Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Not what I expected. I’d always thought the Meditations was a set of philosophical aphorisms. Instead, it’s something between a diary and a daily “deep thought”, a recording of a conversation an Emperor of Rome was having with himself.

As such, it’s repetitive and very personal, and yet somehow still relevant, hundreds of years after it was written.

Three things I found useful:

  • Try to learn from everyone, even (especially) the ones you disagree with.
  • If you know someone’s a jerk, don’t expect them to treat you fairly. And definitely don’t get angry with them for it, since you knew who they were from the start.
  • Success and failure happen to everyone, over and over again. So there shouldn’t be pride in the former, or shame in the latter.

The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar

Not what I expected. Written in plain language, as if he wanted to sound trustworthy, so the reader wouldn’t notice the (non-glorious) things he skips over.

Fascinating to read now, after I know more about both what happened to Caesar afterwards and the Gauls he attacked.

Three things I learned:

  • Caesar’s mercy started during the Gaul campaign, when he’d often pardon former enemies that were willing to bend the knee.
  • Caesar justified his attacks on the rest of Gaul and Germany on a domino theory: if the Germans prospered in Gaul, he said, they’d eventually march on Rome itself.
  • The Pullo and Vorenus from HBO’s Rome were based on real people, that Caesar wrote about by name (!)

Augustus by Anthony Everitt

Illuminating. Everitt makes Augustus a sympathetic figure, but without hiding any of his flaws: his hypocritical championing of family values, his slaughtering of competing Roman families, his unforgiving behavior towards his own family and friends. And he shows how Augustus’ life was often a series of serious mistakes followed by lucky victories, not a steady calculated rise to power.

Three things I learned:

  • The idea of having two “co-emperors” of Rome goes back to Augustus. He often had at least one trusted friend or family member invested with equal power and sent to rule different regions of the empire.
  • Augustus’ first official post was religious: his great-uncle Caesar, got him appointed to the College of Pontiffs, who were in charge of performing public sacrifices
  • Augustus was called “Princeps”, not Emperor. He was careful to keep his powers legal, renewed periodically via legislation, and to act humble while in Rome

X vs Y by Eve Epstein & Leonora Epstein

A cracking good read. Illuminates the relationship between Gen X and Gen Y, something that’s always felt a little slippery to me (as someone born in 1979, often thrown in with the Millennials but identifying with Gen X).

Filled with moments that made me nod along (the movie list for Gen X), and others that showed me a corner of the 90s I didn’t know existed (Sassy magazine). The book was clearly a work of love for both Eve and Leonora, and it shows.

Three things I learned:

  • Titanic was a huge movie for Gen Y. What I remember as just solid Oscar-bait was apparently perfectly tuned to imprint on young Gen Y brains.
  • Clueless can be read as not just a great adaption of Emma, but also as a love story between Gen Y (Cher) and Gen X (Josh), reflecting the complicated relationship between the two generations.
  • Complaining about the current tech-driven dating scene is common to Gen Y, though none of them would want to go back to the way things were before.

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Stunning. I had no idea of the magnitude of what was lost in Eastern and Central Europe after the War, due to Soviet coercion and control.

By focusing on just the first decade or so after V-E day, and restricting her story to mainly Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, Applebaum is able to go in deep on how the Soviets — and their local communist allies — were able to subvert their newly conquered satellite states, and impose a foreign totalitarian system on them.

Three things I learned:

  • Poland, Hungary, Germany, Finland: their borders were radically remade after the Soviet conquest. The Baltic countries vanished altogether, absorbed into the Soviet Union. Germany lost much eastern territory to Poland, who in turn lost its eastern reaches to the Soviet Union. The Ukraine was gone.
  • Poland lost 20% of its population in the war. In comparison, France lost 1.5%
  • The first step for most of the communist parties was to form a “national front” with other leftist parties, sometimes by force, usually with some amount of arm-twisting. Once that was established, communists would take over the mechanisms of state power (Interior, Secret Police, etc) while leaving the most visible positions in the hands of others, so it looked like a pluralistic government from outside.

