Customer Reviews: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History)
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on April 27, 2014
[ I have edited this review to correct some flaws pointed out in comments. ]

The other reviewers have already pointed out the book's many fine points; I agree with them that this is a book well worth reading. I had long thought that the Late Bronze Age Collapse was primarily due to the depredations of the Sea Peoples, and this book scotches that idea. Yes, the Sea Peoples played a part in it, but they may well have been just as much Effect as Cause. That is, their rampage may well have been induced by the same factors that brought down other cities.

The real contribution of this book lies in the application of recent archaeological findings to the problem. Over the last few decades archaeologists have built up a steady compilation of data on the cities of the Late Bronze Age, and they have demonstrated that not all those cities were destroyed in wars. Some show evidence of having been wrecked by earthquakes; in others, the destruction is confined to the central palace and government facilities, suggesting that a popular revolt, not a foreign invasion, lay behind the destruction. Other sites, however, do show the kind of general destruction we'd expect from a victorious enemy.

Especially important is the evidence they bring to bear showing that some sort of regional climate change was responsible for the at least some part of the collapse. The evidence indicates a cooler, dryer climate which would have been devastating to the cereal crops on which civilizations are dependent. The cooler climate would have led to repeated famines that would have led to revolts, migrations, and wars - all of which appear in the record of this period.

However, there are two points on which I disagree with the author. The first is the author's decision not to organize the causal factors into some sort of logical pattern. Instead, he declares that all of the factors (climate change, poor harvests, migration, civil disturbance, and war) converged to create a "perfect storm" that destroyed Late Bronze Age civilization in the Near East. That struck me as overly conservative.

My second objection falls on the assumption that a collapse of international trade caused by the piratical depredations of the Sea Peoples added to the collapse. The author several times refers to an 'international system' of trade, likening it to modern globalization. He even goes so far as to suggest that the societies of that time had developed such intricate trade relationships that the disruption of those relationships helped undermine the societies.

The problem arises when you think in terms of economic output. In all early societies, agricultural output constituted the vast majority of economic output. Sure, the historical records teem with stories of gems, spices, precious woods, and metals, but they attracted so much attention only because they were so rare. In terms of economic output, grain was far and away the most important component of all ancient societies. Indeed, in 1790, 90% of all laborers in the USA worked on farms. So let's keep our eyes on the ball here: grain.

Trade in grain was rare and limited to emergency situations, because the transport systems of the Late Bronze Age were incapable of moving grain in bulk. The ocean-going ships of the day had cargo capacities of a few tens of tons. Grain was carried in heavy ceramic jars; a single ship could carry enough food to provide for at most a hundred people for a year. Land transportation was even worse: the inefficient wagons and poor roads of the day did not permit the carriage of large amounts of grain very far. After a few tens of miles, so much of the grain would have to go to feed the dray animals that there just wouldn't be much left at the destination.

Thus, the disruption of trade would have denied rulers their luxuries, but would not have made much of a dent on the economy as a whole.

A postscript to this review: the author of the book, Eric Cline, has graciously responded to my criticisms and finally gotten through my thick head a point that, while not mentioned in this review, came up in the exchange of comments. He has taken a lot of his time to straighten me out, and I deeply appreciate his patience with my errors.
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on April 1, 2014
This is a subject that ought to fill the reader with the feeling of "gosh-wow!" about how close to our own world and yet so very different was the world of the Late Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was Civilization 1.0 - the first draft of civilization. It was successful and flourishing and in my ways very much like our own. Then - suddenly - the slate was wiped virtually clean, and a new civilization - Civilization 2.0 - which would lead to our own - entered the stage of world history.

Eric Cline in 1177 B.C. does a great job of setting the stage for the reader to appreciate and understand the destruction of Late Bronze Age civilization. The book is fairly slim, and a pretty quick read. Cline takes the reader back a few centuries from the mysterious 12th Century BC destruction of the Bronze Age world. Cline introduced the reader to Bronze Age civilization at its height, when commerce was globalized and a network of royal marriage alliances tied together empires and kingdoms from Egypt to the Hittite empire to Mycenaea. Cline tells his story by referring to the many pieces of royal correspondence that archeologists have managed to uncover in the ruined cities of forgotten empires. It is a "gosh-wow" fact that we are able to read the correspondence between royalty more than 3,000 years after the fact.

