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.
It is easy enough to know what the Right thinks, and why. Half a dozen recent books can easily be found explaining clearly libertarianism; or social conservatism; or “reform conservatism.” But no such thing exists for the Left. Yes, there are many books on what political ends the Left desires. I think those desires are mostly insane and fly in the face of reality. But it cannot be true that those on the Left view their desires, or what drives their desires, as either insane or senseless. And one must know one’s enemy. So why are those ends desired? I have always found that hard to say.
Rudyard Kipling, when remembered today, is usually snidely dismissed as a jingoistic Victorian, or as the writer of certain children’s books. “The Long Recessional” provides the modern reader with a concise biography of the multi-faceted Kipling, showing him as, if not a man for all seasons, surely a man for his time.
“Curzon” is one of those typically British biographies of dead political figures. Such biographies tend to go into great detail not just about the protagonist, but about long-forgotten political issues fought among long-forgotten men. If you are interested in the protagonist, or the period, this can be excellent, as long as the writing is good, and Gilmour’s is good. But if you’re looking for an objectively thrilling read, you should stay away.
“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.