The Black Death in London

Barney Sloane (2011)

A detailed examination of the Plague in London in 1349 and subsequently. Sloane finds a novel way to track the progress of the Black Death, using wills and ecclesiastical replacements to identify “hot spots” that can be tentatively projected out to the rest of the population. While being very careful to recognise the limits of this approach, he arrives at a mortality rate of around 45% of London’s population.

One surprising snippet from the book is the surprisingly few children couples were having in the 14th century: not much higher than in modern times in Europe, in essence, whereas I’d expected something closer to rates in modern Africa.

The book has a good bibliography into modern Plague research, which (given I’m reading this for professional purposes as well as just for interest) will come in handy.

4/5. Finished Wednesday 24 December, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Great Degeneration

Niall Ferguson (2012)

In a great fan of Niall Ferguson’s writing and scholarship, but this isn’t one of his better works. It’s not that there’s anything at all wrong with his central message that many of the institutions that have raised-up western civilisation are being undermined. The problem I have is the fatalism with which he presents these problems, and the notion that it is somehow pre-ordained by historical processes: a view that feels almost Marxist without the positive expected outcome.

I think this is a book that cries out for a longer treatment or a second volume, an analysis and comparison of other approaches to societal problems, or an analysis of the ways in which the tensions that Ferguson sees building up might be released, even if those comparisons and processes would inevitably end in disaster.

2/5. Finished Wednesday 17 December, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

John Neffinger (2013)

An essay masquerading as a book.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it. It’s just that the point it’s making – that the way we project ourselves involves a mixture of strength and warmth, which are two concepts that sit uneasily together and make it hard to make the impressions we seek to make ‐ could have been stated in a longform essay rather than a book. Instead we’re treated to the same concepts applied to different personal-development challenges in ways that don’t really seem to contribute anything to the message.

2/5. Finished Wednesday 17 December, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Travels in West Africa

Mary H. Kingsley (1897)

A great insight into a period now long in the past. Mary Kingsley was clearly ahead of her time, not only in her independent travel but also in her perceptions of indigenous cultures in Africa and the coastal islands. But she was also distinctly of her time in the casual assumptions of sex and race that at times get rather wearing. The sensation is somewhat like reading a Rider Haggard novel: the same sense that the author means well and is impressed by the cultures being described while at the same time feeling they’re both intrinsically inferior and unbridgeably different.

3/5. Finished Thursday 4 December, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

King Leopold’s Ghost

Adam Hochschild (1998)

A searing indictment of colonialism and a history of a forgotten, murderous episode.

The Congo remains the only empire in history to have been created solely by the efforts of a single man, Leopold II, King of the Belgians — and not by Belgium itself. This book reveals just how nauseous the whole regime was, and covers the efforts that led to its being gradually (all too slowly) dismantled. Leopold himself takes centre stage, with his ally Henry Morton Stanley cutting a rather sorry figure. But it is E.D. Morel, responsible along with Roger Casement, Hezekiah Shanu, William Sheppard for the first explicit campaign for human rights in history, who appear as the heroes who cleverly played international opinion.

Hochschild is right to point out the shame that we have few first-hand records of truly African origin: even the campaigners often felt it unwise (or unnecessary) to record and transmit the voices of the victims in whose names they worked. And the campaign stayed within the bounds of the intellectual landscape of the time, with its core beliefs in the need to educate and civilise the “native” populations. Hochschild is also right, I suspect, to see strength and sense in this position, arguing that a more radical approach to the rights of Africans, even if believed, would had doomed the campaign to failure on the fringes. He also doesn’t make the mistake of blaming all of Africa’s current problems on the legacy of colonialism, accepting the complex additions and the troubling similarities between pre- and post-colonial rule.

Nonetheless, around ten million people died during Leopold’s tenure over the Congo, and this is something that deserves to be far better known.

5/5. Finished Saturday 8 November, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)