I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.
James Bloodworth, an English sometime Trotskyite, has written a book which combines the television series Undercover Boss and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. He took jobs in a variety of low-wage, low-security occupations to get first-hand knowledge about what it is like today to be a member of the largely invisible British working class. Bloodworth’s resulting argument is that a pernicious marriage of portions of the political Left and Right has destroyed the dignity of the British working class, with fatal consequence for that class, and deleterious consequences for all of society. Hired is a powerful book that has key implications for possible political realignment.
Man’s search for meaning is, in these days of alienation and anomie, always a topic that can generate interest. Meaning at its most concrete is tied to the things of Earth, to the nature of man and the world of nature. Thus, if man becomes wholly dissociated from Earth, bad things result. This, in a nutshell, is the message of not a few modern prophets, and among them is Alexander Langlands, offering a specifically British variation on the theme.
Sapiens is a book of history, but its main thrust is philosophical. It explores, or tries to explore, the conundrum that if man is built to seek meaning, but under modernity there is no meaning to be had, what is man to do? Since the author, Yuval Noah Harari, rejects all meaning as myth, yet makes meaning the focus of his book, his book has a split personality. But if you take Sapiens simply as longitudinal history, ignoring Harari’s sophomoric musings, and if you don’t mind the superficial nature of much of his history, you’ll have a reasonably good time.
The modern mind is very susceptible to viewing the past as wholly different, and worse, from the present. We have all absorbed narratives of supposed progress that rely on painting the past in the grimmest light possible. But the daily lives of most people were not that different, and not less happy, at any given point in the human past, than they are now. Every person in every age faces challenges and burdens; some change as the ages pass, but challenges and burdens remain. This is not to deny that the material world has, for many, improved greatly, but as is well known, happiness is only very tangentially related to material benefits, and medieval man was, most likely, usually more happy and content than modern man, bound as he was in a sacramental world of meaning.
Eric Hoffer was, Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, his favorite philosopher. This endorsement made Hoffer, a self-educated San Francisco stevedore, famous. The True Believer is the book that Eisenhower gave all his friends. Read today, however, this book is mediocre, at best. It is the type of book that congratulates the reader while pretending to challenge him; it is a mirror that reflects to the reader what he wants to hear—especially for self-proclaimed “moderates” of flexible principle like Eisenhower. The True Believer is the Cream of Wheat of political books—you can taste anything you want in it, and if you add the right toppings yourself, you can be sure that you will be pleased.
This is a strange little Colonial-era book that, nonetheless, tells us something about America today. It was written by a protean Frenchman, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. Born French, in Caen, he fought on the Plains of Abraham for Montcalm, and was wounded. He then became a British citizen, married, and settled down to farm in the Hudson Valley in 1769. But he did not want to take sides in the War of Independence, so he went back to France, and returned to America only in 1783. This book was published to wide acclaim in 1782, and the most interesting part of it, by far, is Crèvecœur’s anguished description of how, despite his hopes for the Enlightenment making all men better, it didn’t, as shown by the hatreds and violence engendered by the war.
Anybody who has been paying attention has long grasped the truth: underpopulation, not overpopulation, is our problem. This will soon be true on a global scale, it is already true in most of the developed world. Empty Planet explains why this is undeniably so. Unfortunately, the explanation is shrouded in confusion and ideological distortion, so the authors are never able to provide a clear message. Instead, they offer rambling, contradictory bromides combined with dumb “solutions” until the reader throws his hands up in despair, as I did. But then I got a stiff drink, finished the book, and now am ready to tell you about it.
This classic book, by a long-dead and almost-forgotten German economist, is suddenly relevant again. I have had a copy on my bookshelf for thirty years, never read, and I was startled by how timely A Humane Economy is. Today, elements of Left and Right are ganging up to kick neoliberalism when it’s down, aiming to break the long-dominant alliance between the corporatist Left and Right, and thereby to overturn the instrumentalist view of humans as fodder for an economic machine. We are simply awaiting the next crisis to see what will emerge. Wilhelm Röpke foresaw the problems we face today, because he lived through their early days—though I am not sure his solutions are practical, at least until a lot more chaos first sweeps across the land.
Victor Klemperer is famous today for his diaries covering the Nazi era in Germany. But those were published in 1995, thirty-five years after his death. The only book he published in his lifetime was this one, in 1947: The Language of the Third Reich. Its original title, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (i.e., Notebook of a Philologist), with the Latin evoking Imperial Rome, is more precise and informative, but I suppose we’re too uneducated today for that title to be used. Either way, this book is fascinating in its description of the twisting of language by the Nazis, who, like all ideologues, turned words to their own ends of power.