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  • Stranger Than We Can Imagine

  • Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
  • By: John Higgs
  • Narrated by: John Higgs
  • Length: 11 hrs and 13 mins
  • Categories: History
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (225 ratings)

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Summary

The 20th century should make sense. It's the period of history that we know the most about, an epic geopolitical narrative that runs through World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two, the American century and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But somehow that story doesn't quite lead into the world we find ourselves in now, this bewildering 21st century, adrift in a network of constant surveillance, unsustainable competition, tsunamis of trivia and extraordinary opportunity.

Time, then, for a new perspective. With John Higgs as our guide, we step off the main path and wander through some of the more curious backwaters of the 20th century, exploring familiar and unfamiliar territory alike, finding fresh insight on our journey to the present day. We travel in the company of some of the most radical artists, scientists, geniuses and crazies of their age.

They show us that great innovations such as relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, postmodernism and chaos maths are not the incomprehensible, abstract horrors that we assume them to be but signposts that bring us to the world we live in now.

John Higgs brings us an alternative history of the strangest of centuries. He shows us how the elegant, clockwork universe of the Victorians became increasingly woozy and uncertain; and how we discovered that our world is not just stranger than we imagine but, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, "stranger than we can imagine".

©2015 John Higgs (P)2015 Audible, Ltd

Critic reviews

"It was formerly held that a comprehensive history of the last century would never be written, by virtue of the fact that we knew too much about that frenetic and eventful period. Now, with the era's ink barely dry, John Higgs demolishes this assumption with a breathtakingly lucid and coherent map of the tectonic shifts which drastically reshaped the human psyche, and the human world, within a hundred thrilling, terrifying years.... An illuminating work of massive insight, in Stranger Than We Can Imagine John Higgs informs us of exactly where we've been and, by extension, where we are. I cannot recommend this magnificent work too highly." (Alan Moore, author of V For Vendetta, Watchmen and Lost Girls)

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  • 24-02-17

Not to be missed

I loved this book from start to finish. It's educational and thought provoking. By providing a comprehensive account of significant changes in politics, economics, science, power, philosophy, music and more during the twentieth century, the reader is provided with new perspectives and a fascinating insight into our own place on the planet and in the timeline of recent human history during a period of strange and significant change. Do yourself a favour - read (or listen) to this book!

6 people found this helpful

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A wild ride through the twentieth century - hop on board

