With the new semester about to start, I’ve decided to end my book review hiatus and update you on what I’ve read over the past month. I’m also going to have a pretty heavy reading load these next few months, so there should be lots more reviews this autumn!
Paper: Paging Through History (by Mark Kurlansky): This is not the kind of book I’d usually read, and I basically just picked it up on a whim while perusing a used bookstore in Savannah. I was not disappointed, though, as Kurlansky is simply a fantastic writer. As you may have guessed by the title, the book documents the development of paper as a medium for storing and sharing information. But it is much more than simply a chronicle of paper’s development, as it effectively weaves the story of paper and its usage into a wider global history of the world. I was particularly intrigued by all the different types of paper discussed by Kurlansky and the many different techniques used to produce them. For example, I learned that most paper up until at least the 19th-20th century was produced from used rags, leading to the emergence of very interesting local economies based around recycled cloth. The cover art is also absolutely beautiful, so the book has a distinct aesthetic value completely independent of its contents. My one criticism is that Kurlansky frequently gets a bit too far into the weeds for a general history, and I think this creates several dry patches that impede the flow of the narrative. This is a minor gripe, though, and it certainly isn’t annoying enough to seriously detract from the overall experience.
Eurotragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts (by Ashoka Mody): I was initially skeptical about this book, as I have already read several good histories of the Eurocrisis and wasn’t sure what this book could add. However, I found Eurotragedy to be a solid read and, actually, a very good history of the euro as an idea. I think it is this historical, narrative approach that makes this book great. It is certainly much better than Making the European Monetary Union! But I must say that I found Mody’s actual argument to be very unconvincing because he seems to put a lot of emphasis on stupid policy decisions made by Trichet and the Troika instead of the structural problems created by the existence of a common currency. This is a perfectly acceptable argument, and one I find quite compelling, but it isn’t the argument Mody claims to be making. I still think the book is worth reading as a sort of general history of the Eurozone, but if you are looking specifically for a structural critique of the euro, I think you would do better with a book like Joseph Stiglitz’s The Euro.
The Cold War: A World History (by Odd Arne Westad): This was a very good book that, while fairly long, was an exceptionally easy and interesting read. Westad is a Cold War scholar par excellence, and his command of the source material really comes through in this book. However, The Cold War is fairly conventional in its interpretation of key events. While Westad presents a fair take and excellent general overview of the conflict, few of his arguments are all that new or provocative. I do wish that he had been a little more generous with his citations, as I think that would have improved this book’s ability to be the general history of the Cold War. I also wish that some of Westad’s assertions were better substantiated in the text: He frequently presents quick, one or two sentence interpretations – usually regarding Africa or Latin America – and then moves on. Obviously this book was written for the general public, so I don’t want to be too critical about Westad’s balancing of rigorous scholarship and accessibility – that’s the author’s prerogative and I believe he does a generally good job. However, I think there were a few places where he could have benefitted from a bit more detail. Despite these small complaints, I can say categorically that everyone, even those who have a thorough command of the Cold War literature, will learn something from this book. Therefore, I have to conclude that it will become a classic, and deservedly so.
Keynes: The Return of the Master (by Robert Skidelsky): I ordered this book by accident while attempting to purchase Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes. It was a fortuitous error, however, as I found this book to be well written and refreshingly compact. Basically, Keynes serves two purposes: describing Keynes’ economic views and explaining the Great Recession through a Keynesian lens. Both objectives were well-executed, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Keynesian economics and/or the 2008 crisis. The book has its shortcomings, of course: it is small and somewhat dated, making it fairly general in its treatment of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, it is artfully written and does a fine job of explaining how uncertainty, a major element of Keynesian thought, stymied the recovery of the global economy. So while this book may be a tad too elementary for expert students of the financial crisis, it is a great introduction to those seeking an overview of an important economic event and a great economic mind. Now I just need to read the Skidelsky book I meant to order!
