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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in societies (3)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed / Turning Points in Ancient History - Eric H. Cline (2014)

1177 BC : The Year Civilization Collpsed - Eric Cline

Ancient history has been affecting something of a revival of interest in the last 30 years, not only because of it's rich heritage of story which is often converted to popular media (via Hollywood), but because of the amazing strides and discoveries made in history, archeology, anthropology, and even ancient climates. So much new and clarifying information is coming to light in the technical and scientific communities that there is a need for experts with broad experience to retell the narratives of the ancient civilizations to modern audiences.

Into this space has stepped Eric Cline and his spectacular book, "1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed."  For most of us, we didn't even know there was another "Dark Ages" in history- other than the one we learned about in high school or college that equated the European middle ages a period of intellectual and economic regression caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But, in fact, the ancient era called the "Bronze Age" came to a dramatic close in the late 2nd millennium BC, with the sweeping collapse of nearly all prominent civilizations in the ancient world.

It is this ancient, and first, "world wide" collapse of societies that is examined and expounded by Professor Eric H Cline in "1177 BC." What stands out immediately to the reader is the astonishing deluge of interesting history presented in a powerful narrative style. Cline is not just an archaeologist, he is a a genuinely gifted communicator. Thoughtful and witty, he writes as much for the palpable sense of the societies he is studying as he does for the cold hard facts of the major milestones in the narrative. And this makes the book itself a genuine work of art.

But thankfully, we aren't just left with that. Cline backs up his narrative with profound science and a balanced hand both at antiquity and a look to the possibility that future discoveries may turn the narrative a different direction as the history is clarified. Without the pompous self-assuredness that seems to often rest in the tone of modern authors of books on historical topics, Cline avoids condescending to the reader and frankly (but seriously) admits what facts are sure and which are not.  This doesn't weaken his arguments, however, and the entire book becomes much more plausible because of the care and contrition that the author has taken in its presenting.

The topic itself sweeps from ancient Egypt (during the "New Kings" era), to Mesopotamia, to Anatolia and the Hittite empire, to the Cretan (Minoan) and Aegean (Mycenaean) kingdoms and even down through much of the Levant- touching on all the crucial components that came together in the collapse of a truly interconnected world in the Bronze Age. "1177 BC" is as much about economics and politics as it is about war and migrations of mysterious "Sea Peoples". The book unleashes several new concepts about language, texts and lost civilizations. One such civilization, found by archaeology in the last century, is the story of the newly discovered kingdom of Ugarit. That, alone, is a brilliant segment of the book and is a perfect example of what Cline does best- combines his technical eye with a story-teller's prose to paint for us great historical landscapes.

History, especially ancient history, contains some of the most fascinating narratives available. And in the hands of a scholar and writer like Eric Cline, those narratives launch off the page and into our imaginations. The book is repleat with science, but gracious as art. The best ancient history book I have yet to read. Easily qualifies for our Editor's Choice Award. If you have any interest in history, civilizations, grand narratives and even where our own society may be headed-- get this book! You will absolutely love it!


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond (2005)

After reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond, I was interested in getting a hold of his companion book that inverted his focus on study of societies. "Guns, Germs and Steel" was the definitive analysis of what precipitated the rise of humanity as the pre-eminent species on earth and the rise of western society, specifically as the pervasive and expanding culture among all those of mankind in the modern era. From the cover, Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" looks to be an investigation into the corrupted, extinguished and collapsed cultures of our human history- and an equally astute examination into the causes of such collapse.

But like Diamond did with the title of his Pulitzer Prize Winning book ("Guns, Germs and Steel" was far more about food production via agriculture and animal husbandry than it was about the items in its title), "Collapse" is a deceptive moniker for the content of this book. It is not incorrect, but perhaps not accurate or detailed enough. Collapse is not about how any, or even most, societies collapse- it is specifically about how a select set of societies collapsed under the specific cause of man-made environmental damage that leads to devastating self-destruction of the entire population of people involved. Focusing on human environmental self-destruction only, the book doesn't talk about why the great societies of the Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Mongols, Egyptians, Imperial England, and dozens of other well known historical successful societies eventually toppled. Instead the focus is on a set of specific (and often extremely small) nation states that self-destructed by environment ill-management of their land and food sources. 

The reason I bring this up immediately about the book and its title is because it is such a significant contrast to "Guns, Germs and Steel", which covers almost the entire gambit of ancient, medieval and modern societies that proved successful and managed longevity. Diamond is not writing a companion book with "Collapse". Instead he is narrowing his focus to his true area of expertise- biological. It is from that perspective that Diamond does drill deeply into the backstory, progression and decay of societies that destroyed their own home environment so significantly that the ecosystem which supported their existence (in its destruction and barrenness) becomes the cause of their demise.

The author examines a number of island societies to explain their self-destruction. As it turns out, the fragile balance of an island ecosystem supporting a smaller nation of people's is most easily in jeopardy and hence gives us the most evidence to such collapses. From Easter Island, to Pitcairn and Henderson Isands, to the Haitian and even the large island of Greenland- each of these places are isolated and independent, having no careful management of their natural resources as food sources. 

