I never had good luck with audiobooks. As someone who mostly reads nonfiction, I find that audiobook readers often have no idea how to handle it. It often sounds like the high school P.E. teacher trying to teach algebra — like they don’t know the material, and don’t really care about it either. The times I’ve tried audiobooks, they’ve typically put me to sleep, or else grated on my nerves. Yet when I read the same books with my eyes, I loved them.

Recently I decided to give audiobooks another try, so I asked people I trust: my friends. I got several interesting suggestions, but the recommendations that sounded the best came from Tommie Kelly, who listens to tons of nonfiction audiobooks, and I trust his judgment. He told me to try anything by John Higgs or Jon Ronson, both of whom read their own books aloud for the audio versions.

Thus it was that, a few days ago, I started Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs. I’m delighted! It’s exactly my kind of book. I had previously read the ebook of Higgs’ KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, which was brilliant, so I had high hopes. (Tommie recommended that one to me last year.) Higgs more than met my expectations with Stranger Than We Can Imagine.

Each chapter covers some aspect of the twentieth century, and the book takes some unexpected turns. For example, I had never heard Einstein’s relativity explained so simply, in a way very easy to grasp. And that was just chapter one. Higgs hops from art to science to feminism, with detours into the postmodernism of Super Mario Bros. and how quantum mechanics is like Putin punching a kangaroo in the face. It’s informative, witty, deep, and hilarious in turns.

My one problem with the book is Higgs’ opinion that existentialism is nihilist. It isn’t. Existentialism may say that life has no inherent purpose, but that can be seen as a positive thing: we all have the freedom to choose our own purpose. I don’t find existentialism depressing at all, and I’ve been reading Sartre since I was a kid. (Dad gave me his copy of No Exit and Three Other Plays when I was eight. I didn’t really understand any of it until I was an adult, but I knew even back then that Dad’s motto in life could easily be a line from No Exit: “Hell is other people.” Dad’s a bit strange.) If you’re interested in the positive side of existentialism, I highly recommend Sartre’s essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

Other than that, though, Higgs says a lot I agree with. He covers how corporations gained so much power and what drives the horrors of capitalism. He profiles people from magician Aleister Crowley to Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun to the marvelous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an early twentieth century Dada artist (you really want to read about her, she’s amazing), and Marie Stopes, the British Margaret Sanger (who, like Sanger, did good and important work despite being a eugenicist).

A major theme of the book is that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Western civilization thought they knew everything. Physics was all solved. Imperial cultures dominated, as they had for centuries. The cosmos was orderly. And then Einstein and World War I and Modernist art all brought it crashing down. Western culture crumbled and rebuilt itself in new and interesting ways.

Higgs also writes a lot about the rise of individualism, and his hope that the “networked generation” — those born after 1990 — would become more collectivist. The book was written in 2015. I’m quite sure Higgs is disappointed with the way things have gone with Trump and Boris and Brexit.

Overall, it’s a great book. Higgs’ voice is pleasant and confident, and the content is absorbing. I highly recommend this, regardless of what format you read it in.

Categories: History


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