William H. McNeill is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago. His most recent books are The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian’s Memoir and Summers Long Ago: On Grandfather’s Farm and in Grandmother’s Kitchen, published by the Berkshire Publishing Group. His most recent publication, as editor, is the second edition of the Encyclopedia of World History.

Man Slaughters Man

Blood and Soil presents readers with the tangled record of the inhumanity of which human beings have shown themselves capable throughout recorded history. The author, Ben Kiernan, heads the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University and is a specialist on Pol Pot’s Cambodia, having published no fewer than eleven books …

Shall We Dance?

Barbara Ehrenreich defines her “mission” in writing this book as being “to speak seriously of the largely ignored and perhaps incommunicable thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation…. The focus here is on the kinds of events witnessed by Europeans in ‘primitive’ societies and recalled in the …

How the Winds Changed History

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a prolific and learned English-born historian of Spanish descent, begins his new book as follows: History has two big stories to tell. The first is the very long story of how human cultures diverged—how they parted and developed differences, in ignorance or contempt of one another. The second …

Conspicuous Proliferation

War Made New begins with a crisp introduction, sketching four revolutions in warfare since 1500 around which Max Boot chose to organize his book. It ends in a fog of acronyms for weapons still on the drawing boards, uncertainty about future military revolutions, and “The Danger of Too Much Change—and …

Secrets of the Cave Paintings

In 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family property in northern Spain when his young daughter interrupted, calling out “Look, Papa, oxen” as she looked up at the cave’s ceiling and “saw vivid yet …

Watch on the Rhine

At the close of his introduction, David Blackbourn, Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University, summarizes his new book as follows: This is a book about transformation on an epic scale. In the eighteenth century, German-speaking Europe looked so different from the way it looks today that many parts of …

Beyond Words

Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at Reading University in England, begins his preface by writing that “the propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful and neglected feature of humankind.” Since, until the advent of recordings, most music-making and all singing left no tangible trace behind, that neglect …

The Man Who Changed History

On October 27, 2005, John Hope Franklin and President Bill Clinton spoke at the New York Public Library before an overflow crowd about the themes of Franklin’s autobiography Mirror to America. Such a conspicuous, unique launch for his autobiography can be contrasted with Franklin’s start in life, recorded in his …

New World Symphony

Charles C. Mann is a journalist and his new book, while not without flaws, is a journalistic masterpiece: lively, engaging, and full of the latest information about the peoples who lived in the Americas before Columbus joined the two sides of the Atlantic together. Mann draws on wide reading in …

Ah, Wilderness!

The subtitles of the books by Bill McKibben and Nathaniel Tripp proclaim their chief concerns: McKibben celebrates a landscape running from Vermont to upstate New York—he is hopeful about efforts being made to preserve it—while Tripp records his struggle to protect the upper Connecticut River valley from abuse by electric …

Bigger and Better?

The Escape from Hunger is an important book by the Nobel economist Robert Fogel. The first three chapters offer a novel, tightly constructed, and convincing argument for a distinctively human form of what Fogel calls “technophysio evolution,” described as “biological but not genetic, rapid, culturally transmitted, and not necessarily stable.” …

Weapon of Mass Destruction

John Barry’s lively, artful, and very well informed account of the flu epidemic in 1918–1919, which killed more people than the guns and bayonets of World War I, ought to attract unusual interest in a year when a lethal form of “avian flu” has begun to spread from birds to …

The Big R

The three books under review address black–white relations—the most urgent and intractable domestic problem the United States faces today and has suffered from throughout its existence. George M. Fredrickson’s short history conforms to the best academic tradition. Detached in tone, it carefully defines “racism,” and goes on to discuss how …

The Conservation of Catastrophe

The books under review will surprise anyone who listened to TV anchormen this past August deploring all the destructive forest fires then raging in the western United States, since the authors all conclude that such fires are not an unmitigated evil. Murry Taylor, a retired firefighter, is robustly ambivalent, loving …

Continental Choo-Choo

The two eminently readable histories by David Bain and Stephen Ambrose treat the same subject, the history of America’s first transcontinental railroad, and were published only a year apart, yet the authors’ paths apparently never crossed—or, if they did, each chose to ignore the other. The fourteen years that Bain …

A Short History of Humanity

During the twentieth century the physical sciences converged with biology in transforming the Newtonian world machine governed by eternal, universal, and mathematical laws into an evolving—indeed exploding—cosmos where uncertainty prevails, and human efforts at observation affect what is observed. This brings the mathematical sciences closer to the social sciences, and …

Goodbye to the Bison

As Professor Isenberg tells us, the final destruction of free-ranging herds of bison on the American Great Plains occurred in the 1870s and was the work of a handful of white men interested only in stripping hides from dead buffalo carcasses and shipping them off for sale in the East.

The Flu of Flus

“The 1918 influenza epidemic is one of history’s great conundrums,” Gina Kolata writes in introducing the fascinating medical and scientific stories gathered together in her new book. As the subtitle explains, they are about the flu of 1918, and about recent efforts “to resurrect the virus’s genetic code,” which she …

The Greatest Might-Have-Been of All

What if Sennacherib, King of Assyria, had conquered Jerusalem in 701 BCE when he led his imperial army against a coalition of Egyptian, Phoenician, Philistine, and Jewish enemies, and handily defeated them all? This, it seems to me, is the greatest might-have-been of all military history. This may be an …

Vivacious Ghost

Virtually every schoolchild in the United States knows about the Grand Canyon by sixth grade or so; and as charts in the back of Stephen Pyne’s new book tell us, between three and five million tourists (most of them from the US) now visit the place annually to see for …

How the West Won

“If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.” So David Landes sums up the message of his book. The title he chose and the histories of particular nations that he explores with wit and impressive learning are thus part of …

History Upside Down

Guns, Germs, and Steel is an artful, informative, and delightful book, full of surprises for a historian like myself who is unaccustomed to examining the human record from the vantage point of New Guinea and Australia, as Jared Diamond has set out to do. The book is oddly titled, for …

Decline of the West?

Samuel Huntington has written a powerful and disturbing book. He scorns the universalist ambitions and assumptions that have characterized American foreign policy since 1917 or before. He rejects both the hope of a world “safe for democracy” in the idiom of World War I and a world where everyone enjoys …

The Great Contest

Bernard Lewis writes history with an air of lofty detachment, a fine mastery of the English language, and an easy familiarity with Arabic and Turkish archival and literary sources. The result is delightful and impressive, and for readers familiar only with the European side of the long story of Muslim-Christian …

The Plague of Plagues

One of the things that separate us from our ancestors and make contemporary experience profoundly different from that of other ages is the disappearance of epidemic disease as a serious factor in human life. Nowadays, if a few score of people die of an infection, officials declare an epidemic, the …