And yet there is so much we don't know. One of those things is "what happened?"

In the space of virtually no time, the mighty Hittite empire was destroyed, leaving nothing but a bare memory in some biblical references. Mycenaea was likewise completely destroyed, as were other empires and kingdoms of the epoch, e.g., Babylonia, Minoa, the Ugarit Kingdom, and Assyria, many of which disappeared so completely that they did not leave a memory behind, until their massive constructions were unearthed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, the Canaanite civilization disappeared to be recovered under the new management of the Hebrews and Philistines. Egypt survived in a much reduced form after fighting off the onslaughts of Sea Peoples, but in weaker and much reduced form.

The mode of destruction of Civilization 1.0 seems to have varied from region to region. Some cities seem to have suffered from earthquakes and to not have been repaired. The Hittite and Canaanite cities seem to have been destroyed by fire and/or war, or they were abandoned before the end.

Cline rejects the notion of an invasion by the enigmatic Sea Peoples as the complete answer to the destruction of the Late Bronze Age world. It's not clear that there was such an invasion. The Egyptians describe the Sea Peoples - who attacked in 1207 and 1177 (from which Cline gets his ultimate year of "1177 B.C.") On the other hand, there is a panicky letter from Ugarit about some unknown ships threatening Ugarit, but the letter doesn't say who the ships were. Perhaps they were a rebel group from his own country; perhaps they were from Cyprus; perhaps they were the Sea People. We just don't know.

Cline argues for a "system failure" in which a "perfect storm" of events - earthquake, economic decline, invasion, the loss of a major component of the world system - caused the entire system to go into decline. Cline does a good job of canvassing the various culprits for the LBA ("Late Bronze Age") collapse and makes effective arguments for why single factor explanations are not persuasive.

The book is chock-a-block full of interesting "gosh-wow!" observations. For example, Cline repeatedly references the point that Troy was on the frontier between Mycenaea and the Hittite Empire, and, so, the Trojan War may have been a brush fire war, akin to Vietnam, between the great powers of Mycenaea and the Hittite Empire. Another "gosh-wow!" point that I've filed away is that the coalition of rebellious western kingdoms - to the west of Hatti in Asia Minor - was the "Assuwa," from which we get the word for "Asia," which has progressively been extended ever-eastward.

Another bit of "gosh-wow!" is Cline's mention that by 1177 BC, the pyramids were already 1,000 years old. If that doesn't give the reader a feeling for the deep time of history, nothing will.

Still another one was Cline's observation that the dissemination of the classic stories of the Ancient Near East might have been through sailors swapping stories in bars as they waited for the "toffs" to finish the diplomatic niceties on state visits:

//Such transfers of ideas undoubtedly took place not only at the upper levels of society, but also at the inns and bars of the ports and cities along the trade routes in Greece, Egypt, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Where else would a sailor or crew member while away the time waiting for the wind to shift to the proper quarter or for a diplomatic mission to conclude its sensitive negotiations, swapping myths, legends, and tall tales? Such events may perhaps have contributed to cultural influences spreading between Egypt and the rest of the Near East, and even across the Aegean. Such an exchange between cultures could possibly explain the similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's later Iliad and Odyssey, and between the Hittite Myth of Kumarbi and Hesiod's later Theogony. //

Cline, Eric H. (2014-03-23). 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) (p. 59). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This book didn't answer all my questions about the LBA. Honestly, what it did was inflame my interest in the subject just that much more, and make me want to visit the sites he mentions, but that's the subject of a different story.
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on March 23, 2014
There are so many theories concerning the end of the Bronze Age that a description and discussion of the theories was really needed. This book presents a coherent and highly readable outline of the period, setting it into its historical milieu.. Dr. Cline proposes some interesting parallels between 1177BC and the present which should give us all pause. I read this book all in one sitting, even at dinner. I could not put it down.
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VINE VOICEon March 28, 2014
I have been interested in this topic since 1966, when I wrote a paper on Minoan-Mycenaean trade patterns with the Fertile Crescent and Central Europe. In that I argued that this region was the nexus of a wide-ranging trade network; in the author's words "a cosmopolitan and globalized world system". The thesis of this splendid book is how the disruption of this trading system brought about the collapse of Later Bronze Age Civilization's "globalized world"; resulting in the destruction of the great civilizations of the LBA and the introduction of a "Dark Age".

