by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
I’m not sure what to write about this book. Parts of it are brilliant, offering historical insights that surprise and impress me. But the ending is a rant about the flaws of Western civilization. I’m not defensive about Western civilization — I could probably assemble just as harsh a rant as his. But it lacked the heft of earlier chapters, coming off more as a lightweight bitch session rather than the careful analysis of previous chapters.
The author uses a different lens through which to view civilizations: the environment in which they operated. There are chapters on the classic “alluvial soils” civilizations, such as those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. He also has chapters about civilizations in grasslands, tropical lowlands, mountainous highlands, deserts, and arctic environments. He shows how these differing environments shaped different kinds of civilizations.
This is a big book: nearly 500 pages long. The author is a magnificent writer; I think that the quality of his writing is the most commendable thing about the book. He certainly has a great many insights to offer. Yet, after putting the book down, nothing from it seems to stick to my mind. I feel like I would feel after listening to an erudite raconteur who discourses easily and expertly on a huge range of topics, without ever making an important point.