Date finished: September 12th 2015
Writing history has always been a fairly straightforward thing. You research what happened, then you write it down in a chronological narrative linking to sources whenever possible.
That, at least, is how we did it before the computer age, but now, with the internet at everybody’s fingertips, we have created new ways to write. With so many people able to make their thoughts, opinions and emotions available to the world at the press of a button new methods of writing have emerged, new modes of analysis have opened up, and new perspectives have become apparent.
Perspective is the watchword with John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which aims to provide an overview of the events and developments from 1900-2000 that contributed to an overarching change in the theoretical mindset of society.
It’s as ambitious as it sounds, but proves to be a fascinating read. This isn’t your standard history of the century where two world wars happen, Queen Elizabeth shows up and then Russia and the US have a stand-off; this alternative history delves into the worlds of modernism, quantum physics, individualism, sex, nihilism, the internet and many others in order to argue that all these developments when taken together have altered our social conscience, changing us from a society in which single truths dominate, to one in which multiple perspectives define our reality. We are moving from being individuals into becoming a network; from a universe of certainty to one where chaos reigns; from being inhibited to being free. Well, arguably, at any rate.
At times it can be a stretch of the imagination, but overall Higgs presents a compelling, informative and thoroughly modern way of viewing the last century in a way to make sense of it. A couple of the chapters fall a little flat and prove less interesting and less relevant to the theory, but these weaker links don’t damage the greater whole.
In a world where it can seem that there’s a smothering set way of doing things all the time, this is a refreshing take on a familiar subject, incorporating an old respect for research and narrative, and viewing it through an information age framework. At its worst it’s a schizophrenic book of tantalising facts and revelations about the past hundred years, but at its best it’s a new way of looking at our world; a way that, at times, makes a lot more sense than the old way.