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Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Judiciary’s Class War (Glenn Harlan Reynolds)

In this brief book, or rather pamphlet in the old political, Tom Paine-ish use of that term, law professor and well-known blogger Glenn Reynolds offers some thoughts on how the class structure of the judiciary affects judicial decisions.  Rather than focus on the general class divide in American society, Reynolds focuses on that divide in the judiciary, which he shows is deeper than that in America as a whole.  He believes the judicial divide is especially pernicious to our political system, and he offers some constructive solutions to the problem, although I think that those solutions both would be ineffective in practice and that the problems are deeper than Reynolds believes.

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Book Review: Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
(Victor Sebestyen)

When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state.  We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War.  Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution.  As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin.  Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it.  His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.

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Book Review: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Steven Pinker)

As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book.  On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions.  His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting.  On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

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Book Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)

This is a forty-year-old biography that is as fresh today as it was in the 1970s.  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the best-known of modern biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, although it only covers his life up to his accession to the Presidency, in 1901.  It wholly warrants its reputation—the writing is clear and compelling, the facts are relevant and interesting, and the author, Edmund Morris, treats the man through the lens of his time, not with any jarring ideological overlay imported from today.  The reader feels like he is practically living in the time, and that is a hard trick to pull off, especially for eight hundred pages.

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Book Review: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
(Robert Louis Wilken)

I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read.  It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way.  It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters.  The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia.  On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia.  And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.

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Book Review: The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (Charles C. Mann)

This book addresses what is, as far as the material comforts of the modern age, the central question of our time—can mankind have it all?  The author, Charles Mann, does not answer that question, though I think his answer would be, if forced, “probably yes.”  What Mann offers, rather than canned answers, is a refreshingly and relentlessly non-ideological work, comparing two philosophies of human development, embodied in the lives of two men of the twentieth century.  The first, Norman Borlaug, engineered the saving of hundreds of millions of lives and won a Nobel Prize.  The second, William Vogt, prophesied a global doom whose arrival date has been continuously postponed for fifty years, and then shot himself, whereupon he was forgotten until this book.

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Book Review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why
(Richard E. Nisbett)

This is a short book with a sweeping thesis.  In essence, the thesis of The Geography of Thought is that many important cognitive processes dominant in East Asian (i.e., Chinese, Japanese and Korean) cultures are substantially different from those processes in Western (i.e., American and European) cultures.  This proposition explains a variety of dissimilarities in how people from each culture approach the world and each other, and it is also a partial explanation of the Great Divergence—why the modern world was created by the West, and by nobody else, to the lasting (so far) benefit of the West.  While the author, Richard Nisbett, goes to great lengths to not ascribe superiority to one type of cognition over another, his cultural analyses show why the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened in East Asia.  As they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and perhaps the relative value of Western ways of thought has passed its use-by date.

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Book Review: The Middle Ages
(Johannes Fried)

It is universally accepted today that the Dark Ages are a myth, roughly as believable as the Australian bunyip.  In fact, medieval Europe was far more dynamic and far more intelligent than it was once portrayed.  Certainly, post-Roman Europe underwent material decline, and it temporarily lost the high culture, and high thought, of Rome.  But soon enough it began to rebound and expand, both geographically and mentally.  Johannes Fried’s main theme in this book, which covers A.D. 500—1500, is the rebirth of “mental acuity and of methodically controlled thinking” in the West, and the creation thereby of a new thing, from which the modern world is made.

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Book Review: The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (Niall Ferguson)

This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”).  Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end.  The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies.  The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.

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Book Review: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph A. Tainter)

In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic.  Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918.  And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome.  Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising.  Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.

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