What a crazy trip the 20th century was but I’m quite glad I was a part of it. It began with 1.3 billion people on the planet and ended with 7 billion. We could barely fly and imagining going to the moon was as fanciful as believing we could time travel yet by 1969 we had walked on it, from when a few elitist Tsars, Emperors and kings ruled over the masses and a few elitist rulers controlled so much of the world and then in a few years this would disappear and become replaced by, well what? When paternal rule turned into women’s liberation and attitudes to sex changed beyond all belief. This book covers a small section of ideas and events that turned into the craziest century so far in man's brief moment on planet earth. It describes existentialism as a bit like wandering around an art gallery in the dark not seeing what's there. However, if we only turn on the lights, even if life is meaningless, there is still wonder and beauty and marvels all around. Sometimes you need to turn on a light to become aware of the beauty and art and wonder that is all around you rather than keeping the lights off or your eyes closed.
The book begins with Einstein and his 4 incredible science papers (whilst a clerk in Bern) and also the start of science becoming much more than just the science itself but also becoming aware of the act of the observer, and so it is with understanding the self and philosophy, that sometimes in order for the world to change, we need to change. As William Blake said "about the eye changing in order for the world to change.”
The story of the Russian scientist Korolev who founded the space program in Russia after having survived the Gulags where he was in turn for a made up trumped up charge under the paranoia of communism and Stalin is the most fascinating story that is told in this book. Korolov, once free, kept the soviet space race ahead of the USA and then he died - sometimes one man can make a real difference. The exploration of space is another fascinating chapter. The book then moves on to the subject of sex where we moved from paternal repression to women's liberation via the interesting story of Marie Stopes, both a force for good regarding sexual liberation and the holder of some very extremely unpleasant ideas, through Lady Chatterley's lover and other court cases, and then finally liberation in the form of Germaine Greer’s ‘the female eunuch’. The subject is fascinating and a real show at the changes that have occurred over the 20th century regarding our attitudes and behaviours towards sex.
The teenage years begin with the visceral thrill of ‘tutti-frutti’ by little Richard and then move through rock 'n' roll to the amazing work of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and their different philosophies in changing teenage mood. It also looks at how teenagers became a term first coined in the 1940’s to change in behaviours and a sense of self.
The life expectancy of an average man at the beginning of the century was 46 and for a woman 50 by the end of the 20th century it had risen to over 70, workers rights, healthcare, civil rights movement, women’s rights all significantly change even attitudes towards homosexuality. But in Hitler, Stalin and Mao and other despots and dictators we had horrific genocide and crimes against humanity against people – and began with two world wars and then an equally horrific second half of the century under the horrors of the Cold War. And then we all became reliant on the Internet. And we all became connected which seems to have created as much polarisation and division than we imagined.
The book covers the subjects of relativity, modernism, war, individualism, the id, uncertainty, Science fiction, realism, space, sex, teenagers, chaos, growth, post-modernism and networking. The book also explores our certainties of reality, and how we’ve all made so many different types of reality. And as we’ve moved into the age of misinformation, control and data collection, a final lesson that we will learn is it is the context of our environment that shapes our reasoning, thoughts and behaviours. “Where once we regulated our behaviour out of fear of punishment by our Lord and master, now we adjust our actions in response to the buzzing cloud of verbal judgements from thousands of people. We are still free to choose our own path through society, in a way that we never were in the days of emperors, but we do have to take responsibility for our choices… Those raised in the twentieth century were perhaps unprepared for the amount of cynicism, tribal hatred and cruelty that you encounter every day on the internet.” We have moved away from hierarchical control where emperors, despots, dictators and rulers controlled the masses to everyone has a say but it comes at a cost also - and big corporations are trying to control the Internet. A quote and study by Alex Pentland, ‘It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.’ An interesting study by Pentlandite cited in the book looking at mobile phones and from weight gain to political voting behaviours is not determined or decided by willpower, rational thought or free will but by our peers around us. As Pentland states ‘The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.’
It’s a really illuminating and brilliant read.

5 people found this helpful

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Tour through our times.

Higgs has done an excellent job of making sense of the last Century from a Western perspective. Insightful, fun and thought provoking. I recommend you listen, learn and above all enjoy.

4 people found this helpful

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Fascinating, clear and amusing

The interaction among science, culture and the arts. I have read much of his source material but it was very useful to have it all brought together in one book with all the parallels and interactions pointed out.

3 people found this helpful

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Required listening for everyone!

Loved this book and was sad when it finished. I have shared it with so many people. The tone, the content, the narration were fantastic. I have now downloaded all of John Higgs' other books!

2 people found this helpful

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Couldn't finish

The first five chapters were enjoyable but then it just became monotonous. I tried on different occasions to finish this book but after ten minutes I just got bored. I'm not into science and I think the narrator is. So I switched off.

2 people found this helpful

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Exceptional view point

This book works wonders on the mind, if you already enjoy looking at things differently and not buying into the programming of society and history then you will love it. If however you are not used to that mode of questioning the World yet would like to change the way you seek and find answers and interpret things this will be a most suitable starting place.

If you are a bit Greyface it might be best to step away in case you get a bit shaken from exposure to a unique and fantastically written book laden with humour and insight.

2 people found this helpful

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Great Book.

John Higgs is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. Funny, Informative, and genuinely thought provoking. This book is quite extraordinary.

1 person found this helpful

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Raymond

I thought Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs was a brilliant portrait of the 20th century and answered a lot of mystery’s that I didn’t understand at the time.


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Awesome!

Great book, adds a much needed more 'in touch' take on how we got to where we now are.

1 person found this helpful