Author(s): John Higgs
The twentieth century should make sense. It's the period of history that we know the most about, an epic geo-political 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 twenty-first 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 twentieth 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'.
An innovative exploration of history's most challenging century.
I first fell in love with John Higgs’ writing on discovering his book about The KLF, and admired how smoothly he could interweave hundreds of disparate people, influences and ideas surrounding the group into a cohesive and well-paced read. Halfway through that book Higgs admits that, despite The KLF having two members, one of them was barely going to be mentioned at all, because his story didn’t serve the narrative that he, the author, was trying to put across. It was a refreshingly frank admission of just how at mercy any subject is to the convictions of its biographer.
It may seem overly ambitious to go from writing about a band to a whole century, but by applying the same approach - considering himself an “adventurer with an agenda” rather than a historian - Higgs does remarkably well at keeping his promise to make sense of it. Instead of focusing on the ‘headliners’ of the twentieth century “for the sake of nostalgia”, figures are brought into light that you might not expect, or even know. A chapter on modernism begins with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (“the first New York punk, sixty years too early”); recurring characters include the mathematicians John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel; while rocket engineer Sergei Korolev is singled out as one of the most important people of the past hundred years.
In linking so many unlikely people and events together, Higgs has created an explorative and often moving book about interconnectedness that made me gasp several times. It does an exemplary job of explaining how we got to today’s world of climate change, social networks, and corporations treated as if they were people. Thomas, Book Grocer Northcote
John Higgs is the author I HAVE AMERICA SURROUNDED: THE LIFE OF TIMOTHY LEARY, THE KLF: CHAOS, MAGIC AND THE BAND WHO BURNED A MILLION POUNDS and the novel THE BRANDY OF THE DAMNED. He lives in Brighton with his partner and their two children. www.johnhiggs.com @johnhiggs