How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It
I gave this a try because it was recommended on The Ultimate Reading List, under the history section, and the list has helped me discover some new favorites. But the very title did make me wary this would be a case of overreach, like that of two other history books on their list, Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and Weatherford’s Genghis Khan & the Making of the Modern World. I thought Cahill’s book deserved an F; nothing within its pages came anywhere near substantiating its claims and by half-way through the book I decided it was junk history. Weatherford’s book came across as an apologia, nay propaganda, even if I did think it had some interesting material--but I kept feeling the other side was being hidden from me. Herman’s book does suffer from overreach, even distortion. At times he really does stretch things in efforts to claim credit for Scots. For instance, he claims that Gibbon’s masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire owes a great deal to Scottish models of history and that Gibbons was “intellectually a Scott.” He gives Scots a lot of credit for the American Revolution on such flimsy grounds as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison being educated in schools on the Scottish model. Scholars, Herman claimed, joke that the Scot David Hume is the “real” author of James Madison’s Federalist 10. On the other hand, in his largely uncritical portrait of Sir Walter Scott, he fails to mention Mark Twain’s famous claim that Scott’s "romanticization of battle" created a Southern culture that led to the American Civil War. He gives credit to Bell and Langley for the “first airplane” and as evidence notes that the Smithsonian Institute hung up their plane rather than Wright’s. Herman fails to mention, a detail I read in a recent book, that was due to a feud between the Wrights and the Smithsonian--not a superior claim of Bell and Langley’s craft for first airplane. Herman was once associated with the Smithsonian--he should know better. That’s why I felt I had to rank this so low. I’m not even a historian or buff of Scottish history, so if this is what I caught, there had to be more I didn’t. And yet it’s a shame. I knew little of the Scottish Enlightenment, and Herman does shine detailing that intellectual history. He does deal with the most famous thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith--but he also treats seminal thinkers I’d never heard of such as Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames. He made me want to read them, and made me feel that when I do I’ll better understand them and their impact because of reading this book. I also appreciated Herman’s efforts to debunk a lot of the myths that have accumulated about Highlanders, the clan, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. As Herman says in the Preface, in “1700 Scotland was Europe’s poorest independent country” yet by the end of that century it had the highest literacy rate and Voltaire would say it “is to Scotland that we look for our idea of civilization.” Herman explains what happened in between, and it often makes for an entertaining read. This isn’t one of the books that reads like a novel, but it’s not bone dry either, but I left the book feeling I couldn’t trust the history.