The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan, an Oxford historian, sweeps us through the last 2,000 years of world history, showing us how it looks from an Asian perspective rather than from the European perspective that dominates our educational experiences. He posits that the Middle East, Central Asia, call it what we will, is the focal point of the world’s trade in ideas, commerce and wealth. For most of these 2,000 years, Europe was a backwater, not the driving force we imagine. He gives us example after example of how European events reacted to events in Asia — from the crusades to colonization of the Americas, the industrial revolution, and the world ward of the 20th Century.

Frankopan’s perspective intensifies as he nears the present; forty percent of the text deals with the period from World War I to the present. As we were reading this book during the final days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the immediacy of Western cluelessness about this part of the world was poignant. If only Frankopan’s broader worldview had been a part of our foreign policy considerations over the last century!

This book is a long, hard read. At over 500 pages thick with unfamiliar names and places, it feels encyclopedic. Most of us felt the effort was rewarded with a new outlook on world affairs and international relationships. It is the textbook to the world history course we wish we had taken. For those looking for the Cliff Notes version, two related books are available. Frankopan has published The Silk Roads, and Illustrated New History of the World (2018), aimed at young adult readers and found in the children’s section of our library. It was a welcome companion for several of us. Another member was sent Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (2019), which extends his discussion into the world he sees unfolding in Asia today. We have added it to our list of possible future books.

— Bill Smith

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Is this book autobiography?  Memoir?  Is it the story of a quest for the answers to an absorbing crime story with an uncertain ending?  Is it scientific history?  Answer: All of the above!  In weaving together these several strands, this non-fiction tale led to provocative discussion. 

Kirk Wallace Johnson opens his tale autobiographically:  He’s suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.  His current work, seeking to resettle Iraqi interpreters in the US, meets with limited success and constant frustration.  To relieve his depression, he takes up fly-fishing.  From his guide, he learns about fly-tying, the creation of beautiful works of art that are ostensibly for use as hooks to attract salmon.  In reality, these salmon flies are almost never actually used to fish.  They are bought and sold and hoarded as the works of art they are.  Trouble is, however, that the “best” require the use of rare and expensive bird feathers, many from extinct or near-extinct birds. 

As the author enters the world of the fly-tiers, he starts to hear of a theft from the British Museum’s ornithological collection held at the Tring Museum outside London.  This theft was accomplished by a young man, barely out of his teens, named Edwin Rist.  To explain not only the lure of the beautiful bird feathers that drew Rist to the heist, but also the scientific value of the birds taken, the author discovers the work of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who in the middle years of the 19th century, traversed the Malay Archipelago where he gathered and catalogued over 125,000 specimens of rare birds.  His meticulous efforts to tag the date and location of each skin, as the bird carcasses are called, led him independently from Charles Darwin to arrive at the theory of evolution via natural selection.  

But what of Edwin Rist?  Rist is an American young man studying flute at the Royal Conservatory in London, hoping to be selected to play with a major European orchestra when his studies are completed.  He is also an up-and-coming expert fly-tier, featured in the fly-tying world’s website as “the future of fly-tying.”  He needs money to purchase the exotic bird feathers to use in tying his flies.  His visit to the Tring museum awakens him to the possibilities of securing a supply of rare feathers for his own fly-tying and of a steady source of income from feather sales to other fly-tiers.  

The subtitle speaks of obsession and there are many to examine in this book.  There is, first, the scientific obsession of Alfred Russell Wallace, the collector of the specimens, who from his lower-class origins sought academic recognition that was at the time only granted to upper class Britons.  There is Edwin Rist’s obsession with tying classic fishing flies that motivates the theft.  And there is the author’s own obsession with the crime and with recovering feathers for the museum, an obsession that has therapeutic value in alleviating his PTSD symptoms.   

Fly-tying with exotic feathers has exerted an obsessive pull on anglers and on pure hobbyists, with an upsurge of interest in the late 20th century.  With that enthusiasm comes the obsessions that fuel an underground market in rare and often illegal feathers.  Edwin Rist fell into this obsession as a young teenager.  He was later arrested and tried for the theft, was found guilty but lightly punished with a short period of probation after pleading incapacity due to Asperger’s syndrome.  

Many of our discussions were prompted by the judicial treatment of the case.  Could the system do justice to all the interests of society?  The police were essentially done when Rist was identified and tried.  The prosecutor and judge felt limited by prior decisions on the Asperger defense.  The museum’s interest waned when the specimens that were recovered were missing their sourcing tags or had been cut into marketable parts.  The general silence of the “feather underground” made it more difficult to track the fate of the specimens.  What do we think should have been a just punishment or a restorative action imposed on Edwin Rist?  And could he have pulled this off alone?  

Where does the value of the specimens to the scientific community collide with the value of the birds as objects of true beauty that the public might want to see?  Fly-tiers ask:  “Why does the Museum need so many examples of the same bird anyway?”

The Feather Thief is a good read, provocatively posing questions to which different readers might well derive different answers.

Jeanie and Bill Smith


Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein began with a theme that resonated strongly with the liberal arts folks in our group.  Our schooling was based on the traditional notion that diverse strands of a broad education strengthen each other.  For some of us, that theme has been borne out by diverse and even checkered work histories.  We were pleased to have Epstein explain why our bias may be valid.

Epstein begins by contrasting Tiger Woods’s early specialization in golf with Roger Federer’s dabbling in many sports until he settled rather late on tennis.  Specialization and repetitive practice leads to positive results in what Epstein calls “kind” learning environments.  In these environments, patterns repeat and feedback is usually rapid and accurate.  Quick recognition and response is enhanced by practice.  Examples he cites are flight crews and surgical teams.  By contrast, “wicked” learning environments have a greater number of variables and are less predictable.  These environments value more intuition and judgment, which are developed better through a broader range of experience.

Epstein dissects the learning process, showing that our learning skills have evolved to keep up with the shifting nature of the problems we deal with.  Over generations, we have become better accustomed to abstract and conceptual problems, “wicked” learning environments, as shown by improved IQ test scores.  He shows that slower learning may be deeper learning – with implications for both kind and wicked environments.  He expands this thought through varied examples of musical and artistic development and unconventional career paths in other fields such as video game design, economic forecasting, and work team configurations.

He also shows how the accumulation of wider-ranging experiences can lead to changes in work directions and ultimately to better vocational “fit.”  Military service academies provide a well-documented basis for this discussion.  The early specialization of the academies does not lead to officers with longer service tenure, but rather produces mid-level officers ready to try other professional directions.  Other recruiting sources bring people into the officer corps with more diversity of experience and whose later choice of this career path often leads to longer tenure.  Epstein gives a related discussion of how “grit” adds or subtracts from performance.  Persistence can be a virtue, but so can jumping to a new career track which other experiences now support.  These “sampling” experiences also change problem-solving skills, with consequences in invention, incident management, and other areas.

Epstein’s writing is based on extensive review of scholarly work on learning and development, but presented in highly readable prose and laid out in engaging flow.  His conclusions are more like realizations that emerge from a review of the academic research and historical examples he marshals to demonstrate the points.  I never felt he was pushing me to agree, but simply showing me his way of view and inviting me along.  

Bill Smith