Books that propound theories of history -- that is, that claim to find common patterns in events widely separated in time and space -- have a deservedly dicey reputation among the professionals. When such books are good they can be very good: a classic like William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples can permanently change the way you look at human affairs. Most big-think books about history, however, turn out to offer little more than strained analogies mixed with pretentious restatements of the obvious. A few have been downright pernicious.
Still, the public has an understandably hearty appetite for theories that seem to explain it all, and so they keep on coming. The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, by David Hackett Fischer, a professor of history at Brandeis University, has already generated considerable buzz. Remarkably for a book that spends most of its 500-plus pages dwelling on events centuries (and occasionally millennia) in the past, a good deal of the buzz comes from the business community, not usually noted for its interest in history. Indeed, Fischer is getting favorable mention from people who tell us in the next breath that we live in a "new economy" to which old rules no longer apply.
There is a reason for this peculiar affinity between a historian with an eighth-century perspective and business commentators obsessed with the new; what these pundits really want, it turns out, is to use his account of alleged patterns in the distant past as an excuse to ignore the lessons of more recent history.
On its face, Fischer's book looks promising. Inflation is a plausible candidate for a wide-ranging search for parallels and common principles. And the book starts well, with an eloquent and stirring defense of the role of quantification in history (although my favorite along these lines is still Colin McEvedy's introduction to The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, which contains this immortal sentence: "History being a branch of the biological sciences, its ultimate expression
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