Record of Achievement
George Orwell (1903–50), the moral compass of the 20th century, had his own true north: farming and fishing in peace. He spent the last years of his life on the rural island of Jura, off Scotland, fighting tuberculosis and writing his sixth and final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)—one of the great books of our time.
In his diaries, Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) does not discuss his novels directly, but the terse, factual entries recording weather and the number of eggs given by the hens each day do offer a sense of his ideal working conditions. It is hard to say whether he craved distraction or merely kept his priorities straight when one reads entries like this: “Diary not kept up for several days owing to pen being mislaid.”
Orwell’s diaries were first published in 1998 as part of the 20-volume The Complete Works of George Orwell. The diaries are now available in a single volume for the first time in the United States. Written from 1931 to 1949, they remind us that most of Orwell’s life was not so pastoral. Instead, it was filled with dramatic adventures that fueled his writing and shaped his politics. The journalist George Packer has called Orwell an “empirical absolutist,” meaning that he hated to write about a thing he had not personally experienced.
The early entries cover Orwell’s days as a tramp, a period that provided material for Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and his subsequent... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Remembering the Holocaust
Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi Germany fought two wars. One was a war of conquest against armed countries. The other was a war of annihilation against Jews. It lost the first war. In the main, it won the second. To be sure, not all of Europe’s Jews were murdered; the Allied victory stopped Germany from being able to find and kill all of them.
We still remember the first war. As for the second, we failed to recognize its goal while it was being waged, for decades ignored it, and began to understand its focus and magnitude only in the 1970s, in large measure because of the popular NBC television miniseries The Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep. It was seen by many tens of millions of people in the United States and abroad, and magnified popular awareness of the Holocaust.
Since then, the public’s consciousness of the Holocaust—its Holocaust memory—has been, in many ways, abused and degraded. That’s why Alvin H. Rosenfeld wrote The End of the Holocaust, in which he considers both how the Holocaust should be remembered and how that memory has been, in its purity and detail, profoundly disfigured. The disfigurement of Holocaust memory has been a subtle process that has stretched out over decades. By describing that process so well, and by explaining so meticulously why it has been corrosive, Rosenfeld has gone far toward preserving our chance to learn something important from that immense event of irredeemable evil.
In this important book,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Aides to Lyndon Baines Johnson always knew when their boss had decided to engage in a political battle. Once he had finished precisely calibrating the personal costs and benefits, he would begin to gather momentum in a ritual that allies described as “revving up”: the effort to persuade himself of the goodness of his cause, regardless of whether he had previously supported or opposed it. Thus motivated, he would “get all worked up,” as his longtime lawyer, Ed Clark, put it, “all worked up and emotional, and work all day and night, and sacrifice, and say, ‘Follow me for the cause!’—‘Let’s do this because it’s right!’ ”
Those who have read Robert A. Caro’s three previous biographical volumes on Johnson will recognize this groundswell—the sudden marshaling of outsized energies—because it is also the pattern of these mammoth, magnificent books. They chronicle in exhaustive detail the strengths and flaws of the 36th president of the United States, then surge forward toward a pivotal moment with the full weight of that character study behind them.
In this fourth installment—a comparatively trim 712 pages—the payoff is even greater. In the course of this book, Johnson is bumped from presumptive 1960 Democratic presidential nominee to the bottom half of John F. Kennedy’s ticket, then suffers the further abasement of being vice president in an administration... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Color of Friendship
In 1992, after a jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers who had viciously beaten a black motorist, the late Rodney King, black Angelenos rioted in protest. Afterward, President Bill Clinton diagnosed the country’s racial ills as the consequence of too few interracial friendships. Tanner Colby’s engrossing book begins with the same premise: “If we’re not talking about why black people and white people don’t hang out and play Scrabble together, we’re not talking about the problem.”
Colby, whose previous books were very successful biographies of “dead, fat comedians” (Chris Farley and John Belushi), might seem an unlikely author for such a book. He began the project after realizing during the 2008 presidential campaign that, despite his passionate support of Barack Obama, he “didn’t actually know any black people,” nor did most of his friends. The result, Some of My Best Friends Are Black, is a refreshingly honest and textured story that has much to contribute to conversations about race in America.
Some of My Best Friends Are Black is structured around four major arenas of everyday life: “schools, neighborhoods, the workplace, and church.” The book is not a memoir, but Colby weaves in his own stories with ease and humor. He explores the history of busing in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama; recounts the process of desegregation in a neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, a... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Powers that Be
“Do these people in Egypt really understand what freedom means?” a well-meaning friend asked Hamed Abdel-Samad after he returned home to Germany from Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year. “Probably not,” the young political scientist, who had witnessed thugs and policemen beating protesters, replied sarcastically. “It would be great if you could come to Egypt with me to teach them your experience with freedom, how you fought for it, how you risked your life, how you came to appreciate it.” Abdel-Samad, who was born in Egypt, said in a radio interview earlier this year that we—by whom he means Westerners—are spoiled by peace, saturated with freedom, and take our inherited liberties for granted. “Right now,” he said, “I can’t see an expression of freedom anywhere that is fresher than in the Arab world.”
William J. Dobson vividly portrays this struggle against authoritarian rule in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, a collection of short, evocative dispatches from the Arab countries and Egypt, but also Russia, China, Venezuela, and, in less depth and detail, Malaysia. Dobson’s main argument is that the nature of dictatorship has changed. Today’s dictators and authoritarian regimes, he writes, are “far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble” than those of the past. In contrast to 20th-century totalitarian rulers, modern dictators understand the importance of... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Genius for Languages
A welter of tongues erupted from the assembled crowd, in speech so rapid that individual phrases could barely be made out. Pope Gregory XVI had gathered a crew of international students to test the skills of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th-century Italian cardinal who supposedly spoke as many as 60 languages, including Turkish, Hebrew, French, and Chinese. According to historical accounts, Mezzofanti switched swiftly between dozens of dialects to answer the students’ questions one by one, thereby passing the pope’s test. His performance qualifies him as one of history’s first recorded hyperpolyglots—defined as people who speak at least 11 languages.
In Babel No More, a study of so-called language superlearners, journalist Michael Erard argues that examining the cognitive gifts of people like Mezzofanti may help uncover “the upper limits of our ability to learn, remember, and speak languages.” Mezzofanti’s capacity to switch between languages, for instance, is evidence of an extremely well-developed executive function—the set of cognitive skills that help people organize and manage multiple tasks.
Erard writes that he “set out to write Babel No More along the lines of a book about, say, some fabled creature like the Loch Ness monster,” in which the author “returns from his wanderings enlightened, engaged. But not with the creature in a cage.” Then, on an online message board, he stumbled upon... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
In the history of American popular songwriting, few composers have better blended hope and scorn than Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (1912–67), an artist who seemed to believe that you couldn’t have the one without the other. His acolyte, Bob Dylan, certainly has a way with a vituperative turn of phrase, but anger never sounded so righteous nor so proudly optimistic as when Guthrie sang “This Land Is Your Land,” a folk song that is both a paean to the country he loved and a critical broadside launched on behalf of all those—dreamers, migrant workers, poets, or anyone else—who ever felt that their vision of America had been compromised.
We encounter “This Land Is Your Land” so often in its myriad forms—as a jokey aside in a Simpsons episode, or as a grammar school memory, or as a sonic backdrop to the latest political rally—that sometimes Guthrie’s defiance gets lost. Most of us remember those bright opening lines:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me
But the end of Guthrie’s original version is surprisingly dark:
&... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Mexico's Gruesome Icon
In 1998, on a staticky television in a small Oaxaca town, I watched Mexico’s most famous newscaster interview one of the country’s most famous criminals. Daniel Arizmendi López, known as El Mochaorejas—the “ear chopper”—had granted an interview to Televisa after his arrest. The bland discussion of his gruesome crimes repelled me, yet I could not turn away from Arizmendi’s flat stare. He had kidnapped dozens of people. Occasionally, he murdered them. More often, he severed a victim’s ear with poultry scissors and mailed it to the family. The practice had earned him millions in ransom payments, but finally it earned him a 50-year prison sentence. During a long surge in violent crime triggered by Mexico’s 1994 economic crisis, Arizmendi’s arrest came as a national relief, symbolizing some small degree of official control amid spiraling insecurity.
United States of Givers
Despite the sluggish economy, Americans gave a staggering $290 billion to charity in 2010. There is no shortage of causes clamoring for our attention—and our dollars. Philanthropic drives and organizations are woven into the fabric of American life. In Philanthropy in America, Olivier Zunz, a historian at the University of Virginia, has written a lucid and engaging story of how this came to be. He focuses on the 20th century, when Americans transformed their prolific, but mostly localized, efforts to form groups for addressing all manner of problems into philanthropy on a much larger scale, measured not only in the amount of money and numbers of people involved, but also in the scope of what such enterprises tried to achieve. American democracy has been “enlarged,” Zunz writes, by this “convergence of big-money philanthropy and mass giving.” The question is whether 21st-century philanthropy can withstand the growing chorus of criticism that has resulted.
Rollin' Through the Years
“The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon,” declared Siegfried Giedion, the great historian of technology and champion of modernism. He believed that studying the artifacts of ordinary life could reveal at least as much about the past as the analysis of kings and wars. This school of history has given us such diverting books as A History of the World in Six Glasses (2005), in which journalist Tom Standage considers the cultural importance of beer and wine, and British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (2011).
Until the 19th century, doctors mostly ignored the mysterious adrenal glands.
CIA director William Egan Colby came clean to Congress about scandals in the agency.
Can the Internet save us from ourselves?
Small acts of insubordination can add up to a lot.
Intimate friendships and relationships are the key to a happy--and healthy--life.
America’s top soothsayer gets philosophical about the perils of prediction.