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Stranger Than We Can Imagine

Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
Narrated by: John Higgs
Length: 11 hrs and 13 mins
5 out of 5 stars (4 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

The 20th century should make sense. It's the period of history that we know the most about, an epic geopolitical 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 21st 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 20th 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".

©2015 John Higgs (P)2015 Audible, Ltd

Critic Reviews

"It was formerly held that a comprehensive history of the last century would never be written, by virtue of the fact that we knew too much about that frenetic and eventful period. Now, with the era's ink barely dry, John Higgs demolishes this assumption with a breathtakingly lucid and coherent map of the tectonic shifts which drastically reshaped the human psyche, and the human world, within a hundred thrilling, terrifying years.... An illuminating work of massive insight, in Stranger Than We Can Imagine John Higgs informs us of exactly where we've been and, by extension, where we are. I cannot recommend this magnificent work too highly." (Alan Moore, author of V For Vendetta, Watchmen and Lost Girls)

What members say

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Addictive - I listened to it 3 times

What made the experience of listening to Stranger Than We Can Imagine the most enjoyable?

The narration of the fascinating subject by the author

What other book might you compare Stranger Than We Can Imagine to, and why?

Non I have read - although it is compatible with the work of the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli - especially his "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics"

Have you listened to any of John Higgs’s other performances? How does this one compare?

No

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No - it needed time for reflection

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  • J
  • 24-02-2017

Not to be missed

I loved this book from start to finish. It's educational and thought provoking. By providing a comprehensive account of significant changes in politics, economics, science, power, philosophy, music and more during the twentieth century, the reader is provided with new perspectives and a fascinating insight into our own place on the planet and in the timeline of recent human history during a period of strange and significant change. Do yourself a favour - read (or listen) to this book!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Howard
  • 07-09-2015

Tour through our times.

Higgs has done an excellent job of making sense of the last Century from a Western perspective. Insightful, fun and thought provoking. I recommend you listen, learn and above all enjoy.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Md Lachlan
  • 29-02-2016

Fascinating, clear and amusing

The interaction among science, culture and the arts. I have read much of his source material but it was very useful to have it all brought together in one book with all the parallels and interactions pointed out.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Gracey
  • 01-09-2016

Awesome!

Great book, adds a much needed more 'in touch' take on how we got to where we now are.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 06-06-2016

Exceptional view point

This book works wonders on the mind, if you already enjoy looking at things differently and not buying into the programming of society and history then you will love it. If however you are not used to that mode of questioning the World yet would like to change the way you seek and find answers and interpret things this will be a most suitable starting place.

If you are a bit Greyface it might be best to step away in case you get a bit shaken from exposure to a unique and fantastically written book laden with humour and insight.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • SirChutney
  • 02-12-2018

Fascinating and frightening book

Stranger Than We Can Imagine bills itself as "an alternative history of the 20th century." Which raises the question: an alternative to what about the 20th century, exactly? John Higgs asked this very question when he found himself in his local bookshop watching a video of Barrack Obama. He was talking about whether the hacking of Sony Entertainment by the North Korean regime should be regarded as an act of war, on a thin slice of glass and metal he’d pulled from his pocket.

Looking over at the history section of the bookshop, Higgs couldn’t find anything that explained exactly how the world ended up the way it is today. A world with all its peculiarities and contradictions, so he decided to take on the task of explaining it himself. But this isn't just a book about events, its also about the way we make sense of it. The fact that people of different eras have related to their world in different ways is hardly news. But the 20th Century is a special case, marking probably the greatest shift in perspective ever experienced. So much so that even their immediate predecessors, the Victorians, would have found the inhabitants of the 20th Century strange and baffling creatures.

Higgs is interested in occasions when canons of knowledge and authority were upturned, when the 20th century chipped away at the idea of there being one grand unifying perspective, and instead privileged multiple perspectives, points of reference and ways of understanding the world.

Pre–20th century, we lived in an age when large parts of the world were carved up by colonialism—where you were in the hierarchy was more important than who you were as a person. If you were a serf or peasant, then that's who you were, regardless of whether you were a good person. It seems appalling to us now, but it was how people understood themselves. It was extremely harsh on the majority of people, but it was stable, and it was the only model of society that we had. It was something that was so integral to all of history, so when it all disappeared almost in the blink of an eye when WWI ended, it was a really big deal.

This was the period where we tried to come to terms with different perspectives and with not having a fixed point of society, or omphalos [an object of world centrality]. This deletion of the arbitrary omphalos happened in many areas, including art, politics, and psychology, during this period. Einstein’s theories set the precedent right from the off; indeed, what could be a more convincing arena for the demonstration of the subjectivity of viewpoints than the supposed bastion of objectivity, the physical sciences? And this is the common thread which unites the various unconnected developments: relativity. Freud’s presence in Stranger Than We Can Imagine is audaciously low-key, and Marx doesn’t even make the index. It’s Einstein who is the father of the era. His discovery that there were no absolutes in physics, only how things appeared relative to the observer, was quickly matched in art, philosophy and politics. Jasper Johns spoke of Duchamp’s “persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference”, and that’s the prevailing theme of the early 20th Century, expressing itself in Cubism, atonal music, The Waste Land, even the cinematic development of montage. And along with it came the rise of individualism. Higgs notes how the end of World War I also marked the end, virtually overnight, of the age of emperors. With the fixed certainties of the imperial age gone, the door was open for the “multiple perspectives” of democracy. This, inevitably, had its dark side. Mussolini was a self-declared relativist who concluded that, since there was no one true ideology, it was the luxury of the most powerful to be able to impose their own ideology by force. Hitler, Stalin and every murderous dictator who followed in their wake, couldn’t have agreed more.

Higgs follows these currents through modernism, existentialism and nihilism, but finds towards the end of his journey the Internet introducing “feedback loops” into our lives which seem to be pointing our collective consciousness in a new, more cooperative direction.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is a thought-provoking read. Its memorable anecdotes and signposts to further reading make it an enjoyable introductory text on twentieth century history, as well as an accessible guide to many of its more murky aspects.

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  • Raymond Hall
  • 25-08-2018

Raymond

I thought Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs was a brilliant portrait of the 20th century and answered a lot of mystery’s that I didn’t understand at the time.


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  • Mme Jabini
  • 09-05-2018

Couldn't finish

The first five chapters were enjoyable but then it just became monotonous. I tried on different occasions to finish this book but after ten minutes I just got bored. I'm not into science and I think the narrator is. So I switched off.

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  • Michelle S.
  • 20-04-2018

I can't stop listening

I have really enjoyed listening to this book. The voice is calm and reasonable. The content is vast and interesting. I also recommend John Higgs kfl the burning of a million pounds. Both are well worth listening to several times.

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  • Rentaghost
  • 10-07-2017

A new perspective on history

A history of the 20th century in the form of ideas. From the Einstein's complicated revision of the physics which surround us, to the the influence of the ' net, and Social Networking. Simply told and easily understandable. A good listen- I'll look for more from the author.