Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Day The Universe Changed

History: Since first taking a class by the name, I've been fascinated with the subject. First, because it is who we, broadly and individually, are. And because it provides the only way to know us truly, which is by observation during operation.
Philosophy is theoretical, and chemistry, physics, and the rest of science just a laboratory/petri-dish experiment.
History is humanity, in the wild, in its natural habitat.

Most of you probably learned it originally, as I did, as a linear series of dates, places, names. A did this, went to B, did C, and so on.

Burke's view of history, in this groundbreaking book (and companion TV series) isn't like that.
His far more coherent view of history (and the correct one, IMHO) is to see all of us as wheels that move because of all the other wheels. A did B because of C, D, E, J, Q, and Y, who were also doing G, M, and T, which led to Z.

As proof of the pudding, in not just this book, and a BBC series of the same name (1985), but also in Connections 1, and Connections 2, also with a companion book, and Circles, and The Knowledge Web , Twin Tracks , The Pinball Effect, and The Axemaker's Gift , he proves his point, again and again and again, in some of the most delightful trips through history, science, and technology you'll ever find. (Nota bene: the TV series' were from when PBS, Discovery, TLC, etc., were worth the price of your cable bill, before everyone went all Bigfoot and reality crap, all the time.)

He starts out with the premise that 18th century sugar plantations led to the space shuttle, or that pre-industrial loom-weaving led to the modern computer. And then, in an A to B to C to D all the way through to Z series of moments, lays it out step by step, and proves his original point, right in front of you. QED.
Imagine Penn and Teller teaching college classes, and Penn laying out the trick backwards and forwards, and still dazzling you. Burke is that good.

What makes TDTUC special is that the book will take you from ancient man at the dawn of writing to about 1980, when the book was first penned. The first in his delightful series, it hands you all of history in a way you can access, while enjoying the entire ride. Western Civ without the boring part.

My introduction was, while sitting on a movie set surrounded by prop books (crates and bins of books used to fill out a wall of shelves), having run out of my own entertainment while rigging crew spent days coiling up the detritus of a modern feature film, finding the original hardcover book amongst the piles.

I read toothpaste tubes on long boring days in the military. When you're bored, anything is interesting. This was far more than that. Starting out, it grabbed me from the outset. So much so that larceny momentarily took hold: I pinched the book (the statute of limitations has expired), and took it home. I read that thing for two days, no-stop. Then started over again. (And not being an actual criminal, replaced the volume the next day with something else of similar size and heft from a thrift store, so the prop house was not shorted. Relax.)
And then found a new copy as well, so Burke hasn't been shorted either. Money well spent.

Part of what set this book apart, besides being the first in his series of offerings, is the multitudinous illustrations of primary source drawings, paintings, etc., that make Burke's points, and even better, the copious bibliography of more books he drew on for further research, elucidation, and inspiration.

It's twenty years since I serendipitously stumbled onto the original book, and I'm still only partway through Burke's bibliographical lists. And I've read the follow ups, and re-read this one half a dozen times.

If I founded a model university, Burke would be the chair of the History Department.
The beauty of the Internet is that now, you can hire him to tutor you, for the price of the book. Screw $200K in tuition, exhaustive knowledge of this volume would put you ahead of most history graduates in doctoral programs.

And for the TL;DR set, you can find some of the original BBC episodes online, bootlegged onto YouTube. Tease.

So there you go: a review, really, of seven books and three TV series, for the price of one essay.
Start with this one. This is pure genius, and lightning in a bottle.


Jennifer said...

He did for history what Sagan did for science: made you go WOW. Loved the series, got all the books, worth every penny. Still working through the bibliographies.

Sherm said...

However, he wasn't able to make a leisure suit look good.
(Those mis-fortunate enough not to understand the reference now have another reason to watch him in action early on)

Aesop said...

Back off, man...he's a scientist, not a runway model!

Jennifer said...

In Bio, we used to laugh at the sweaters with sleeve patches. Leisure suit never gained traction bc the wardrobe...

Anonymous said...

I've had James Burke's connections on my christmas/birthday lists forever. No-one ever took me seriously. Finally, I bumped it up to the top of the list and mom came through. We watched the first few episodes while I was up with her and she was recovering from knee surgery. "Wow, this is really great!". Really neat to watch the first series (which was pre internet) and think about how things have changed in the timespan between then and now... and how much more right he was.