Summer books, what's readable?

By Razib Khan | July 27, 2010 3:08 pm

Danny reminded me that I still hadn’t read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Since I know him a bit (at least internet “know”) I’ve decided I can’t put it off any longer, and I’ll tackle it soon. I just finished two books, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. I can recommend the first, but not the second. Since I will (or plan to) review Replenishing the Earth, I won’t say more about it here. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was written by the author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The author is a bit on the pro-Mongol side (he always ends up making Genghis Khan a benevolent warlord!), and his writing style doesn’t have the density which I prefer in these sorts of works, but Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was a serviceable book. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens on the other hand is too sensational, and it seems rather obvious that the source material was much thinner than for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (he admits as much repeatedly), so he had to include a lot of apocryphal material, with caveats, to fill it out. I much preferred The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age, which I read earlier this summer. A naturally more turgid work without a central narrative (each chapter was written by a different academic), but lots of dense data.

So what are you reading? What would you recommend? Over the years I’ve noticed I don’t read much science in book form; I much prefer papers. But since I don’t read physics or chemistry papers that means I haven’t recharged my familiarity, at least on a superficial level, with these fields in years. So I plan to a hit a few popular physics books at some point summer. And I’m always up for economics, world history, international affairs, cognitive psychology, etc.* I suspect I’ll avoid fiction until George R. R. Martin gets his next book out, but that might mean I’ll avoid fiction for a long time.

* In my short-term stack The Sea Kingdoms: The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages, Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It and The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. In my medium-term “must-read” queue, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.


Comments (10)

  1. dan

    Sean Carroll’s (your Discover colleague) book is pretty good. There’s a summary interview on wired or wiki if you don’t want to read the whole thing. it’s about how entropy is related to time. I know i keep harping on this but the Charlie Rose “Brain series” is so good it eliminates having to “brush up” on the newest neuroscience and genetics of neuroscience. it was/is awesome. Eric Kandel moderates the whole thing and it’s still going on.
    i know it’s not reading but there’s some great free lectures from MIT about the newest research on Autism, depression, etc.

  2. I was extremely disappointed with both of Weatherford’s works. I’m pretty well up on the literature, so I was looking for things I didn’t already know. But whenever I came to one, I’d look for documentation, and there usually wasn’t any. Weatherford’s writing style is semi-popular, so I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just his personal intuition. But even worse, sometimes I suspected that he was relaying Mongol oral tradition or scholarship unaccredited, not as plagiarism but for the sake of reaching a wider audience. So there might have been something really there, without my being able to be know whether there was.

    It was a very painful reading experience for me.

  3. Fascinating, lots of interesting stuff, needs a grain of salt: “The Horse in Human History”, Kelekna. Very broadly researched.

    “Plough, book, and sword”, Ernest Gellner: a general theory of history that seems far better grounded than most. The historical relationship between military specialists, religious specialists (literati), and the economy (agricultural during most of history)….. plus other stuff. Recently featured at “Crooked Timber”, and also endorsed by Cosma Shlaizi.

    “The Military Revolution and Political Change”, Brian Downing. History of early modern Europe arguing that politico-military changes were key. Pairs well with Tilly’s “Coercion, Capital, and European States.”

  4. Antonio

    Hi all,

    I have a question instead of a suggestion 🙂

    For someone (myself in that case) new to this world of the intersection between population genetics, history and social sciences discussed in this space, which reading(s) do you recommend as a good starting point? Maybe The History and Geography of Human Genes?

    Thanks and congratualations for the excellent blog,


  5. have you read the textbooks? if so that’s a fine book, just keep in mind it’s on the old side. mapping human history, journey of man, and the real eve, are all OK.

  6. Antonio

    Thanks for your answer. I have not read any textbooks as of yet, just random stuff, including some technical articles, mostly from your blog and a few other blogs. I’m familiar with stats so that, for instance, Principal Component is fine for me. Any particulary good textbook? Again, thank you for your time. Antonio.

  7. Principles of Population Genetics, Fourth Edition is probably sufficient. there are some others.

    also, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is arguably the foundation of the field (pop gen in the 30s emerged large part with discussions and responses to the book).

    Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics gives you a good historical framework.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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