The best books on modernity

23 authors have picked their favorite books about modernity and why they recommend each book.

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The Long Shadow

By David Reynolds,

Book cover of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

David Reynolds is simply one of the smartest and most original historians operating today. Do we imagine that no one thought much about the poems of Wilfred Owen until the 1960s? Do we think about how important the fiftieth anniversary of the Somme was for the politics of Ireland? This book is packed full of perceptive and original insights about the Great War’s very long legacy.

Who am I?

I was a law school graduate heading for my first job when, unable to think of anything better to do with my last afternoon in London, I wandered through the First World War galleries of the Imperial War Museum. I was hypnotized by a slide show of Great War propaganda posters, stunned by their clever viciousness in getting men to volunteer and wives and girlfriends to pressure them. Increasingly fascinated, I started reading about the war and its aftermath. After several years of this, I quit my job at a law firm and went back to school to become a professor. And here I am.

I wrote...

The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

By Benjamin Carter Hett,

Book cover of The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

What is my book about?

Why did democracy fall apart so quickly and completely in Germany in the 1930s? How did a democratic government allow Adolf Hitler to seize power? In The Death of Democracy, Benjamin Carter Hett answers these questions, and the story he tells has disturbing resonances for our own time.

To say that Hitler was elected is too simple. He would never have come to power if Germany’s leading politicians had not responded to a spate of populist insurgencies by trying to co-opt him, a strategy that backed them into a corner from which the only way out was to bring the Nazis in. Hett lays bare the misguided confidence of conservative politicians who believed that Hitler and his followers would willingly support them, not recognizing that their efforts to use the Nazis actually played into Hitler’s hands. They had willingly given him the tools to turn Germany into a vicious dictatorship.

Vermeer's Hat

By Timothy Brook,

Book cover of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Brook uses artifacts portrayed in six paintings by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer to show how, several centuries before the World Wide Web, the local and the global were intimately connected. He surprises his readers by showing that people and goods and ideas moved around the 17th-century world in ways that – rather like us – their ancestors would have considered impossible. Perhaps because Brook is a Canadian historian of China who is familiar with Europe, he provides a truly global history and almost every page contains a “gee whiz” fact. I also love the idea that “Every picture tells a story.”

Who am I?

I teach history at The Ohio State University. This project began when I listened in 1976 to a radio broadcast in which Jack Eddy, a solar physicist, speculated that a notable absence of sunspots in the period 1645-1715 contributed to the “Little Ice Age”: the longest and most severe episode of global cooling recorded in the last 12,000 years. The Little Ice Age coincided with a wave of wars and revolution around the Northern Hemisphere, from the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China to the beheading of Charles I in England. I spent the next 35 years exploring how the connections between natural and human events created a fatal synergy that produced human mortality on a scale seldom seen before – and never since.

I wrote...

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

By Geoffrey Parker,

Book cover of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

What is my book about?

Global Crisis examines how a fatal synergy between climate change and human inflexibility eradicated one-third of the planet’s human population and unleashed an unparalleled spate of wars, invasions, and revolutions. Personal accounts and scientific data alike show how extreme weather disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests, bringing hunger, malnutrition, forced migration, and disease, and then, as material conditions worsened, precipitated economic chaos, political anarchy, and social collapse. 

Although humans played no part in causing this episode of climate change, they still suffered and died from the primary effect: a 2ºC fall in global temperatures. The fact that today we face an increase of 2ºC will not reduce either the extreme weather events associated with changes of this magnitude, or the adverse consequences for humanity. My book has a moral: where climate change is concerned, in the 21st century as in the 17th century it’s better – and cheaper – to prepare than to repair.

One-Dimensional Man

By Herbert Marcuse,

Book cover of One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

This is the one classic text on my list. Marcuse’s book was like a bible to protesting students in the 1960s, and its critique of the psychic levelling that occurs under capitalism remains just as germane today, if not more so. This is the most successful marriage of Freud and Marx that emerged from the famous Frankfurt School, which was a group of cultural Marxist invested in psychoanalysis. Marcuse grasps how capitalism employs technology to ensure its psychic dominance. 

Who am I?

