Five Children and It is a book that resonates on two levels. On one level, it is an outstanding and well-drawn children’s story. We read it to our own children to general acclaim. On another level, it is a glimpse of upper-class child-rearing in Edwardian England, very interesting as social history to today’s adults, even with no children around.
I oppose the theory and practice of Euro-multiculturalism as both stupid and suicidal. Thus, when I read Pankaj Mishra’s recent review of Rita Chin’s book in The New York Times, it struck me that, in order to be fair, I should read it. All work and no play makes Jack a dull and narrow boy, after all. I was not a fan of the most recent pro-multicultural book I read, James Kirchick’s The End of Europe, but I figured that maybe the second time would be a charm. It was not, but this book was interesting, and not dreadful, which is really all one can ask of any pro-multicultural book, since it necessarily has to fight an uphill battle against facts and reason.
This book is a massive history of the English, written by an English expert on France, Robert Tombs. Somehow, against the odds, it manages to be sprightly, interesting, and, most of all, generally upbeat about the past, present, and future of England. Tombs rejects the idea of “Whig history,” not because English progress does not exist, but because the past was rarely as bad as we often think, making any progress less dramatic than it may appear. He offers rational, yet clear-eyed, hope for a bright future—one not destined to be good, but certainly with a better than even chance of being so. Thus, this book is a counterweight to recent narratives of English decline (such as 1999’s The Abolition of Britain, by Peter Hitchens), and a book that all pessimists should read.
Mass immigration to Europe is one of those topics about which there is little mainstream discussion, both in the United States and even more so (paradoxically) in Europe. What discussion does happen is purely facile, on the “pro” side, or often lacking nuance, on the “anti” side. Douglas Murray’s book, The Strange Death of Europe, sets out to remedy both faults. The book is good, if a bit meandering; it offers historical and political analysis, along with relevant philosophical thoughts. The difficulty, though, as Murray hints himself, is that properly viewed, the topic does not rate an analysis so much as a dirge. To the extent there is a problem, it has no real solution, and in any case the problem only exists as a second-order problem, made possible by the pre-existing exhaustion of Europe, most obvious in its childlessness. If Europe was not exhausted, this book would not exist. Nonetheless, by offering clarity of thought about how Europe got to its current position, The Strange Death of Europe performs a valuable service.
Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented. Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005). He is even-handed and insightful. The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period. Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C. The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter. On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book …
Scars of Independence should carry a big banner across its front, shouting “New & Improved!” The book’s central, and only, claim to relevance is that it offers fresh insight into the War of Independence, uncovering hidden truths and exploding myths. But, as with most “New & Improved” products, the consumer is disappointed, for while this is a serviceable history of the Revolutionary War, focusing on the violence involved, it is neither new, nor improved (although at least, unlike many other “improved” consumer products, the author hasn’t shrunk the box and increased the price).
I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history. Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk. So there is significant overlap between the two genres. This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category. It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!
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.
It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more. This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier. There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”? Is it England? England and parts of the Continent? How does America fit in? When exactly did this takeoff begin? Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West? But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?
I did not like this book as much as I expected. In part that’s because, as an American, a narrative of British decline resonates with me less deeply, simply because much of the culture, politics and daily life of Britain is not familiar to me. In part it’s because the book is written in a somewhat didactic, overly episodic, fragmented fashion. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’m weary of conservative jeremiads that don’t offer any constructive recommendations on what to do. After all, as my mother used to tell me, “if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” Conservatives who bemoan how bad things have gotten (and they have gotten very much worse in Britain since this book was written, 1999, or even since it was re-issued with a new Introduction, 2008) need to offer real alternatives and solutions, or they might as well not bother.