But beyond the island setting, Diamond also reviews such situations as the terrible genocide of Rwanda (for which he provides a broader explanation than just racial/religious hatred as the fuel of that ravaging atrocity), the growing environmental damage by China, the tragic effects of mining without environmental care in Australia (and the US), and even the good/bad examples of resource/land managements by modern corporations hunting for resources (from Chevron to Pegasus Gold to DuPonte and more).

The author outlines (in summary chapters) the progression of damaging processing that causes deforestation, mining damage, top-soil erosion, water flow mismanagement, overgrazing, over fishing and over harvesting of resources, minerals and food sources. He explains how these components can eventual lead to devastation and possibility of a societal collapse. The book is hopeful that our environmental self-concern and technological inventiveness can help us find solutions to these problems, near and long term.

I found Diamond's arguments and reasoning to be easy to follow, yet insightful. While this wasn't the book I hoped it would be (as I stated before), I did appreciate the writing and content. Diamond is not a died-in-the-wool environmental radical. He debunks the extreme positions of environmental apocalyptics and provides good as well as bad cases of even corporate environmental citizenship. His positions are based on science and research of this topic for decades. As you read, you feel like you are getting sage advice and not indoctrination. The book doesn't have nearly as many epiphanal moments as "Guns, Germs and Steel" for this reader, but I found it good nonetheless.

Amazon Book Link:

As with Diamond's other work mentioned here, if you like detailed reading with high-order concepts, I highly recommend this book.

Review by Kim Gentes



Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond (2005)

Human history, and its constituent civilizations, has largely been driven and directed by its discovery of key technologies, the development of which are largely determined by advantages of geographic location and plentiful access to essential species of domesticable plants and animals. This is the overall premise of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel". The book is a lengthy (512 pages) but insightful review of the evolution of peoples from the beings who lived as hunter-gatherers to the societies that developed from the advantages of food producing farmers. While "Guns, Germs and Steel" encapsulate some of the topics Diamond covers in this book, it is a serious bit of salesmanship that placed that title on this volume. The vast majority of this book is related to topics of food production especially focusing on agriculture and animal domestication. A more representative title might have been "The Advantages of Agriculture on Human Civilizations", but I am guessing that using 'agriculture' in a book title doesn't win sexy awards from publishers.

While guns, germs and steel are discussed and do play important roles in later civilization history, it is the pre-history of city-states that Diamond is concerned with. He builds the case from biology, history and linguistics that the foundation of food production (agriculture and animal domestication) was the seminal discovery that advantaged one society over another. Food producing societies were the ones able to support people who didn't have to worry about subsistence living (as every member of a hunter-gatherer society must do). The result of larger scale food production (which fed more than the family who produced/harvested the food) allowed people to live collectively and develop into the clans, tribes, and eventually cultures we have come to know. This collective grouping of peoples and sedentary living permitted the development not only of additional technologies but the sharing of those technologies, trade, and even exposure to a broader array of diseases to which a society could become sufficiently resistant (it is this disease resistance that becomes the later pivotal weapon of European societies as they conquered other cultures and lands).

In short, food production became the lynch pinch of early success which skewed technology and natural disease resistance to favor the Eurasian super-continent (and, initially at least, the Fertile Crescent) to become the place from which world wide colonialism would spring. The impact and effect of Eurasia's multi-millenial (in most cases) head start in food production and technology advancement would mean that European/Asian societies (Europe and China as their eventual descendants) would be the center from which conquest and expansion would emanate.

Diamond is clear that he believes he can prove from this premise that it is the intrinsic benefits of climate, geography and environment (including the selection of domesticable mammals present in various continents) that allowed Eurasia to gain the head start in food production and allowed it to sustain its lead in a upwardly spiraling positive feedback loop of food production, technology, language (especially written language) and other factors that ensured the blossoming of modern "Western Society" as the dominant civilization across the earth.  Diamond is clearly taking aim (and he doesn't try to hide this) at racist claims that certain peoples flourished because of their genetically better mental accumen (which presumably would allow for faster discovery/invention of technology).

Overall, the book is an exceptional work of logic, science and history. Diamond does well to employ his extensive biological understanding of food, plants and genetics to help the reader understand how man and nature engaged with one another and forced the process of evolution along the road of plant and animal domestication.  He also is exceptional in gathering facts of multi-disciplines (history, linguistics, archeology and biology) and making the peices fit the narrative he is building.

But for most casual readers this book will seem long and extremely tedious. If you have the patience for it, however, it can prove to be a global tour of human history that "connects the dots" across many facets of human development that may be of interest.  Personally, I enjoyed the book immensely, though I have had no previous interest in agricultural science. What fascinated me most about this book was its cohesive narrative- by building on the major premise of food production, one sees the development of classical to modern societies in a wholely different light than simply one group conquering another out of sheer military might. While the book is full of arduous details, I found the writing style enjoyable.

Amazon Book Link:

If you like detailed reading with high-order concepts, I highly recommend this book.

Review by Kim Gentes