I have spent a great deal of time exploring how psychoanalytic theory might be the basis for a critique of capitalism. I had always heard the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, but what interested me was how psychoanalytic theory might offer a different line of thought about how capitalism works. The impulse that drives people to accumulate beyond what is enough for them always confused me since I was a small child. It seems to me that psychoanalytic theory gives us the tools to understand this strange phenomenon that somehow appears completely normal to us. 

I wrote...

Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

By Todd McGowan,

Book cover of Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

What is my book about?

Despite creating vast inequalities and propping up reactionary world regimes, capitalism has many passionate defenders—but not because of what it withholds from some and gives to others. Capitalism dominates, Todd McGowan argues, because it mimics the structure of our desire while hiding the trauma that the system inflicts upon it. Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.

Capitalism's parasitic relationship to our desires gives it the illusion of corresponding to our natural impulses, which is how capitalism's defenders characterize it. By understanding this psychic strategy, McGowan hopes to divest us of our addiction to capitalist enrichment and help us rediscover enjoyment as we actually experienced it.

The Swerve

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

While The Swerve is not exactly a book about posterity, it nonetheless provides a wonderful case study of a text that remained on the verge of destruction for centuries, before going on to play a tremendously influential role in shaping our modern world. This book is none other than On The Nature of Things by Lucretius –one of the foundational texts of Western culture, whose impact was postponed to the fifteenth century, as it would not have seen the light of day without its serendipitous rediscovery in a German monastery by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). This gripping work offers a fascinating example of the delayed reception of a prominent cultural object, a proof of its extraordinary resilience, and, at the same time, an illustration of the role played by chance and accidents on the transmission of texts to posterity. 

Who am I?

I grew up in Bordeaux, a city that became prominent during the eighteenth century. My hometown inspired my love of eighteenth-century French studies, which led me to the Sorbonne, then to Yale University where I earned a PhD. Today, I am an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. I am the author of eight novels and monographs published in France and the US, including American Pandemonium, Posthumous America, and Sentinel Island. My work explores numerous genres to question a number of recurring themes: exile and the representation of otherness; nostalgia and the experience of bereavement; the social impact of new technologies; America’s history and its troubled present.

I wrote...

The Paradoxes of Posterity

By Benjamin Hoffmann, Alan J. Singerman (translator),

Book cover of The Paradoxes of Posterity

What is my book about?

Why do people write? It has everything to do with being remembered by posterity. The Paradoxes of Posterity argue that the impetus for literary creation comes from a desire to transcend the mortality of the human condition through a work addressed to future generations. Refusing to turn their hope towards the spiritual immortality promised by religious systems, authors seek a symbolic form of perpetuity granted to the intellectual side of their person in the memory of those not yet born while they write. 

Benjamin Hoffmann illuminates the paradoxes inherent in the search for symbolic immortality: paradoxes of belief, identity, and mediation. Theoretically sophisticated and convincingly argued, this book contends that there is only one truly serious literary problem: the transmission of texts to posterity. 

The Jewish Century

By Yuri Slezkine,

Book cover of The Jewish Century

The history of modern Russia is almost inconceivable without the millions of Jews who, restricted to the Pale of Settlement in the years of the tsarist empire, went on to become major producers and interpreters of Russian culture in the Soviet Union. This remarkable book tells their story but is about so much more besides. In witty and idiosyncratic prose, it ultimately describes the modern condition and what it means to inhabit it.

Who am I?

I have been studying Russia and its history for over 30 years and find that it continues to intrigue me. Having previously focused my attention on religion and its imperial dimensions (including The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, with Oxford University Press in 2014), I have more recently sought to understand the importance of Russia’s nineteenth century and I am now exploring the history of Russia’s territory with a view to writing a history of the longest border in the world. I teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

I wrote...

1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

By Paul W. Werth,

Book cover of 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

What is my book about?

Historians often think of Russia before the 1860s in terms of conservative stasis, when the "gendarme of Europe" secured order beyond the country's borders and entrenched the autocratic system at home. This book offers a profoundly different vision.

