In Review

Book of the week: Doom

The Scottish-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has put the pandemic in the historical context of catastrophes

While the rest of us spent lockdown learning to bake sourdough, Niall Ferguson applied his “prodigious intellect” to the task of placing the pandemic in historical context, said Douglas Alexander in the FT. In Doom, the Scottish-born Harvard historian sets out to “understand why humanity, time and again through the ages, has failed to prepare for catastrophe”.

Ferguson’s inquiry is “dazzlingly broad”, covering a host of natural and man-made disasters – Vesuvius, wars, famine, Chernobyl – and takes in disciplines ranging from network science to epidemiology. Insofar as the book has an “overall thesis”, it is that disasters are usually less the product of poor leadership than of “vulnerabilities of the system”. America’s nearly 600,000 Covid deaths, in other words, probably had less to do with Donald Trump than with the country’s cumbersome bureaucracy. Whether you agree with this or not, Ferguson is a superb historian, and Doom is an “immensely readable” book.

Ferguson has one good reason to claim to be an authority on catastrophes, said David Aaronovitch in The Times: he was quick to grasp the seriousness of Covid-19. In January 2020, as he reminds us on the opening page, he predicted that it would create a global pandemic, and “was regarded as eccentric”. His book, however, is an unconvincing blend of “statements of the readily apparent” and laborious theorising. Was the pandemic a black swan (an unexpected event that catches humanity unawares), a grey rhino (an obviously dangerous event that people nonetheless do nothing about), or a dragon king (an event that flattens civilisation)?

Ferguson says it was a grey rhino. When not playing with such grand concepts, he indulges in tiresome liberal-baiting – describing Black Lives Matter as a “contagion”. Another problem with this book is that it is already outdated, said Mark Whitaker in The Washington Post. Concluding his narrative last autumn, Ferguson predicts the Covid-19 pandemic will be remembered not in the same league as the 1918 Spanish influenza, but rather the (now largely forgotten) Asian flu of 1957. A lot, however, has happened since – including the second wave, the emergence of scary new variants, and the roll-out of vaccines.

Doom is most successful when it sticks to Ferguson’s specialist subject, said Martin Bentham in the London Evening Standard. His accounts of history’s landmark catastrophes are always thought-provoking and well told. They make this a work that many readers will “relish”, even in these “bleak times”.

Allen Lane 496pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Niall Ferguson's Doom
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