Eric H Cline, the author of the excellent Battle of Armageddon The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Ageand the useful Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)discusses the crucial role of the strategic resource of this period; tin. The disruption of the tin supply coming from distant mines in Afghanistan had catastrophic effects for the civilizations of the Hittites, Mitanni, Assyria and Egypt. (Personally, I think that sources of tin from Central Europe or perhaps even Britain would have been available by this time.) The author argues that this would be comparable to the disruption of the oil trade in today's "globalized world". Cline argues that these nations were so interdependent and intertwined that the collapse of one left all the others extremely vulnerable; and they each in turn fell to natural(earthquakes, floods and famines) and man-made disasters. Yet Cline admits "However, even after all that has been said, we must acknowledge our inability to determine with certainty the precise cause (or multitude of causes) for the collapse of civilizations and the transition from the end of the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, or even to definitively identify the origins and motivations of the Sea Peoples."

The title of the book "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed" is a perhaps arbitrary reference to the crucial invasion of the Sea Peoples. In a period of decline that seems to have stretched from 1225 BC to 1130 BC. The ultimate disruption and destruction seems to be best documented and illustrated by the differences in Greece between Minoan-Mycenaean Greece of 1300 BC and the "Pre-Classical Dark Ages" of 1000 BC which followed the Dorian Invasion.

The book is extremely well-documented with footnotes and an excellent scholarly bibliography for further reading. There are also useful illustrations, maps and even a "Dramatis Personae".
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on May 27, 2014
Prof Eric Cline's "1177 B.C.:The Year Civilization Collapsed" gives a very thorough and comprehensive background to the possible causes of the end of the Near Eastern Bronze Age, with one glaring omission - the other possibility; that it was all due to infectious disease epidemics.The "end" or "collapse" or "catastrophe" that occurred c1200 BCE was characterised by its short duration of approximately 50 years,mass migration by the "Sea Peoples" and the general population and finally abandonment of cities such as the Hittite capital Hattusa. To a medical historian, such as myself, that sounds like an infectious disease epidemic or series of epidemics that know no boundaries and cross borders freely at their will.
Ramesses V died of smallpox in the middle of this drama,the paleo-entamologist Dr Eva Panagiotakopulu has found bubonic plague rat and flea remains in Amarna,Dr Siro Trevisanato believes tularaemia was rampant in the Levant during this time,an earlier Egyptian painting depicts a withered leg due to polio and Egyptian mummies show the typical "Potts" fractures due to tuberculosis.Dysentery and malaria would have also existed along with measles and influenza,which in a virgin population not exposed to these diseases before would have been devastating.
Could not the "Sea Peoples" have been "pushed" out of their lands by an epidemic and could not they have been "pulled" by the prospect of new infection-free lands to the east, just as Amenhotep III was when he moved his court from bubonic plague infected Karnak to his new plague free site at Malkata ? The gods did not protect Egypt from this plague, so that may have been the reason Akhenaten abandoned them in favour of his new "one god" Aten in his new plague free capital Amarna.This bubonic plague was then transferred, by Egyptian POWs, to the Hittite Empire, thus causing the 20 year long Hittite Epidemic starting in 1322 BCE.
As a medical historian I cannot understand how one could not factor in the possibility of disease.It should be one of the first things any ancient historian or archaeologist thinks of when wondering how an empire or era ended.Any history that does not factor in the possibility of disease is incomplete; such as the role of smallpox in the demise of Carthage or the role of falciparum malaria at the end of the Western Roman Empire or more interestingly - the role of disease in the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation where leprosy and tuberculosis have been found so far.But what other diseases occurred there that may have hastened its demise, such as bubonic plague or malaria?
Prof Cline and I have had profitable discussions about this topic via email.He agrees with me that it would be useful to consider this and suggested that I collect more proof ,which I am now doing.
Dr Philip Norrie MBBS,MA,MSc,MSocSc[Hons],PhD,MD Conjoint Senior Lecturer,Medical Faculty,University of New South Wales, Sydney,Australia
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on March 29, 2014
A really great book. It's not just about the "castrophe", but starts in the 1500's BC to completely fill in the background of Mediteranian cultures prior to the sea peoples. A super over view of this period in history, bringing in all the relevant archeology old and new. Fills in what is known about the cultures, Hittite, Minoan, etc. and their to me sometimes surprising relationships. Cline has a writing tecnique which pauses now and again to summarize what has gone before and give the reader a heads up as to what is coming. Classroom procedure, maybe, but it makes a complex story very readable (as opposed to stopping every 50 pages or so to look up prior material as so often must be done in books such as this). I'm a classics geek and it's been years since I've read such a superb book in this area. Spoiler alert: the invasion of the Sea Peoples is a lot more nuanced than we were all led to believe a decade or so ago.

