Every summer, Liberty assembles a group of editors and contributors to recommend books that other readers might want to take to the beach, the mountains, or just the chair next to the air conditioner. The advice, like the authors, is entirely individual; but we’re betting that you’ll find more than one book here that you’ll want to read.
Last year, I recommended “The Deniers” (2008), by Lawrence Solomon, as a good introduction to the topic of global warming. Normally, I would not recommend another book on the same topic a year later. However, I do find the raging discussions on global warming important for many reasons, and the book “Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science” (2009) by Ian Plimer, is certainly one of the more interesting contributions to the debate. Plimer is professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He also holds the post of emeritus professor of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne. He is well known, knows a great deal about the history of our planet, and brings a far broader perspective to the debate than you may have encountered.
He argues that the climate is continuously changing, that the changes we are now seeing are not unusual, and that it is unlikely that conditions are substantially influenced by humans. The last one thousand years have seen variation in temperature that significantly exceeds the variation we have experienced in the last one hundred. The variation seen over longer time scales is much higher. Air temperature, sea levels, and CO2 levels have all exceeded what we now see. Plimer’s historical analysis is both fascinating and of central importance. Did you know that during the Cambrian Period it was 7 ° C warmer than now, and the CO2 concentrations were 15–20 times higher? That was certainly not due to the folly of humans, and no “tipping point” leading to runaway warming occurred.
The last glaciation ended 14,000 years ago. We are now in what is called an interglacial period, and there has been a gradual upward trend in temperature. However, there are cycles leading to periods of warming and cooling. There was a relatively warm period 6,000 years ago in which sea levels were two meters higher than they are at present. The “Little Ice Age” lasted from AD 1300 to about 1850, and there has been a gradual upward trend since then.
The whole discussion of whether or not we face an impend- ing catastrophe because of warming produced by human civilization is important. The common assertions that “a scientific consensus has formed” and that the planet is in imminent danger are simply wrong. It is true that a majority of climate scientists believe that warming is occurring, and perhaps even that it is caused by human behavior. However, there are very knowledgeable scientists on both sides, truth has been badly obscured by individuals who benefit from the current hysteria, and it is time for a calm, careful analysis of the data. I doubt that the outcome will lead to anything like what is regarded as the common wisdom. I find Plimer’s perspective refreshing, provocative, and ultimately heroic.
— Ross Overbeek
Ross Overbeek is a cofounder of the Fellowship for Interpretation of Genomes.
The movie “Taking Woodstock” (2009), directed by Ang Lee, led me to the book of the same name by Elliot Tiber (2007). I knew of Woodstock as a hippie happening a bit before my time. What I found interesting about the movie and the book was the portrayal of the Woodstock festival, “Three Days of Peace and Music,” as an impressive entrepreneurial venture.
In 1969 Tiber was a 33-year-old gay designer living in Manhattan, while spending his weekends trying to save his parents’ rundown Catskills motel. One weekend he read that some concert promoters had been denied a permit in Wallkill, New York. He came up with the crazy idea of inviting them to hold the festival on his parents’ property. Lo and behold, they showed up to check it out. Taking the lead was 24-year-old Michael Lang, who went on to become a prominent concert promoter and producer.
The Tiber (actually Teichberg) property wasn’t suitable, but Elliot drove Lang and his team down the road to Max Yasgur’s nearby farm. At least that’s Tiber’s story; other sources say he exaggerates his role. He did play a key role, however, in that he had a permit to hold an annual music festival, which up until then had involved a few local bands.
There’s a wonderful scene, better in the movie than in the book, when Lang and Yasgur negotiate a price for the use of the farm. We see it dawning on Yasgur that this is a big deal. We see Elliot panicking that the deal will fall through, and that without the festival business his parents will lose their motel. And we see Lang’s assistant reassuring Elliot that both parties want to make a deal, so they’ll find an acceptable price, which indeed they do.
