# books

Today I finished reading (read: skimming) The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan. The first few chapters of the book are genuinely fascinating. The rest of the book could have been condensed down to fifty pages or so. I feel like this was a great starting point to understand the dawn of modernity — the literal environment in which the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. You can read my full review.

Demetrius Fordham has written a really nice textbook on a beautiful subject. This isn’t a profound investigation, but it is a very competent survey. I really enjoyed learning the nuanced differences between the different genres of people pictures — from editorial to portrait to fine art.

Fordham offers lots of personal tips, but my favorite were the thoughtful gestures he uses in portrait shoots. He asks his subjects for their favorite snack and music in advance, and then has a bowl of the snacks and the music playing when they arrive to the shoot. He schedules fifteen minutes at the beginning of the shoot to make small talk. And, he engages the subject in collaboration, asking them what kind of shots they like and what they think might be good.

The Little Ice Age is Brian Fagan’s report on a period of environmental change that changed the world forever.

I moved to Florence three weeks ago. Now that I’m living in the home of the Renaissance, I want to understand better how it happened. Last week I dove into the history and found Fagan’s book.

Fagan describes climate changes that unfolded over the course of about a millennium — from around 900CE to 1900CE. The change was caused by long-term changes in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic.

The changes happened in two phases:

  • The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), from 950CE to 1250CE
  • The Little Ice Age (LIA), from 1300CE to 1850CE

During the MWP, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 1°C higher than the norm.

During the LIA, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 2°C colder than the norm.

During the MWP, Northern and Western Europe experienced exceptionally long, warm summers. The warm climate opened up huge swaths of marginal land to agriculture. Farmers planted new fields further north and into forests, marshes, and highlands. A wine industry boomed in England. Europe’s economic and military power grew and Christendom expanded. The Catholic church launched an era of magnificent cathedral building, which saw the creation of the gothic cathedrals of Paris (Notre Dame), Cologne, Florence, Canterbury, Salisbury, Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Wells, Strasbourg, Exeter, and Siena. This was a golden age for Vikings, who took advantage of the ice-free oceans to settle Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The population of Central, Western, and Northern Europe more than doubled. All of this newfound wealth created a new class of spoiled nobility that lived off of taxes and rents from the peasantry. This was the golden era of feudalism.

But then, something unexpected happened.

Between 1250 and 1350, the temperature dropped from an unusual high to a withering low. Starting in 1315, Europe saw a period of cold, wet weather that wrought devastation. Year after year, heavy rains through spring and summer washed away the fields and stopped crops from growing. There was famine for seven years. Up to 12% of the population of Northern Europe died. The famished livestock grew weak, and a bovine pestilence struck, killing half of the cattle.

Even after the famine ended, the cold weather remained. The age of prosperity had ended and Europes peasants now faced an interminable age of poverty. Twenty five years after the famine ended, the cold weather brought Bubonic Plague from Asia. The peasants lived in crowded squalor, they had weak immune systems, and they were completely unprepared for further hardship. The plague killed half of the population of Europe in about five years.

The peasantry emerged from the plague with a new outlook. The diminished workforce commanded higher wages, and many peasants had inherited land from dead relatives:

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the depopulation of the countryside by famine, plague, and war had led to the abandonment of as many as 3,000 villages across France alone. Thousands of hectares of arable land lay vacant and did not come back into cultivation until the end of the century or even later. Again, war was a villain. Frightened peasants fled behind city walls and dared not venture out to cultivate fallow land nearby, thereby compounding food shortages caused by poor harvests and wet weather.

On the other hand, Europe’s nobility — having survived famine and plague by hiding in their manor homes — now faced an economic crisis that threatened their opulent lifestyles. To maintain their status, they fought two wars: one against foreign powers to expand or preserve their kingdoms; and one against their own people, to maintain their political dominance. From the 1300s onwards, Europe saw a period of unprecedented war and rebellion peaking in the calamitous 1600s — the coldest and most violent century of the Little Ice Age. In 1560, a Prussian pastor wrote:

There is no real constant sunshine, neither a steady winter nor summer; the earth’s crops and produce do not ripen, are no longer as healthy as they were in bygone years. The fruitfulness of all creatures and of the world as a whole is receding.

