Dan Carlin, host of the popular podcast Hardcore History, stresses at the outset of his latest book that he is not a historian but rather “a student of history”: an amateur status that grants him the freedom “to roam intellectual spaces” that are off-limits to academics cowed by the rigors of peer review. He uses this freedom to pursue big, slippery, speculative questions about the nature of humanity—questions that he admits are prone to bias and impossible to quantify. A different student of history might wonder if restricting himself to a smaller field of inquiry could yield more graspable and thus more profound answers, but not Carlin, who roams from ancient Assyria to nuclear-powered America with the wowed air of a college freshman who’s just discovered cultural relativism.
This wide-eyed approach to history clearly has a big audience, and Carlin’s style—enthusiastic, sweeping, spiced with gory detail, and pausing frequently to entertain broad hypotheticals and counterfactuals—works engagingly for an audio format. (His background is as a radio journalist.) It’s less successful in a book, where a reader has time to pause over a line like “Some societies and cultures of the past held wildly differing ideas of what should and shouldn’t be okay sexually between adults and children” and wonder where exactly the argument is leading. The questions that drive the first two chapters (“Do tough times make people tougher?” and “What impact does widespread childhood trauma have on a society?”) are so broad that it’s doubtful they can be posed, let alone answered, in any meaningful way.