Drawing on an extensive array of sources, it reveals that many of modern Russia's most distinctive and outstanding features can be traced back to 1837, a seemingly inconspicuous but in fact exceptional year. From the romantic death of Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin in January to a colossal fire at the Winter Palace in December, Russia experienced much that was astonishing in 1837. The cumulative effect was profound. The country's integration accelerated, and a Russian nation began to emerge, embodied in new institutions and practices, within the larger empire. The result was a quiet revolution, after which Russia would never be the same.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

By Marshall Berman,

Book cover of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

A modern classic! A fascinating analysis of arts, culture, literature, and social and urban change. A breathtaking read of Goethe’s Faust to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and a sharp analysis of what Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards have to do with the prospects of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and the highways of mid-century New York. Fantastic chapters on Karl Marx (from whom the title of the book is borrowed) and Charles Baudelaire. Written with poetic perfection!

Who am I?

I love cities and I teach about them. I was born in the capital of Sofia, Bulgaria, and landed in the US (mostly by chance) in 1993. Spent most of my professional life in US academia (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Maryland, and now Georgia). I never stopped wondering how cities change and why American cities look and function so differently than European cities. So, I wrote a few books about cities, including Iron Curtains; Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space, which is about changes in East European Cities after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I wrote...

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

What is my book about?

So, what’s up with American cities? Everyone knows we sprawl more than anyone else in the world and we drive more than anyone else in the world. In my book, I argue that the reason we live this way because we have adopted local laws that mandate this lifestyle. Other developed societies (I reviewed the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and Australia) don’t have the same laws. We borrowed the laws from the Europeans a hundred years ago but then we changed them beyond recognition. So how about changing the laws?

Wealth Explosion

By Stephen Davies,

Book cover of Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

The great fact of economic history is that we all used to be poor, and now most of us are not. 200 years ago, almost 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, today around 9 percent does. This is the story of that remarkable transformation and what made it possible. Of course, there are many good books on this, and I have greatly enjoyed for example Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, and David Landes, but this is a powerful, short book by a great historian, that manages to weave together economic, political, technological and intellectual factors into a very compelling narrative of progress and its preconditions over the past one thousand years.

Who am I?

I did not use to believe in human progress, but thought there must have been good old days behind us – until I studied history and understood that my ancestors did not live ecologically, they died ecologically, at an early age. Since then I’ve been obsessed with progress, what makes it possible and how we can spread it to more people. I am a historian of ideas from Sweden, the host of a video series on innovations in history, New and Improved, and the writer of many books on intellectual history and global economics, translated into more than 25 languages.

I wrote...

Open: The Story of Human Progress

By Johan Norberg,

Book cover of Open: The Story of Human Progress

What is my book about?

Mankind conquered the planet because we use more brains and more hands, always learning from and exchanging with others. History’s great civilizations were dependent on openness to people, goods, and ideas from strange places – and so are we.

But there is a catch. We developed this ability to cooperate harmoniously so that we could kill and steal. Competition between groups in pre-history turned us into traders, but also tribalists, tempted to divide the world into us and them. We need openness, but are often uncomfortable with it. This is the historical and psychological background to the current battle between Open and Closed. Part sweeping history and part polemic, this book makes the case for why an open world is worth fighting for more than ever.

The Palliative Society

By Byung-Chul Han, Daniel Steuer (translator),

Book cover of The Palliative Society: Pain Today

It’s a little weird that this book should find a place on my list. It’s a book about how society has become resistant to anything that is difficult and painful and the kinds of people that we have become as a result. But mathematics is difficult! To understand mathematics you have to think hard, sometimes for a long time. Moreover understanding something hard is discontinuous, it requires a leap to a new way of thinking. You have to start with a problem and this problem might be an ambiguity or a contradiction. A is true and B is true but A and B seem to contradict one another. When you sort out this problem you will have learned something.

The moral here is to embrace things that are difficult if you want to learn significant new things. “No pain, no gain.” You don’t have to worry about some super AI…

Who am I?

I'm a mathematician but an unusual one because I am interested in how mathematics is created and how it is learned. From an early age, I loved mathematics because of the beauty of its concepts and the precision of its organization and reasoning. When I started to do research I realized that things were not so simple. To create something new you had to suspend or go beyond your rational mind for a while. I realized that the learning and creating of math have non-logical features. This was my eureka moment. It turned the conventional wisdom (about what math is and how it is done) on its head.