Philosophically, the European worldview had been shaken to the core. If God was just, how could he have wrought such terror? And if life is fleeting, shouldn’t we enjoy it? Europeans were ready to question the role of the absolute authority of God and the church — an authority which took another blow in 1378 when, in a moment of crisis brought about by rampant corruption, the Catholic Church appointed two rival popes and created a schism in the church.

Seeking a rationalization for their suffering — and with the church failing to offer one — Europeans turned to superstition. The Little Ice Age saw a rise in pogroms and witch trials, with jews and women regularly burned alive.

Fagan restates a theory popularized by Mark Kurlansky in his book Cod. The changing ocean temperature drove the cod away from European shores. Prior to Columbus’ voyage, droves of Basque and English fisherman secretly made their way to the New World to plunder the bounteous cod stocks.

Partly as a result of the change in climate, the Roman Empire finally collapsed in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, sending scholars fleeing Westward as refugees. Many of these scholars landed in Florence. When they arrived, they found a society embroiled in struggle: rich versus poor, pious versus profane.

The fall of Constantinople had closed the Silk Road, forcing European traders to look for other ways to access Asia for lucrative resources. In 1481, a Florentine astronomer, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, wrote a letter to Christopher Columbus detailing a plan to reach Asia by traveling west across the Atlantic Ocean. Contrary to popular belief, no one at the time believed that the earth was flat. Rather, they had loosely accurate estimates of the circumference of the earth, which showed that a westward journey around the world from Europe to Asia would be too long, and no ship could carry the necessary food and water. Nonetheless, Columbus attempted it eleven years later — and arrived in the New World.

If it weren’t for this climate snap — from warm to cold — would Europeans have crossed the Atlantic? Would they have had the capital to fund their expeditions and subsequent conquests? If they hadn’t know the scarcity of plague, famine poverty, and war, would they have known the greed to murder, pillage, and plunder? Would we have a modern world?

The first third of the book is the most original and interesting. For the rest of the book, Fagan meanders through a laundry list of weather reports without much narrative aside from emphasizing that weather is important. He briefly discusses the philosophical debate around environmental determinism: the assertion that we can attribute social movements to environmental factors. Weather intentional or not, Fagan falls into this trap — summarizing massive historical moments almost exclusively in terms of the weather of the day. While it’s not necessarily wrong, it also feels too narrow to be interesting. While weather was obviously a factor in the Irish Famine, it was not the only factor — and it may not even have been a decisive factor.

My favorite anecdote in the latter half of the book is about cultural encounters in the depths of the Little Ice Age — towards the end of the 1600s:

In 1695, ice surrounded the entire coast of Iceland for much of the year, halting all ship traffic. The inshore cod fishery failed completely, partly because the fish may have moved offshore into slightly warmer water, but also because of the islanders’ primitive fishing technology and open boats. On several occasions between 1695 and 1728, inhabitants of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland were startled to see an Inuit in his kayak paddling off their coasts. On one memorable occasion, a kayaker came as far south as the River Don near Aberdeen.

Who is to say that maritime traffic only goes one direction?

All in all, this feels like an important book. Philosophically, it makes me wonder about the role of God in European history. Fagan argues that these immense changes are likely caused by sunspot activity. What could be more God-like than our capricious sun? It gives all life. It watches over everything. It provides times of bounty, and it can also provide times of absence. Perhaps the Europeans understood this. Their God in the sky took care of them until he didn’t. And then they took matters into their own hands.

Fagan has a positive few of the agricultural changes that took place through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment — a move to enclose and consolidate farms into larger holdings, controlled by wealthier landlords. This move made agriculture more efficient, but it also eventually displaced most of the European peasantry (including my ancestors), providing the workforce for the Industrial Revolution.

