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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Books

I see around the web that it's time for year-end book roundups and recommendations, especially for those seeking last-minute gifts and such. Here are a few, not specifically in law and not necessarily published this year. 

1) Now available in paperback, Zia Haider Rahman's novel In the Light of What We Know is superb. Booklist calls it an "expansive novel [that] sprawls over the past half-century and has as its primary settings the U.S., the UK, and South Asia. Its nameless narrator is an upper-class Englishman of Pakistani parentage, and its main character and secondary voice is the Bangladeshi-born Zafar, the narrator’s brilliant former Oxford classmate. Our narrator gets ensnared in the banking scandals of the early 2000s, and Zafar in the coterminous conflict in Afghanistan. This is, in part, a novel of international geopolitics going back to American involvement (or inaction) in the South Asian wars of 1971; in part, a novel of global finance; in referential detail, a novel of ideas; and, in addition, a novel of personal relationships in which issues of caste and class figure prominently." It's true that the book is substantially about politics and ethnic identity, but for me its many musings about social class, along with its perceptive depictions of failures of self-knowledge, are what make it worth reading. I'm not much of a reader of recent novels, but I thought this one was terrific. The author studied law and banking in the US and UK and has been both an investment banker and a corporate and international human rights lawyer; the book contains many lessons--not necessarily welcome ones. and they won't be learned anyway--for people of this ilk. James Wood's review, which convinced me to read the book, contains the following passages, which are worth reading in themselves and aptly describe why I liked the book and think it would be good for our usual audience and peer group here:

[W]hile “In the Light of What We Know” is full of knowledge, it is never merely knowing. It wears its knowledge heavily, as a burden, a crisis, an injury. This is because Rahman is interested in the possession of knowledge, and in the politics of that possession. Who gets to be called “educated,” and why? And what does knowledge, in a place like Yale or Oxford (or a city like New York or London), really consist of? Why should three or four years studying classics or economics, in élite and antique corridors, be a qualification for, say, running an N.G.O. in Kabul, or talking authoritatively about radical Islamism or human rights in Pakistan? Rahman is deeply suspicious of our claim to know things, and his long novel attempts to tell us, again and again, that we know much less than we think we do, that intellectual modesty in the face of mystery and complexity may be the surest wisdom. . . . 

Even knowledge itself, the novel’s narrator suggests in the book’s final, and distinctly religious, peroration, functioned as a kind of metaphor for Zafar: it was his attempt to find a home. He acquired knowledge—so much of it, and so greedily—not to “ ‘better himself,’ as the expression goes,” but

in order to lay ground for his feet to stand upon; in order, that is, to go home, somewhere, and take root. I believe that he had failed in this mission and had come to see, as he himself said in so many words, that understanding is not what this life has given us, that answers can only beget questions, that honesty commands a declaration not of faith but of ignorance, and that the only mission available to us, one laid to our charge, if any hand was in it, is to let unfold the questions, to take to the river knowing not if it runs to the sea, and accept our place as servants of life. 

2) Between some surgery and a fair quantity of pain medicine, last year and this one were somewhat lost, or at least misplaced, years for me. It is fortunate, then, that it was the year I finally "discovered" World War II as an abiding fascination and reading subject. Lord knows the world is almost as full of enthusiastic readers of WWII histories as it is enthusiastic writers of WWII histories. I am embarrassed that I joined their ranks relatively late in life. The gateway drug for me was Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, which covers the Allied war in Africa, Sicily and Italy, and Western Europe from the time of the Americans' entry into combat through V-E Day. Atkinson was a foreign and military correspondent for the Washington Post before turning to military history, and he is--unlike many newspaper reporters who have turned to book-length journalism--a superb writer, with an exceptional eye for both anecdotes and set pieces. I started for some reason with the third book in the trilogy, whose extended account of D-Day is brilliant. It's largely a clip-job, but an expertly done one, and its detailed endnotes constitute a perfect reading list for those who want to dive into the ocean of WWII history. After this, I dare say you will also want to read everything Max Hastings has ever written on the subject too, and then about the war in Russia, whose savagery and losses dwarfed that of the war in the West, and then about the naval war, and then, and then...Not an entirely fashionable historical subject, but never an outdated one; and given that our legal culture continues to sanctify FDR, reading about the war, about Tehran and Yalta, and about such dreadful figures as Joseph Davies--may his monuments be renamed--provides a nice partial antidote to that.

More below.

3) Peter Olsthoorn, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy. Almost a law book! Certainly relevant for a good deal of current constitutional law. The publisher's description says: "In this history of the development of ideas of honor in Western philosophy, Peter Olsthoorn examines what honor is, how its meaning has changed, and whether it can still be of use. . . . Today, outside of the military and some other pockets of resistance, the notion of honor has become seriously out of date, while the term itself has almost disappeared from its moral language. . . . Wide-ranging and accessible, the book explores the role of honor in not only philosophy but also literature and war to make the case that honor can still play an important role in contemporary life." Bookend this one with Jeremy Waldron's recent Dignity, Rank, and Rights and Joanne Freeman's classic history Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

4) Like everything he has written since Cryptonomicon and Anathem, Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is pretty damn imperfect. But the first two thirds, describing the end of the world and the loss of most of humanity, are tremendous fun.   

