Warning: this post contains spoilers for William J Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World
Or, as I wanted to title this post: A Splendid Review. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a splendid book. You might be starting to think that I’m just biased against nonfiction, considering that I think the majority of the nonfiction books I’ve reviewed on the site have all been described as something along the lines of “mediocre,” but I promise there are some that I would call excellent. Chernow’s biographies of Washington and Hamilton, for instance, or another splendid biography on Lincoln, or several books on theoretical astrophysics…unfortunately, I read those before I started doing book reviews on the site, and it just so happens that the nonfiction books that I’ve read since I started have been somewhat disappointing.
This one had as its most obvious problem the same problem that plagues many nonfiction books: it ran out of new content about halfway through, and just started repeating itself from there. I know that, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes, but by the time the book got into the nineteenth century it seemed to have run out of new observations to make about trade. Considering that trade changed dramatically in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty first centuries, it seems odd that the author couldn’t find unique things to say about it.
More concerning, though, and in my opinion more detrimental to the book, was the author’s somewhat obvious agenda. I know that it’s impossible to present a completely unbiased view, but when writing nonfiction, I think that it’s at least important to provide nuanced view, and to make an effort to remain unbiased in your presentation of the information. Bernstein seemed to feel few compunctions against adding his own commentary to the historical events he was describing. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was presented as a persuasive piece intended to use historical precedents to advocate for a given position, but that’s not how the book was presented.
It wasn’t all bad, though. There was a lot of very interesting history, especially in the first half of the book, which described periods of history and regions of trade that are not typically given much attention in most treatments of world history. I learned quite a bit about how trade evolved in its very earliest days, and who traded most with whom and how those dynamics worked. The lens of trade also provided a very intriguing and different perspective on more familiar history. As someone who loves learning for its own sake, that made the book satisfying on its own.
If you’re looking for a serious treatment of the economics of world trade throughout history, and how it affects us today, this probably isn’t the book for you. There are better treatments of that side. However, if you’re looking to learn about world history from the perspective of world trade, including some parts that are typically glossed over in most studies of world history, this book could be worth a read.
Oh, by the way, I know that I put spoiler warnings at the top of all of my reviews, even the nonfiction ones. That’s a little like trying not to spoil that fact that Lincoln dies at the end of the Lincoln biography, but I do it anyway. It’s probably because I’m an engineer.