In Fagan’s context, this is truly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, agricultural innovation destroyed the traditional livelihoods of the peasantry and sowed the seeds of a new economic system — capitalism — fueled by poverty and dehumanization. On the other hand, by consolidating agricultural operations, this new economic system effectively put an end to plague and famine (though certainly not war). Perhaps this is a bargain that the desperate peasants were willing to make at the end of the Middle Ages. After decades (or centuries) of illness and starvation, perhaps a world with greater inequality — and all of the associated tyranny and inequity — seemed acceptable.

Scattered Minds is one of the most influential books on the topic of ADD/ADHD. Canadian physician Gabor Maté wrote the book after receiving his own diagnosis for ADD. (Maté uses the shorter abbreviation, “ADD”, so I’ll do the same here.)

Scattered Minds is an impressive accomplishment of memoir, medical writing, and self help all in one as Maté ties together his childhood, family life, medical practice, research, and life’s wisdom. His prose, weaving together his personal experiences, research, and case studies, kept me engaged for the most part. Nonetheless, I got bored a few times and skipped a few chapters. I found some sections a bit repetitive or drawn-out. But, on the whole, I thought this was a great book about life as well as ADD.

Maté was born to Jewish parents in Hungary during the Holocaust — which immediately become relevant in Maté’s main thesis about ADD: it is primarily caused by emotional strain during infancy. Maté goes so far as to argue that ADD is actually caused by a deficit of eye contact between guardian and child in the early stages of development. I found his insistence on this causality suspect, but I take his broader point: emotional stress during early development affects the brain, and that can present in later years as ADD. Maté says that early childhood strain leads to a weaker executive function. In his analogy, the traffic cop who regulates emotions, thoughts, and impulses is off duty.

I don’t know if I have do or don’t have ADD. I haven’t been assessed or diagnosed. What I do know is that I grew up in a house with financial strain, and my parents divorced when I was seven. My report cards describe a child who didn’t pay attention or hand in assignments despite being thoughtful and intelligent. In high school, I was excited to enroll in the advanced classes, but I spent much of my time asleep on my desk, having stayed up too late the night before and now unable to follow what was happening on the chalkboard. I developed a distrust for authority and tendency toward subversion. I fell in love with activism and backpacking. In university, I argued with my teachers. At work, I argued with my bosses. I picked up side gigs and worked on weekends. I never felt like I was doing enough.

I relate to many experiences that Maté and other people with ADD describe. So many that I can’t list them here; I would need to go through the book again with a pen and paper. Like the experiences described in the book, I developed a self-identity based in unmet potential, even while I was accomplishing achievements I was proud of.

I don’t think you need ADD to learn from Scattered Minds. Ultimately, we live in a society that puts strain on working humans from life’s first moments through to its last. About the social conditions for ADD, Maté quote the poet Robert Bly,

Bly notes that “in 1935 the average working man had forty hours a week free, including Saturday. By 1990, it was down to seventeen hours. The twenty-three lost hours of free time a week since 1935 are the very hours in which the father could be a nurturing father, and find some center in himself, and the very hours in which the mother could feel she actually has a husband.” These patterns characterize not only the early years of parenting, but entire childhoods.

Although society has created economic pressure on women to participate in the workforce when children are very young, it has made little provisions for the satisfaction of children’s needs for emotional nourishment and stimulation. In neither Canada nor the U.S. has public support for the care of young children of working parents come close to adequate.

Under this pressure, many of us struggle to find any sense of accomplishment or stability. In lieu of that, it’s normal to feel anxious, unmotivated, and flustered.

For someone with an ADD diagnosis, there are proven medical treatments, including psychotherapy and medication. But for anyone who feels overwhelmed with the scope of daily life, Maté offers solid advice rooted in self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Beyond finding compassion for ourselves, I think Scattered Minds is also a call to cultivate compassion for others. In 2015, when I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, the idea of neurodiversity blew my mind. I realized that many people’s psychological experience of the world is profoundly different from what we understand as “normal.” But instead of accepting a diversity of minds, we demean people who seem odd. Scattered Minds reminded me of this again. Everyone has a different experience of the world. Sometimes, those experiences can be very difficult. Sometimes, society makes those experiences unnecessarily difficult. But nonetheless those different experiences — the things that make each of us me — are beautiful.