And then, with 30 days to transform a dairy farm into a place for tens of thousands of people to show up for a three- day festival, Tiber describes (and Lee shows) a whirlwind of
activity: “Within a couple of hours, the phone company had a small army of trucks and tech people on the grounds, install- ing the banks of telephones that Lang and his people needed.” Helicopters, limousines, and motorcycles come and go. A few hundred people are erecting scaffolding, stage sets, speakers, and toilets. The motel keepers are trying to find rooms and food for the workers and the early arrivals. The local bank is eagerly providing door-to-door service for the mountains of cash flowing into bucolic White Lake.
Meanwhile, there are a few locals who don’t like the whole idea. In Tiber’s telling, they don’t like Jews, queers, outsiders, or hippies. Maybe they just didn’t like a quiet village being overrun with thousands of outsiders. In any case they had a few tools available to them. A dozen kinds of inspectors swarmed around the Teichbergs’ motel. The town council threatened to pull the permit. Tiber writes, “Why is it that the stupidest people alive become politicians? I asked myself.” At the raucous council meeting Lang offered the town a gift of $25,000 ($150,000 in today’s dollars), and most of the crowd got quiet. Yasgur stood and pointed out that “he owned his farm and had a right to lease it as he pleased.” That didn’t stop the opposition, but in the end the concert happened.
The psychedelic posters and language about peace and love — and on the other side, the conservative fulminations about filthy hippies — can obscure the fact that Woodstock was always intended as a profit-making venture. That was the goal of Lang and his partners, and it was also the intention of Tiber, Yasgur, and those of their neighbors who saw the concert as an opportunity and not a nightmare. The festival did rescue the Teichberg finances. It ended up being a free concert, however, which caused problems for Lang and his team. Eventually, though, they profited from the albums and the hit documentary “Woodstock.”
In his book Tiber also details his life split between Manhattan’s scene and his parents’ upstate struggles. He tells us that as a young gay man in the ’60s he encountered Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, Wally Cox, and Robert Mapplethorpe. He writes, “One of the great benefits of Woodstock — a benefit that, to my knowledge, has never been written about — was its sexual diversity.” But I think the fact that there were gay awakenings at Woodstock — and three-ways and strapping ex-Marines in sequined dresses — would surprise people less than the realization that Woodstock was a for-profit venture that involved a lot of entrepreneurship, hard-nosed negotiation, organization, and hard work. “Taking Woodstock” (the book, but better yet the movie) is a great story of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and capitalism. — David Boaz
David Boaz is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer and The Politics of Freedom, and is the editor of The Libertarian Reader and the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.
About nine or ten year ago, I went on a veritable binge of biographies, something like six in a row. For a biography to be a truly terrific read, I concluded, the person’s life story needs to be interesting in some way, and the biographer needs to be a great writer.
A few months ago, I read an autobiography that meets both criteria. “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption” (2010) by Jerald Walker, is the memoir of a bright kid from the rough streets of Chicago, and how he got temporarily diverted toward the thug life: drugs, petty crimes, inattention to school. It is also a memoir about how this person made a conscious choice to put his life back on track, and did.
Walker enrolled in community college, then ended up at the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He eventually got a Ph.D. and became a college professor (full disclosure: at my institution) and a family man. His story is interesting partly because of the trajectory itself: how does someone “become” a thug, and how, why does he straighten out? The story is also interesting in that Walker’s journey away from the streets is marked by conscious choice making.
It’s refreshing to see a life story told in a way that affirms the human ability to be self-reflective and deliberative. Walker never portrays himself as a victim or a puppet: he honestly takes ownership of his bad choices as well as his good ones. He confronts and is confronted by racism, but he doesn’t use this as an excuse or a short cut — rather, as an opportunity for inquiry into the nature of race and the nature of the self.
It is a fascinating story, and it meets the other criterion: Walker is a terrific writer. So whether or not you are a habitual consumer of memoirs, I recommend this one very strongly.
I wanted to mention a philosophy book also, but I didn’t read anything new in the past year that I’d care to recommend to readers of this magazine. Nevertheless, I have had occasion recently to revisit a classic of sorts: Ludwig von Mises’ 1957 book “Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution.” As is the case with Hayek, some of Mises’ works are more accurately categorized as philosophy, and this is an example. Mises explores, among other things, the metaphysical and epistemological issues that inform Marxism. Since Marxism as a social-political theory presupposes certain philosophical positions on determinism, materialism, the nature of history, and so on, it’s worthwhile to examine these, and Mises is very insightful in his analysis. He also has a fascinating discussion of the nature of value. Austrian “subjective value” theory is often invoked against Marxist or other theories that claim to discern “the” value of goods. But does that mean we lack a basis for valuing liberal institutions? Mises’ analysis helps to illuminate that problem. It’s well worth revisiting, or discovering for the first time, this neglected classic.
Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts.
More than 30 years ago I bought a hardback copy of “War and Peace” (1869) at a used bookstore ($4.50). Back then, “War and Peace” had a reputation for being the world’s greatest novel, not to mention one of the longest novels and among the most difficult to read because of the complexities of the characters’ relationships and the fact that their names, in the Russian manner, appeared in different forms from page to page.
I kept “War and Peace,” carrying it cross-country twice, even though I wasn’t sure I would read it. It came to symbolize one of those things that people say they will do before they die. Will I ever read “War and Peace”? I wondered.
A few months ago, for unknown reasons, I picked up the 1,371-page volume and decided to try it. I discovered that my cast-off edition has an intact 12-page insert that includes the names and affiliations of the characters in order of their appearance, plus a separate list of their family groupings. It also has a map of Napoleon’s campaign and retreat. This insert makes reading “War and Peace” easy. Yes, easy.
So I have achieved my 30-year ambition of reading “War and Peace.” Do I recommend it for summer reading? Of course!
It is engrossing both on the personal level (the story) and for its sweeping depiction of a period of European military history. But yes, it is slow-moving. Because so many characters are involved and because they are introduced in a leisurely manner, the plot builds only gradually. I was within 400 pages of the end and still didn’t know whether the protagonist was a likeable oaf (a sort of Forrest Gump) or someone who would make something of his life. At the end, I was weeping, partly because he did.
As the primary plot — that is, the personal stories of individuals and their families — takes shape, another plot is going on: the Russian military response to the Napoleonic campaigns, which is incorporated into a theme even bigger than the war itself. I quickly picked up Tolstoy’s ambivalent and complex attitudes about war, especially that war, attitudes that become clearer in his second epilogue to the novel, in which he analyzes events in the light of determinism and free will.
Almost from the beginning, the novel instilled curiosity in me, first about serfdom, then about the Napoleonic wars, and then about Count Tolstoy himself (curiosity that I hope to satisfy in the future.) I never found the novel boring, but, on the other hand, I could always (until the end) leave it comfortably and pick it up when I felt like it. Now that I have read it, its characters and story linger in my thoughts.
The encomiums in the introductory pages of the 1942 edition are amazing. It is “the greatest novel ever written,” “a dictionary of life,” “the supreme fictional achievement in the literature of the world.” But, I wonder, who reads it now? I can’t help thinking that my small entry here may be something of a swan song for “War and Peace.”
I never hear anyone talking about the book, and I haven’t engaged anyone in conversations about it. My guess is that fewer people now want to read long, slowly building novels that lack overt sex or theatrical suspense, however famous they once were. “War and Peace” doesn’t fit today’s schedules or tastes. But I’m glad my timetable didn’t run out before I read it, and if you really do have time for summer reading, you won’t regret reading it, either. — Jane S. Shaw
Jane S. Shaw is president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
Books can be classified according to the times they concern: present, past, or always-present.
Among books on current affairs, I recommend a work by Liberty’s frequent contributor Randal O’Toole: “The Best- Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future” (2007).
Though it may seem odd to say that this is an amusing book, there is a good deal of dark humor in O’Toole’s analysis of planners, their plans, and the unintended consequences. In particular, his discussion of planning in Portland, Oregon is both a damning indictment of government planning and an amusing read.
For people interested in the history of comparatively recent times, Fred Anderson’s “Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766” (2000) is a fine book to turn to. The same can be said of William Trotter’s “A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940” (1991), which tells the tale of a savage little war and tells it well. The Finns’ remarkable struggle against overwhelming odds has generally been given short shrift over the years; Trotter does much to make amends. It is far from a happy tale, but it is a good one.
