All posts filed under: Book Reviews

A World Split Apart: Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

We in America have long thought highly of ourselves. This feeling crested during the early Cold War, when most Americans believed that our “system,” our way of life, was superior to any other—especially Communism, but more broadly any based on any other values. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 because he was too famous to be killed. We initially praised him; he vigorously attacked Communism, and we assumed that meant he endorsed our American system. But he disabused us of that assumption in this famous speech, given as the Harvard commencement speaker in 1978. The reaction of the American elite was frothing fury, and Solzhenitsyn was cast out from polite society. Examining his speech now, forty years later, we can see what Solzhenitsyn got right, and what he got wrong.

The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Michael Pakaluk)

New translations of the Bible, targeted at a broad audience and done by individuals, rather than committees, seem to be a growth industry. This book, a translation of the Gospel of Saint Mark, joins, among others, Sarah Ruden’s excellent recent work, The Face of Water, which offers both commentary on translation and translation itself, and David Bentley Hart’s 2018 translation of the entire New Testament. The author, Michael Pakaluk, has done an outstanding job of writing a translation that is not daunting, yet is very enlightening, and this is a book well worth reading.

The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order (David Levering Lewis)

If the word hagiography had not already been coined, it would need to be invented for this book. To David Levering Lewis, Wendell Willkie was a combination of Saint Michael and Saint Francis. He was a world-bestriding colossus, a credit to his country, and a wonderful exemplar of what a Republican can and should be. After reading this book, though, I pick a different progenitor: Judas Iscariot. Willkie was a pocket Judas, true, having more gross vices and less cold malice than the original, but a Judas nonetheless. For Willkie betrayed his wife, his party, and his country. And, like Judas, he accomplished nothing but the designs of his enemies, and left behind only his corpse.

Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (James Stevens Curl)

High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace. Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (Thomas P. Hughes)

American Genesis is a cultural history of the grand century of American technology, from 1870 to 1970. Thomas Hughes published his book in 1989, when Americans believed that the grandeur of American technological achievement had matured into something less flashy, yet more durable and equally pregnant with accomplishment. Hughes linked a valedictory history of early inventors with a narrative of those inventions becoming embedded in vastly greater systems, which appeared to offer continued technological progress. But 1989 was a long time ago, and as it has turned out, we have been left with the worst of both worlds. We lack new and beneficial world-changing technologies, and the massive systems, supercharged by the internet, dominate and dehumanize our lives in ways previously unimaginable. It may not be American Terminus, yet, but finding a new path is necessary to recapture the now-cobwebbed spirit of enthusiastic achievement this book chronicles.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (James Fitzjames Stephen)

Among the many idols of our age, there is one that rules them all: John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, the belief that an individual’s choices may never be legitimately hampered, by anyone at all, except if he is harming others. Bizarrely, this idea, radical in 1860 when Mill published On Liberty, has now even been enshrined as the core principle of our Constitution, at least if you believe Anthony Kennedy and the majority of the Supreme Court. This book, of which you have probably never heard, was published in 1873 and is regarded as the best contemporaneous refutation of Mill. Maybe it is, but its refutation is too narrowly based and accepts far too many of Mill’s premises. It is a start to overthrowing the golden calf, but only a start.

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Robert Irwin)

I generally liked this book, by the erudite Orientalist Robert Irwin, but I am not sure why it exists. It is too academic to be popular, and too popular to be academic. I learned something about the famous medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, but I would have been lost if I did not already know much about Ibn Khaldun and medieval Islam generally. So this is not a reference work, or even a normal biography. Really, it’s a seminar in print, discussing a grab-bag of topics about Ibn Khaldun, valuable mostly as an add-on if you are particularly interested in medieval Islam or the history of North Africa.

Invisible Planets (Hannu Rajaniemi)

I have always loathed the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Bleak, unhappy, and cold, they depressed me as a child, and I’m not a depressive person. True, that is painting with a broad brush, but you read “The Little Match Girl” and tell me I’m wrong. Even Andersen’s stories that are not overtly melancholy are full of the chill of the North; there is no brightness there. Much the same spirit permeates these short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi, a Finnish science fiction author. As with Anderson, the stories are clever and original, but they dampen, rather than uplift, the spirit of Man.

The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi)

This book, a massive study by two Israeli historians, aspires to answer why and how Turkey exterminated its Christian population in the thirty years between 1894 and 1924. Usually this extermination, or part of it, is referred to as the Armenian Genocide, except by the Turks, who to this day deny their crimes, and so don’t refer to it at all. That usual term is misleading, however. As Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi document exhaustively, the primary target was all Christians, and the primary goal religious cleansing of the Turkish nation. Proving this is the object of The Thirty-Year Genocide.

Orbánland: How I Came To Understand Viktor Orbán’s Hungary And The Future Of Europe (Lasse Skytt)

I am in an odd position with respect to Hungary. Because I’m half Hungarian, speak the language (rustily now) and two decades ago spent nearly a year there, I know much more than most Americans. In fact, the first post-Communist prime minister, József Antall, was my grandfather’s first cousin. On the other hand, my knowledge of current Hungarian events is gleaned mostly from English-language media, which is almost all both grossly ignorant and grossly biased. Lasse Skytt, a Danish journalist resident in Hungary, has arrived to help me out, by offering an excellent neutral view of Hungarian politics, deliberately designed to be purely informative, rather than polemical.