Bookshot #170: The Verge
So, I read this book for two primary reasons-- first, I devoured the podcast Tides of History and if a
podcast is good enough and comes out with a book of some kind, I figure the least I can do is snag a copy of the book and actually pay for it, since I've usually consumed a considerable amount of the author's content for free over the years.
Second, it's homework. I did three 'seasons' of a Serial challenge on one of my writing groups and in my last season, I decided to dabble in fantasy. What resulted was... okay, but not something that I'd let anyone see in real life at the moment, but what it revealed to me was that if I was going to be serious about cleaning it up and turning it into something, I was going to have to do some research. The Verge is the first book of several I'll be reading to hopefully get me a little more grounded in the time period and thus make my fantasy novella, short story, or whatever it ends up being, better. (At least better than what it currently is.)
So, The Verge. Officially, it's called: The Verge Reformation, Renaissance and Forty Years That Shook The World 1490-1530, and that covers what the book deals with. Between 1490 and 1530, Europe went through unprecedented changes on multiple levels that Wyman breaks out and deals with chapter by chapter. These include Christopher Columbus and the start of the Age of Exploration, Isabella of Castille and the Rise of the State, Martin Luther and how the Printing Press helped to disrupt the church and launch the reformation, and rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent and Charles V.
Rubbing shoulders with the names you know, however, are names you might not be quite so familiar with. The chapter on Jakob Fugger deals with the birth and rise of the modern banking system. Gotz von Berlichingen, the Germany-born mercenary, and his story show the rapid change of military technology and the chaos it wrought- from Ottoman conquests to the seemingly never-ending Italian Wars of the age. Instead of going where you'd think for printing (Gutenberg), Wyman goes with Aldus Mantius and talks about the rise of printing and how disruptive it was as a technology, and how revolutionary it was for things like education and religion. John Heritage, the English wool merchant whose story remains in his account books and whose practices presaged the changing nature of trade and the growth of trading networks that eventually lead to the formation of capitalism more or less as we know it today.
Taken as a whole, it's a complete and compelling portrait of the time period that Wyman is focusing on, but it's different from the typical history book in that he actually takes the time to illustrate how this change is impacting different social classes and what every day lives might look like. In that, it's not very different from the structure of his podcast- where he does talk about the events of early modern Europe in great detail, but does so usually by folding in a narrative of either an actual person or a composite character so the listener can get a sense of what life might actually be like for someone living back then. It may not be everybody's cup of tea and to be honest, there were some chapters where I wasn't sure it was my cup of tea either- however what it does end up being is a comprehensive, compelling portrait of an exciting, critical time in Europe's history.
Overall: I would call this book engaging. And I think that's exactly what any history book should aim for. Does it inform and engage your reader? In this case, Wyman checks both of these boxes with room to spare. Granted, he essentially does it by writing out nine episodes of his podcast and hooking them all together, but if it works it works and with The Verge, it works very well. An excellent, comprehensive portrait of the early modern time period in Europe, Wyman leaves no stone unturned and gives the reader a fascinating, page-turner of a book. My Grade: *** out of ****