Calling this a classic like Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987) may be slightly premature, but it’s definitely a...

ENERGY

A HUMAN HISTORY

From the Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a magisterial history of “how human beings…[have] confronted the deeply human problem of how to draw life from the raw materials of the world.”

The modern world consumes gargantuan quantities of energy, a process made possible by the Industrial Revolution that began 300 years ago. In his latest, prolific veteran journalist and historian Rhodes (Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made, 2015, etc.) casts his expert eye on the subject. The breakout century for energy was the 18th, its birthplace Britain, and its basis coal, a more concentrated source of power than wood, increasingly cheap, and—no secret at the time—a source of smoke far more irritating than that of wood. Energy’s breakout technology was the steam engine. After the traditional nod to the Greeks, the author delivers a lucid but not dumbed-down explanation of how it works, from the first, clunky Newcomen engine suitable only for raising water from mines to James Watt’s spectacular improvements, which made steam engines the dominant power source until around 1900, when the steam turbine, electric motor, and internal combustion engine took over. Invention accelerated after 1800 when Watt’s patents (ironically a drag on progress) expired, and Rhodes takes readers on an exhilarating ride through the following two centuries, mixing narratives about the new sources of energy (electricity, oil, natural gas, the sun, and the atom) and the marvels that they made possible. He devotes entire chapters to their downsides (smog, radiation, toxic waste) but shows little sympathy for anti-technology activists. Humans are problem-solvers, he maintains, and the same genius that produced technological wonders will solve the problems that accompany them—although his optimism flags in the face of global warming.

Calling this a classic like Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987) may be slightly premature, but it’s definitely a tour de force of popular science, which is no surprise from this author.

Pub Date: May 29, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-0535-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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A timely contribution to the discussion of a crucial issue.

THE FIGHT TO VOTE

A history of the right to vote in America.

Since the nation’s founding, many Americans have been uneasy about democracy. Law and policy expert Waldman (The Second Amendment: A Biography, 2014, etc.), president of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, offers a compelling—and disheartening—history of voting in America, from provisions of the Constitution to current debates about voting rights and campaign financing. In the Colonies, only white male property holders could vote and did so in public, by voice. With bribery and intimidation rampant, few made the effort. After the Revolution, many states eliminated property requirements so that men over 21 who had served in the militia could vote. But leaving voting rules to the states disturbed some lawmakers, inciting a clash between those who wanted to restrict voting and those “who sought greater democracy.” That clash fueled future debates about allowing freed slaves, immigrants, and, eventually, women to vote. In 1878, one leading intellectual railed against universal suffrage, fearing rule by “an ignorant proletariat and a half-taught plutocracy.” Voting corruption persisted in the 19th century, when adoption of the secret ballot “made it easier to stuff the ballot box” by adding “as many new votes as proved necessary.” Southern states enacted disenfranchising measures, undermining the 15th Amendment. Waldman traces the campaign for women’s suffrage; the Supreme Court’s dismal record on voting issues (including Citizens United); and the contentious fight to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “became a touchstone of consensus between Democrats and Republicans” and was reauthorized four times before the Supreme Court “eviscerated it in 2013.” Despite increased access to voting, over the years, turnout has fallen precipitously, and “entrenched groups, fearing change, have…tried to reduce the opportunity for political participation and power.” Waldman urges citizens to find a way to celebrate democracy and reinvigorate political engagement for all.

A timely contribution to the discussion of a crucial issue.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1648-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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