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Non-fiction -- the year in review

By Adam Kirsch

JANUARY 3, 2000: 

1. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, by François Furet (University of Chicago Press). This last book by one of the great modern historians combines an encyclopedic history of European Communism with a penetrating analysis of why such a terrible "illusion" had so much appeal. Furet argues that liberal democracy is always producing its own critiques, and that Communism was the most powerful of them all, combining the age-old hatred of the bourgeois with the revolutionary promise that history could be altered without the help of any divine authority. In a series of essays on Communism from World War I to the Cold War, Furet shows how it drew on the noblest emotions -- universalism, desire for social justice, hatred of Fascism -- and perverted them all.

2. Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse (Random House). During his lifetime and ever since, J. Pierpont Morgan was and has been a symbol of capitalism run amok. He had greater financial power than any American in history, functioning as a sort of Federal Reserve Bank all by himself. To Morgan, confident in his Protestant piety and his blueblood lineage (one ancestor was a founder of Yale), there was nothing wrong with such a concentration of power: it was all for the sake of a stronger, more efficient American economy. Jean Strouse, working with newly available archival material, is more sympathetic to this image of Morgan than most writers have been; she tries to evaluate the man, not attack him. She writes lucidly about his complicated financial dealings and details his many other activities, familial, romantic, and philanthropic. An enormous amount of knowledge is brought to bear in this magisterial book, and it illuminates a whole period of American history.

3. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar Straus Giroux). Not just about the SAT, Lemann's book is really three episodes in the history of what he calls "the Mandarinate," the highly educated class that dominates the professions, the media, and the government in America today. He looks at Henry Chauncey's creation of ETS, a totally unaccountable private group whose tests determine the future of millions of Americans every year; at Clark Kerr's "Master Plan" for turning the University of California into the monster "multiversity" of the future; and at the battle over California's Proposition 209, which laid bare the racial fault lines that may well tear our meritocracy apart.

4. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, by Niall Ferguson (Basic Books). The Second World War is easily painted in black and white; but the Great War, still the most catastrophic event in European history, demands a thousand shades of gray. In this deliberately provocative book, Ferguson, a young British historian, ingeniously dismantles everything we thought we knew about the causes and conduct of the war. Each chapter takes on what Ferguson sees as a popular historical misconception -- that war was inevitable, that Britain intervened only to protect Belgian neutrality, that soldiers fought against their will, that British and American economic power won the war -- and demolishes it with well-marshaled facts and figures. Even when Ferguson isn't totally convincing, his insights into the war are valuable, and he always writes clearly and well.

5. No Other Book: Selected Essays by Randall Jarrell, edited by Brad Leithauser (HarperCollins). Jarrell's criticism is one of the major achievements of post-war American poetry. In putting together this first selected edition, poet Leithauser gives pride of place to the long, generous, erudite essays in which Jarrell introduced the giants of Modernism to a wider public: his assessments of Moore, Williams, Stevens, and Frost are still among the best ever written. His laments about the state of poetry and culture in the 1950s and '60s are, if anything, more pertinent today. And a "Jarrell Gallery" picks out from his reviews a number of the cruelly witty remarks for which he was famous, and feared.

6. An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment and Trial of President Clinton, by Richard A. Posner (Harvard University Press). The two easiest responses to the Lewinsky affair were prurient curiosity and wearied disgust. Posner, a federal judge and influential legal theorist, indulges in neither: his book, written during and just after the scandal, is a triumph of impartial analysis and cool intelligence. Posner lays blame at everyone's door: the Christian right, the atheist left, the academy, the legal profession, and the president all come in for a dose of bracing contempt. His own conclusions are tentative and not really the point; instead, he lays out in plain language exactly what legal issues were at stake and why the assorted motives of those involved ensured that they did not get an honest discussion.

7. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, by Blanche Wiesen Cook (Viking). This installment of Cook's massive biography covers the years 1933-'38, in which "ER" came to the White House and turned herself into the nation's leading advocate for the poor and disadvantaged. Supported by her intimate but rocky friendship with Lorena Hickok, a journalist whose love for ER wrecked her successful career, the First Lady became "Eleanor Everywhere," taking on the causes her politically indebted husband could not touch: sexual and racial discrimination, the miners of West Virginia, the slums of Washington. She emerges in this lovingly detailed history as a complex figure who got from the country and the world the love that was so difficult for her to find in her childhood and her marriage.

8. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly). How many people remember that on October 3, 1993, America fought its largest single battle since Vietnam? After reading this minute-by-minute account of the day-long firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which 18 Americans and as many as 500 Somalis were killed, no one could forget it. When heavily armed US Special Forces landed in the middle of the city in full daylight to kidnap two tribal leaders, their inexperience, and their refusal to leave behind any of their own as prisoners or casualties, ensured a catastrophe. Bowden has interviewed most of the participants, and his book is both a gripping re-creation of combat and a timely reminder about the dangers of even the best-intentioned foreign adventures.

9. Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, by Marc Bloch (Norton). Strange doesn't begin to describe the experience of reading this short book, just reissued in paperback, that Bloch wrote after the collapse of France in World War II: it is a desperate letter, an impassioned testimony, from out of the darkest regions of the past. An eminent historian, a Jew who felt himself a Frenchman above all, and a Resistance fighter during the occupation, Bloch was tortured and killed by the Gestapo in 1944. But not before he had written this moving and lucid inquiry into how France, the best-armed nation in Europe, could be totally defeated by the Germans in less than six weeks. Military shortsightedness and social divisions were the chief culprits, and Bloch sheds light on both. Much more than a work of history, Strange Defeat is a document of intelligence and courage in an evil time.

10. The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar Straus Giroux). As Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times, Friedman has seen more of globalization than perhaps anyone alive, and for the most part he likes what he sees. His book is an accessible introduction to "the globalization system," which he views as not just a process but a new world order, a benign replacement for the Cold War order. In the next century, states will share power with international markets and superempowered individuals, like George Soros. Instead of the Wall, symbol of the last 50 years, we will have the Web, in which everyone is connected but no single person is in control. Many, like the WTO protesters in Seattle, dread such unaccountable and homogenizing forces; but Friedman sees this future as inevitable, a "Golden Straitjacket" that constricts national sovereignty but also brings great prosperity (as symbolized by the Lexus of the title). And he discusses the persistent cultural and political identities (symbolized by the olive tree) that will continue to make the world dangerous.


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