Going farther back in history: Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” (1992) is an excellent introduction to a period and a place of great interest, though often much misunderstood. Fletcher’s writing is pleasant and engaging without being pedestrian, and his judgment is sound. Carefully avoid- ing sentimentality, Fletcher offers us an honest portrait of a remarkable world; he gives us history with the bark off, and that is as it should be.
Those interested by Fletcher’s work on medieval Spain may wish to turn to another good work on the middle ages, Gordon S. Brown’s “The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily” (2003). Most people know that the Normans (Northmen) conquered England. Brown presents a short history of the “other” Norman Conquest, an achievement of sorts that has gotten far less notice than it deserves.
Now for books about timeless issues, about the always- present. One is David Hackett Fischer’s classic study of the theory of history, “Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought” (1971). Though I’ve enjoyed Fischer’s works of American history, this one is my favorite. You may have to find a used copy of this instructive and very amusing work, but it is certainly worth the trouble to do so. It’s a book of permanent value about permanently recurring intellectual problems.
Not all problems are capable of solution. One person who realized that was Samuel Johnson, whose novella “Rasselas” (1759) has been a frequent — though not, sadly, a constant — companion of mine over the years. It’s a parable about the difficulties of what Johnson calls “the choice of life.” Those who have read and admired Voltaire’s “Candide,” published in the same year, should also enjoy Johnson’s work. It is slight in length though not in-depth.
Johnson satirized the stoic philosophy, along with many others. So it seems fitting to recommend as well the stoic philosopher Epictetus (AD 55–135), who had much to be stoic about: he was crippled, and was born a slave. His thoughts on timeless issues are available in the “Enchiridion,” a collection of pungent maxims. Jefferson wrote of Epictetus that he “has given us what was good of the stoics.” Whether this be fair to the other stoics, the “Enchiridion” is very much worth reading. — Liam Vavasour
Liam Vavasour is a student of history who lives in Northern California.
James J. Hill (1838–1916), a Canadian farm boy who had lost one eye in a childhood accident, became a Randian business hero. In the days before typewriters, his legible handwriting gave him an early advantage in the business world. He worked in coal, warehousing, and steamboating before turning to railroads. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, he unified and improved the efficiency of many small lines. His signature achievement was the Great Northern Railroad, which reached Puget Sound on the Pacific.
Unlike his competitors, Hill sought no government subsidies. Nor, unlike them, did he seek protection from competition. He consistently championed free trade both at home and internationally. He spurred demand for his freight services by promoting development of the regions where his lines extended, by encouraging immigration, and by demonstrating advanced techniques of farming and animal husbandry.
Hill traveled widely and worked long hours attending to detail: seeking routes that would minimize fuel-consuming slopes and detours, negotiating with financiers, and observing the strengths and weaknesses of rivals and associates. Hill’s career contains episodes of personal rivalry, races to build or consolidate lines, and rate wars and rebating like those that provided material for muckrakers.
The book I am recommending, “James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest” (1976), was written by Albro Martin, a Harvard professor of business history. He editorializes very little, but he evidently admires the Schumpeterian “creative destruction” and “constructive monopoly” (p. 90) of Hill’s real world, so different from textbook chapters on pure and perfect competition.
Besides learning much about the rise of the United States to economic greatness, the reader will enjoy an eventful story. Photos of Hill, family, collaborators, and rivals bolster the text. So do maps, even though cluttered with irrelevant detail.
— Leland B. Yeager
Leland B. Yeager is Ludwig von Mises Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics at Auburn University.
I think that one effect of the long-anticipated arrival of popular ebook platforms will be renewed interest in older titles. This will come in part from the details of the so-called “Google book settlement,” which allows that search giant to digitize publications that are at least a few years old. To keep you ahead of the curve, I’m suggesting a few older, less-well-known books by great writers, so you can fill your Kindle or iPad with rich stuff that’s still appropriate for the beach or other restful climes.
