The Culture of Narcissism
This early example of the American jeremiad returns us to 1979, the “me decade,” and a time when Freud was taken seriously as having something to say about human psychology. Lasch’s psychoanalysis of the culture, putting an entire zeitgeist on the couch and asking it how it feels about its mother (answer: not good) has dated badly, and is unsupported by any real evidence, but nevertheless makes a handful of interesting general points, some of which have gained in salience over the past thirty years. One of those books you certainly don’t want to read all of, but that you should be familiar with nevertheless.
Lost to the West
Though its title suggests a pointed account of the Byzantine Empire as a lost and forgotten civilization that nevertheless “rescued” the West, this isn’t the way it plays. Lars Brownworth’s book is, instead, a very fast, breezily written overview of the Byzantine Empire’s thousand-plus year history, with an emphasis on the rise and fall of prominent ruling dynasties. Cultural and religious matters receive short shrift, and the Muslim hordes are just that – the sinister other that Byzantium rescued the West from. Not for advanced students of the period, but a good general introduction to all of the important names, dates, and monuments.
No Impact Man
Feeling that the health of the planet is in grave danger, and that a life spent producing waste is a wasted life, Manhattanite Colin Beavan spent 2007 trying to reduce his negative environmental impact to as near zero as possible. Steps taken include producing no garbage (he doesn’t even use toilet paper), not burning any fossil fuels (he only travels as far as he can bike), eating locally, using almost no electricity, and volunteering to clean up and restore the natural environment. The results have to be qualified by the fact that Beavan never gets outside the larger, wasteful, economy and culture – and is thus always still a part of the problem – but he does describe practical steps that can be taken to change one’s life, and the good reasons for trying to do so.
“I love this fucking life of ours,” one aging gangsters says to another in American Tabloid. “It is never fucking boring.” Indeed it is not. Ellroy’s “telegraphic style” – foregrounding action, dialogue, and immediate perceptions – pounds out an alternative American mythology with “reckless verisimilitude” – one populated by tough guys, hot babes, and an A-list of the rich and powerful (names like Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, and the Kennedys). No more history than a tabloid is news, it does noir in Technicolor and presents an American chronicle with all the dull stuff left out. A comic book that doesn’t attempt depth of character, or indeed depth of any kind, it nevertheless shows what can still be done with that old warhorse the historical novel.
The Price of a Bargain
In the same spirit as books like Jeff Rubin’s Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, Calgary-based author Gordon Laird analyses the coming twilight of our post-industrial, “bargaineered,” consumer economy in the face of scarce resources, environmental degradation, the credit crunch, and worsening labour conditions. Befitting a book on the “death of globalization,” Laird travels far afield to places like Las Vegas, Tibet, and the Canadian arctic, to get a firsthand look at how our system of international trade and transportation is in danger of coming undone and how our bargain culture may soon be faced with sticker shock when it runs up against the true costs of things.
Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941
In hindsight, history tends to take on an air of tectonic inevitability. What happened is always what had to happen. Nevertheless, at least at the level of political chronicle, one can focus in on moments when key decisions have been made that have influenced the course of history. Ian Kershaw looks at ten such moments from the Second World War in this book, analyzing to what extent they made a difference and to what extent they were true decisions at all, as opposed to the simple workings out of the logic of established ideologies. Given the militaristic fantasies of Germany, Japan and Italy – fantasies largely bred of envy at the position of Britain and the United States as imperial hegemons – conflict was inevitable. Such decisions as were made, no matter how strategically stupid or ill-advised (Mussolini’s invasion of Greece tops the list here) derived ineluctably from bedrock premises. Still, it is interesting to observe history’s actors playing their different parts, for good and ill, on such a massive stage.
Two things fascinate me about Lee Harvey Oswald. In the first place, how did this penniless, friendless, totally unaccomplished loser manage to lead such an eventful, not to say consequential, life? The second thing is how much we know about him: the result of the full power of the media (television, film, and publishing), the state (two separate commissions), and individual obsession (even before the rise of the Internet) being thrown at dissecting one person’s life down to the tiniest detail. Evidence even exists for what buses Oswald took on what trips, and what seats he sat in! You feel a kind of dizzy awe. Though not the last word on the subject (that word will never be written), Posner’s book does provide an excellent overview of what has become a needlessly complex bit of history.
Empire of Liberty
Gordon S. Wood
The United States these days doesn’t particularly like being described as an empire, though this has always been part of its DNA. “Empire of liberty” has a nicer ring to it (sort of like “soft power”), but this glosses over what was a conscious emulation of Rome. The rhetoric, as always in the early days of the Republic, could be deceiving; how intentionally is still an open question. In this excellent survey of the years 1789-1815, Gordon S. Wood revisits the gap that quickly developed between the ideals of the Revolutionary generation and the reality of nascent empire – describing how the country was transformed by a political experiment that, whatever its successes, led to results that were not at all what the Founders would have foretold, or even found desirable.