History / Biography Book Reviews

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews  > History / Biography

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★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – OrdM review + notes

The majority of “evil” is committed by ordinary individuals, not sociopaths.  Understanding the psychological mechanisms that led a group of non-ideological, working-class men to become hardened Holocaust killers changed the way I think about history – and psychology.  Mental models include: salience, contrast bias, habit, authority bias, social proof, and more.

 On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis – OGS review + notes

Spanning history from Ancient Greece to World War II, Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Lewis Gaddis concisely – and astonishingly insightfully – breaks down three key elements of grand strategy (time, space, and scale) in a multidisciplinary, utility-focused way.

★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

 The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis –  LandH review + notes

How do historians peer through the fog of the past to pick out data that can help us understand the present, and prepare for the future?  John Lewis Gaddis provides a fascinating, multidisciplinary, and extremely concise/accessible exploration that is surprisingly thought-provoking, invoking models like: storytelling, complexity / emergence, precision vs. accuracy, and utility.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes –  TMAB review + notes

As much about humanity and the individual as it is about science and the country, this Pulitzer-Prize winning book is lengthy but fascinating.  Seeing how science progressed – and didn’t – is a keystone opportunity to explore mental models ranging from bottlenecks to empathy to luck to schema to scientific thinking and many more.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin –  ABF review + notes

Charlie Munger inspired Poor Ash’s Almanack – and Munger, in turn, was perhaps inspired most by Benjamin Franklin, lauded centuries later for being one of the wisest of all Americans.  Franklin’s humorous yet insightful autobiography still holds up well today, with models including habit, empathy, rationality, confirmation bias, structural problem solving, and more.

★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin –  ABCD review + notes

How did a sickly man once dismissed as an unpromising student manage to deduce the process of evolution – much the way we still understand it centuries later – without the help of a single mathematical equation, let alone modern computing power?  Understanding Darwin’s insightful thought process yields models including: scientific thinking, ideology, disaggregation, and more.

★★★★ (4/7) (acceptable for its category)

Guns, Germs, and Steel –  GGS review

An interesting and thought-provoking book, but Diamond is a clear man-with-a-hammer, applying his environmental determinism theory way too far – he fails to explain anything interesting about the modern world, even though his story is credible up to the Renaissance.  Worth reading, but dramatically overrated and not worth your time unless you have no better books to read.

★★★ (3/7) (mediocre)

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson –  BFAAL review + notes

Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating subject – unfortunately, Isaacson doesn’t do him justice, as he spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on trivial, mundane details.  Franklin still manages to be interesting (on occasion) even through Isaacson’s misdirected lens, but this is a book with only the occasional worthwhile page amidst piles of boring tedium.

★★ (2/7) (meaningfully flawed)

none at this time!

★ (1/7) (run, Forrest, run!)

none at this time!