Eric Hobsbawm was one of England’s most distinguished and respected historians. The Age of Revolution is the first book in Hobsbawm’s monumental four-part summary of modern European history. The book covers the period from the French Revolution in 1789 through to the European political upheavals of 1848.

Hobsbawm, who died in 2012, was a communist. He doesn’t waste time lyricizing about the economic gains or innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, he goes straight into the living reality of the time.

Such as it was, the world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact… even in England itself, the urban population only just outnumbered the rural population for the first time in 1851.

From this starting point, we understand that the history of the “long 19th century” is a history of the relationship between people and the land that provided their livelihood — a relationship that grew increasingly alienated year by year.

The book focuses on the Industrial and French revolutions as coincident revolutions that both completely changed the economic structure of society, pushing England and France from traditional feudal societies to early market-based societies. By the end of the period, for the first time in history Europe had an economic system where land and labor could be easily bought and sold. Humans who had always worked the land for themselves now understood that their basic needs — food, hygiene, housing — came from a market.

A lynchpin in the story is the invention of the cotton gin, which automated the processing of cotton. Over the 18th century, America had built a massive industry of cotton production. But it still took considerable time and effort for enslaved people to process the cotton so it could be used for textiles. The cotton gin removed this effort and opened the floodgates of industry. Cheap cotton flooded the market, originating in the American South and entering Europe through Scotland and Northern England.

All of a sudden, cloth became a material that ordinary people could cheaply buy and use. The production of cotton exploded in the United Kingdom as the British sold it domestically and then abroad. England flooded with money from cotton, and that money launched the Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, the demand for cotton fed an explosion of slaveholding in America, which would grow over the following decades until reaching a breaking point with the Civil War.

This is the period of European history when power shifted from the aristocracy (traditional land owners) to the bourgeoisie (market capitalists). In the United Kingdom, the transfer of power passed through industrialization. In France, the transfer passed through violent revolution.

France’s revolution also solidified the idea of the nation. After French revolutionaries rose up and created a new constitution, they believed that they had a righteous mission to spread their politics abroad. Napoleon, who had risen to prominence through the revolution, seized on this nationalism to lead France through a series of wasteful and ruinous wars across Europe, which ended in defeat and disaster.

This is a rough summary based on what I can remember of what I have read so far. I’ll take time to update it as I proceed.


The book “is not a detailed narrative, but interpretation.”

The book is for the person “who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today.”


The period between 1789 and 1848 “forms the greatest transformation in human history since the remote times when men invented agriculture, metallurgy, writing, the city and the state… The great revolution of 1789-1848 was not the triumph of ‘industry’ as such, but of capitalist industry; not of liberty and equality in general, but of middle class or ‘bourgeous’ liberal society; not of ‘the modern economy’ or ‘the modern state’ but of the economies and states in a particular geographical region of the world whose center was the neighbouring and rival states of Great Britain and France.”

”… the twin crater of a rather larger regional volcano.”

“it is more relevant… that they could not with any probability have been expected to occur at this time in any other part of the world.”

“Our problem is to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph.”

Chapter 1

The world in the 1780s was relatively empty: large blank swaths on the map, criss-crossed by trade routes. Much of the world was unknown. Inhabited territories of Europe were largely marsh, brush, and underutilized grazing territory.

“Europeans were, on the whole, distinctly shorter and lighter than they are today.”

People moved slowly by foot, cart, or boat. They “lived and died in the county, and often in the parish, of their birth: as late as 1861 more than nine out of ten in seventy of the ninety French departments lived in the department of their birth.” “There were no newspapers.”

“The world of 1789 was overwhelmingly rural, and nobody can understand it who has not absorbed this fundamental fact.”

Even “the provincial town still belonged essentially to the economy and society of the countryside.” The town professionals worked in auxiliary industries.