First, I suggest Vladimir Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister,” which tells the story of a totalitarian regime through the eyes of a prominent professor who had been the dictator’s grammar school classmate. Nabokov does a great job of showing that the totalitarian mind is essentially egocentric and that it uses the pretense of altruism and humanitarian concern to cloak amorality and emptiness. The qualities you expect from Nabokov are all present: puns (the dictator’s political front is called “Ekwilism” — the “E” is long); comedy (a classic scene in which halfwit bureaucrat-soldiers send the narrator back and forth across a bridge because his papers are not in order); and heartbreak (the narrator’s young son is tortured to death in a government prison).
“Bend Sinister” was originally published in 1947, two years before Orwell’s “1984,” although some readers and even a few critics have assumed that Nabokov’s book is an “answer” to Orwell’s. This misimpression may be enabled by the fact that Nabokov disdained Orwell as an inferior writer who trafficked in cliches. Orwell was a great writer . . . but Nabokov was a greater novelist. “Bend Sinister” proves this.
Second, I suggest Kurt Vonnegut’s “Jailbird” — a picaresque novel of political paranoia and a damn fine satire of corporate excess. Its narrator is a fictional Watergate conspirator who serves his time (a great bit comes when, full of self-pity, he expects to be the only Harvard grad in his minimum-security prison, and turns out to be just one of several), then tries to rebuild his life. But the real star of the story is the RAMJAC Corporation — a bit player in other Vonnegut novels. Throughout “Jailbird,” RAMJAC is a creeping presence. Companies as diverse as McDonald’s and the New York Times identify themselves as “a wholly-owned subsidiary of the RAMJAC Corporation.” And more are being absorbed all the time. The story’s denouement turns on the question of who really runs RAMJAC. Vonnegut’s reputation has dimmed in the last decade or so (he died in 2007 but hadn’t published a novel since the late 1990s); he spent the last years of his life badmouthing George W. Bush so intensely that many of those who cared enough to listen wrote him off as a political partisan and angry old man. This is too bad. Vonnegut was a free- thinker in the best sense, with an anti-authoritarian streak that any libertarian should appreciate.
Finally, I suggest “The Vintage Mencken” — a collection assembled in the early 1980s and reissued in the early 1990s. Though saddled with a slightly condescending introduction by the middlebrow culture peddler Alistair Cooke, the book serves well as either an introduction or a refresher course. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes “monkey trial” spans several selections and is fantastic. It occurred to me, rereading those pieces, that his reports from Tennessee would make a great motion picture. In the right hands. With a strong dose of irony. Perhaps the Coen Brothers? Or maybe today’s sensibilities are too coarse to appreciate it.
Anyway, nothing tops Mencken’s coverage of a Cuban political imbroglio in 1917. In his dispatch, the Bard of Baltimore quotes a trusted source: “The issues in the revolution are simple. Menocal, who calls himself a Conservative, is president and José Miguel Gómez, who used to be president and calls himself a Liberal, wants to make a comeback. . . . José Miguel says that when Menocal was reelected last year the so-called Liberals were chased away from the so-called polls by the so-called army. On the other hand, Menocal says that José Miguel is a porch-climber and ought to be chased out of the island. Both are right.” Sounds like Cuba today. Hell, sounds like the United States today.
Jim Walsh is an assistant editor of Liberty.
My recommendation is for a book called “Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values” (2006), by Fred Kofman. Self-help books don’t rank high on my list of favorite reading. Mostly I’m too old to give a damn. But I read this one because it was written by the son of a friend, who publishes
Ayn Rand’s books in Spanish for the Argentine market.
So I was not really surprised to see an aphorism by Nathaniel Branden in the first chapter. I was a bit surprised to see several by Lao Tzu throughout. By the time I got to the Ludwig von Mises quote in the last chapter I was not surprised at all because it had become obvious that Fred Kofman understands the value of values very well indeed, and that he has adopted values that make perfect sense to me — and I suspect will do so to you, too. He has a highly developed sense of structure for a free-market workplace, as well as good tips for how to get your “team” to work most effectively, no matter where your place is on the team.
“Conscious Business” sounds very much like John Mackey’s “conscious capitalism.” But although Kofman’s book isn’t in any way antithetical, this is not a call to arms. Rather, it’s a call for self-responsibility and learning how to work with other people in your environment, no matter what their hangups (or yours) may be. Kofman gets very specific in his situations and suggested solutions, all of which should make it easier for you to understand and translate in your own predicaments.
