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Reviews of The West by Naoíse Sweeney

The West

A New History in Fourteen Lives

by Naoíse Mac Sweeney

The West by Naoíse Mac Sweeney X
The West by Naoíse Mac Sweeney
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  • Published:
    May 2023, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

Prize-winning historian Naoíse Mac Sweeney delivers a captivating exploration of how "Western Civilization" - the concept of a single cultural inheritance extending from ancient Greece to modern times - is a powerful figment of our collective imagination. An urgently needed emergent voice in big history, she offers a bold new account of Western history, real and imagined, through the lives of fourteen remarkable individuals.

In this groundbreaking, story-driven retelling of Western history, Naoíse Mac Sweeney debunks the myths and origin stories that underpin the history we thought we knew. Told through fourteen figures who each played a role in the creation of the Western idea — from Herodotus, a mixed-race migrant, to Phylis Wheatley, an enslaved African American who became a literary sensation; and from Gladstone, with a private passion for epic poetry, to the medieval Arab scholar Al-Kindi — the subjects are a mind-expanding blend of unsung heroes and familiar faces viewed afresh. These characters span the millennia and the continents, representing different religions, varying levels of wealth and education, diverse traditions and nationalities. Each life tells us something unexpected about the age in which it was lived and offers us a piece of the puzzle of how the modern idea of the West developed — and why we've misunderstood it for too long.

The concept of "the West" is present in every daily interaction you have, from entertainment and politics to world markets and world history. This engagingly intimate history will reshape the way you see the world around you. At this moment of civilizational redefinition, if we are to chart a future for the West, we must properly understand its past.

Introduction
THE IMPORTANCE OF ORIGINS

Origins matter. When we pose the question, "Where do you come from?" what we are really asking is often, "Who are you?" This is true for individuals, families and entire countries. It is also true of an entity as large and as complex as the West. This intersection between origins and identity lies at the heart of the culture wars that are currently rocking the West. The last decade has seen the toxic polarisation of political discourse, the toppling of statues and the undermining of elections by incumbent heads of state. The identity crisis within the West is largely a response to wider global patterns. The world is changing, and the foundations of Western dominance are being shaken. In this historical moment we have the chance to radically rethink the West and to remake it anew for a better future. But we can do this only if we are willing to confront its past. Only by answering the question of where the West comes from can we answer the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The greatest facet of this book is how it encourages readers to consider a more nuanced, interwoven history that, by re-evaluating the past with the full breadth of our knowledge, pays tribute to the very ideals of Western Civilization while broadening what that definition really means...continued

Full Review Members Only (924 words)

(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
One by one [Mac Sweeney] takes on hoary old myths — about the character of the ancient world, the nature of the Crusades, or the superiority of European powers in imperial contests — explodes them with panache, and leaves us instead with a richer, fuller understanding of epochs, worldviews and fascinating individuals from the past...Mac Sweeney's gift for sparkling synthesis and gripping personal vignettes never flags...I imagine that lots of people will enjoy this clever and thought-provoking account.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A highly readable, vigorous repudiation of the Western-centric school of history...[Mac Sweeney] argues convincingly that it was a departure from Greek and Roman senses of who they were and how they fit into the world.

Publishers Weekly
[P]ugnacious and erudite...Though Mac Sweeney sometimes overreaches in her eagerness to skewer the idea of the West, as when she suggests that medieval Europe recognized no continuity with ancient Greece, she skillfully synthesizes a wealth of scholarship and draws vibrant character sketches. It's a case to be reckoned with.

Author Blurb Dr Janina Ramirez, author of Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It
The West is an awe-inspiring book. The established narrative of Western Civilization has cast its shadow across our collective histories for centuries, without challenge, yet here Mac Sweeney probes at the very core of the issue, revealing its shaky foundations. Deeply researched, wonderfully well written and immensely thought-provoking, this is an important book which reshapes our understanding of the past.

Author Blurb Jared Yates Sexton, author of American Rule and The Midnight Kingdom
What Naoíse Mac Sweeney does in The West is what we hope from all writers: to deliver a new and better vision of the world. By those standards, this is an incredibly successful and impressive book. Here is an honest, painstaking, and thrilling story that upends almost everything we think we know about the world and replaces it with actual information, compelling figures, and ideas that are destined to change everything. I cannot recommend this book more.

Author Blurb Lawrence Freedman, author of Strategy: A History
This is a book to savor. Naoíse Mac Sweeney challenges us to rethink what it means to be of the West, by illuminating how views about geographical and cultural origins have shifted from antiquity to the present day, by exploring the biographies and ideas of some surprising, intriguing and often little-known individuals. The writing is as accessible as the argument is pointed.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Life and Literature of Tullia D'Aragona

Tullia D'Aragona as Solome As Naoíse Mac Sweeney explains in her book The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives, the fusing of Greco-Roman roots into a common "Western" narrative took off during the Renaissance, and some of the most illustrative examples of this process came from an unlikely source—a female poet and courtesan named Tullia D'Aragona.

Like many non-noble women, the details of her early life are lost to time. Born sometime between 1501 and 1505, her mother was likely a courtesan, and her father may have been a relative of Ferdinand I of Naples, the Spanish king in whose honor she was named "D'Aragona."

D'Aragona grew up in Rome but moved frequently throughout her life to courts and city-states around northern Italy. By the mid-1520s...

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Read-Alikes

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