Review of "The Rise and Fall of American Growth" book

I am going to continue reviewing books here. I’d like to believe the motivation why I do it is to connect with some of my friends as opposed to signal how well-read I am. But hey, I don’t actually know. What I do know, however, is that I would appreciate it a lot if my like-minded friends disclosed books that influenced them in some way or another more often. I’ve become a sucker for “influential” books and I am constantly on a lookout for them. The only way I know how to resolve this problem is to constantly ask people around me whether they have read something they really enjoyed recently. This is somewhat suboptimal. So please, if you have something you’ve read that was very interesting - drop me a line.

Without further ado, the book I enjoyed is “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”. But it’s not just the book, it’s a collection of pleasant but jumbled thoughts that come with it.

The short summary of the thoughts is that (my) life in the 21 century is just amazing. I have access to delicious food and a safe shelter. Chores are mostly taken care of. But that’s not very exciting, because I have come to expect it. So how do I develop this visceral gratitude for the basics that I take for granted?

Drugs. Marijuana specifically. This is how it began. I was hanging around Canary Wharf and then it hit me. The skyscrapers, planes in the sky, driverless DLR trains and amazing music in my playlist. It was all beautiful and wonderful. I kept wondering how mind-blowing it would be for a caveman to simply visit a modern city. Why a caveman, you ask? Cavemen just represent to me what human life would be like without human progress. And the advances in comfort and entertainment that we have made are unprecedented. Think about the most amazing song a caveman has heard in his lifetime. It was probably not that good by the standards of modern music industry. The most amazing performance they have seen? Again, it has nothing on the modern film industry. Man, it hit me so hard I even hired a creative writer to communicate my idea. I am including the creative piece at the end of this blog post.

What does all of this have to do with the book? Well, it turns out, if you want to appreciate modern life, you don’t have to compare yourself with prehistoric times (and you don’t have to get high!). Compare with life before industrial revolution instead. “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” describes in great detail just how different (and miserable in many aspects) life was just ~150 years ago.

Here’s an extract from Bill Gates’ review of the book:

Gordon paints a vivid picture of the years between 1870 and 1970, a century of unprecedented growth in the United States. This was the century that brought us the great inventions that fundamentally changed our standard of living—inventions like the electrical grid, indoor plumbing, automobiles, and antibiotics.

Gordon does a phenomenal job illustrating just how different life was in 1870 than it was in 1970, through both an economic analysis and engaging narrative descriptions.

Consider that in 1870, most homes were lit by candles and whale oil lamps. To use the bathroom, your choice was an outhouse or a chamber pot. Your world was confined to the distance your horse could travel. You would spend long hours of your short life doing backbreaking labor, owning only two changes of clothes, and eating a whole lot of pork and grain mush.

By 1970, homes—and people—became, to use Gordon’s term, networked. The advent of electricity, cars, indoor plumbing, and telephones meant that people were more connected than ever, dramatically improving quality of life and increasing productivity to previously unseen levels.

And so, this is it. This is why I highly recommend the book: to develop a deep appreciation of certain conveniences that we take for granted. And I am not going to even comment on the “Fall” part of the book, because it didn’t influence me much. Mostly because I was already in agreement with it.

More on developing the appreciation: watch this 3 minute video by Louis CK. Finally, the promised creative piece. Author: Ruth Fitzpatrick.

The hunters had returned victorious. After many days of tracking the injured bull auroch, they had found it, cornered it and killed it. Having sent the youngest of the party ahead, they entered the village to immense fanfare; it had been two months since such a large kill had been made and tonight the celebration would continue late into the night.

The returned men recounted tales of bravery to expectant ears while the children took turns running about the camp, holding the auroch’s horns to their heads, pretending to be ferocious reincarnates of the immense beast. Only one person seemed distracted amidst the celebrations: Turglock, the oldest and wisest member of their band. He had not been there to welcome the parade of men and beast into the village but had instead stayed at the entranceway of the sacred caves, deep in his own thoughts. Only when the wafting scent of seared meat reached his nostrils did he descend and take his place of honour by the fire.

