Summer is supposed to be a time to escape, especially when it comes to reading.

But this hasn’t been that kind of summer for me. Instead, it’s been a season for reading about people, and the ways that they work together and against each other.

Here’s my reading list so far:

First up is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind” by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book covers a lot of ground, beginning about 100,000 years ago when at least a half-dozen species of human were walking upright, sitting around fires and making tools. None of them were kings of the jungle, though. Why did one of them, homo sapiens, take the dominant position we have today?

Harari, a historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says it’s our ability to make up stories about things that only exist in our imagination. Somewhere between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, those of our ancestors who could share these fictions with each other had an enormous advantage over the competition because they were able to work as a group. Within a few thousand years, we sapiens were the last version of man left standing.

He calls that the “cognitive revolution,” which was followed about 10,000 years ago by the “agricultural revolution,” and then about 500 years ago by the “scientific revolution,” which is still in its early stages.

The ability to create a reality that only exists in the shared imagination of many people is a key part of all of the later developments.

You couldn’t have complex societies without stories about why some people were superior and others inferior. You couldn’t build a giant corporation if you didn’t get everyone to believe some fairly preposterous things, like: a lawyer’s words on paper create an entity that can borrow money, hire workers, pay dividends to investors or be charged with a crime if it misbehaves very badly. These days, a corporation even has free-speech rights, although everybody knows that it only exists in our minds.

All this story-telling has been good for humans, but not so good for the planet. Every revolution has led to a population explosion and a more dominant role for the human race. There are 7.6 billion of us now and we are killing off other species at a rate not seen since the last Ice Age. But unlike the woolly mammoth, we get some say what happens next.

The next book I read was “October” by China Mieville, which tells the story of a specific revolution, the one in Russia in 1917.

This book also starts with a puzzle: In 1914, there were a few hundred Bolshevik revolutionaries, with most of their leaders in prison or exile. Within a decade, they were the masters of millions of people, and controlled a continental empire that survived into the 1990s. How did they pull that off?

According to this book, they did it by going to a lot of meetings attended by a great number of people with hard-to-pronounce names representing many now-obscure political parties.

Much of the book describes the conflict between two socialist factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, divided more by tactics than ideology. The Mensheviks were willing to work with a provisional government led by the liberal elite that had overthrown Czar Nicholas II. That collaboration required some support for keeping Russia fighting in World War I.

The Bolsheviks, under the guidance of Lenin, wanted no part of the provisional government or the war, and used their speeches and party newspapers to denounce anyone who did. They spent a lot of time arguing over slogans, like the very catchy demand for “The Complete Liquidation of the Dictatorship of the Counterrevolutionary Bourgeoisie!”

But in these months of meetings, history turned in the Bolsheviks’ favor. By taking a gradualist approach and cooperating with other parties, the Mensheviks became identified with an unpopular government and an less popular war.

By refusing to participate in the government, the Bolsheviks became the vehicle for starving workers and soldiers who wanted change.

When it came time to storm the Winter Palace, the Bolsheviks had the power, which they used ruthlessly. The people who had advocated for compromise and gradual progress were written out of the story. As Harari says in Sapiens, “There is no justice in history.”

The third book is a slim volume of essays by the historian and activist Rebecca Solnit, called “Hope in the Dark.

Solnit was writing in 2004, shortly after the re-election of George W. Bush, which was a crushing disappointment for her and others in the anti-war movement. The title comes from something Virginia Wolfe wrote in her diary in 1915: “The future is dark, which is on the whole the best thing the future can be.”

Wolfe didn’t mean that the future would be bad, Solnit argues, but just that we can’t see it yet.

The events of recent days could not have been predicted five or 10 years ago, so why should we think we can predict what’s going to happen in five or 10 years from now? We can’t know, but we can chose to hope.

“Despair demands less of us. It’s more predictable and in a sad way safer,” she writes. “Authentic hope requires clarity and imagination … seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable or immutable.”

In other words, it’s the ability to imagine a different story that gets many people working on different parts of the same project.

It’s how we got here, and it’s where the next revolution is coming from.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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