I wrote...

How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics

By William Byers,

Book cover of How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics

What is my book about?

If you love mathematics then this book will show you where the beauty and profundity that you love comes from. Most people mistakenly think that mathematics is nothing but logic, something like an AI program.  This book demonstrates that something very different is going on. Mathematics makes use of non-logical features like ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox. It is precisely these non-logical features that make math profound. The book demonstrates this with fascinating examples from all levels of math.

Profundity comes from being able to look at an idea from more than one point of view. Profound ideas often come from resolving situations of conflict, for example, zero resolves the conflict of having something that stands for nothing. Maybe I should have called the book, “mathematics beyond logic”.

The Climate of History in a Planetary Age

By Dipesh Chakrabarty,

Book cover of The Climate of History in a Planetary Age

I love how Dipesh’s book shows a historian at the height of his powers explaining how history has become geological. Decades ago, Chakrabarty began as someone arguing for a history that made Europe “provincial”. Now he argues that all human history is relative to planetary time. His writing is infused with humanism and is up to date on Earth System Science.

Who am I?

I’m the grandson of a coal miner from a multi-generational, Ohio family. What matters most to me is having some integrity and being morally okay with folks. I never thought of myself as an environmentalist, just as someone trying to figure out what we should be learning to be decent people in this sometimes messed-up world. From there, I was taken into our environmental situation, its planetary injustice, and then onto studying the history of colonialism. This adventure cracked open my midwestern common sense and made me rethink things. Happily, it has only reinforced my commitment to, and faith in, moral relations, giving our word, being accountable, and caring.

I wrote...

Involving Anthroponomy in the Anthropocene: On Decoloniality

By Jeremy Bendik-Keymer,

Book cover of Involving Anthroponomy in the Anthropocene: On Decoloniality

What is my book about?

In an act of mourning over the death of my mother, Esther Bendik, this book was written as a year-long, personal, and philosophical reflection. Anyone who loves philosophy can get into it. Beginning in overwhelming anxiety, it ends with some understanding, directions for action, and excitement for political change. I like Christine J. Winter’s description:

“How does one become responsible to and with the smallest fleck of life and simultaneously all being that is planet earth? Bendik-Keymer's novel set of reflections moves us – the author in community with his readers – from moments of intimate contemplation and heartfelt anxiety to a place of stimulating possibility for reconfiguring nested sets of relationships that span from the hearth to the planetary, from colonial wrongdoing to intergenerational accountability.”

Taj Mahal

By W.E. Begley (editor), Z.A. Desai (translator),

Book cover of Taj Mahal: The Illumined Tomb- An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Mughal and European Documentary Sources

This is an anthology of all of the written sources on the Taj Mahal from the period of its construction in the 17th century. It brings together translations of every description or mention of the building in Mughal court histories, or accounts by foreign travellers, and explains all of the historical and religious inscriptions that are written on the building itself. The book is meant for the serious student and lacks narrative flow; but the focus exclusively on written sources dating from the same time as the Taj really helps you understand it in its own time. 

Who am I?

I am an art historian and have been engaged with India for over 40 years. Among other topics, I write about the Rajput courts in Rajasthan – especially Jaipur and Jodhpur – and about the Mughal cities of Delhi and Agra. I taught courses on these subjects at the University of London (at SOAS) in the 1990s. Since 2004 I have been living in India, where I work with museum trusts and with travel companies. Before the pandemic, I lectured regularly to tour groups visiting sites like the Taj Mahal, my aim being to bring the insights provided by expert research to a wider audience. 

I wrote...

Taj Mahal

By Giles Tillotson,

Book cover of Taj Mahal

What is my book about?

The Taj Mahal is the queen of architecture. Other buildings may be as famous but no other has been so consistently admired for a beauty that is seen as both feminine and regal. Imperial tomb, symbol of India, symbol of love, or brand of tea – the Taj can be what you want it to be. Drawing on a huge range of sources from Mughal court histories to travellers’ accounts and Bollywood movies, this superb book gives its history and charts its multiple and changing meanings through time. 

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