Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The bookshelf

Somehow this hasn't been updated since last August. Here's some of what I've read or am "reading" in some sense or other:

David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: A social history of the UK from 1945-51, giving the bottom-up perspective on the postwar Labour years. Quite good, though probably richer for a British reader who knows more about some of the pop culture. I've already begun the 1951-57 volume, Family Britain. Note: neither paperback available in U.S., but affordably orderable via abebooks.com and the like.

Diarmuid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years: Despite his inability to count, MacCulloch has written what is probably now the best one-volume survey, with a bit less history-of-theology than many competitors and careful attention to the margins -- the non-Chalcedonians, the Orthodox, the mission churches. By no means impossible to put down, but charming and witty, from the POV of a respectful but unembarrassed nonbeliever.

Philip Ziegler, Melbourne: A readable biography of an interesting but not terribly important Prime Minister, whose do-nothing style of conservatism bears little resemblance to the modern variety. His son Augustus tragically had a condition that, to this biased reader at least, sounds rather like autism.

Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston: More entertaining than the Ziegler because, hey, it's Palmerston. The bad boy of the incipient, then newborn, Liberal Party, essential to grasping his times; we quoted Ridley on Mme de Lieven.

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: For years, accounts of the Eastern Front in WW2 were heavily based on German sources, partly because of Soviet restrictions, partly because so many more Western historians read German than Russian. That has changed in the past 30 years or so. Lieven gives a similar treatment to the Russian war against France, though his subtitle's claim to give the true account of the campaigns described in War and Peace is a bit misleading - Lieven gives short shrift to the 1805 campaign that ended at Austerlitz, but covers the war from 1812 to the fall of Napoleon, thus going well beyond Tolstoy. Not a gripping account, but of great interest for its perspective and its corrections of what we think we know from reading the novel.

Robert Blake, Disraeli: The classic biography. Look no further.

Winston Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times: Very much worth reading though I'm only halfway through. It says a great deal for Churchill's talent as a writer that he can cover the most minute details and keep the reader's interest. Still a little weirded out by Leo Strauss's eulogistic plug: "the greatest historical work written in our century," which of course the publisher, U of Chicago, puts on the cover. (Note to U of Chicago P: why do you get the year of Marlborough's birth wrong on the back cover?)

... UPDATE: Harry Jaffa:
In 1946, in a letter to the philosopher Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss mentioned how difficult it had been for him to understand Aristotle’s account of magnanimity, greatness of soul, in Book 4 of the “Ethics.” The difficulty was resolved when he came to realize that Churchill was a perfect example of that virtue.
Barnes also relates that after F.E. Birkenhead loaned Churchill a translation of the Ethics, it was returned a few weeks later with the polite comment that it was all very interesting, but Churchill had already thought most of it out for himself. (Given that Aristotle was essentially giving coherent form to the aristocratic ethos, Churchill's remark is not so arrogant as it sounds.)

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination: Finally got around to reading this; despite the dated references to extinct corporations, it reads well and quickly as a pure adventure story. The ending is a bit silly. Not I think as essential as it's made out to be, but entertaining.


  1. Reading 3000 now (BOT). No hint of author's nonbeliever status. Wiki says he left the church due to sexual orientation issues. Do you have different info?

  2. I wondered about whether MacCulloch was gay, based on some rather arch endnotes.

    Intro at 11: "I would now describe myself as a candid friend of Christianity.... Maybe some familiar with theological jargon will with charity regard this as an apophatic form of the Christian faith," i.e. negative theology, knowing God by what may be denied about him.

    It's quite a good book in any event. I've read maybe 5 or 6 one or two-volume histories of Christianity (God knows why!), and this is my favorite, despite inevitable omissions and some odd slips (like failing to include Mark 1:1 in a list of Mark's use of "Christ"). Hope you're liking it!