Readers of this section will have noticed that we subscribe to the poet Samuel Rogers’s maxim: Every time a new book is published, read an old one. We regularly review and run essays on previously published works—some from the recent past, some centuries old. Our aim is to discuss, and to help acquaint our readers with, ideas and literature (by which we mean history, biography, and social, cultural, and literary criticism as well as fiction, drama, and poetry)—not simply to report what’s au courant. The most recent history of, say, the high Middle Ages may be widely reviewed and may bedeck the display tables of all the bookstores, but should the reader turn to it rather than to, for instance, R. W. Southern’s captivating The Making of the Middle Ages, published in 1953?
Books are a business as well as an art. Every season will see new nonfiction works on old subjects, whether the public needs them or not—and the quality of remakes for books isn’t much higher than that for movies. To be sure, scholarship continually accretes; but much of that scholarship is recondite (or irrelevant) and merely conforms to the fads of academe. We’ll tell readers about an important new argument, but we also want to highlight the clearest, most intelligent, or most imaginative treatments of a given subject, regardless of their publication date. Fiction, of course, is another matter. Although we regularly re-examine the classics and draw readers’ attention to undeservedly neglected older novels and short stories, it’s important to assess the trends—encouraging and otherwise—of this constantly evolving art form.
Given our embrace of not-new books, we find two developments particularly heartening. The first is the burgeoning of the chain superstores. For better or worse, when readers want to find a book about a subject, be it mortgages or the Spanish Civil War, most of them browse the shelves of the bookstore, not the library. The chains stock a remarkable number of relatively obscure, not recently published works, which means that stores in suburban malls now have, say, philosophy and ancient-history sections of a breadth and depth that fifteen years ago could be found only in a very few university and urban bookstores. Second, more and more publishing ventures are reissuing old books. Modern Library and Everyman’s Library (both revived in the 1990s),
Liberty Fund books and Penguin Classics and Akadine Press and Oxford World’s Classics, are now joined by (to name a few) NYRB Classics; Grove Great Lives, which brings back into print extraordinary biographies by eminent authors; Yale’s Nota Bene series; and the just launched Hesperus Press, which is finding, and often newly translating, astounding forgotten works. Life is short; one’s reading time is considerably shorter. Don’t limit yourself to the display tables—choose from among all the volumes in the store.
The Book of Prefaces
edited by Alasdair Gray
The editor of this exuberant anthology was inspired by William Smellie’s 1790 observation that every preface should include “the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject.” Smellie wrote, “If this plan had been universally observed, a collection of prefaces would have exhibited a short, but curious and useful history both of literature and authors.” And indeed this book—containing prefaces by great British and American (mostly British) writers from the beginning of vernacular literature to 1918—is an idiosyncratic, illuminating, and, although 640 pages long, succinct survey of Anglo-American civilization. Thanks to its chronological arrangement and concise, perceptive marginal glosses (printed in red—one aspect of the book’s sometimes overly whimsical design scheme), readers can see the language change from decade to decade and can discern that a culture’s literature is a conversation across centuries. (Hence in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley bolsters his “passion for reforming the world” by enlisting Bacon against Malthus and William Paley.) This book is delightful, amusing, and instructive.
by Jonathan Wright
Wright, an Oxford don, has written the first comprehensive biography in English of one of Germany’s three greatest diplomats. Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar Republic’s Foreign Minister from 1923 to 1929, often characterized himself as “a man of contradiction,” and his much debated aims and policies embody the enigmas at the heart of the “German problem,” which has haunted Europe for over a century. His diplomatic strategy, informed by little more than the stark glare of realpolitik, was to maneuver adroitly among the great powers in order to revise, undermine, and finally liquidate the onerous provisions of the Versailles Treaty (involving reparations, disarmament, occupation of the Rhineland, and the frontier with Poland), thus allowing for the safe revival of German strength. This meant, of course, that Germany would eventually emerge as the preponderant power on the Continent. Stresemann, committed to the perhaps irreconcilable values of liberalism and nationalism, professed himself a good European who sought only German equality among the great powers, but because equality—indeed, even security —for Germany meant danger for the rest of Europe, an inherent tension underlay his policies. Stresemann recognized that tension, even if he was unable to resolve it, and it is the greatest tragedy in Europe’s history that Weimar’s aims would soon be pursued by the Nazis. This is an admirably old-fashioned, academic biography: lucidly and crisply written, it deftly bridges domestic politics and diplomacy and effortlessly synthesizes the enormous body of scholarship in German. Although I find Wright’s verdict less convincing (and more charitable) than the older conclusions of Hans Gatzke and Annelise Thimme (whose own biography of Stresemann lacks an English translation), his judicious work is indispensable for understanding both interwar diplomacy—one of the most important and complex subjects of modern history—and the German problem, a conundrum perhaps still with us.
