The Roots of Progress

Twelve books from 2017

In 2017 I read a dozen books for Roots of Progress. Here they are with brief commentary.

My top book of 2017 was The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. It’s the story of how and why the world has gotten safer and more peaceful, from tribal societies to today. I covered this in an earlier post.

A close runner-up is The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager. It’s the story of the Haber-Bosch process for creating synthetic ammonia, which is crucial for producing the fertilizer needed to feed the seven billion or so people on Earth today. In Hager’s phrase, it turns air into bread.

I also enjoyed The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by Willam Rosen. It’s the story of the steam engine, but also covers the origins of patent law. See a related post on the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial.

Early in this project, I read a few broad survey books to get an overview of the subject. One was A Brief History of How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World, by Thomas Crump. I learned a lot from this but I couldn’t help thinking that I should have learned a lot more. I walked away feeling I had gotten many pieces of a story, but not sure if I’d gotten all the pieces, or exactly how they all fit together. (This is a failing of many history books, especially when they tackle broad subjects.)

I also read The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, by Lewis Dartnell. I have no interest in apocalyptic scenarios, but this book is a good survey of the key technologies of industrial civilization. However, I was only able to retain pieces of it—I may return to skim it after completing my initial study of the history of technology, at which point I may have enough context for more of it to stick.

One focus of my reading this year has been materials, since they’re one of the bigger parts of the story of technology, both before the Industrial Revolution and during it. The very archaeological ages we use are named after materials, from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. For a survey, I read Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil (or the first few chapters of it, which were the ones relevant to me). Smil’s writing is dense at every level, but he does a good job of surveying and summarizing, so his books are good to get an overview.

Drilling in, I then read Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, by Steven Yafa, and Concrete Planet, by Robert Courland. Both were OK and worth reading for my purposes, but not the best books on this list. See related posts on pesticides and the cotton gin (I’m still working on a post on concrete).

In addition to reading about technology, I occasionally pick up a book that tries to get at the bigger picture (although I’m deliberately limiting this until I have more context on the details). The book that in a way started this project was A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr. I had to skim large sections of this book, including the initial chapters, but the gems I found in the rest were worth it, particularly the material on Francis Bacon, whom I had not appreciated before.

In a similar vein, I read How We Got Here: From Bows and Arrows to the Space Age, by C. R. Hallpike. I came across Hallpike, an anthropologist, after reading his excellent takedown of Yuval Harari’s overrated book Sapiens. Hallpike is an expert on primitive cultures, and How We Got Here focuses on them disproportionately, but his insights on primitive thought were fascinating.

Finally in this category, I read The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, based on his TV series of the same name. I enjoyed this one as well, but given the grand scope indicated by the title I was hoping for it all to add up to something more. Instead, I found it episodic: a series of stories, only loosely connected. My favorite chapter was the one on Galileo; I learned many new details about his conflict with the Church.

Rounding out the list, the most unusual book of the year perhaps was Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade. This filled out the earliest part of the timeline for me, from the first stone tools used by the ancestors of our species millions of years ago; to the first glimmers of more abstract conceptual thought tens of thousands of years ago, as evidenced by art and religion; to the beginnings of settled societies and agriculture. (Unfortunately, the author’s other books seem problematic, including one that tries to argue for an evolutionary basis for faith, and I don’t think I’ll read more from him.)

In addition to these books, I wrote 34 posts (including this one) for this blog in 2017, the first year of this project.

In 2018 I’m interested in more books on materials, including Plastic: A Toxic Love Story; more about energy, possibly starting with Vaclav Smil’s overview Energy and Civilization: A History; a book titled Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, by Rachel Laudan, who wrote one of the best articles on food I’ve ever read; and the unlikely hit The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Also on my maybe-to-read list are books on the histories of steel, railroads, paper, salt, and money. It should be an interesting year!

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