This is the first in a proposed series on "turning points in ancient history". It sets a high bar.
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on May 11, 2014
This is perhaps the most disappointing book I’ve read in the past five years. Moreover, I say that based not only on my original assumption about what the author was setting out to achieve, but also on my adjusted assumption, after reading a few chapters. The charitable conclusion is that this a book by an academic who has tried – unsuccessfully (in my view) to write for a mass audience.

Let’s start with my original assumption when I bought the book, based on the way the book has been presented to the customer – that this would be a well-crafted book exploring external stresses on some interesting societies and the unfortunate results, along the lines of a work by Jared Diamond. Why would I jump to that conclusion? Well, for starters, let’s look at the title and subtitle: “1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed.” Does that sound like a scholarly title, or one shooting for the best seller list? Oh, and by the way, only at the very end of the book does the author explicitly own up the fact that the collapse really took, oh, let’s be candid, as much as 100 years, and that the relevance of the year 1177 is simply that this is agreed to be a somewhat arbitrary end date for the end of that process.

Nor does the book provide the type of narrative that would deliver a book of that type, or the measured use of detail to support, rather than overwhelm, that narrative. On the other hand, he makes much of other forces where there are almost no solid facts to rely on at all. For example, while Cline makes provocative references to invasions by the “Sea Peoples” that may have accelerated the process of societal collapse, he necessarily then admits that there is virtually no evidence of any kind to say who they were, or where they came from – only assumptions. Even more puzzling, the only detailed description he provides about any of the actual events involving these mysterious invaders relates to the *successful* efforts of the Egyptians to turn back the Sea Peoples, thereby avoiding societal collapse – a rather puzzling introduction to the assumed story line.

Nor does Cline try to provide much of a picture of daily life for the civilizations involved, which brings me to my adjusted assumptions after making my way through the first two chapters. That’s because what Cline goes on to do is to cite virtually all of the sources of information for various theories, making some effort to qualify which are more likely to be reliable. Indeed, the endnotes, bibliography and index of the book take up an incredible 56 pages out of the 237 in total.

All of this could have been bearable if the actual text was tighter, more disciplined, and less repetitive. But Cline makes the same points over and over and over again without any need or productive result. He also skips around through time, selecting aspects of this society or another to cite, but in ways that do not always add up to a coherent purpose. And throughout, we are treated to ongoing exposures to the author’s conjectures. This isn’t to say that theories aren’t fine, but when they are uncomfortably lacking in supporting evidence, there’s little incentive to learn what one author believes “probably” occurred.

In summary, I think that this is at best a questionably packaged and marketed book, and a failed compromise between a work of popular history and serious scholarship. In short, if you enjoy popular historical works, this is a book to be avoided. If you’re looking for a serious scholarly work, then this one suffers from a serious lack of editorial review.

