Book review: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century

HIS entertaining novels and distinctly non-standard biographies have long marked John Higgs out as an ambitious writer, but even by his standards, this is an audacious project.

John Higgs

Orion, €29.50; ebook, €18.99

It’s an attempt to explain, in one fairly slim volume, a particularly breakneck 100 years, and how its tumult led to the world we now inhabit. Heroically, he more or less pulls it off.

Obviously he can’t entirely avoid standard presences, such as Einstein and Stalin, but the vital roles of less famous figures — modern artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and occultist rocket scientist John Parsons — are explored thoroughly.

The recurring theme is the undermining of traditional certainties (in physics, art, finance and more), and the painful adjustments these decentrings brought. 

Higgs recounts it with wide-ranging erudition and a delightful deadpan humour; a particular joy is the explanation of quantum theory via an example of Vladimir Putin fighting a kangaroo.


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