Everyone knows about the French Foreign Legion. Mostly, though, our knowledge ranges from impressionistic to false, derived largely from movies and with an overlay of the kneejerk odium that attends colonialism. At The Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion corrects that lack of knowledge—it gives an excellent overview, both factually and, as it were, spiritually, of the Legion in its heyday, along with some oblique perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of colonialism.
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.
When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists. Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans. If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi. I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers. This book, however, has changed my perspective.
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!
This book mostly claims to be a book about “globalization,” today’s trendy word, but really, it is a book about industrial revolutions through time and space. The author, Richard Baldwin, offers a new framework for understanding how the world has developed since the Great Divergence, led by England, that created centuries-long worldwide economic dominance by European cultures. In particular, he offers an explanation why, since 1990, the relative share of the global economic pie held by the West has decreased, when it had never decreased before. All this is interesting and valuable, in particular Baldwin’s conclusion that American critics of globalization are at least partially correct. But it’s incomplete in the end, since Baldwin’s analysis completely omits the critical role of culture and institutions as related to a country’s capacity to develop. Instead, he treats all humans as interchangeable members of homo economicus: a fatal error, but one common to academic economists.
This book is pure hagiography. While I suppose hagiography has its uses, mostly to gull and overawe the under-educated, I dislike hagiography. But at least it can be good hagiography; it can be great literature by towering men of intellect, or if not that, at least it can interest and inform the reader. Not this book, though, which is unrelievedly bad on every level, and whose only virtue is extreme brevity.
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?
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.
Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. She said it was the best book she had ever read. Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum. The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand? But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile. A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.