I waited way too long to write up these reviews, which means I’ve simply read too many books to discuss. I’ve therefore decided to review just four of the books I’ve recently read. I may eventually get around to reviewing the other three I read this month, but I wouldn’t count on it (you can always check my Goodreads to see my ratings out of 5 stars). Regardless, here are my thoughts on some of the books I’ve finished over the past few weeks.
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age (by Jame Kirchick): This is a book that should not have been written. It’s central argument, as you may have guessed from the title, is that there is some trouble in the European paradise. To support this claim, the book is divided into chapters that examine different countries in which liberalism and democracy are allegedly at risk. While the book certainly has some interesting arguments and anecdotes interspersed throughout, there is no central, compelling analysis of European politics. Each chapter is also so focused on particular, seemingly random issues as to fail to offer any kind of comprehensive picture. For example, Kirchick is obsessed with French anti-Semitism to such a degree that he never really provides a holistic view of French politics, choosing instead to inveigh against Gallic political correctness. As a result, the book seems half-baked and unguided. The little vignettes and points of interest scattered throughout Kirchick’s work certainly add a perspective to European politics not easily found in more comprehensive, disinterested works; they also prevent the book from living up to its title. While there are certainly worse books on the topic, there are so many superior volumes that I cannot conceive of anyone willingly reading Kirchick’s work. Indeed, the only reason I finished it was its presence on one of my class syllabi.
Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (by Tyler Cowen): As a fan of Tyler Cowen, I found this book quite enjoyable to read and consistently interesting. Its central argument is based around two contentions, which are that we have a moral imperative to 1) promote continued and stable long-run economic growth and 2) respect human rights. Perhaps the most important point advanced in the book is that we should not discount the future nearly as much as we do. Indeed, Cowen seems to suggest that we should not discount the future at all, as it is just as real for the people who will inhabit it as the present is to us. While this is not exactly a novel interpretation, it is not an argument with which many economists would agree. I also enjoyed the broader, more Straussian point, which is, I think, that we need to focus less on daily politics, drama, and “crisis” to permit ourselves to step back and focus on bigger issues and long-term trends. The book is certainly not perfect: It makes some unjustified assumptions about the amount of value added by wealthier people and perhaps exaggerates the degree to which material riches contribute to happiness. It is nonetheless concise, accessible, and well-argued. In short, it is an invitation to think, and that is something very much needed in today’s world.
Capitalism in America: A History (by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge): The main reason I read this book is that I was able to get a signed copy – I’m perhaps a bit atypical, but I think acquiring the signature of arguably the most famous Fed Chairman is really neat. The book itself is good, though not great, which one might expect given that neither author is an economic historian. Indeed, the book is consistently more ideological than empirical, which can be a tad frustrating if one does not share the authors’ economic convictions. The book also suffers at points from the ambitions of its authors: They seek to cover all of American economic history, but neither seems sufficiently well-versed in the literature. The result is that much of the early book reads as if it is a high school textbook. The quality of the data and analysis picks up substantially once Greenspan and Wooldridge move into the 20th century, though, and I found much of the commentary here to be cogent and fairly persuasive. Despite its shortcomings, the book is exceptionally well-written and absolutely full of elaborate and fascinating statistical data. While I would therefore not suggest this book to anyone with a strong background in American economic history, it is a popping read that is interesting and informative throughout. Any layman with an interest in economics and/or American history would do well to read it.
Obama’s Wars (by Bob Woodward): This is Bob Woodward’s famous account of Obama’s attempt to win in, and withdraw from, Afghanistan. As usual, Woodward’s narrative benefits from his exceptional access to Washington’s hallways of power, leading the book to be jam-packed with interesting anecdotes about the personalities and interests behind the War in Afghanistan. Frankly, I think I read the book too late after its publication. Much of the content is now common knowledge or simply unimportant. The book is also clearly written for a popular audience, making it painfully slow reading for those with an already developed understanding of the American military and security services: I found myself frequently facepalming at the multiple tedious explanations of extremely basic military terms and concepts. Nevertheless, the book is an exceptionally easy read full of interesting stories and details that, while often trivial, add depth and nuance to our understanding of the Obama administration’s struggle to exit from these interminable Middle East wars. Much like the Greenspan book, I would not really recommend this to anyone with a strong background in national security, but it’s probably worth picking up if you live (as most do) outside the D.C. bubble.