Gwen & Kate's Library

Two sisters' reviews of Young Adult and Middle Grade books, inspired by their lovely library.

Gwen’s Summer Challenge: Personalities and Problems by Ken Wolf (Non Fiction)

This book is a fantastic resource for any student or reader interested in history, specifically in the time periods earlier than the 1900s, as I am. This book is currently out of print and hard to acquire, but it is well worth it. Mine is now completely covered with underlined sections and notes in the margin, and I will go back to it again and again if I’m ever curious about one of the 30 different “personalities” featured in this book. 

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Series: Interpretive Essays in World Civilizations, Volume 1

Genres: Non Fiction, Biography, History

Rating: 5 stars

Description:

This is a unique collection of original essays about real people whose lives or careers demonstrate solutions to problems of their times. Each chapter focuses on a problem or issue by discussing the lives of two historical figures (actual or near contemporaries of each other) whose careers illustrate the richness and variety of human history.

Table of Contents:

1. Hammurabi and Moses: Laws as a Mirror of Civilization

2. Zoroaster and Buddha: Explaining Suffering

3. Confucius and Plato: A Few Really Good People

4. Mahavira and Diogenes: Unconventional Men

5. Thucydides and Sima Qian: Learning from the Past

6. Asoka and Shi Huangdi: Honey and Vinegar

7. Boudica and Zenobia: Challenging the Romans

8. Irene and Wu Zhao: Two Iconoclasts

9. Al-Ghazali and Aquinas: Faith and Reason

10. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta: The Merchant and the Pilgrim

11. Mansa Musa and Louis IX: Pilgrims and State-Builders

12. Prince Henry and Zheng He: Sailing South

13. Erasmus and Luther: The Reformer’s Dilemma

14. Elizabeth and Akbar: The Religion of the Ruler?

15. Kangxi and Louis XIV: Dynastic Rulers, East and West

Book Review:

This book is a fantastic resource for any student or reader interested in history, specifically in the time periods earlier than the 1900s, as I am. This book is currently out of print and hard to acquire, but it is well worth it. Mine is now completely covered with underlined sections and notes in the margin, and I will go back to it again and again if I’m ever curious about one of the 30 different “personalities” featured in this book.

I discovered Personalities and Problems last year, when researching for a debate for my social studies class. For our midterm exam, we had to debate on an assigned team, each focusing on a certain event or group in “the Global Awakening,” the period between 1096 and 1596. These events and groups included the Crusades, the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, the Black Death, Zheng He, the 1453 Fall of Constantinople, Portuguese Explorers and the Spice Trade, and Spanish/European Explorers. Each group’s job was to argue that their event had the most impact on the world in history and in modern times. I was assigned to the Portuguese Explorers and Spice Trade group, and in researching for a potential debate against Zheng He and the Ming Dynasty, I discovered a photocopied article online entitled Prince Henry and Zheng He: Sailing South (click here to read this essay as an excerpt from the book). It was exactly what I needed, containing a perfect biography of both Prince Henry “the Navigator,” an important Portuguese sailing instructor, and Zheng He, the famous eunuch admiral of the “treasure ships,” in addition to clearly phrased explanations as to why Prince Henry had a larger impact on the world (curious as to why? You’ll just have to read the book!).

I loved the amount of detailed information given in this book, along with the simple, and easy to understand writing style. Each essay is well organized, and all are similar, beginning with a creative summary and introduction, then a bio of each individual character (each essay is a comparison between two similar historical figures), and a conclusion comparing and contrasting the two. In addition, each chapter begins with an illustration, usually of the two figures, and two to three general questions that the essay aims to answer that serve as a brief outline. The characters featured include political leaders, philosophers, religious leaders, historians, and explorers.

My favorite chapter was Thucydides and Sima Qian: Learning from the Past, which asked the questions “Why do we keep records of the past? How do historical works reflect the values of writers and of their cultures? Is one kind of history better than another?” These questions and the focus of this essay really struck home with me, because it taught me about two historical figures that were entirely new to me, and it explained the connection between history, historical records, and the historian’s culture. This is something I have thought about a lot, especially in my favorite history classes and the cultural anthropology class I took this summer. The relationship between history, how we learn it, and our culture is something I find is not discussed enough in history classes, but is very stressed in Personalities and Problems, something I highly appreciated.

I cannot recommend this book more for any student interested in learning more about history or researching a specific person. What I love about this book is that the essays complement each other but stand alone as well. I read the chapters entirely out of order, and still enjoyed them all. Even if you only read a single chapter of this book, I encourage all to give it a try and learn both historical information and important life lessons!

Genre Review: Non Fiction

This summer has been my discovery of the non fiction genre, and as the history nerd that I am, history is clearly my favorite sub-genre. Although Personalities and Problems is the only non fiction book I finished this summer, I read the first one hundred pages (and I’m still working on it — slowly but surely!) of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, and greatly increased my non fiction collection, including The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester, and The Life of Queen Elizabeth by Alison Weir, among others.

My reading style for non fiction books differs greatly from that of fiction, because I have found a need to take notes and underline quite a bit in historical books, making it necessary to purchase them as opposed to borrow from the library. In addition, I seem to like reading both a fiction and non fiction book at the same time, picking one or the other up depending on my mood, which means I’ve greatly increased the book weight I carry around on a daily basis. Therefore, non fiction is not a genre I will read as often as fiction, but it is certainly an interesting one to pursue. I have quite a lengthy to-read list in this genre, and might write a book list soon on that topic (we’ll see).

What are your favorite non fiction books? Any to recommend to me (preferably history related) that I should add to my to-read list?

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