Stranger Than We Can Imagine--John Higgs's intriguing and unique tour of the 20th Century.
I recommend to readers trying to make sense of the tumultuous twentieth century a fresh historical take--John Higgs's Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the Twentieth Century. Its special quality is the sprightly manner in which Higgs offers up key events that illustrate the transforming qualities of the leading ideas and themes of modernism and postmodernism. The prose is accessible and one can only admire this British author's uncanny ability to highlight complex ideas and phenomena with clarity in short, incisive chapters.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine takes us from the certainties and (apparent) stability of the Victorian era of progress and light to the various shocks and vigorous new philosophies and ways of being that transformed the world. The book might be better termed an historical investigation than a standard history. It clocks in at just 341 pages so there is much that is unavoidably omitted. For instance, his discussion of Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism, developed in the immediate aftermath of the ravages of World War II, ties it to nihilism and the type of despair found in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. Yet, for Sartre and for those of us who have been energized by existentialism, it was surely intended to be a meaningful attempt to overcome despair and to reject nihilism. A longer section might have helped us to understand why Higgs considers the project to have failed. That being said, the author generally operates as a tour guide in an artful fashion, asking the reader to probe the wondrous and strange developments that were responsible for making the world new. The book can serve as a useful primer on such topics as Einstein's theory of relativity and the successful literary experiments of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, such as the use of stream of consciousness and multiple, shifting perspectives.
Legal cases and the role of law play a surprisingly significant role in relation to the events and the cultural icons that Higgs seizes upon to illustrate his narrative history. Indeed, these come into play for me, in the strongest part of the book, as Higgs takes us through the changes of the 1960s and beyond. For instance, in his chapter "Sex" the author relates the controversial and mould-breaking publishing history of D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, written in 1928. It could not be...