The lessons of “Conscious Business” are of obvious use to anyone who works for a corporation, whether as a leader or a worker bee. But you might find Kofman’s examples and suggestions very welcome in dealing with your spouse, children, parents, or other family members, as well as friends . . . or non-friends. Many libertarians prefer the isolation of self- employment. It’s sometimes said that libertarians have no friends. “Conscious Business” is all about interaction with others. Maybe it’s the lone wolves who need it most?
— Andrea Millen Rich
Andrea Millen Rich heads Stossel in the Classroom, John Stossel’s project to develop critical thinking among high school students by introducing challenges to conventional wisdom.
“The scene on the stage was obliterated for her; the drama was in her mind.” This is perhaps the most valuable sentence in modernist literature — a summary and slogan of modernism itself — and it is waiting for you about an hour into Willa Cather’s
Cather’s masterpiece novella “My Mortal Enemy” (1926). It will take you just another hour to finish the book, by which time you will discover a few more things about modernist literature, and a whole lot more about one of its most complicated characters — Myra Driscoll of Parthia, Illinois, who, once upon a time, gave up a family fortune to marry the man she loved.
We find Myra 25 years after her fairytale decision — a New York socialite of endless charm and kindness and curiosity, happily married, of course, and deeply happy, except that sometimes her mouth “curls like a little snake.” We do not yet know the source of the serpentine smile, but we can forgive it, because Myra is such a generous woman. Just now she is advising a young man into a romance with a woman quite a bit older than he.
Yet something is wrong with Myra. No sooner has the young man taken his leave than a sensation of guilt overcomes her. “No playing with love,” she says, “and I’d sworn never to meddle again. You send a handsome fellow like Ewan Gray to a fine girl like Esther, and it’s Christmas eve, and they rise above us and the white world around us, and there isn’t anybody, not a tramp on the park benches, that wouldn’t wish them well — and very likely hell will come of it!”
“My Mortal Enemy” is not a complete novel, nor is it even a complete character study. It is rather a biography cast in the form of a fairytale, with an “enemy” who may be the heroine, and a “hell” becoming increasingly real. You know how it begins. Now watch it mature in Cather’s hands.
— Garin K. Hovannisian
Garin K. Hovannisian is a freelance writer living between Los Angeles and Erevan, Armenia.
Two of my favorite authors were socialists. One was George Orwell, who redeemed himself by being a critic of the “sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers” who made excuses for Stalin. Another was Jack London (1875–1916), who redeemed himself through his art.
Scour London’s most famous short story, “To Build a Fire,” and try to find any socialism in it. There is none. Instead there is implacable nature — reality with a capital “R.” Sometimes it takes form as cold that reaches 75 ° below zero, sometimes as a tropical typhoon. In London’s story “A Piece of Steak,” in which an aging prizefighter loses about, it exists in the imperatives of the human organism. London’s Nature does not deny his characters strength or choice. The man in “To Build a Fire” is strong enough. He just makes bad choices.
London wrote some socialist tracts, which you can read on the internet if you have time to waste, and a novel, “The Iron Heel,” which supposedly influenced Orwell. There is a large dose of Marx in that book, and it is worth reading only as archaeology. But London also imbibed the works of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche — which made him a conflicted socialist. He portrayed his own young self in “Martin Eden,” a novel he intended as a denunciation of individualism but through most of its length reads as an affirmation of it.
An account of all this is in Texas historian James L. Haley’s new biography, “Wolf: The Lives of Jack London” (2010). London grew up at the edge of poverty, raised by a strange mother and a not-too-effectual stepdad. He quit school at the end of the eighth grade to work in a pickle factory, and after that attended a bit of prep school, a bit of high school, and a bit of university, in between episodes of stealing oysters, shoveling coal, working on a North Pacific sealer, prospecting for gold in the Yukon, and riding the rails as a hobo. It was while tramping after the Panic of 1893 that he became a socialist, mainly out of sympathy, Haley says, for the men who were too old and broken to work.
