will find it, like the earlier-reviewed The Ghost Map, a fascinating snapshot of life in London.

Japanophiles, Asian culture fans, World History Buffs

I’m years late on this one but Through the Looking Glass is highly recommended for anyone wondering how Japan ended up with such a different culture … and why their adoption of Western technology at a breakneck pace in the late 19th century was so successful. Thought-provoking and such a good summary of Japanese culture that I’ve struggled for over 50 hours to epitomize in writing what the author has written in hopes of getting a full book review out the door. I’ve failed, but I’ve also bought more than a half-dozen copies of this book for friends on two continents with an interest in Asian culture.

Entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 cube jockeys, Economics students, Anglosphere buffs

Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson picks up where his Long Tail finished. The halving of computation, bandwidth, and data storage costs each year has made a new generation of businesses financially feasible. The freemium service (like Flickr, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) where basic services are free and a small set of customers pay for additional features, has become so common that it is now unremarkable. Anderson looks at the history of the word, the different definitions of free in the context of culture and business, and the gap in the academic literature in understanding the new generation of businesses that leverage “free” in profound ways. My book review will, like my earlier review of Long Tail, look at why the Anglosphere has been the source of so much “free” over the last couple of centuries and why it leads the way in both charitable and profitable businesses that leverage the idea. A “must have” for anyone thinking of starting a business. People under 30 will think “d’uh” but Anderson still offers a lot of context and some very good background on the history of “free” in business in the 20th century for younger readers. And a fun, even revolutionary, read. I’m buying copies for nieces and friends with an interest in media.

Ambitious NCOs, Military Officers, World History buffs, Prognosticators of the American future

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a grand summary of the culture of the steppes, from the time of the domestication of the horse and the appearance of lactose-tolerant humans (see 10,000 Year Explosion), to the 21st century suppression of the Chechens, Tibetans, and Uighurs. A fascinating source book on the ebb and flow of culture across the “ocean of grass” and the firm focus these cultures had on trading with the great empires on their periphery. Trade with us … or die. Most of these cultures, and the direct influence they had on world history, has been largely unknown except to a handful of scholars. In Empires, the author brings all this background information together in one place, draws on the most modern scholarship in linguistics, history, and archaeology, and provides a ground-breaking introduction to the general public. The striking parallels with the European nations that built empires based on liquid oceans becomes clear only by the end of the book … as is the tentative nature of Russia and China’s hold on the vast interior steppe (triggered by the introduction of firearms, and only solidified in the final massacres of the Junghars by Qing China in the mid-18th century). Anyone with an interest in Russia, the Middle East, or China will learn a great deal about the role of the Central Asian Culture complex on these areas in the last 4,000 years. Nowadays, military folk posted to the ‘Stans or places like Mongolia will find this book invaluable … firstly as a brisk introduction to the cultural roots of the place, and secondly as a reference book to read and re-read in future years to grasp “the big picture.” If you have friends or family that are ambitious for learning about the continent (let alone the region), start them off at the beginning. Anyone senior to Captain should buy this book simply to have it ready when needed. Because it will be needed. You can’t understand the Chinese and Russians without understanding the “enemy” they faced for centuries and the echoes that continue in their territorial obsessions. Highly, highly recommended. My full review will comment on the author’s more personal assessments but his account of Central Asian history is a entirely straight-forward, well referenced, and real service to the English-speaking public. I’ve bought copies, again, for friends in Europe and North America.

6 thoughts on “Holiday Book Ideas — Four That Are Good to Go”

  1. Mr. McCormik, Excellent recommendations! Newton, Free, and Empire will make it onto my lists for readers. BTW, your review of The Ghost Map is excellent and as a result of reading, I spent a inordinate amount of time studying the obscure 19th Century English scientist, William Whewell and his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Whewell invented the word “consilience”—and Johnson described Dr. Snow as a “consilient thinker.” Amazing how one phrase can lead to areas one could have not predicted—one reason I love books!