The German Genius (by Peter Watson): This book is enormous both in terms of size and in terms of the praise and acclaim it has won. However, I really struggled to like The German Genius, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone outside of those deeply interested in both Germany and intellectual history. To be sure, Watson’s work is full of very interesting tidbits about the German intellectual tradition, and the first chapter is perhaps the best bit of writing I have seen on how the Anglo-Saxon world conceives of Germany (with an unhealthy focus on the Nazis, I might add). The problem, though, is that Watson bites off more than he can chew. The book is more or less a chronicling of every major German inventor, composer, entrepreneur, mathematician, scientist, philosopher, and statesmen since the early 18th century. As a result, the book is almost unmanageable as it jumps from topic to topic and person to person. To add to the confusion, Watson organizes his book roughly chronologically but frequently skips around in time. The German Genius is certainly well regarded by some, so I don’t want to come off as overly negative, but I can’t help but feel that the book tries to cover too much and, as a result, ends up giving short shrift to almost every topic. As I see it, Watson should have condensed down, done more theory and less history, and recounted the history of German intellectualism in a more chronological and uniform way. I really do wish I could recommend this book; I simply don’t feel like I can.
Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy (by Sarah Kinkel): I really enjoyed this book both for its novel take on the role that domestic politics played in shaping the Royal Navy and its concision. While it is a bit difficult for me to review Kinkel’s work given how little I know about the early British navy, I can say that the book does a fantastic job of melding political science theory with history. I think a lot of people view the Royal Navy as the defining institution of England and, later, Great Britain, granting it a kind of monolithic status. However, Disciplining the Empire effectively demolishes this interpretation, showing indisputably how contested the navy really was. From differing conceptions of trade and foreign policy to internal religious strife, the navy’s mission and composition largely reflected British politics and the preferences of influential political groupings. I will say that the book seems to under-discuss the actual institutional makeup of the navy, which I found a bit frustrating. I know that Kinkel explicitly notes this omission at the outset, but I feel like it was a relevant aspect of her narrative that should have been covered in greater detail. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book, and I learned a massive amount from reading it.
The British War Machine (by David Edgerton): I loved this book! To me, Edgerton’s work is what Hanson’s The Second World Wars would have looked like if it had been done properly. The British War Machine is too wide-ranging for me to do it justice in this short review, but it is basically a top-level industrial and economic overview of Britain in World War Two. Edgerton presents a revisionist take on Britain’s global position, convincingly arguing that the U.K. never stood alone against Germany. Instead, it was well-endowed due to its imperial holdings and well-support by the British Dominions. Edgerton also shows that it was 1942, when Japan began its Pacific rampage, that Britain’s position was seriously weakened, not 1940. Indeed, the entire book is full of fascinating, revisionist takes that seriously undermine the conventional narrative of Britain during the Second World War. I learned, for example, that Northern Ireland was largely excluded from the British war boom, that the U.K. had the most mechanized, tank-heavy force in the war, and that British industry was much more flexible than that of the Americans (and Britain was much more efficient in shipbuilding). I also learned many interesting facts about global logistics and the politics of food rationing that I would have never even considered before. As with all books like this, there are some pages were Edgerton goes into an excessive amount of detail on the exact numbers of units produced, but this barely bothered me because these facts, while occasionally tedious, were rarely superfluous. Edgerton has two more books that look interesting, and I’m really hoping to read them in the next few months.
Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society (by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl): This book is really great because it is unapologetically provocative and stimulating. Put simply, Posner and Weyl use this book to present several novel and, dare I say, radical proposals for improving social welfare. Parts of the book are a tad cheesy, such as the little vignettes they use to demonstrate what their proposals might look like, but the substance of the book is deeply stimulating and thought-provoking. As a friend who read the book noted, these ideas are basically entirely theoretical and have no chance of being implemented in the short term. Indeed, I would go further and say that many of these ideas are quite utopian simply because the real world is so much messier than the models on which they are based. Nevertheless, the book does an admirable job of forcing readers to reexamine many of the laws and institutions we take for granted, and it also does a good job of inculcating an appreciation for an efficiency-enhancing worldview that is rarely seen outside of economics. In short, regardless of your views on the actual proposals advanced by Posner and Weyl, I will confidently say that this is one of the best books of the year.