“The provincial city had declined sadly since its heyday in the later middle ages. It was only rarely a ‘free city’ or city state; only rarely any longer a centre of manufactures for a wider market or a staging-post in international trade.”

“The provincial town of the late eighteenth century might be a prosperous and expanding community… but that prosperity came from the countryside.”

Early economists assumed that land and land rent was the sole source of income. “The crux of the agrarian problem was the relation between those who cultivated the land and whose who owned it, those who produced its wealth and those who accumulated it.”

Europe divides into three areas:

  • Overseas colonies were where farm workers are unfree, either on latin feudal estates or American slave plantations
  • Eastern Europe was mostly agrarian serfdom, so the typical farm worker was unfree
    • “the flood of serfdom which had risen almost without a break since the later fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.”
    • “the typical peasant was a serf, devoting a large part of the week to forced labour on the lord’s land, or its equivalent in other obligations. His unfreedom might be so great as to be barely distinguishable from chattel slavery.”
    • The colonies and the East largely served Western Europe as dependent economies.

The West was modernizing, though “In most countries of Western Europe the fuedal order implied by such ways of thinking was still politically very alive… Economically, however, western rural society was very different. The characteristic peasant had lost much of his servile status in the late middle ages… The characterisc estate had become a system of collecting rents and other money incomes.” The peasant was “more or less free,” and paid rent or a share of crops to a landlord or a local lord. England had already progressed well towards capitalist agriculture. As English smallholding and cottage industry was stripped away in the 18th century, there remained a bourgeois class of agricultural entrepreneurs and an agrarian proletariat.

The UK became incredibly powerful through economic development, and “by the 1780s all continental governments with any pretence to a rational policy were consequently fostering economic growth, and especially industrial development.”

(p. 36)

At my office book club, we finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On the whole, I found this book disappointing. I respect Malcolm Gladwell as a storyteller, but as a philosopher his ideas are deeply misguided.

In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individual determination does. That part of the book is compelling.

After that, Gladwell uses the rest of the book as a rambling argument for racism. The book’s penultimate chapter is called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” which — you may have guessed — is about how Chinese people are good at math because of rice farming. That’s as crass as a stereotype can be. Gladwell never feigns any attempt at subtlety or caution. Gladwell’s coup de grace in the final paragraph of the chapter is that the world’s hardest working students and the countries with the world’s best math students are all in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture.

Gladwell leaves it to a footnote to clarify that China (the primary country discussed in the chapter) is omitted from this list for technical reasons, and he completely ignores that neither Signapore nor Hong Kong produce any rice at all. In fact, the other three countries don’t even produce that much rice. Per person, they rank below Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, India, and Peru — all countries that have miraculously avoided the good-at-math stereotype.

But Gladwell asserts that Asian readers should take no offense at the bizarrely unsubstantiated stereotype.

Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left. Sometimes people of Asian background get offended when their culture is described in this way, because they think that the stereotype is being used as a form of disparagement. But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty… Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

Gladwell acts as if he misses the obvious facts here:

  • anyone would be offended if you described them as if they had just walked out of a peasant farm,
  • millions of East Asians feel uncomfortable as strange assumptions about their skills and interests follow them through their whole lives, and
  • billions of people from thousands of cultures in dozens of countries compose the group that Gladwell describes as “Asian” and reduces to the concepts of rice.

But more than that, he also ignores the wrongness of assuming character traits about people based on their ethnicity. On the contrary, he argues that to do so is logical — a lazy intellectual trap that puts Gladwell squarely in the same category as the eugenicists and phrenologists of days past.

I won’t comb through the rest of the book, but I had similar qualms with almost every chapter. This raises the question: is Gladwell deliberately oblivious, or just unwise? In this case, I think he’s probably just unwise. Towards the end of the book, he loosely logics that Caribbean slavery was ultimately a good things because it led to himself (a descendent of slaves) being born. We don’t need a Philosophy 101 class to understand that consequence doesn’t justify cause, but Gladwell seems to genuinely miss this fact.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023