Reading Log 2019 #9: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein

A pretty stellar, detail-driven overview of the history of human trade marred slightly by the author insisting on inserting not-quite-relevant personal asides here and there.

That’s the gist of it, really. The book works best when it’s describing in detail how trade has functionally worked at various points in human history. Deep-dive details on the minutiae of, say, Spanish barbers in 1650’s Mexico getting pissed off at immigrant Chinese barbers undercutting them… that’s where this book shines. And that makes up the bulk of the book, thankfully.

The pre-modern section of the book focuses quite heavily on trade via the Indian Ocean, which will seem odd to the standard reader as *gasp* what about Europe!?!?!? but that is where the bulk of Europe’s and frankly the world’s long-range trade occurred prior to the full-bore colonization of the Western Hemisphere so, in a book like this where each era has a representative, not comprehensive, focus, it’s an absolutely fine choice. And, frankly, fascinating, and Bernstein does a very good job of showing the reader why.

If there’s a ding I have to give this book, it’s with the author sticking weird, current-events-based (well, at least “current” as in “the mid-aughts”, as that’s when the book was first published) bon mots here and there, that are quite snarky and almost never relevant to the text at hand, even if I agree with some of them. These are going to age very poorly in a book like this that shouldn’t really otherwise lose utility anytime soon.

The shitty little asides are mostly front-loaded, though, and I’m straight-up impressed by the even-handed appraisal of globalization and it’s impact on all sides of the associated trade, good and bad. Given that the implosion of the global economy of 2008 happened after this book was written, that an author who seems to otherwise come from a very centrist POV was already looking askance at many aspects of modern global trade in the capitalist era is noteworthy.

For as much as I’ve read a ton of the usual military/political histories that dominate the field, I increasingly find myself more drawn to books like these that focus on something other than Kings and Generals as the main theme through which history is viewed. Trade is a dominating impulse of humanity, right up there with religion and power, and this book is a very good entry into seeing history in that particular light.

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