1946 by Victor Sebestyen

Revelatory, especially when paired with Year Zero. Sebestyen shows how the Cold War began, so soon after the Allies won. Cracks between the Big Three (US, Britain, Soviet Union) that had been papered over for the sake of the war quickly grew into major rifts.

Three of the countless things I learned:

  • The Soviet Union didn’t steal the entire atomic bomb. Their stolen intelligence helped them move faster, by perhaps two years, but their scientists did the majority of the work themselves.
  • Mao financed his armies and kept his population fed during the Chinese Civil War by growing and selling opium (!)
  • Japan had been bombed far worse than Germany. Many millions lost their homes. 80% of its merchant shipping fleet was gone. Half of its agricultural land was waste. In the months after the war, Allied survey teams discovered Japan could not have carried on much longer than it did.

Year Zero by Ian Buruma

Illuminating. Filled a gap in my understanding of the war, of the year between the Allied victory and the rebuilding that followed.

Thankfully, Buruma doesn’t just cover what happened in Europe. He looks everywhere, from the Netherlands to Indonesia to Japan and China. A true history of the fallout from the last world war.

Three things I learned:

  • The Soviets stripped their territories, both European and Asian, of industry. Whole factories were broken down and shipped into the Soviet Union, from Poland to Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
  • Jews in Poland were not safe after the war. Those who managed to find a home to come back to still faced discrimination and pogroms. Over a thousand Jews were murdered in Poland in the year after liberation.
  • British military was complicit in the deaths of thousands, as it sent captured anti-communists back to the Soviet Union to be slaughtered (men, women, and children).

1493 by Charles C. Mann

Revelatory. Mann’s 1491 opened my eyes to the many civilizations that existed in the Americas before Columbus landed. 1493 has shown me just how much of our current world was created in the aftermath of his voyages.

Three of the many, many things I learned:

  • The lynchpin of the global trade of American silver for Chinese porcelain and silks was the Philippines. That’s where Spanish traders first ran into Chinese junks, in the early sixteenth century.
  • One theory for the causes of the Little Ice Age: the sudden reforestation of the Americas from the millions of native inhabitants that died out from European diseases.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes, and the second-largest producer of maize. Both crops are native to the Americas.

Tubes by Andrew Blum

A nice, quick intro to the physical infrastructure of the internet. Doesn’t really go into how all those pieces work — there’s no discourse on the technology behind a router — but does build a mental image of the boxes, buildings, and people that keep the world connected.

Three things I learned:

  • ARPAnet’s first Internet Message Processing machine was installed at UCLA in 1969. The machines were manufactured on the East Coast, but only West Coast universities were open to the idea of the network at the time.
  • In 1998, The Netherlands passed two laws to pave the way for fiber everywhere. One law required landowners to give up right of way for holes to be dug, second law required any company digging a hole to lay fiber to also let other companies lay their own cable in the same hole and share the costs. The one-two punch made it cheaper and easier to lay fiber, and also blocked anyone getting a monopoly.
  • The busiest route in the world is between London and New York, with more internet traffic than any other line.

Headstrong by Rachel Swaby

A cornucopia of female scientists and engineers that got left out of the history I learned in school.

It’s amazing how much these women accomplished considering how much was stacked against them. Time after time, in these biographies, I read how a brilliant scientist would be forced to work for free, because the university didn’t hire women. Often, they’d find employment in a German university, only to be kicked out once the Nazis took power and started firing Jewish scientists.

That kind of treatment would make me rebellious, want to stop my work completely and find something less important to do.

But these women persisted.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Grace Hopper was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in math from Yale. She invented the compiler, set the foundations for COBOL, and was considered so valuable to the Navy that she was called back from retirement to work another 19 years (!)
  • When Einstein needed tutoring in the higher math he needed to pursue his theory of General Relativity, he turned to Emmy Noether, the inventor of abstract algebra. Through the course of teaching Einstein, she invented the equations needed to set General Relativity on a solid mathematical footing.
  • Marie Tharp mapped 70% of the ocean floor, and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. She insisted that it was confirmation of continental drift for years (and was fired for it!) before theory became accepted.