by Henry Kamen
Stretching from the Netherlands to the Philippines, the first global empire was Spain’s. In his colossal single-volume history, which covers the years 1492 to 1763, Kamen stresses its non-Spanish nature, describing it as an international enterprise that depended on the collaboration of Native American allies, free mulattoes, Genoese and German bankers, Portuguese sea captains, Chinese traders (in Manila, where in the 1500s the first large colony of Chinese outside the mainland settled and ran the local economy), and Italian, French, Irish, and Polish soldiers. Kamen, probably the most highly regarded historian of early modern Spain, argues this point well, though it’s not a revelation. Nearly all the European powers depended on international financial and military resources (though Spain was unusually dependent), and nearly every empire in history has when possible maintained and worked through local hierarchies, because that’s the commonsense way to run such an enterprise with a minimum of disturbance and expense. Given the scope of this work, it’s not surprising that Kamen treats some aspects of his subject with greater acumen than others; he seems far more at home in his account of the empire in Europe and the Mediterranean—Naples and the Sicilies, Milan and Lombardy, Burgundy and the Netherlands, the campaigns and diplomacy of Charles V and Philip II, the Thirty Years’ War, and the wars of the Austrian and Spanish succession—than in the Americas and the Pacific. But this is an important chronicle, written with fluidity and a commanding sweep, along with a sharp eye for telling detail. (Kamen’s description, for instance, of the “perilous and lonely voyage” of the Manila galleons—which took six months to sail to Acapulco: the lengthiest continuous navigation in the world—vividly captures both the breadth and the tenuousness of Spain’s imperial project.) Kamen concludes with a fascinating, and unanswered, question: How is it that the home of this most cosmopolitan enterprise remained the most parochial and least intellectually creative state in Europe?
The Upland South
by Terry G. Jordan-Bychkov
The South is the most culturally distinct region of the country. But that region itself has always been divided into culturally distinct subregions, such as the Sea Islands and low country of South Carolina and Georgia, the Mississippi Delta, and the Cane River country of Louisiana. This book examines the largest such subregion, the upland South, which embraces an area from western Maryland to southern Indiana and Illinois to central Texas, with its heart in Tennessee. Anthropologists, geographers, historians, and folklorists never seem to tire in their (often rather fanciful) attempts to define and explicate the upcountry’s character. Jordan-Bychkov wisely takes a limited approach. He eschews intangible and often elusive aspects of upland culture—its stark religion and its mournful music, for example —and instead assesses its built environment. Through a detailed and subtle examination of houses, barns, churches, graveyards, and town plans, he illuminates the historical development of the region’s culture and the ways it spread through the valleys and hollows of the southern backcountry. This is a small but imaginative and revealing work. For those who like this sort of thing (to paraphrase Apthorpe in Waugh’s Men at Arms), this is the sort of thing they’ll like.
by Benny Morris
Morris’s is an extraordinary achievement. First published in 1999, and revised with a chapter added in 2001, this book will long remain a peerless account of the Zionist-Arab conflict from the 1880s until the beginning of this century. Obviously, few subjects are as fraught and intricate, and Morris’s chronicle is strenuously objective and detailed—as it must be. But it’s far more than authoritative. Nearly every definitive history perforce sags, as the writer balances his evidence, qualifies his arguments, and relates his long and complicated story. This one never does. Among the best-written works of contemporary history I’ve read, this almost 800-page book displays Morris’s skeptical, astringent intelligence in each sentence. He writes with cool command and efficiency on Zionist and Arab ideologies, on British imperial policy, on street fighting, on counterterrorism, and on large-scale military operations, but he is at his very best in his dissection of the two related matters at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute: the Zionist assessment of the problem presented by a vast Arab population in a Jewish homeland, and the forces and events that created the Palestinian-refugee problem. Morris doesn’t shrink from moral judgment, and his nuanced history endears him to neither party. “The Arabs may well have learned the value of terrorist bombings from the Jews,” he notes in a typical aside, but “the Husseinis’ chief bomb maker … had learned his craft in an SS course in Nazi Germany.” And in a similarly offhand way he writes of Israel’s “corrupting” occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also points out that “though harsh and often brutal, Israeli rule in general was never as restrictive or repressive as the Palestinians made out.” But ultimately Morris triumphs because he sees the conflict in realist, rather than in moral, terms: his is a story of two peoples, each with a history of wrongs committed against the other, and each with reasonable claims to the same land. And in the end, the thrust of Morris’s analysis suggests, the aspirations of these two peoples are not amenable to compromise. Anyone wishing to understand a conflict that will preoccupy the world for the foreseeable future must read this book.
Making a Living in the Middle Ages
by Christopher Dyer
This history of Britain’s economy from the Vikings to the Reformation is the latest offering from Yale’s superb collection of titles on medieval and early-modern social and economic history. These significant scholarly works manage to be unusually engaging reading. With ease Dyer appraises (among other topics) the economic aspects of various dimensions of daily life, including marriage and sex; broad changes in class relations, technology, demography, and the economy; and the ramifications of two sudden catastrophes—the Great Famine and the Black Death of the fourteenth century. His is a sweeping but often intimate portrait, full of arresting details.
Modernizing China’s Military
by David Shambaugh
This dryly but clearly written, fact-filled account resembles—and reads like—an exhaustive think-tank report rather than a general-interest book, but it’s the definitive study of a contentious foreign-policy subject. Shambaugh examines the Chinese military’s ongoing attempt to modernize, an effort largely impelled by its fear of American global preponderance and the U.S. military’s concomitant exploitation of the “revolution in military affairs.” That revolution, which hinges on the use of information technology, gives the United States a commanding—and ever growing—lead over China and other potential military rivals. Shambaugh soberly makes clear that China is falling further behind on the technology curve; but just as important, he emphasizes factors other than hardware that constrain Beijing’s military influence. Despite efforts at reform, China’s military remains a rigid and excessively compartmentalized institution. But the organizational demands placed on the command, control, communications, and intelligence structures required to integrate air, land, and naval forces are enormous today and, with continual advances in technology, are growing nearly exponentially. The upshot is that the United States has such a jump on China in its ability to conduct modern warfare that America’s military preponderance in East Asia will increase, not diminish, in the coming decades. The conclusions of Shambaugh’s sophisticated assessment—which represents the consensus among government and civilian defense and intelligence analysts—are a much needed corrective to the methodologically crude arguments of works that hype the “China threat,” such as the 1999 Cox Commission report and Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro’s The Coming Conflict With China.