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New history books (June 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Culture by Alex L. on July 24, 2012

History off the Book header

U.S. intellectual history

Mansion-of-HappinessWell-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).

Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.

The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi). (more…)

New history books (February 2012 edition)

Posted in Asian, Books, Russian by Alex L. on April 6, 2012

History Off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverNo one in the world was surprised that Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation yet again this year.  News about Russian opposition movements — none too threatening to Putin’s grip on Russia — has been featured on the front pages of the Western press for the past couple of months. As that nation seems to be tragically slinking back into old habits of autocracy, historians have been looking to Russia’s past to find success stories when moderating forces opposed corrupt centralization of power. The primary question these historians seem to be asking is this: is autocracy inevitable in Russia?

A classic work of this type is Victor Leontovitsch’s The History of Liberalism in Russia, which was published in English for the first time this January (it was written in German and first released in 1957). In May of last year, Julia Berest published a biographical account of one of Russia’s early liberals during the Napoleonic era: Alexander Kunitsyn. A more recent contribution to the debate will be published in June of this year by the university press of my alma mater: the University of Wisconsin. Anton A. Fedyashin’s Liberals under Autocracy: Modernization and Civil Society in Russia, 1866-1904 utilizes the history of Russia’s primary liberal journal before the 1917 revolution, The Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy) as a lens into what he sees as a uniquely Russian brand of liberalism. (more…)