New history books (May 2012 edition)
Origins of institutions
Four years ago, I wrote my senior history thesis about the beginnings of philosophical ideas in three ancient cultures. One of the most satisfying experiences in studying history is to learn the backstory of something ancient that still has a prominent place in current life. The following new books describe the origins of long-lasting institutions. Andrew Shryrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s new work, published last November, combines essays about language, food, kinship, and other topics related to life before humans started writing.
Half a year before that, political theorist Francis Fukuyama released a popular book about how bureaucratic and democratic political systems evolved from tribal societies and why imposing these sophisticated institutions on tribal cultures today causes problems. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s book, also published last year, about the evolution of religion seems a bit dry to read, but the ideas of this ambitious project are worth considering (my senior thesis was equally ambitious but only benefited from a year’s worth of work rather than a lifetime’s). Finally, rounding out the list is a new work coauthored by Kent Flanner and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. They describe their take on the origins of inequality in various social contexts and how to prevent it in the future.
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Christopher Boehm. Since the days of Peter Kropotkin, scientists have tried to restrain the impulse to turn descriptive Darwinism into prescriptive selfishness. Boehm here argues that altruism in human society is as favored by evolution as selfishness.
United States in the 20th century
One of my friends swears by Robert A. Caro’s biographies of President Lyndon Johnson, likening them to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in their epic scope and language. In May, Caro published the fourth of five volumes, titled The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Reviews of this new work offer the highest praise, comparing Caro, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, to Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, and Machiavelli. I want to read Caro’s works, and I feel like I should start at the beginning. But it may be wise for me to finish War and Peace and Moby Dick first (both of which I’ve been reading — the former, though, at a snail’s pace) before undertaking this enterprise.
Another new history that takes place in the Vietnam War era is George J. Veith’s work about the fall of South Vietnam after U.S. forces pulled out of the country in the early ‘70s. The invasion of South Vietnam by the North is not a popular historical subject in America. We think of the Vietnam War as ending when the U.S. forces were withdrawn from the region. But understanding what transpired in Vietnam after we departed would be equally as informative about the effects of the Vietnam War as studying our involvement in it. Veith, also, is not a professional historian but a former soldier.
The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy. This book looks at 20th-century American history through the perspective of the contributions of ex-U.S. presidents once they were out of office.
The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King–The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea. Walter Borneman. Reading about the management of the U.S. Navy during World War II (especially, in my opinion, about Chester Nimitz) is an excellent and fascinating study in leadership.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. Arthur Herman. Readers of history often take America’s dominant industrial output during World War II for granted. This book tells the story of just how certain determined men and women made this cornucopia of steel possible.
Race of progress
One of my childhood heroes was Charles Lindbergh, the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane. I knew nothing at that early age about his fascist beliefs or even about the kidnapping and murder of his infant son (and the famous trial that ensued). Most fascinating for me was Lindberg’s hours-long struggle with sleepiness in a little metal cabin, flying a few hundred feet above icy waves, the wind leaking chillingly through the tiny square windows of The Spirit of St. Louis. But the story of Lindbergh’s 1927 flight is only the final chapter of a greater drama.
Several aviators competed unsuccessfully for the $25,000 prize for the first trans-Atlantic crossing, including a top French WWI ace, Charles Nungesser, who disappeared over the ocean a couple of months before Lindbergh’s flight. Joe Jackson’s new book, Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic, is unique in focusing not only on Lindbergh’s achievement but also on the efforts of thirteen other aviators to fly non-stop between the Old World and New.
Another interesting new work about exploration is Mark Anderson’s account of the passing of the planet Venus in front of the sun in 1769. Histories about science have been a popular genre for several decades, from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to Laura Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club. Anderson’s book describes the nascent scientific community’s project to measure the distance from the earth to the sun and how science was beginning to transcend geographical and political boundaries at that time (for instance, while Great Britain and France were fighting one another in the Seven Years’ War, they let certain enemy ships on scientific expeditions travel the seas unharmed).
American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation. Eric Rutkow. An environmental lawyer turned historian uses trees (“the loudest silent figures in our country’s history”) as a focal point to retell American history.
Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. Bernard Lewis & Buntzie Ellis Churchill. A preeminent historian looks back on the events in his life and comments on the craft of history.
The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Henry A. Crumpton. This memoir of a CIA spy promises to furnish insights into the workings of the agency after the Cold War.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Madeleine Albright. The Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s administration describes her turbulent childhood and the world events that helped shape her ideas about diplomacy.
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. Paul Preston. Because Franco’s Spain stayed neutral during WWII, the crimes of this fascist dictator against his people – the subject of this book – are not widely known.
Note: This article is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads. I have not actually read most of these books yet, and these are previews not reviews.