Some years ago, I lived for a time in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park has for decades been filled with rich white liberals, who live just across the street from a City of Chicago neighborhood, Austin, that is filled with poor black people. Yet, for some reason the citizens of Oak Park simply can’t fathom, people from Austin almost never move to Oak Park. Who can say why? Well, Richard Rothstein can. His book, The Color of Law, shows all the ways in which the racist government of Oak Park, and innumerable other government functionaries across the nation, have aggressively worked for decades to keep black people in inferior, segregated housing. Rothstein’s service is to precisely set out why this happened, how it was done, and what exactly the effects today are.
I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times. His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read. But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author. Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column. The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such. David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.
Joan Williams wants to “Overcome Class Cluelessness in America.” This is an admirable goal, and in many ways this is an admirable book (or brochure—it’s very short). But reading White Working Class (which, despite its title, gives equal time to both the white and black working class) makes the reader squirm. The reader appreciates the author’s, Joan Williams’s, attempts to objectively examine her class, that of the “professional-management elite,” or “PME,” but winces at her frequent inability to actually understand the working class, or to view the working class other than primarily as potential foot soldiers in the march of progressive politics.
Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring. Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either. This is unfortunate, but his work is done. There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything any person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.
Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.
“Albion’s Seed” is a classic work of ethnography. It is refreshing to read because a book like it could not be written today (it was published in 1989). It’s not that the book has any political angle. Rather, it’s that it totally fails to acknowledge today’s left-liberal preoccupations, in particular the fictive primacy of “identity” and “inclusion” (used, of course, either as a political tool to demand unearned and undeserved benefits, or as a masochistic whip to indulge one’s own irrational self-hatred). In fact, “Albion’s Seed” offers no focus on identity other than ethnic identity as derived from Britain. And there is no effort at inclusion at all, only an effort at truth. Nor does it suggest there is anything evil about America, another necessary abasement for a history to be accepted by the Left. What the book does provide is a huge range of facts, carefully parsed and clearly communicated to the non-specialist reader, in service of explaining why America is what it is today.
Thomas Sowell’s latest book, published in 2015 and now revised a year later, is the usual tour-de-force. It’s not so much that there’s anything startlingly new (although there are some interesting new statistics and several new lines of thought), but that Sowell has a unique ability to clearly and concisely bring together an analysis. In this case, that analysis is of “why are outcomes different for different people?” Sowell writes in opposition to the current vogue for equating differential outcomes with differential justice resulting from “malign actions by others,” with negative nods to Thomas Piketty, John Rawls and a wide range of similar social justice warriors.
“Paper” is a book of interesting anecdotes, loosely linked by its theme. At the end of the book, the reader may say “what’s the point?” But, really, there is no point. To seek one is a mistake. Rather, all of Kurlansky’s books, which include “Salt,” and “Cod,” follow a satisfying formula. They are travelogues through time and space, where the reader follows not the author’s travels, but the evolving, and sometimes meandering, topic. Your job is to come along for the ride, if the topic interests you.
“Political Order And Political Decay” is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s two-book exploration of the political formation of societies. Or, more precisely, how they ultimately form, or fail to form, Fukuyama’s perfect political society, which is an idealized Denmark. And, how even if they do reach that point, they can then fall backward—not as a whole, but in their political organization, away from Fukuyama’s ideal.
Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is in some ways an original book, and in some ways not. It’s original in that it applies the truism that modern Western life is alienating specifically to the mental issues afflicting veterans. It’s not original in that, although he seems not to know it, his book is an entry in a long line of books identifying and analyzing the alienation of individuals common in modern American society. Those books long since identified and discuss what Junger ignores—that intermediary institutions, now largely defunct, alleviated this alienation in times past. Instead, Junger posits a false dichotomy—between the tribal life of community and modern American life, ignoring that society long since developed structures, now fallen into abeyance, to provide that small-scale community in the midst of a large society.