Orto, the hunter who had delivered the killing blow, approached him with the choicest cut reserved for him.

‘Wise Turglock,’ he said. ‘It is because of you we found this beast. For this we honour you.’ Few members of their village understood the secrets of walking, and only Turglock was allowed into the sacred caves when the moon was at its fullest. The wise women would prepare him a special drink of herbs and fungus and he would set out alone into the deepest reaches of the cave. Here, surrounded by the images and handprints his ancestors had left behind, he would see many things: the past, the present, the future.

It was during one such walk that he had seen the injured auroch they now feasted on. He had sent the hunters out on the right day and at the right time to find it; and because of him, the village would have meat every day for the next week. ‘You have been walking again, Wise Turglock?’ asked Orto. The old man grunted an ascent. ‘Tell us what you saw,’ another villager pressed. ‘I saw many things,’ he said. ‘Many strange things which I do not understand.’ The villagers descended into a reverent hush, awaiting the visions of the old man.

‘I came to a village, bigger than any I have ever set eyes on. It stretched far into the horizon, filling an entire valley. A great river flowed through this village, with tall houses – taller than the tallest trees, taller than mountains, even – casting shadows over the meandering snake. But these houses did not look like our houses. They here not formed with wood or mud. They glistened in the sun like icicles clinging to branches on a spring morning. I could peer into these houses for there were few walls, only this translucent shield of ice which would not melt. ‘Everywhere, there were people: people who looked like us; people who did not look like us; but everywhere they swarmed like flocks of migrating birds. Perhaps in this village there were even more people than there are fish in our river or deer in our forest; I do not know, for there were too many to count and they did not stay in any one place for very long.

‘I tried to call out, but it seemed that none could see nor hear me. Though they walked as though with purpose and direction, each travelled independent to the other and did not speak unless it was into their hands, which the held up to their ear as though they felt a great pain. I wanted to see to who or what they spoke and walked towards a man, holding his hand to his ear and shouting loudly, with this purpose in mind. But before I could reach him, a swift beast darted past me causing me to jump back in great fear and alarm. So quick was it that I had no time to determine what kind of animal it was. All I know is this: where its legs should have been, there were none. Instead, two great circles like the moon at its fullest spun at great speed. But this was not what caused me fear. For there appeared to be a ghost or demon in the shape of a man conjoined to the moon-legged animal. Its skin was shiny and of many colours and it wore a strange hat on its head. I was happy that it continued on its journey and did not turn to look at me, for I do not know if I would have had the courage to return its gaze.

‘Many people travelled by boat as we sometimes do; but, as with so many things, theirs were not like ours. The boats in this strange village had roofs to protect its passengers from rain and wind and instead of floating on water, they floated on land. They were decorated in many different colours and shone when the sunlight hit their hulls. A great many noises came from them: sometimes honking like an angry goose, or growling like a bear. I would have liked to have studied them in much greater detail, but I felt myself being swept away by the hordes of people who still surrounded me.

‘After many steps, we came to the mouth of an immense cave. For these people, their caves are not sacred: all people are permitted to go in and out of them as they please, and they do not keep them clean as we do. The walls of these caves had many images on them. I could see some were pictures of men and women, and of ground-boats, food and beaches. The colours used were vivid and the images were so real that at first I thought these cave-drawings could not have been created by ancestors, but rather by magic.

‘Still we walked until we reached an immense hole with steps hewn into the steep slope. I was fearful as I saw people stand upon the first steps, but this turned quickly to astonishment when I saw that the steps moved as though it was a waterfall and not rock, as it must have been. I followed these people deep into the earth’s belly, deeper than I had known possible, until we finally reached the cave’s lowest chamber.

