Thoughts: Why the West Rules – For Now, by Ian Morris

I’m back from a holiday which means I have a pretty huge backlog! We begin with a beast of a book I was in the middle of before we set off, and strap yourselves in, people. It’s going to be a gusher.

Why The West Rules – For Now is the second of three non-fiction books recommended to me by a friend, and (spoilers for the future) my favourite of the three. The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Jay Gould) was sassy, and Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) has some brilliant archaeology stories, as you shall see in future, but Why The West Rules – For Now (the For Now is very important) was just phenomenal.

It really does what it says on the tin. Morris sets out his scope very carefully and takes his time doing so, and the reader is able to follow some pretty complex concepts for sustained periods of time thanks to this early clarity. He modestly claims to be a Jack of all trades cobbling together a patchwork of disciplines to answer the question of his title, but he sells himself short. He brings various disciplines and specialisms together into a sort of overarching look at two “cores” of civilisation from the beginning of human history right up to the date of publication. The beginning is a sort of disclaimer and setting out of limits and restrictions on the text, both regrettably necessary ones and self-imposed ones, but as I’ve said, the book spans unimaginable… stuff. Time, space, the rise and fall of civilisations.

There are footnotes galore for those who like that sort of thing (I do) and enough references to keep you busy for years, and an index detailed enough that quotable titbits are always close at hand. And it is so quotable. Surprisingly so, for something that might sound intimidating and dry to someone who hasn’t read it.

His voice is incredibly easy to read, and has a wonderful lightness to it that helps keep the subject matter from being too overwhelming. He writes with gentle irony that makes it feel like he’s telling you a story in person but never overshadows the content. He also never shows any authorial bias towards East or West, or any historical era or personage (though I admit I was reading a little breathlessly). His voice never gets in the way of recounting the facts.

It’s hard to pick a favourite bit, or a favourite fact. I think I most enjoyed the really early civilisation stuff, because I was learning the most, perhaps? Or maybe just because it was the most “adventurous” part or the part with the most mysteries? I don’t know how to describe it; just that I couldn’t get enough of reading about early humans inventing… everything. And I kept having moments like epiphanies.

I worry, a lot, about the state of the world. I have ever since I learned what global warming was. I used to lie awake terrified for icebergs, unable to stop thinking about every tree that was cut down never to be replanted, sick at the thought of how many rhinos were left in the world. Now of course there are more fears to add to that, about man’s unpredictability to man and politics and a hundred other things that would be tiresome to mention. But…

…it could be worse?

No, really, humanity has faced incredible setbacks and disasters that almost destroyed whole pockets of civilisation, things that have set us back for centuries and centuries, and we have still got this far. If we hit another ceiling, then we will get up and try again.

I think, more than any spiritual or religious text or speech, this book has given me a visceral sense of perspective, of my idea of my place in time and space.

One of the most intense parts for me was this, concerning the rise of Islam as a religion: “We can […] [put] the Arabs into a still-longer tradition going all the way back to the Amorites in Mesopotamia in 2200 BCE, and seeing them as they saw themselves: as people who had already been drawn into the core by its conflicts, and who were now claiming their rightful place at its head. They came not to bury the West but to perfect it; not to thwart Justinian’s and Khusrau’s ambitions, but to fulfil them.”

There comes a point in the book where you’re (I mean me, as a Brit specifically, of course, but anyone from East or West will come to the same point) not just reading about ancient civilisations long since dust, but people who are recognisably your forebears, and it gets a bit personal. That moment above, about Islam, was where it got very personal for me – I’d been reading all these stories of rises and falls and evolutions and shifts, and that was when I realised we’re all still living those stories.

Conclusion: this book is… beautiful. I kept searching for another word to describe it, but that’s the only one that comes to me. I highly, highly recommend it. It’s huge, but as you approach the end you’ll want it to be even longer. If it could be a book that continues to write itself as time passes, recording what happens as it does, then I think I might be almost satisfied, and I would still be reading.

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