All posts filed under: Biography & Autobiography

Flash of Genius (John Seabrook)

This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers.  The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism.  The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.

Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)

I’ve always liked Bruce Springsteen, but never knew much about him beyond what could be read in the news.  His autobiography, Born to Run, tells everything a reasonable reader could want.  It’s not a tell-all, certainly—while Springsteen honestly relates his life, including quite a bit of self-criticism, he says explicitly he has not told the reader everything.  Still, the reader learns a lot, and for someone like me not sentient in the 1970s, in particular, the book draws a vivid picture of a particular unique time.

Devil’s Bargain (Joshua Green)

From when he won the Republican nomination, until Election Night, I told anyone who would listen that Trump would win, and win handily.  I am a Trump supporter, and voted for Trump.  I am also a big fan of Steve Bannon.  Joshua Green is none of the above—yet he has written a compelling, and insightful book, even-handed in every way, that is very much worth reading.

Agents of Empire (Noel Malcolm)

When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists.  Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans.  If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi.  I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers.  This book, however, has changed my perspective.

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (Robin Lane Fox)

Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine.  We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell?  Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away.  Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading.  But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works.  Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joan of Arc (Wyatt North)

This book is pure hagiography.  While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography.  But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.

Churchill & Orwell (Thomas Ricks)

The heroes of every age are often not seen as heroes during their lives, or if so viewed in their own age they are not so viewed in later ages.  And doubtless perceptions of heroes change as one future passes into another.  But for us, today, Churchill and Orwell are heroes to many, and whatever else may be true, this alone gives the two men something in common.  Thomas Ricks uses this commonality as the springboard and organizing theme for his book, which is a competently written capsule biography of its title subjects, combining examination of the men with examination of their time.  His book offers both an interesting narration of known facts and some fresh insights by the author—neither an easy feat when dealing with heroes.

The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (Steven Hayward)

This is the second volume of historian Steven Hayward’s voluminous biography of Ronald Reagan.  As with any modern, widely documented life, “voluminous” does not mean “comprehensive”—there is no such thing, and Reagan in particular is the type of man who, when writing about, the biographer must select his facts and weave them into a coherent whole that takes the measure of the man.  In this Hayward succeeds brilliantly, while simultaneously illuminating the America of the 1980s—for as I noted when reviewing the first volume, this biography is about the Age of Reagan, not merely Reagan himself.  But compared to that first volume, this volume, subtitled The Conservative Counterrevolution:  1980-1989 is much more about Reagan and less about his times.  Or rather, it is about his times, but viewed nearly exclusively through the prism of Reagan, who after all molded those times more than any other human being.  The first volume viewed the times largely through other prisms, including most notably Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Here, the focus settles and stays on Reagan himself.

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Albert Jay Nock)

Many years ago, I belonged to a debating society, which, among other activities, sponsored formal dinners at which there was much drinking and then singing, from an official songbook of thoroughly not-politically correct songs.  Among them was one, sung to the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, titled God Rot Ye Libertarians.  It went, “God rot ye libertarians, you fill us with dismay / Your atheistic tendencies, your anarchistic ways / Your flaunted immorality leads innocents astray / But you’ll get yours on Judgment Day, Judgment Day / Yes, you’ll get yours on Judgment Day!”  I don’t know whether Albert Jay Nock will get his on Judgment Day, but the song could certainly have been written for him, and a wise man would not put a lot of money on Nock being grouped with the sheep.

Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Bradley Birzer)

Once upon a time, it seemed that Russell Kirk might, as he so devoutly wished, “redeem the time.” For two brief, shining moments, in the late 1950s and the early 1980s, Kirk’s efforts must have seemed to him like they might bear permanent fruit. But the moments passed, and it is clear now (in the summer of 2016) that Kirk’s efforts were always doomed. Or maybe only doomed in this age—on the farther side of our Ragnarok, perhaps his star will rise again.