5) I'm writing about class and the legal academy right now (if "writing" is defined loosely and with infinite mercy), and here are some good books, some recent and starting with several by law professors, that have added usefully to my small store of knowledge on the subject: Lani Guinier's The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America; Sheryll Cashin's Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America; Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter; Daria Roithmayr, Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock In White Advantage; Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century; and a superb older book, Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

6) I'm reading Richard Posner's new book Divergent Paths: The Academy and the Judiciary right now for review purposes, so I won't say too much about it, except the following: it's a natural gift choice for law students, professors, clerks, etc.; it contains the usual full store of enjoyable Posnerian observations and apothegms; and there is a good book, maybe several, contained within the book, although I'm not sure that judgment applies to the book itself.

7) If you have time to kill and already invested some of your weeks and months in the first three volumes, I can recommend the fourth and final volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters, Affirming: Letters 1975-1997. The best volumes, sheerly from a reader's perspective, are the second and third, I think. But for those who are interested in Berlin and value pluralism--and I think pluralism is a subject that is curiously missing from many current discussions of law and religion in the United States, stuck as they are right now on the liberty-equality debate, although it is coming back as a topic--this volume provides a lot of fairly detailed discussion of that subject, as Berlin, in the autumn of his life, answers questions from correspondents, defends and clarifies earlier statements, and, while rarely confessing error, notes the questions his position can't answer.  

8) Thomas Vinciguerra's Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker is the newest and lightest of these books and my last recommendation. What can I say? The New Yorker was an endless stream of enjoyable figures, fights, stories, and legends, and they are very well told here. If you haven't already read a stream of books about The New Yorker in its heyday, this is a good place to start; if you have, there's more than enough here that's new to justify reading this one. I'm struck right now, in the middle of reading it, by the loss of two wonderful genres of American literature, of which this book provides many good examples: the letter and the telegram. (In a letter from Ralph Ingersoll to Harold Ross, Ingersoll writes, "The river looks very tempting this afternoon. I suggest--not entirely--facetiously--that you go over and jump in it.") People don't waste their best wit on emails, and anyway they are too afraid of being misunderstood in that affectless medium to risk it. Between the examples given in the book and the everyday example of online media, whether FB or Twitter or the Gawker family, and at the risk of committing the Golden Age fallacy, I am filled with the impression that somewhere along the way, America mislaid its rapiers and stilettos in the dark and picked up bludgeons instead.          

   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 17, 2015 at 10:19 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

Comments

If you want to read about WW2,don't ignore the Burma theater. Gen. Slim's memoirs (Defeat Into Victory) and George MacDonald Fraser's (the author of the Flashman series) Quartered Safe Out Here are well worth reading.

Posted by: AYY | Dec 22, 2015 2:52:45 AM

Thank you! I quite agree. FWIW, Hastings's books have some good basic-level stuff on this, and he opines in several places that Slim was one of the best generals in the war. I very much want to read the Fraser book at some point.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 22, 2015 11:58:33 AM

Forgot to mention a few things. Be wary of Gordon Prange's books. Much of what he wrote on Pearl Harbor has been superseded by Zimm's Attack on Pearl Harbor. What he wrote about Midway has been superseded by a couple of books on Midway that came out during the last 10 years or so.

As a lawyer you might be interested in Bardeche's Nuremberg. His position taken broadly is that they were a bit light on due process, that they hanged some people they shouldn't have, and that the Allied fire bombing campaign on German cities was a greater war crime than what was done by some of those who were hanged at Nuremberg. You can decide for yourself whether he makes a persuasive case, but he gives you something to think about.

Suvorov's The Chief Culprit created a bit of a stir a few years ago. His position is that Stalin was about to attack Germany but the Germans just barely beat him to the punch. A book that might be hard to find but is definitely worth trying to find is Gustav Herling's A World Apart. It's about his experience as a Polish POW in a Gulag during the early part of WW2. It is quite moving.

Also be prepared to have some of your ideals shattered. The more you read, the more you'll see that there were war crimes at high levels on both sides. It can be a bit unnerving.

Posted by: AYY | Dec 23, 2015 3:19:16 AM

Alexander Werth. Russia at War. The only book, my brother remarked, where the Russians were the good guys.
Showalter Armor and Blood. Kursk
Toland. Battle, The Story of The Bulge
Anything by Samuel Eliot Morison. He has condensed his fourteen volume series about WW II naval action to two volumes.
Hoegh and Doyle. Timberwolf Tracks. The history of an Infantry division in the ETO.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey | Dec 23, 2015 9:01:38 PM

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