‘I was confused, for now the people stopped moving. They divided into two groups and stood in silence atop a raised stone platform. Strange voices talked in the air, but they did not come from human mouths and I could not understand the words they muttered. Suddenly I felt wind on my face. This confused me as I had never known for wind to travel into the earth; in our valley, the wind knows to always stay in the air, for that is its rightful home. A great rumbling began to grow and I looked to its source: bright light like fire was emanating from a cave passage, and coming towards us. A huge monster hurtled towards us and though I wished to scream, I did not; for though I had huge fear in me, none of those around me seemed alarmed or confused. ‘The monster came to a halt and opened up gills on its belly. I saw people willingly enter into it and I followed, as curiosity dominated against fear. I began to wonder was this creature enchanted by a very wise woman, and that now it was forced to do this village’s bidding? It is possible, I think.

‘Many people crowded into the beast’s belly; even when I thought it could fill no more, more people came. I thought the monster would feel very uncomfortable like we do when we fill our bellies with too much food, but it closed its stomach gills – trapping us inside – and began running faster than I have ever seen any animal run. It would run, and then it would stop. And each time it stopped, it would again open up its belly: people left the monster, and people returned to it. Even if it was enchanted, this was a strange beast. I was so fascinated by it that I stayed within it for many run-and-stop intervals until I finally emerged through its gills and back onto the cave floor. This chamber looked very like the chamber we had first left, but I knew we must have travelled a great distance. This was confirmed after I had ascended back to the world, for I was now in a very different part of the village than before. ‘Once again I found myself struck by the multitudes of people. But I noticed that none carried spears or arrows or axes or rods. There were few trees, and I wondered from which place these people would find wood for their fires. And I saw no animals, save for some dogwolfs in many different sizes and colours. But as for food? I could not see how such a great village could be fed.

‘It was then I passed house, which answered some of my many questions. It was a large house and must have been built by the chief of the village, for it was used as a food store. I ventured, inside, being much curious about what fruit and beasts such strange people might eat. I was immediately struck by how much food this village had collected: it had surely been a very bountiful season with much surplus. And not of just one kind of food: of all foods. This village must have been situated very favourable, for I saw fish of sea and river, many kinds of meat and birds, and fruit of all seasons. These were just the foods I recognised, for, in truth, many I did not know.

‘They drew pictures of many of their favourite foods. We do this too. When we are thankful for an auroch offering itself to us and giving us life, we honour it by imprinting its image onto the walls of our cave. Here in this food store, they drew images of bird eggs, fruit and auroch cows, among others. Their skilled artists had drawn human eyes or mouths which were raised up into a smile onto the images. I was much comforted by this: clearly these people gave great honour to the life-giving foods the earth had blessed them with. ‘I could feel in my stomach and head that my walking was nearing its end, though I knew there was still very much more to see. I rushed out into the open air, whereupon I immediately raised my head skywards. I had heard a loud roar and saw a humongous bird. It did not flap its wing but rather soured high up in the air on the wind’s current. It was a bird common to these parts, for I saw no others take notice of it.

‘Feeling languorous, I walked towards a house which had grabbed my attention. Behind its iceshield were images on rocks which danced and moved as though by enchantment or trickery. Some were like pictures painted on walls, while others I could see were real people like you or I. But they could not have been real, for they lived only on the walls. One woman with golden hair appeared many times on the individual rock walls. In each image she moved her lips in perfect unison to its neighbour, and abstracted symbols rushed beneath her at great speed. Some of the rocks showed different worlds – seas, mountains, forests – or different animals, like bears or wolves. I wanted to know its magic, but I felt my own magic waning and waning. I reached out to touch the golden-haired woman’s face but in that instance, my walking ended.’

The village was silent for many moments, save for the crackling of the fire and a distant owl’s hooting. The old man had seen many things before this day, but nothing like this. No one could interpret his words or begin to understand the things he’d claimed to have seen. Many of the children present had questions, but taking cue from the solemnity of the adults, they too remained silent.

“That was a strange walk,’ said Orto, finally. He signalled to a woman to begin singing, and soon the village fell back into conversation and celebration, albeit more reserved than before. He was an old man, thought Orto. Maybe he had made too many walks. Maybe his time of walking was over. He flung a spent auroch bone to an eager dogwolf and went to join the singing woman by the blazing fire.