That said, judging by the many reviews that are more favorable than mine, a there is clearly a type of reader for whom Cline’s approach is satisfactory. If you are an avid fan of historical detail about a period where your preexisting knowledge is slim, then you will certainly find ample detail here about clay tablet letters sent from King A to King B, indicating the existence of trade ties between their kingdoms, and which goods were found in which amphorae in this wreck or that indicating which regions engaged in trade with those regions.

That’s all perfectly valid, and indeed, I’ve read scores of books on archaeology that include exactly the same level of detail. You don’t expect that type of work to get into the big picture. But in my view, at least, what we find here is an author that has tried to sell to two very different audiences, and under delivered to both.
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on May 17, 2014
This book is frustrating. The banal thing is that the author has been told to write a “catastrophe” book (see Editor’s foreword). It so happens that while there was rapid change at the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean, there was no sudden catastrophe. So the author is making apologies all the way for this (for his complaint see pg. 142).

The second frustration arises from the fact that the author’s outlook is qualitative, and has no feel for “orders of magnitude” and logistics. This leaves the reader wondering not so much whether this or that happened, but whether it could have made a difference. Since the author’s argument is “system,” magnitudes and forces would be essential for plausibility.

A first example: the “Sea People.” Migrations on foot or on horse/chariots had already taken place (even in this instance logistics were far from simple, if they were en masse). At sea, the only one we know at the time, were those of Polynesians: successful, relentless, but small scale. And they targeted empty islands, avoiding inhabited places (Papua New Guinea). So the main question about the “Sea People” would be one of logistics: where did these sudden migrants get their boats, the skill to navigate in concert, to victualize on the way, and their ability to do concerted attacks by sea and land? Could they really carry out amphibious operations in the face of hostile reception? We are told that at Ugarit there were seven enemy boats, in another place 20. How many warriors could they carry? Would such parties be able to wreak the havoc they are accused of?

A second example is the “international trading system.” There was international trade around the Aegean, no question about it. The author blandly asserts: “The cutting, or even partial dismantling, of those related networks would have had a disastrous effect back then, just as it would on our world today.” (pg. 174) This is anachronism on a grand scale. Nothing in his description of the sea-borne trade points to a division of labor and specialization – supply chains that, if interrupted, would destroy the partner economies. All of the kingdoms were to the largest extent, subsistence economies feeding an extractive palace-based economy. Interdependence in a systemic sense begins with industrialization. What we have as international trade are gift circuits (welcome but superfluous from an economic point of view); raw materials (copper and tin); bullion to oil the money supply in different lands; and some perishables like wine, olive oil and textiles, whose contribution to the local economy would have been welcome, but limited. When famine struck among the Hittites, one ship with wheat is dispatched up from Egypt: how many can you feed on such a cargo?

Though destruction of cities (or the palaces therein) is documented, settlement patterns in the non-urban areas are hardly mentioned. But for city-states, most of population in the kingdoms lived in the countryside. Were they affected? The collapse of “palace-based economies” may have just been the (welcome) demise of the extractive elite that left the peasants scope for innovation. I would not qualify this as “civilizational collapse.”

The author’s understandable habitus as a thoughtful archeologist of negating what can’t be validated leaves him uneasy about what to do with the Amarna system. Reading it literally, he views it in terms of “greeting-gifts” (to oil the wheels of commerce) and “family relations.” (pg. 51 ff) What if it had a different (obvious to the participants and thus unspoken) purpose – that of announcing and securing truces based on reciprocity? As we know from current experience, deterrence of enemies through military containment is a costly and logistically complex matter. “Greeting-gifts” that announce truces and lower the need for keeping a standing army may have been a major aspect of the system.

