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Ideas That Changed the World Hardcover – September 8, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Ideas are at least as powerful agents for change as material exigencies, economic needs, environmental constraints, and all the other proposed determinants." So writes noted Oxford historian Fernandez-Armesto in this overview of scores of ideas dating back to prehistoric times. The ideas examined are not always soothing or progressive: cannibalism ("typically...human and cultural"); a revival of interest in ancient Egyptian magic during the Renaissance (useful because ultimately "alchemy fed into chemistry, astrology into astronomy"); and anti-Semitism. The book is culturally inclusive: the Zen concept of Mu (the way masters "baffled their pupils into enlightenment") is here, as is jihad. Each idea is examined in a generously illustrated two-page spread, with suggested readings and links to other ideas in the book. This wide-ranging volume offers great browsing and a panoply of ideas for consideration.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

This copiously illustrated book begins more than 30 millennia ago and portrays human history as the product of a series of intellectual and conceptual discoveries. The author shows how our ancestors pulled themselves out of prehistory by realizing that symbols could be used to express ideas; by grasping that what we see is not necessarily what is--by, in short, having the big idea that the world operates according to rules that can be understood. By extending the history of ideas to prehistory (most histories of ideas "start late in the day, with the invention of writing"), Fernandez-Armesto offers a wealth of insights and new ways of looking at human evolution. That's not to say, however, that he doesn't cover more modern ground. Key intellectual moments in the development of science, government, society, and religion are all surveyed in accessible prose and with hundreds of fascinating illustrations. This is obviously not the last word on the history of ideas, but it makes a fascinating place to start. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: DK ADULT; 1st edition (September 8, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0789496097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0789496096
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on April 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is an enticing mile-a-minute overview of big ideas that have influenced human history.
Be careful: this is specifically a book for voracious skimmers, it is not an enclyclopedia or suitable reference for scholars. Nor does it offer an ongoing thread of analysis of topics to lend any continuity. There is a lot of real estate taken up with graphics and layout, so the text content is even more concise than might be inferred from the one or two pages devoted to each topic. This serves as a ready and accessible reference, mainly because the topics are extremely well chosen for both their timeless significance and their diversity, and the author does a very competent job of surveying most topics, in spite of their widely varying difficulty.
Technical scientific ideas are handled much less well than cultural and philosophical ones, so the focus of this book doesn't really reflect the modern emphasis on science and technology to the degree some might expect. It does however do a good job of placing scientific ideas into broader cultural context. For example, discussing the Uncertainty Principle, the author almost exclusively discusses the way it has been interpreted as having significance for the macroscopic world, rather than its significance for our understanding the microfabric of nature. This accurately reflects the impact of the idea for most of us, but not its significance within physics.
The blessing of this book is its brevity, and it generally offers a small reasonably good choice of sources for followup on each topic. The topics are not neccessarily treated even-handedly, since the author doesn't seem too hesitant to put his own spin on each topic, although they usually come close. It is not an overly opinionated book considering how compressed the entries are.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By L. F Sherman on June 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a "coffee table" book of ideas to spend a few minutes with at a time rather than a book to sit and read from cover to cover. As a kid I used to read through the World Book Encyclopedia; this book provides the same kind a service and sometimes excitement for selected important ideas that have "changed the world".
Brief, concise, pointed sketches of important ideas are on target for their selection and coverage. Perhaps far from perfect, but there is nothing else nearly as good. Selected notes direct one to books to purse any idea further. Many ideas will be familiar and the short essays and photos may stimulate memories or reflection. A few will be new - or commonly misunderstood. Either way the open minded reader will learn something and be stimulated. Except for the tired cynic, most will find some intellectual entertainment and perhaps even stimulus to deeper thought.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Geert Daelemans on April 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This unique book illustrates how our world has become what it is today: by thinking and using imagination. The fundament of this book is that ideas are the driving force behind change and progress. Ideas are as old as mankind. Discoveries and inventions, economic systems and politic movements, our contact with people, animals and daily objects: all find their birth in an original idea. From cannibalism to Zen, from time to the unconscious, from pure logic to the chaos theory...
The `idea' behind this book is as remarkable as it is refreshing. It all starts in prehistoric times and takes the reader on a long, but exiting trip through time. One hundred ideas are briefly discussed and presented to the reader as some fast food for the mind. Not all ideas are as natural as for example the invention of writing, but put into a boarder perspective each of them shows significant influence on the course of history. As a consequence of this book's setup every idea only takes up two pages. No one can expect that this limited coverage is enough to fully communicate what each idea really signifies. This is certainly the weakest point of this anthology. It is certainly not surprising that not everyone will agree to the interpretation of certain ideas. But at least this book gives the incentive to numerous interesting discussions.
As a remedy to the compactness the author has added a `further reading' section to each idea, a gesture that is highly appreciated and that is certainly one of the main assets of this thought provoking book. A great starting point for everyone who frequently asks the question: why?
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Eric J. Lyman on September 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
My knee-jerk reaction was to dislike this book for the same reason I dislike the notion of reading a newspaper headline rather than the article, or skimming through the guidebook rather than experiencing a place. It's melodramatic, but I always saw these things as symptoms of a culture bent on cheapening itself, where being able to act and talk like an expert was just as good as being one.

But as a worked through this thick little book my dislike softened a bit, and even if it never really became anything warm it did turn into a kind of begrudging acceptance. In the end, I'm glad I didn't buy this book myself -- it was a gift -- but I'm also glad I read it.

Most of the book's value, I think, comes from the context it builds. I did not find any single chapter extraordinary, and quite a few seemed disappointing (this is not the fault of author Felipe Fernandez-Armesto -- after all, how can anyone adequately describe anti-Semitism or theories about the afterlife or the history of time in a mere two pages?). But together they formed a mosaic that from a distance gives a pretty good picture of current thought and where it came from.

Nobody will become an expert -- real or otherwise -- at anything by reading this book. But Mr. Fernandez-Armesto clearly is an expert, and I admit that his efficient and often opinionated writing does a good job at laying everything out in easy-to-understand terms.

In the end, reading this book is a little like taking a spoonful of everything on a restaurant's menu in order to figure out what plates might be worth eating more of later. That sort of thing usually leaves me with heartburn, and rather than picking this volume up again I would prefer to refer to the original sources or, at worst, an encyclopedia. But for the world's enthusiastic skimmers, Ideas Than Changed the World is probably worth considering.
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