Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

BookMark: "The End Is Always Near" By Dan Carlin

Brady Clemens reviews "The End Is Always Near" by Dan Carlin

Normally, a book recounting the long history of disaster, collapse, and near misses wouldn’t rank highly on the list of things to read during a pandemic. Yet the new book from history podcast host, Dan Carlin, covers a tough topic with insight and a bit of humor that makes it a far more interesting and less grim work than it could have been! "The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses" takes us from the very beginnings of civilization up through the 20th Century. It’s a grand tour of some of the worst (or nearly the worst) moments in our history.

We begin with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations across the Mediterranean. More of a mystery than it once was, Carlin looks at why we can’t say for sure what led to the end of great powers like the Hittites. In so doing, he delves into some of the big ideas that make this a work about quite a bit more than just names and dates. How do we know what we think we know? This question is especially important when the evidence for what happened is limited. When an archaeological dig shows evidence of destruction, how can we tell whether it was a foreign military power or a peasant uprising? How we interpret this limited evidence shapes how we think about these key historical moments.

The end of the Assyrian Empire, destroyed at the height of its power by a coalition of new enemies, illustrates another point. Sometimes big changes can happen with terrifying and unexpected swiftness. When Carlin looks at the end of Rome, he revisits the question of whether we can truly say that Rome “fell” in the sense we’re used to. The barbarians themselves had often been Romanized. Many institutions like the Roman Senate continued. And in some places, citizens welcomed the barbarians as liberators, ending the yoke of heavy Roman taxation. The Eastern Roman Empire lasted for another thousand years, after all. Even though we refer to them as “Byzantines,” they considered themselves to be “Roman.”

Carlin isn’t afraid to look at historical events in different contexts either. To try to understand the mass bombings and the use of the atomic bomb during the Second World War, he looks at just how governments horrified at the use of weapons on civilians came to see it as not only acceptable but justified. The question of nuclear weapons leads to a larger discussion of whether we have become more moral over time, fascinating in and of itself.

While the discussions of the Black Death and Spanish flu pandemic hit a bit close to home, they provide useful context for the moment. An argument for reading this book now might well be the reminder that things could be (and often have been) quite a bit worse.

Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.

Related Content