Which brings us back to the “Sea People:” Their import may not have been so much the physical threat as the fact that these attacks were unexpected – they did not fit the international system of international relations as played among palace-based kingdoms. Previsibility had been shot to hell; hence on the rebound from the (possibly minor) affray the boasting of the Pharaohs,’ who could now grandly claim mastery even of the “unexpected.” What better way of claiming divine powerfulness?
In the end, the author shows that he has the heart in the right place. On the page before the last, he quotes a colleague: “Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn about the ‘Dark Age’… is that it was nothing of the sort. Gradually, [this period] emerges rather as the catalyst of a new age...” (pg. 175) On only wishes that he had been given full freedom, rather than having to struggle with a pre-ordained conclusion, that “1177 BC had been the year civilization collapsed” wihhc probably never happened.
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on July 14, 2015
Readers whose primary exposure to this historical period is biblical history will find Dr. Cline’s book a helpful corrective to much misinformation about life in Egypt and the city-states of Canaan in the late second millennium BCE. Israel is not a major character in Cline’s story, and rightly so. While the Hebrew Bible contains many stories set during these centuries – including the epic exodus of millions of Israelites from enslavement in Egypt to a new home in Canaan – the first archaeological evidence for even the existence of an Israelite people appears only at the very end of this period (the Merneptah Stele, 1207 BCE). It is, perhaps, because of widespread belief in the biblical stories that Cline takes them up here, though they add nothing (except for a few paragraphs on Hazor) to his stated exploration of Bronze Age ‘collapse’.

Not that he is reluctant. Much of the material (pp.91-96) echoes his longer treatment of the historicity of the Exodus and ‘conquest’ of Canaan by Israel in his 2007 book, From Eden to Exile. In all but one respect, his conclusions largely reflect the professional consensus: that the historical evidence fails to collaborate, and often contradicts, the biblical stories as told.

The exception, curiously, is his conclusion, for which he provides no argument, evidence, or even a footnote: “At the moment, all that we can say for certain is that the archaeological evidence, in the form of pottery, architecture, and other aspects of material culture, indicates that the Israelites as an identifiable group were present in Canaan certainly by the end of the thirteenth century BC, and that it is their culture, along with that of the Philistine and Phoenicians, that rises up out of the ashes of the destruction of the Canaanite civilization sometime during the twelfth century BC” (p.95-96).

This, decidedly, is not the professional consensus, which would place the emergence of a distinctly non-Canaanite culture in the hill country of Israel several centuries later. The evidence suggests slow transition, not radical change.

The boldness of Cline’s clear lines in this case – that Canaanite civilization was utterly erased and merely provided space for a new, wholly distinctive Israelite people to takeover – is unlike his more cautious conclusions about the wider question of Bronze Age ‘collapse’. Bible students looking for a fuller, a more accurate picture of the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Canaan/Israel should look elsewhere. But for general background on the surrounding cultures and the international tensions of the period, the book remains helpful.
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on July 25, 2014
This book is a short introduction to the decline and fall of Mediterranean Bronze Age civilization. Well, there isn't much decline. The societies just seem to collapse over a relatively short time period. The characters, at least what we know of them, are fascinating.

There are lots of holes in the narrative, which I assume is due to the sparsity of historical evidence. Many of the details were learned in the last 2 centuries from tablets recovered from archaeological expeditions.

I cannot vouch for the book's accuracy because I am not a student of this period of history, but it seems that the author provides a citation for every assertion. The author's speculations and hypotheses are clearly recognizable as such and can be taken in good faith by a conscientious reader.

The book's title is slightly misleading, since the bulk of the book concerns a 300 year period of history, and the climactic collapse spans decades. The author briefly argues that 1177 is a good benchmark year to declare the Bronze Age civilization to have collapsed, but I imagine that the publisher wanted the book to have a bolder title than "The Gradual Collapse of Mediterranean Bronze Age Civilization".

The prose is well constructed, but some sections lag due to the technical nature of the discussion of archeological excavations. The proliferate names of cities and characters can become confusing--the author attempts to compensate for this with an index of names and several charts near the beginning of the book--but a casual reader can forget most of them and still follow the book's general arguments and the trajectory of history.

I find the theory of a general systems collapse intriguing. I wonder what the future of this field of study will reveal.

Edit: One more thing to note. The hardcover version has unevenly trimmed pages (see product image gallery). This gives the book a nice antique feel, but it also makes it more difficult to skip around the book to read footnotes and to consult the index, tables, and maps.

I don't know if this applies to other editions.
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