On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through
This is a well-done, well-read science book that uses the periodic table as an excuse to wander off into various scientific tangents and stories. Think Bill Bryson or James Burke or similar sorts of scientific and historical storytelling. Many of these stories are really interesting (such as the tale of the boy scout who built his own nuclear reactor in a shed), and there is enough variety to keep anyone interested. I also need to applaud Mr. Kean for sticking very closely to the science, he is careful not to exaggerate where other writers might, and he is quick to call out "pathological science" when he sees it.
The real weakness of this book is that it plays very fast and loose with its premise. It uses the table as an excuse for stories, not as a prime motivator. Once Mr. Kean is done with Mendelev and related stories central to the discovery of new elements, he happily goes on to cover subjects like bubbles, international standards for the kilogram, and other topics; often making some sort of tenuous connection (see, the kilogram was made of iridium!) This is not a flaw in the stories, however, and the book remains interesting throughout. A great science read.
The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
This book was written in the earliest days of the current financial crisis, and completed sometime around May, 2008. As a result, it is both quite prescient about the causes of the current unraveling of the world financial system, and a bit out-of-date as so much has changed in the months since the book was published. If you are looking for something to explain the way that the current financial system was developed for the past three hundred years, and how the roots of the current crash go back deep into the history of finance, this book is an excellent and entertaining guide. It will introduce you to everything from the causes of the 1980s S&L scandals to the birth of investment banks to the inflationary pressures caused by the Spanish conquest of the New World, and demonstrate how these concepts are related to the current financial system. You will learn that crashes have always happened, and likely always will, so the book succeeds well as current commentary.
It is somewhat less successful as history of money, however, since the sections of the book, each named after a different type of financial instrument from insurance to bonds, are not really detailed histories of each topic, but rather a series of vignettes that illuminate a concept in the development of a particular financial instrument. The book focuses on the Rothschild family to explain the history of banking, the rise of Pinochet to explain the role of free markets, and so on. These stories are interesting and important, but they make the book feel more disjointed than a typical linear history. Similarly, the level of detail of the book fluctuates between fairly popular descriptions and very detailed statistics.
Overall, if you are either motivated to learn about the financial system, or you have a general interest in financial history, this is a wonderful book. Those who are less interested in the details, or who expect a complete account of the ascent of money, may be less impressed.