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Friday, August 6, 2010

Five Cities That Ruled the World: How Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and New York Shaped Global History by Douglas Wilson

Wow! What a Stinker!

When I saw this title I was thrilled to pick this book up. I am a high school history teacher that loves classical history. I was eager to see what someone had to say about these 5 world class cities.

What I got was a poorly written mishmash of ideas that sort of worked themselves into some kind of theme that sort of held together to make a vague point from time to time. In other words, it read like one of my high school student's research papers.

I am a fan of Thomas Nelson publishing - they are a religious publisher that generally holds themselves to high standards. This book, however, makes me doubt my previous impression. Five Cities has a clever premise, an interesting cover but has no real substance and is full of too much supposition and theory rather than solid history.

What do I mean?

To be specific, on pages 8-9 he asserts that the Phoenicians, as part of a trade alliance with King Solomon, set across the Indian and Pacific Oceans (colonizing Polynesia along the way - and ignoring the fact that the Phoenicians preferred to hug the coastline when they sailed) to trade with and establish mines in Central and South America. They also created the Incan and Olmec civilizations. Also, they colonized Massachusetts. Really? Sure - just completely ignore DNA testing, decades of research and just go back to the old long-discredited theory that the Mayans must have really been a lost tribe of Israel because there's no way an Indian could have conceived of a city or a pyramid. He is asserting that only Middle Easterners could've imagined pyramids, despite the fact that every inhabited continent but Australia had pyramids structures of some sort.

I should have stopped right there, but I didn't. I finished the whole thing, mostly for the same reasons that people gawk at car accidents - I had to see how bad it really was.

The Jerusalem chapter is extraordinarily weak because it does not focus on Jerusalem's role as a cradle for 3 of the world's 5 largest religions. Rather, it focuses on the New Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Revelations. Using an end of the world version of Jerusalem to explain why Jerusalem WAS important is poor logic at best and disingenuous at worst.

The exception to the rule that the Jerusalem chapter is very poor is the section on the Crusades (pp. 28-32). It was quite good.

When he moves on to Athens, he quotes Homer as though he were a trusted historian, not a storyteller (p. 46). He also mis-tells the story of Athena's birth (p.49). Hephaestus did not "attack" Zeus - he split his head open at the request of Zeus (he had a horrible headache and felt like something was trying to push out of his head). Literally, a splitting headache!
The Parthenon - the most famous ancient temple
in Athens, Greece

If Lord Elgin were alive today he could easily sue for libel (p.77). Lord Elgin rescued the art of the Parthenon in the 19th century by buying as much as he could - it was for sale on the open market - and sending it to London to be preserved. He "stole" them to save them, not because he was a thief but because the 19th century Greeks did not value their own heritage. If, on the other hand, he wanted to discuss why the British Museum does not return them to Athens, he would've had a better argument.

For reasons unknown he mostly skips over the Persian destruction of Athens and how the city re-built itself and instead gives a half-hearted history of the Peloponnesian War (Sparta vs. Athens).

The section on Rome struck me as neither great nor poor, which is a victory of sorts.

The London chapter assumes that the reader knows a lot about the struggle for religious liberty in Britain and Scotland and that one understands their Civil War - mighty big assumptions to make. As a result, it made for confusing reading for me (fairly well versed in the issues) and would be a mish-mash for most readers.

He also mis-attributes the George Bernard Shaw quote "England and America are two countries separated by a common language" to Winston Churchill. (p. 151)

The New York chapter is actually sort of bland, an anti-climax when compared to cities that had actual physical empires. He has a nice turn of phrase when he notes that when Dutch New Amsterdam became New York in 1664 "the first course of the American melting pot was served." (p. 158) However, we also have an inexplicable section on baseball (pages 168-171) that goes with nothing else in particular. There is not an over-arching sports theme in the book, just an orphan section on baseball...

Victor Davis Hanson (A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War) and Bernard Lewis (Islam: The Religion and the People), both fine authors and historians, are quoted extensively throughout the book, a fact that must be a source of professional embarrassment for both of them. Do yourself a favor, read Hanson and Lewis and skip this one entirely.

I sincerely enjoyed Is Christianity Good for the World?, a book that Douglas Wilson co-authored with Christopher Hitchens. This one does not even come close. 

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Five Cities that Ruled the World.

Reviewed on December 22, 2009.

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