I acquired this book after listening to a podcast, an interview with author Timothy Snyder on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. Usually I listen to this podcast as a means raise my own game. It makes me aware of how much I don’t know, it affords me the opportunity to chew on new ideas about things I do know (or think I know), and in general it makes me a more well-rounded individual. Certainly a more informed one. I don’t always agree with Harris, but mostly I do agree on a wide variety of issues. I find that his voice comes from a foundation of moral reason and logic, free from extremist ideologies, that’s definitely needed in this world. In this particular interview, Timothy Snyder has studied the 20th century and its lessons of demagoguery for 25 years, and he states that this, while being a short book, is a condensation of what he’s learned on the subject of tyranny.
The audiobook isn’t much longer than the podcast itself, but a discussion of the work isn’t meant to be a substitution for it. So much was discussed in the interview, and the further it went, the more I realized I needed to read this book. As per usual, it’s easier for me to listen than to actually read… but in this case I’m forced to consider that a print version of a work like this is more than mandatory to get the most out of it, especially for those who want to mark it up and more easily reference passages in it.
One of the things that sold me on the idea of getting this title was the idea that when historians distill the ideologies of times past — fascism, socialism, communism — it’s often done with a cold logic, free of the emotion and the passion that made those things stick and do the damage that they could do. This book goes into what people were thinking and feeling in the moment such ideologies were in play. The idea, then, is that we in the “more enlightened” modern era can reference the lessons of history and act in a manner that empowers us not to repeat the same mistakes. That part is on us, but we can’t do it if we’re blind to those lessons and become normalized to the problems as they continue.
The cool thing that I appreciate is that the twenty lessons presented here are listed right up front. The rest of the book is a breakdown of where those lessons are derived. I can’t possibly undersell the importance of a book like this, in this political climate or in any other. At the very least, the more people become aware of the basics of how and why we normalize to dangerous ideas, the more we can actively protect ourselves as individuals and as a society.
I was not familiar with Timothy Snyder before listening to the interview. After the podcast and especially after this book, he’s on my radar as a name I respect. His are ideas worth sharing, not from a doom and gloom standpoint, but from one of fostering hope.