Books

Getting to the End
May 21, 2007

The Road By Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pp., $24) IN ADDITION to the 9/11 novel, and the 9/11 novel that is pretending not to be a 9/11 novel, an old genre has been re-awakened by new fears: the post-apocalyptic novel (which may well be, in fact, the 9/11 novel pretending not to be one). The possibility that familiar, habitual existence might be so disrupted within the next hundred years that crops will fail, warm places will turn into deserts, and species will become extinct—that areas of the earth may become uninhabitable—holds and horrifies the contemporary imagination.

The Thin Line
May 21, 2007

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil By Philip Zimbardo (Random House, 551 pp., $27.95) WHY DO human beings commit despicable acts? One answer points to individual dispositions; another answer emphasizes situational pressures. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed the importance of individual dispositions in describing terrorists as “simply evil people who want to kill.” Situationists reject this view. They believe that horrible acts can be committed by perfectly normal people.

Kaddish’s Nose
May 21, 2007

The Ministry of Special CasesBy Nathan Englander (Alfred A. Knopf, 339 pp., $25) IN ONE OF the best-known stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, the collection of short stories that shot Nathan Englander into the literary stratosphere seven years ago, a middle-aged WASP sitting in a taxi cab has the sudden and inexplicable revelation that he is Jewish. The next day he visits a rabbi in Brooklyn, who informs him that he is a gilgul, or reincarnated soul, and sends him off with a copy of The Chosen.

Drink and the Old Devil
May 21, 2007

The Life of Kingsley AmisBy Zachary Leader (Pantheon Books, 996 pp., $39.95) WHAT ESSENTIAL ingredients go to make up a satirist? In particular,what high-octane social gases are needed to fuel, and to spark, his (seldom, till the feminist revolution, her) process of internal combustion? Facit indignatio versum, snarled Juvenal, that poverty-stricken and passé gentleman place-seeker, two millennia ago: it is resentment that drives me to write.

Heavy Thinker
May 21, 2007

Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative DestructionBy Thomas K. McCraw (Harvard University Press, 719 pp., $35) I KNEW Joseph Schumpeter only in the last five years of his life, from 1945 until his death in 1950, at the age of sixty-six. To say that I knew him is actually a bit of an exaggeration. First as a returning undergraduate and then as a doctoral student in economics at Harvard, I attended his courses on advanced economic theory andthe history of economic thought. The theory lectures bordered onincoherent; they alluded to everything but analyzed nothing.

Military History
May 07, 2007

In the current issue of TNR, I argue that military history is being neglected by major U.S. universities, and that we can't understand the war on terrorism--nor any violent conflict--without a better grasp of the wars and strategies of the past. To that end, here are some books that help illuminate the history of war.   • Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Up From Bullshit
October 30, 2006

On Truth By Harry Frankfurt (Alfred A. Knopf, 101 pp., $12.50) I. In his prime, and without benefit of a keyboard, Samuel Johnson could write twelve thousand words a day. I doubt that there are many more than half that number in Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere.

The Pen and the Baton
October 09, 2006

Divas and Scholars:  Performing Italian Opera  By Philip Gossett 

Mourning in America
May 01, 2006

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING By Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, 227 pp., $23.95) THE BEST DAY THE WORST DAY: LIFE WITH JANE KENYON By Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin, 258 pp., $23) It has long been a sociological truism that we live in a world with few meaningful public forms, social customs, or religious ceremonies. Yet it is only when we face such devastating events as the death of a loved one that we learn what such truisms mean in lived experience: at the time of our most desperate need, we find ourselves abandoned to our own devices.

America the Ruthless
August 08, 2005

Born Losers: A History of Failure in AmericaBy Scott A. Sandage Harvard University Press, 362 pp. You might approach a book about losers with a certain hauteur. And Scott A. Sandage's opening anecdote about an unidentified loser who died in 1862 lends itself to your hunch that his book is going to be a dutiful trudge through a gallery of garden-variety failures. "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition," a friend grieved at the man's funeral. That's page one.

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