Friday, March 21, 2014

Listening to History: Audio Books

By Jeff Burns

I have a very short commute, thankfully, only 5-10 minutes one way.  Nevertheless, I’ve developed the habit of keeping some audio book or course in my car stereo.   So whenever I’m in my car, I have the option of learning some history. 

There are a number of great podcasts available, and that might be a future blog topic.  However, I want to talk about two great sources of audio lectures.  You’re sure to find something of interest in these collections.

First up is the Portable Professor series from Barnes and Noble.  These are full courses taught by well-known authors and historians.  Each package consists of 14 35-minute lectures and includes a guidebook.   I own Masters of Enterprise:  How the Titans of American Business Shaped the US Economy by H.W. Brands, To Lead A Nation: The Presidency in the 20th Century by Robert Dallek, Shaping justice:  Landmark cases of the US Supreme Court by Kermit Hall, and Everything You’ve Been Taught Is Wrong:  Fact, Fiction, and Lies in American History by James W. Loewen.  Each one is engaging, challenging, and insightful. 

They’re relatively inexpensive, especially if, like me, you find them  in the clearance section of the Barnes and Noble Store.  You can also find them on the Barnes and Noble website, ebay, libraries, and used book stores.

Another great source is The Great Courses.  They record first rate lectures on just about any subject imaginable by some of the greatest university lecturers and package them thorough outlines or guidebooks to follow along.  So far, I’ve enjoyed The Skeptic’s Guide to American History by Mark Stoler, Books That Have Made History by J. Rufus Fears, and The American Identity by Patrick Allitt.  They’ve all been terrific.  The individual lectures a bit longer than Portable Professor, 45-50 minutes each, but each lecture is extremely interesting.

While the full retail price on the website can be pretty high, the Great Courses Company often runs sales and has special offers.  I purchased mine through ebay, and again, you can find them in libraries and second hand markets for a more affordable price.

Jump right in and listen to history as you drive, work out, craft, or whatever. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Drink in the History

By Jeff Burns

Food is such an important and distinctive part of world history and cultures that it should be no surprise that many books have been written on the subject of food history.  From time to time to time, I’ll discuss a few that you may be interested in reading for yourself.  This first installment will be about beverages that have shaped history...

One of my favorites in this category is A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.  Standage delivers just what the title promises, and it becomes a very unique way of looking at world history.  Instead of Bronze age, Stone Age, or Iron Age, he describes the ages of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola.  Each beverage ushered in a major phase of human history.  For example, the development of beer parallels the development of agriculture, cities, and laws, and the development of Coca-Cola marked the beginning of modern globalization.  For Tom Standage, each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. You may never look at your favorite drink the same way again.
Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason by Jennifer Warner traces the effects of gin, “the original urban drug,” on the city of London, following its introduction around 1720.  Gin quickly became associated with squalor, depression, criminality, and wretchedness.  While the London power fell deeper under the curse of gin, politicians and social commentators like Daniel Defoe, William Hogarth, and Samuel Johnson railed and took action against it, with little impact.
While gin seemed to threaten western civilization in the estimation of many, Stewart Lee Allen posits in The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee that it was the discovery of coffee that gave birth to and drives the history of modern western civilization.  Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast  has a similar theme and is equally interesting.
Pendergrast also wrote For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, the unauthorized history of the great American soft drink and the company that makes it, from its origins as a patent medicine in Reconstruction Atlanta through its rise as the dominant consumer beverage of the American century.
Tea drinker?  Then you might like For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.  It is the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to British plantations in India. His dangerous odyssey, recounted here, makes for an exciting read over a cup of tea.
Take your pick, pour a cup, and enjoy!