  2. By the way, both the Newton book and the Steppes book have interesting Anglosphere implications. Newton’s work as Master of the Mint, in establishing and defending the integrity of the pound was an important part of establishing the Anglosphere toolkit; most people are not very aware of it. In general, the members of the Royal Society were not closeted academics but took a strong role in laying the foundations of British success in the following centuries.

    The Steppes book is important for understanding the important episode of Anglosphere history that is the 19th and 20th Century Conquest of the Plains. It was the addition of such a huge area of grain and meat production (and the big populations it created) to the formal and informal Anglosphere (the latter including the Pampas) that made such a difference in the World Wars. Imagine a WWI alignment fought in 1850. Even the initial steps of conquest of the central midwest made a big difference in the American Civil War.

    The problem of extending urbanized agricultural civilization onto grassy plains inhabited by warlike horse nomads was one that was not solved for thousands of years, and it wasn’t until industrially-supported settlement and warfare came that the problem was solved and those resources made available to civilization. And it was we, pretty much, who solved it.

    And of course the geopolitical writings of the Germans during this period were dripping with envy at what we had got, and resentment that they had not got it. Getting their hands on the Eurasian steppe was what German geopolitical aims up to 1945 were all about.

  3. Jim,
    I don’t want to sidetrack too much from your post but I am about to get an ereader this Christmas and I thought your post is perhaps a good opportunity to make a comment on something that bothers me a little about ebooks availability.

    I am considering ordering the new Kindle from Amazon. It has a quite a few niceties but the most important one for me is the 3G international connectivity because that, allegedly, will mean that I will be able to purchase ebooks online directly from the kindle and download them right away and I won’t need to drive to Laredo, Tx. to pick up my amazon orders anymore (it’s kind of expensive sometimes when we go and my wife starts shopping around like crazy and it is so hard to stop her then).

    One of the problems I have here in Monterrey,Mexico is that it is so difficult to find books in English at local book stores, I mean just books in English, never mind books about the anglosphere or the kind of books you guys usually recommend here in chicagoboyz. There are good book stores with lots of books in English in Mexico City, because there are many americans living there, but is too far to drive from Mty, more than 10 hrs.

    So the amazon Kindle is supposed to help me get the books and save me time and money I spend on my trips to Laredo (much to my darling’s chagrin). Okay, so far, so good.

    But the thought of not finding many books like the ones you mentioned here and others in ebook format, kind of turns me off a little.

    I checked every one of the books you suggested and all of them are either paperback or hardcover and I failed to see any ebook edition. I tried to find them as kindle books and I got nothing. Or do I need to find them at a different section of Excuse my ignorance on that.

    Also, should I get the kindle or not? I don’t want to be reading only Moby Dick and Chesterton’s stuff. I read that Stephen King is publishing for the Kindle too, but that’s not exactly right up my alley either.

  4. Dear Jose,

    Just a quick comment in case I’m the “Jim” you were referring to … and not Jim Bennett. I’m up in Canada, which has just gotten Kindle service. My friends who enjoy fiction are thrilled. The non-fiction selection, as you point out, is *much* more restricted. I think this will change over time … and not just for the Kindle … but for the moment, fans of history and science will have to wait. There’s Kindle for PC and Kindle for iPhone/iTouch should you want to wait on buying a particular e-book reader. Older books (sometimes available as .PDF or .txt files) can be downloaded to a Kindle via a PC, which would expand your reading choices. My guess is that within a year or two, we may see more consolidation of the e-book publishing and reader market. And personally I make a lot of use of used book online stores … such as and Shipping is rather expensive but the books themselves are often very affordable.

    My book review selections are often driven by who will send me a review copy! Or authors who I’ve already written about. They are rarely mainstream, I think. And haven’t followed much of a pattern in the last few years because of work obligations. I do try to pass along recommendations or cautions about the books that cross my desk.

    The ins-and-outs of Kindle in Mexico seem to be discussed here:

    Best wishes, James

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