Monday, June 7, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 23 (Eric Hobsbawm)

Hobsbawm, Eric
The Age Of Extremes
A History of the World
1914-1991


Purchased at St. Mark's Books in NYC, probably in 1996. This is likely the first straight up history book I ever read. At a certain point in my twenties I had a minor panic that I didn't know enough about history and so walked into a bookstore to buy a history book–I figured I'd start with a history of the time in which I lived, and this seemed as good a place as any. I think I also liked the photo on the cover; the title appealed to my younger self's sense that maybe history was a little dull. This was a history of "extremes," which might have meant it was more interesting than that other kind.

It is pretty interesting, as I recall. However, in retrospect it's a little too sweeping to be of much use to the beginner. It attempts to cover most of the 20th century, not to mention the entire globe, in its 600 or so pages, so that the information one gleans on each moment in the century is but a small fragment of the whole. It would probably be a more useful read now that I have a better sense of history and could make some kind of judgment about his perspective on the world. At the time, I had to take it at face value. I think when I read it I was working at Hyperion publishers and reading it on the job while I sat in my little cubicle in the corner waiting for something to do.

from The Age Of Extremes

"The lamps are going out all over Europe," said Edward Gray, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, as he watched the lights of Whitehall on the night when Britain and Germany went to war in 1914. "We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." In Vienna the great satirist Karl Kraus was prepared to document and denounce that war in an extraordinary reportage-drama of 792 pages to which he gave the title The Last Days of Humanity. Both saw the war as the end of the world, and they were not alone. It was not the end of humanity, although there were moments, in the course of the thirty one years of world conflict between the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July 1914 and the unconditional surrender of Japan on 14 August 1945–four days after the explosion of the first nuclear bomb–when the end of a considerable proportion of the human race did not look far off. There were surely times when the gods, whom pious humans believed to have created the world and all in it, might have been expected to regret having done so.

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