Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book 73: How the Scots Invented the Modern World

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Invented Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman

I have long had a bit of a fondness for Scotland. I blame it all on Braveheart (thank you, by the way, Mel Gibson, for ruining that movie for me, really appreciate it). I also spent 4th of July in Edinburgh last year, and absolutely loved it. It really was interesting to be walking around in Scotland, reading quotes like "for we fight not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for Freedom alone which no good man gives up except with his life" in the Scottish History Museum (I'm not actually sure of the exact name of the museum anymore but the quote is right because I liked it enough to take a picture) on the day that America celebrates its independence - it felt like something I could have seen in an American history book. I also was surprised to stumble upon a statue of Abraham Lincoln in one of the Scottish cemeteries, a tribute to the Scottish-Americans that fought in the American Civil War. Still, I quickly realized that I didn't really know all too much about Scottish history beyond William Wallace and a few books on Mary Queen of Scots. When I went to the Writers' Museum, I discovered I'd never read anything by the great Scottish authors, including Stevenson and Scott - although, Rowlings started writing Harry Potter in Edinburgh so can I count that?

Anyway, I noticed this book on a friend's bookshelf a while back, and recently found it at Barnes and Noble while perusing the history section (I figure I really need to start reading something other than fiction; when I was in Iraq and still somewhat fresh out of college, I tried to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, and excluding some light memoirs, I honestly can't remember the last time I picked up a nonfiction book). For the most part, I liked the book, though I felt like it dragged some in the middle. Also, while the book definitely pointed to some important contributions that Scots have made in history I'm not exactly sold on the title or the thesis behind it.

The book is partially in chronological order and partially by theme. In some cases, this irritated me a little bit because many of the men he discussed were contemporaries though I kept thinking they came after each other. This might be a sign that I've been in the Army too long but I wanted a nice Powerpoint slide with a timeline so I could keep straight who lived when and published what when so I could more clearly keep straight what was influencing what. Herman focused a lot on ideas, and the great Scottish philosophers that came to influence human thought, such as David Hume, Adam Smith and others (of course, I see Hume and think Desmond!). Some of it was definitely interesting, such as the evolution of the idea of history and the four step model of societies. However, I've never been big on philosophy so on occasion, he'd mention a name, and I wouldn't actually know what that person's belief was and he wouldn't explain it until a few chapters later. I think it definitely helps to already have a general knowledge of some of the men discussed here. Also, I was reading this alongside novels, alternating every few chapters (hey, I need to ease back into nonfiction), so sometimes I forgot which person believed what.

Still, I was definitely interested the first few chapters. He kind of started losing me when he started talking about the Scots in America during the Revolutionary War. I don't know why, obviously if he is arguing that Scots influenced the entire modern world, it is important to show their influence in other countries, but I just wasn't as interested. I also felt like he sugarcoated some things in the chapter on the British Empire. He discussed how the Scots were an important part of the Empire and how they were helpful with India and China. On the one hand, it's good not to ignore the darker parts of history, but especially in his treatment of India, I felt like he was almost arguing that it was a good thing that the British Empire even took over the country, which made me uncomfortable.

While I wasn't big on the chapter about Revolutionary America, I did enjoy the one where he discussed Carnegie and explored other important scientific contributions. Herman argues that a shift can be seen in what Scotland contributed over time: in the 18th century, Scotland contributed a lot on philosophy and thought, and inspired the way American universities would be set up such as Princeton; later, it seemed more practical-minded, with big business and all. Of course, Herman continuously argues and points out the greatness of the Scottish mind and how they would often take others' inventions and make them better, more practical and thus usable.

I also enjoyed the more historical aspects of the novel, especially the ones focusing on Scotland itself, such as his discussion of the Highland Clearances and the rebellion in favor of Prince Charles. He also shows how the Scots began to romanticize the Highlanders with Walter Scot's novels, and how they came to dominate people's views and ideas of Scotland, including the king's. I guess the reason I find this interesting is because I'm used to the romanticized figures in American history: the noble savage, the cowboys, the Southern gentleman, but had never really considered the equivalent for other countries.

Overall, I liked it though I feel like maybe I should have stared with a slighlty more general history of Scotland. Or brushed up on my philosophy before reading it. My friend had even said when I'd asked her about it about that it was interesting but with its flaws/not great.

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