“The Edge Of The World” is an ambitious book. Its subtitle is “A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe,” and its core thesis is that the cultural impact of the peoples bordering the North Sea has been ignored. I think that thesis is false—such cultural impact can be seen everywhere, from the current TV series “Vikings” to New York Times articles on rotting fish cuisine of the North Sea. And the book is more a series of cultural anecdotes grouped by topic than a fully-synthesized cultural history. So the book fails in its stated goal. But it succeeds in being very, very interesting.
This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.
“The Death of Caesar” is Barry Strauss’s latest work on the politics and warfare of the Classical World. Strauss is perhaps today’s most prominent author writing histories of this type—highly readable, not too lengthy, cogent analyses that are designed for the general modern reader. Among other topics, Strauss has covered the Trojan War, Salamis, Spartacus, and now Caesar. This is actually the second book in which Strauss has focused on Caesar—“Masters Of Command” includes the life Caesar as one of its three foci, and “The Death of Caesar” focuses on, unsurprisingly, his death.
I am a criminal. More precisely, I am the kind of criminal that Charles Murray likes. Now, as is well-known, everyone is a criminal nowadays, because of the enormous expansion of deliberately vague and open-ended criminal laws. The average American commits multiple federal felonies every day. But Charles Murray specifically wants every American to commit a precise type of relatively limited crime, and I realize with joy that I have been happy to oblige his request for several years.
“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”
This is a great introduction to three of the most important historical figures of the Classical Age. Since lack of historical knowledge is a plague upon the land in these latter days, Strauss does us a great service by providing a popular, concise history of these men. He compounds this service by drawing parallels and contrasts among them, making it easier to understand and remember each, and caps his effort by drawing permanent, generally applicable lessons from the lives of each.
While it’s in many ways a typical version of the apocalyptic genre currently fashionable, this book is quite good. It has some significant originality, and is generally compelling and well-drawn. Aside from a few jarring factual problems that should have been caught by editors (pistol triggers don’t not move if the magazine is empty–the hammer or striker still falls; and they’re called “magazines,” not “clips”), it’s well-crafted.
I read this book after reading Amity Shlaes’s “Coolidge,” in part because Shlaes more than once refers to the “Autobiography.” While it is not an analytical work, rather a straightforward exposition by Coolidge of the facts of his life, it is an excellent complement to Shlaes’s longer (and also excellent) work. And as with that work, the “Autobiography” shows an America that is dead and gone, but one that contained within itself multitudes of virtues.
In the United States, most of us glimpse Venezuela in flashes. We know that Hugo Chavez is dead, and we know that his socialism has run Venezuela into the ground. As of this writing, in August 2015, it is a crime-ridden hellhole that has reached the stage of military confiscation of foodstuffs from farmers for redistribution, and is declining fast to Zimbabwe levels. But most of us don’t know more. That’s where this relatively short book provides real value.
“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads.