Books

What's the Point of College?

A critical look at the state of the American university

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College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, By Andrew Delbanco Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $24.95 Visit any campus bookstore, and in addition to lighthearted tracts on applied calculus and hoodies made in China, you will see a baby jumper emblazoned with the school’s logo—a sign of how anxiously and superstitiously Americans hope that their kids, still capable of only gurgling and monkey reflex reactions, will one day go to college. It is this glossily promoted hope that Columbia University professor and social critic Andrew Delbanco explores in a book that, despite its title, is no work of prescriptive policy. Wonks may be disappointed at the lack of charts and tables, but Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist’s belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. The first American colleges were built on the British model, he reminds us, from which ancient features—dorm...

Adrienne Rich, Poet of Change

Few literary luminaries succeed in melding a passion for social justice with a love of language.

(AP Photo/Adam Rountree, file)
Adrienne Rich, a poet and essayist whose righteous, resonant voice transformed American literature and consciousness, passed away last Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, California. Beloved by the feminist and LGBT communities, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and more than 30 books. Though honored with a bevy of prizes (including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant), she remained resolutely outside the establishment, her radicalism seeming only to gather steam over time. When President Bill Clinton, for instance, offered her the National Medal of Arts in 1997, she famously declined. Taking heroic advantage of the ensuing press, she criticized the cynicism of an administration willing to honor a handful of token artists while slashing funding for the arts. “Art,” she said, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.” Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929, to a milieu of...

History Lessons

When historian Tony Judt cared passionately about a problem he was able to redefine its terms. Pity he didn't care about a few more things.

(Joe Ciardiello)
T hinking the Twentieth Century lets us listen in on conversations between distinguished colleagues, the intellectual historian Tony Judt and the Eastern Europeanist Timothy Snyder. It conveys the sort of conversation that two scholars may have when they share the same knowledge, references, and opinions. I can think of older historians possessing a greater range of scholarship and biographies of more significance—among writers on modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm or Peter Gay—whom one might want to hear from before Judt in this unusual format. But this book was motivated by tragic circumstances. Judt suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Snyder began his interviews after the point at which his senior colleague had lost the use of his hands and had begun to dictate rather than write. Judt’s courage and clarity of mind were celebrated, as he continued to deliver important public addresses in the early stages of the disease and produced two more short books. One was an impassioned defense...

The Making of a Madman

A.N. Wilson's new biography explains how losing money, mother, and mind created Hitler.

(Flickr / Daniel Semper)
How are monsters made? How do the Neros and Caligulas, the Stalins and Maos come into existence? One of the most frequent explanations for those preternatural torturers of small animals, those psychopathic murderers and genocidal maniacs is actually quite simple: It’s all the parents’ fault. As poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” And it’s not just physical abuse that begets monsters but emotional and psychological abuse as well. Does this explain Adolf Hitler, the “ultimate demon-tyrant of history,” as British journalist A.N. Wilson, author of the short biography, Hitler , calls him? In the autobiography, Mein Kampf ( My Struggle ), while relating a third-person account of his childhood, Hitler illustrates the daily psychological, emotional, and even physical abuse inflicted by his family: “When the parents fight … their brutality leaves nothing to the imagination [and] the results of such visual education must slowly but inevitably become apparent in the...

Barbarians at the Transom

Lionel Shriver's The New Republic is a provocative and satiric novel about—of all things—terrorism. 

Harper Collins
The New Republic By Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $26.99 What if there were a war, and no journalists covered it? Alternately, what if there weren’t a war, and every journalist covered it? How might our lawmakers react? It’s worth remembering that in 1993, when Spy magazine prank-called U.S. congressmen, asking what the administration should do about ethnic cleansing in Freedonia, several of the officials demanded immediate action. Freedonia, as it happens, was not a warring Balkan land but the fictional setting of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup . Spy soon exposed the trap it had laid, but are there not other fictions that go uncaught and unrevealed and end by affecting foreign policy? This is the provocative question that the writer and social observer Lionel Shriver sports with in The New Republic , her latest published novel and a satire about—of all things—terrorism. “Provocative” is the right word for Lionel Shriver, a North Carolina–born writer who has lived...

Hell's Belles

Tracking the teen heroines of the new dystopian thrillers

(Photo courtesy of Scholastic)
L ike the flu virus, the genre of dystopic novels for young adults has many strains. The one featuring a teenage girl battling for her life got a massive boost in the fall of 2008, when the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Collins’s franchise has more than 23.5 million books in print and a movie adaptation due out next week, while new entries in the genre keep pouring forth, eagerly welcomed by fans and Hollywood. Why have readers been so drawn to catastrophic futures when the present seems troubled enough? Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker , critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to...

A Nightstick Turned into a Song

Two new books and a documentary cue up the soundtrack of the black-power movement.

(Courtesy of Louverture Films)
I n January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February. Yet the power of the clipped cover version was its resurrection of the ghosts of Obamas past. The serenade was a reminder not just of the subtle swagger that found Obama brushing the dirt off his shoulders à la Jay-Z back in 2008 but also of a tradition of civil rights–era black culture and politics that Obama...

The Republican Socialist

A new biography shows that Dwight Eisenhower was a more cunning and active president than he gets credit for. 

(AP Photo/Arthur Sasse)
Does anyone else remember the Western Hemisphere's only functioning socialist paradise? In that bygone land, the top income-tax bracket for millionaires was 90 percent. Thanks to a heavily—and proudly—unionized workforce, collective bargaining resolved most labor-management disputes. To stave off recession, the government instituted the largest public-works program in Country X's history, from which its now largely unwitting citizens still benefit today. Although Country X did possess a sizable nuclear deterrent, the trade-off was a reduction in spending on conventional military capabilities. "Our most valuable, our most costly asset is our young men. Let's don't use them any more than we have to," was the typically commonsensical explanation given by paradise's wildly popular leader for his reluctance to commit Country X to adventurist foreign wars. Despite an excruciating level of world tension at the time, not a single member of Country X's armed forces died in battle on his watch...

The Part of Silence That Can Be Spoken

Jeanette Winterson’s fairy-tale search for a mother

For some writers, mothers are everywhere. They slip off windy cliffs and fall to their death; they follow a star to an orphanage and choose a child in a crib. They are the Dog Woman, fleshy and unwashed and unafraid to kill. They rescue the baby who, like some kind of Moses, is abandoned in the Thames, and they bring him up as their own. These particular mothers belong to British writer Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, which often employs fairy tales and fantastical stories to explore familial relationships and thwart gender expectations. The mothers in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal ? are different, though: They’re real. Winterson’s memoir attempts to uncloak her two mothers, birth and adoptive. Framed by the poverty and history of industrial England, the narrative is fragmented and at times clumsy, jumping between concrete scenes and philosophical ruminations. Nonetheless, it is a book about self-discovery through emotional and mental breakdown. The woman who adopted and raised...

Fumblerooski

Is it too soon to pronounce Obama an economic failure? A different take on The Escape Artists.

The sophisticated political observer doesn’t need public opinion polls to weigh the odds of President Obama’s re-election. Economic indicators drive voters, and if the president and his party come up short in November, the recriminations won’t be aimed at campaign headquarters in Chicago but at the staffers and wonks tasked with turning around the American economy. The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery , provides just that opportunity. Noam Scheiber, an editor at The New Republic , susses out the Obama administration’s most important internal debates to find exactly where the supposed dream team of economic wonks failed. As a fair account of opportunities missed, the book is exceptional. As an explanation of our current economic woes, it suffers from a perhaps unavoidable bias: A book so focused on the actions inside the Treasury building and White House can’t help but elide the factors that pop up outside the policymaking bubble. Those factors, including key...

Obama's Squandered Recovery

In The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber depicts a White House out of its depth on the financial crisis.

The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery . By Noam Scheiber, Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $28.00. A guy I know told me a story. He had a friend who was working on the 55th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on that terrible day. When the plane hit the North Tower, everybody in the office understandably got very worried. When the plane hit the South Tower, people were going crazy. But the authorities on the floor—calm, experienced—told them not to panic. The guy’s friend thought to himself, “Fuck this, we’re all going to die," and raced downstairs, exiting the building right before it collapsed. I thought of that story when reading Noam Scheiber’s The Escape Artists, about the economic crisis at the start of Obama’s presidency and the administration’s response. In the book, based upon hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews with principals and other witnesses to the events described, Obama and his top economic and political staff emerge as, to...

Burying Camelot

Mimi Alford's memoir marks the end of America's Kennedy fetish.

(Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)
The publication last month of onetime JFK mistress Mimi Alford's Once Upon a Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath provoked a variety of reactions. I wonder how many people shared mine, which was, "Bon voyage." Why? Because I figure Alford's book almost has to be The End. The torch has been passed and then some to a new generation of Americans. Few of its members give much of a damn about presidential peccadilloes half a century old. Barring the discovery of Marilyn Monroe's lost diaries, it's not inconceivable that America is finally done with its Kennedy fetish. As the elderly Tolstoy —or was it Sophocles?—once celebrated the loss of his sex drive, "At last I am freed from a cruel and insane master." There will, needless to say, be other books—most likely, a whole slew of them next year, the 50th anniversary of that day in Dallas. But that's a dimming industry's last hurrah, no longer reflecting any real public craving. Maybe the counsel for the defense...

Watergate Finally Gets Its Novel

Thomas Mallon's new fiction humanizes the ultimate D.C. scandal.

Watergate: A Novel . By Thomas Mallon, Pantheon Books, 448 pages, $26.95. Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life . By Ann Beattie, Scribner, 282 pages, $26.00. T his year will mark the 40th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by yeggs with White House connections that provoked the Watergate scandal and led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as 37th president of the United States. It’s the kind of benchmark that leaves people who lived through those days facing two realizations, fused by the unwelcome recognition that we’re pretty old. Something we experienced is now as dusty as Ginger Rogers in Gold Diggers of 1933 . An event we were convinced would always resonate turned out to be our random turn on the merry-go-round. All sorts of nefariousness later—from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra end run around Congress, arguably a worse assault on constitutional niceties, to Bush v. Gore , definitely a grimmer satire of the election process—Watergate’s Queen...

Charles Portis's Guide to the GOP

An obscure book that just might explain the GOP race better than any pundit could

(Flickr/Austin Kleon)
Does today's Republican Party baffle you? Then I can help. A too-little-known book called Masters of Atlantis explains absolutely everything: They're Gnomons. Gnomons, every last one. While this is an inflammatory charge, I don't think I'm being reckless. If Masters of Atlantis can be trusted—and for reasons that will soon be apparent, I see no reason why it shouldn't be—Gnomonism, or Gnomonry, was introduced to the United States soon after World War I by Lamar Jimmerson, an ex-doughboy reared under Indiana's placid blue sky. While serving in France, he came into possession of a rare copy of the Codex Pappus: the only surviving repository of Atlantean wisdom, "committed to the waves on that terrible day when the rumbling began." Swiftly converted from his dabblings in Freemasonry, Jimmerson—whose utter sincerity is in no doubt, by the way—founded the American branch of the Gnomon Society. His proselytizing for Atlantis's teachings won few adherents at first, but Gnomonry's vogue among...

Three Big Tax Lies

And two must-read new books that finally debunk them.

I f the last ten years of debt and jobs destruction have taught us anything, it’s that we must change our tax system and soon, or face economic disaster. Instead of maintaining our infrastructure, we are consuming it. Instead of investing in education and research with an eye to later wealth, we’re cutting our way to a poorer future. Yet concerning taxes, which finance our civilization and distribute the cost, three great lies permeate society, all of which delay our doing what needs to be done. The first lie, with a nod to comedic candidate Jimmy McMillan, is that the tax is just too damn high. The second lie is that if you cut the rates, revenues will increase. The third lie is that taxes have become too complex for even an Einstein to understand. Bruce Bartlett in The Benefit and the Burden and Martin A. Sullivan in Corporate Tax Reform demolish these lies with valuable primers, as complementary in their purpose as an easy chair and a reading lamp. Where ideological groups feed...

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