Thursday, May 15, 2014

History's Worst Decisions, by Stephen Weir

Part of my recovery/self-improvement while I’m off work has been to improve my ‘sleep hygiene.’  When I first heard the term, I hadn’t realized I was sleeping dirty, but once it was explained to me, I realized that I might, in fact, be a dirty sleeper.  Sleep hygiene is all about creating a relaxing environment for yourself before you try to fall asleep.  Previously, I had been listening to music or watching TV.  Turns out, doing that is dirty and wrong…. Okay, so maybe I’m blowing that thought up a bit too much, but still.  

My new, cleaner sleep habits include getting into bed and using some guided meditation apps on my phone, then turning off all electronic devices.  I was shocked at how instantly relaxing it is to completely unplug from technology – my thoughts seemed easier to put into order and calmer almost immediately; with the added benefit of the guided meditation, I feel even more relaxed.  But guided meditations only take five to twenty minutes, and the sleep hygiene school of thought recommends an hour of calming activities before you try to get to sleep, so what am I supposed to do with the next 55 minutes in my routine?  Why, I’ve been reading, of course!

The thing is, I can’t bring my current novel to bed with me, because I’d stay up all night reading.  Instead, I need books that include shorter passages that you can pick up and walk away from without a lot of thought.  This led me to my latest read, History’s Worst Decisions by Stephen Weir.  The book is a collection of short entries on events in humanity that led to disaster.  The biggest disaster of all though is the book itself.

I found a lot of the entries to be really off the mark.  Each entry, when you read the title, makes sense in a list of knuckle-headed human decisions, but once you get into the reading, you realize that you’re getting a lot of extraneous information about the situation, often times the title and the entry’s contents don’t really match (like the title was meant to catch your attention, but the meat of the entry is boring/different from expected), and in some cases, I questioned whether there was really a decision at the heart of the situation Weir was profiling (like the case of the missing hyphen which caused NASA’s Mariner mission to fail – that was just a mistake/oversight, after all).

More than that thought, I found the history to be a bit shoddy.  Weir is really quick to highlight incidents that he blames the British Empire for.  Now, I fully admit that I’m an Empire apologist (hey, I wrote my thesis on it, and lived with it for 2+ years; I know it wasn’t all good, but I’ll still defend it), but it seemed like every other entry in the first half of the book was somehow the Empire’s fault – yes, they were involved in a lot of the problems that came up, but to blame the Empire is to blame a faceless, impersonal body, and is a cheep cop-out for holding people accountable for their actions.  I didn’t like it.  In other instances, he’s really quick to assign blame to people that can’t fight back, but he put on the kid-gloves when dealing with those people who are still alive and might be litigious.  There’s a lot of bias on each page that the savvy reader needs to wade through; I realize this is a ‘popular’ history, but still, a little honestly would have been nicer.

The introduction to the work talks about the seven deadly sins, and each entry highlights which of the sins the situation refers too, and Weir has added three more, so his list includes anger, charity, envy, faith, gluttony, greed, hope, lust, pride and sloth.  While each entry highlights which ‘sin’ is involved, the actual entry rarely, if ever, mentions them.  It seems like a gimmick that the book really didn’t need and that detracted from the content.  

So, final verdict?  If you need something really boring to put you to sleep (which is what I needed as part of my new sleep hygiene routine), then this book is for you.  This is also a good book to keep in your bathroom, but I would never recommend that anyone approach it as anything other than a biased and truncated history of humanity’s cock-ups.

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