The Disappearing Spoon: and other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements is a history of the development of our modern periodic table and the discovery and uses of some elements on that table. The book is divided up based on themes, for example; elements during war, politics, money, art and mental health. Elements are the building blocks of the universe, so it would have been easy for this type of book to bogged down in trying to cover too much, however I thought Kean balanced it well. It isn’t necessary to have a lot of chemistry knowledge to understand this book, as he gives an introduction to reading the table in the beginning. I recommend this book for people who are interested in chemistry, physics and science history.
It is often said that the one thing that connects us all is food. Because food is a great connector, there have been many books exploring the subject of food history which catalog the development and spread of different types of cuisine around the world. Consider the Fork instead is a history of the tools we use to eat and cook: spoons, knives, forks, pots, heat and refrigeration, amongst others. While these are tools we are so used to having in our lives, there has been a very long history, sometimes thousands of years, of ingenuity behind them. Consider the Fork provides just a taste of a micro history that isn’t often explored, and a downside is that I would’ve preferred a more in depth look at some of the subjects covered. However, the book is presented in an easily enjoyable learning experience. The audiobook narrator is also very pleasant to listen to and the writing made me appreciate the thought and invention that has gone into both the simplest and more complex tools we use in the kitchen. If I were to describe the book in one word, it would be “quaint”.
SPQR is a history of Rome, mainly focusing on the Republic period (in particular Cicero’s life) and the transition to autocracy. Beard also provides insight into how modern classicists their primary sources and why it’s important to study Roman history. The rest of the book has a general overview of Roman emperors (because, generally speaking, there’s little difference between individual rulers), and what daily life was like for the poor and Roman provinces. This book is not recommended for people who are only interested in reading about the series of events that lead to the rise and “fall” of the Roman empire.
Salt: A World History is an examination of history spanning across the world and throughout time, using salt as the connector. Salt has influenced food, trade, technological developments and different traditions worldwide. This book is in some ways disorganized. There’s a lot of jumping around to different locations, topics and time periods, although I didn’t find this confusing. It would be difficult to discuss in an organized way because salt has been a staple in so much of the world. This book is recommended for people who are interested in history and learning about one of the ways the world is connected.
Jerusalem: The Biography is a history of the city of Jerusalem from the reign of King David (1010-970 BCE) to the 1960s. The book gives a general overview and isn’t meant to be a detailed account of one specific area, however when the book reaches roughly the 1940’s the author sometimes goes into a detailed account of the deeds his ancestor, Moses Montefiore, did for the city. Some more modern history (post 1960s) is covered in the epilogue.
This book is recommended for people who are interested in the history of a city that has often been the focus of the known world for thousands of years and for those who are interested in some history of the Abrahamic religions.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the HeLa cell line, a group of cells that can reproduce indefinitely, and the family of the woman who “donated” them. These cells have been used since they were first harvested from Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge, in 1951 before she died from cancer at 31 years old. Since then her cell line has been replicated trillions of times, have been used to create the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and has advanced researched into genetics, virology and many other fields. The author developed a very close relationship with the family and tells their story with empathy and in a tactful way. The science is also outlined so it’s understandable without any background knowledge.
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom is a biography cataloging the life and achievements of Harriet Tubman. There are very few primary sources for the author to use, so the book, especially the beginning, is a little sparse. As the book progresses through her life there is more information available, but still very little when compared to other subjects, so there is a large amount of time spent on the contextual information of the time so it’s not critical to have background knowledge of the Underground Railroad or the Civil War.
Gateway to Freedom is the story of the Underground Railroad, which is in itself a daunting task to undertake as there are very few surviving sources due to the illegal nature of the railroad. The book does jump around both in time and place which is difficult to keep track of, especially when listening to the audiobook. Otherwise the book is interesting and the narrator is easy to listen to, although he does speak pretty slowly.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World attempts to take on the daunting task of re-examining world history focusing on the East. As least, that’s what the title seems to promise. In the introduction, the author critiques Orientalism and attitudes in the Western scholarship that either ignore or downplay the East’s effects on world history. Throughout the first half of the book the author tends to exoticize Eastern people and culture despite pointing this out as an issue in the introduction. Eastern history is also only the focus of the first half of the book and the last half mainly discusses Europe with the East mentioned on occasion, which is not what I expected from the title and blurb. In the audiobook, the narrator also sometimes puts on accents when quoting Eastern sources which I felt wasn’t necessary.
This book covers 400 years of history in the United States with a focus on what indigenous peoples went through during the formation of this country. Dunbar-Ortiz is very blunt about the atrocities that were committed to indigenous people during the formation of this country. This book is meant to be an introduction, and isn’t exhaustively detailed as it covers hundreds of years in about 300 pages. There is a list of further reading in the back which is a helpful way to get started learning about a part of history that is widely glossed over or not discussed at all.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918 is an incredibly detailed and well researched history of the Romanov family from the first Romanov tsar, Michael I, to the last, Nicholas II. The book uses many quotes from letters which humanizes the historical figures and provides more insight than a textbook would. The narrator for the audio book is pleasant to listen to and is very easy to understand.
Formatted as a letter to his son, Between the World and Me is a deeply personal account of what it is like to live as a black person in the United States. The text flows very naturally, almost like a conversation and is easy to sink into. This book is eye opening, emotional and an absolute must read for those trying to better understand what African Americans go through in this country.