Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review: Five Cities that Ruled the World

I review for BookSneeze

How could a man this smart, how could as good a writer as Douglas Wilson write a book this bad? Five Cities that Ruled the World is a popular history giving an overview of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York. In the introduction Wilson informs the reader that he will be showing how "Jerusalem has bequeathed to us a legacy of spirit; Athens, reason and the mind; Rome, law; London, literature; and New York, industry and commerce." He also intends to explore the Platonic ideal of city with Revelation's Babylon and the heavenly City of God marking opposite ends of the spectrum.

He then takes each of the cities in turn and . . . does what? Okay, so he writes about Jerusalem and spirit--but the concept of "spirit" is vague enough that one could write about just about anything and tie that in. The section on Athens is supposed to be about its legacy of reason and intellectual influence, but he's halfway through the chapter and spent a number of pages retelling the stories of the War with Troy and the Battle of Salamis before he even touches on their intellectual history. The chapters on Rome, London, and New York are even less tied to the "legacies" promised in the introduction. In each chapter Wilson meanders back and forth across history, from pre-history to modern times, cherry-picking battles, quotes, myths and incidents in pursuit of some agenda sensed but never quite articulated. It makes for increasingly bizarre reading because Wilson's prose is actually very good. He's often laugh-out-loud funny and his paragraphs are well constructed. But his paragraph and larger sections seem to have little or no connection to each other--at least in light of the schema he purports to be following. Where are the transitions? Where is the connective material?

Finally, mercifully, the reader gets to the epilogue in which Wilson essentially says, "Aha! See what we've accidentally discovered along the way! Isn't it providential?" Well, no. It's not. We all learned the core of essay-writing in junior high school: 1. Tell me what you're going to tell me. 2. Tell it to me in detail. 3. Tell me what you just told me. Not: 1. Tell me what you're going to tell me. 2. Wander across 5000 years of history telling me things that almost have something to do with what you said you were going to do but not quite, and then 3. Suprise! Tell me you were really on about something else all together. The book is really about . . . Freedom. Freedom is good.

I was still in the first chapter when the similarities with The Mainspring of Human Progress (a screed which constituted a large portion of my "Economics" education at my conservative Christian high school) struck me. The breezy narrative style and casual treatment of history are unmistakeable in their flavor. And I am grieved because I sympathize with the libertarian instincts of both these books. And bad books do not serve to advance the causes of good ideas; rather the reverse. And this poorly structured, agenda-heavy, historically dubious text, I am afraid, will do little but persuade Wilson's choir that their cause has been adequately defended, when it hasn't.

Two stars out of five, because at least his retellings of many historical incidents are very good as scatter shot pieces of world history--whatever purpose they're supposed to be serving.

This is a review through Thomas Nelson's Book Sneeze program.

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