Amazingly, it’s almost summer break here at Georgetown. Therefore, it’s time to publish another post about the books I’ve been reading recently. Hope you enjoy!
Cafe Europa (by Slavenka Drakulić): As a native of Yugoslavia, Drakulić presents a unique and insightful view into the Balkan countries’ transition out of communism in Cafe Europa. A constant theme throughout the book is Drakulić’s dual identity as an Eastern European – she is from Croatia – and a Western European – her husband is a Swede. She highlights a number of the structural and cultural problems that impeded integration with the West as well as Balkan citizens’ struggle to adjust to their brave new world. It’s important to note that this book was written during the mid-1990s and is, therefore, fairly dated. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone trying to get a better sense of the contemporary Balkan region. However, it provides a powerful and deeply personal assessment of the tumultuous and inconclusive transition the region experienced after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the fall of Ceaușescu in Romania. This alone makes it valuable, as it pushes back against the overly triumphalist narratives of 1989 and 1990 that, by focusing exclusively on northern and central Eastern Europe, create an unduly Pollyanish view.
The Magic Lantern (by Timothy Garton Ash): Timothy Garton Ash is one of the world’s leading experts on Eastern Europe, and The Magic Lantern is a testament to his academic prowess. In The Magic Lantern, Ash provides a thorough summary of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary’s transitions from communism to liberal democracy. The most fascinating part of this book is the degree to which Ash cites his personal experiences on the ground in 1989 and 1990. He gave speeches to Solidarity in Poland, met with Havel in Czechoslovakia, and was in East Berlin three days after the Wall fell. This grants the book a unique, almost biographical, feel that I believe adds to the narrative, as it allows Ash to recount highly personal anecdotes that enrich his account. I do think that Ash is perhaps overly optimistic in some parts of the book: He was disadvantaged by the fact that he wrote the book as events were unfolding, preventing him from having the benefit of hindsight. I also think that his close proximity to the elites of the revolutionary movements biases his account toward the macro-level political scene as opposed to the “everyday citizen” view presented in Drakulić’s Cafe Europa. This is not a bad thing, but it is something that should be kept in mind while reading the book. Despite these minor shortcomings, The Magic Lantern is an absolutely superb book, and it should be read by anyone trying to understand the events that precipitated the fall of communist Eastern Europe.
The Ideas Industry (by Daniel Drezner): Drezner is one of my favorite political commentators and is also an excellent international relations scholar. Therefore, I felt obligated to acquire a copy of his newest book, The Ideas Industry, a soon as it was released. The book is a fascinating and important take on the current state of the “ideas industry” in the United States today (though the book’s arguments likely also apply to countries outside the U.S. as well). Drezner’s basic contention is that the public ideas industry is shaped by two primary groups of people, “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.” Thought leaders are the proverbial hedgehogs: They have one big idea and apply it to everything (think Niall Ferguson or Jeffrey Sachs). Public intellectuals are like the foxes: They know a lot of things fairly well, but they lack any core, driving message (think Fareed Zakaria or David Brooks). According to Drezner, thought leaders push our horizons with their new insights while public intellectuals act as gatekeepers, providing public commentary on and criticism of evangelizing thought leaders’ more absurd contentions. A healthy ideas ecosystem requires both kinds of thinkers. We need people to develop novel visions and apply them to pressing contemporary issues, but we also need experienced critics who can point out the flaws in thought leaders’ “big ideas.” Drezner argues that growing partisanship, increasing income inequality, and the celebrity status of provocative thought leaders has led to an oversupply of thought leaders and a dearth of public intellectuals, creating shoddy scholarship designed to pander to partisan groups at the expense of the truth. I wish that Drezner had provided more concrete solutions to rectify the problems he identifies in the book, but I found his overall argument interesting and largely accurate. In a world saturated with celebrity intellectuals and infested with fake news, Drezner’s book is a timely addition to the literature.
The Captive Mind (by Czesław Miłosz) and Under a Cruel Star (by Heda Kovaly): I already wrote a thorough review of these two books’ arguments in another post. Because anything I write here will be redundant and inferior, I will just refer you to the hyperlink above.