Haley is sympathetic to London’s socialism, as was London’s previous biographer, Alex Kershaw, who wrote “Jack London: A Life” (1997). Haley writes, “It is easy for modern eyes to see the early 20th century Socialists as naive and slightly ridiculous.” Well, yes. London died one year before the Russian Revolution. He didn’t see that the Communists would bring tyranny. He was for the workingman standing up and defending himself. He had been a “Work Beast” and knew how hard it was. Haley writes: “London’s concept of socialism as it evolved was never the socialism of the slacker. He did not oppose the finer things in life, indeed he wanted them for himself.” For a while he was America’s most successful writer, America’s equivalent of Arthur Conan Doyle; and he used his work to buy a big ranch and a fancy sailboat, and have the attentions of a Japanese valet.
Haley has written a fine biography of this complex character. Most of it is not about London’s socialism, but about his life and art — both of them far more colorful than the human average. London was a man who took life in big bites, and even antisocialists can admire him. — Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey is author of Unsanctioned Voice, the biography of Garet Garrett.
Funny books are notoriously difficult to recommend with success. My efforts to do so are usually met with some response like the following:
“Eh? I don’t know. These books usually turn out to be either inane works of whimsy or dull, complacent satires. Besides, what do you know about funny? Whenever I see you I feel that much more intimately acquainted with death.”
“Just read it,” I say, “and I’ll spare you my company for two months.”
I’m no stranger to this natural skepticism myself, as it kept me away from the works of P.G. Wodehouse until, during a recent fever, I reached over and picked up a copy of “The Inimitable Jeeves” that had been yellowing by my bedside for years. After the first story — featuring the sublimely wise and cunning butler Jeeves, his charmingly inferior employer Bertie Wooster (the narrator), and Bertie’s friend Bingo Little, a glutton for true love — I was hooked. If it didn’t exactly cure my fever, at least it made me want to be cured, if you catch my curve.
Comedy comes in two general forms. One is overtly dark or serious, the humor working deep undercover to subvert and complicate the surface. The other is apparently light and frivolous, with the seriousness in disguise. Wodehouse practiced the latter kind. He called his stories “musical comedies without the music” — and, unlike most musical comedies, with comedy actually included. This explains why his books feel to me like distinctly literary versions of my favorite television shows. With zany schemes, elusive romances, fearsome aunts, socially reputable morons, and plots woven by hilarious miscommunication, opportune drinking, and gambling, Wodehouse created a comic paradise energized by sheer delight.
Wodehouse (1881–1975) wrote over a hundred books, and surely many of them are to be avoided. Possibly you once started one of the duds and saw nothing in it. It’s a Murphy’s Law of funny-book giving that the title you receive as a gift will never be the author’s best. Either you get one of those cheap anthologies of lesser work, or the gift-giver, having read and loved one particular book, decides to get you a different one by the same author, considering the pleasure he got from the first to be enough for you both. So let me be clear about what I endorse.
Jeeves and Wooster are Wodehouse’s most famous creations. Their escapades comprise 14 books, and “Inimitable Jeeves” is a great place to start. The two highest-rated novels are “The Code of the Woosters” and “Right Ho, Jeeves,” and after that, any story or novel written before WWII. Another classic worth starting from is “Mulliner Nights,” in which Mr. Mulliner, holding after-hours court at the Angler’s Rest, recounts absurd family tales connected to every subject gurgled forth by his barmates.
Read these and you will want more, more, more, for Wodehouse is perhaps the only writer whom one can non- stupidly describe as fun. He also illustrates the fact that no deeply funny comedy is ever truly “light.”
— Alec Mouhibian
Alec Mouhibian is an author based in Los Angeles.
There are two books that I especially enjoyed this year, and that a sense of guilt compels me to discuss right now. The guilt arises from the fact that I intended to do full and proper reviews of these books, but never found the time.
The first is a book mentioned by Sarah Palin in her autobiography (which I did review for Liberty a few months back). It is “Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX” (2003), by Jessica Gavora. This is a superb, short book (180 pages) about the major problems caused by the passage in 1972 of the meddling legislation known as Title IX, which prohibited gender “discrimination” in American schools.
As Gavora notes, the goals of Title IX were ostensibly laudable: to expand opportunity for women. But, as we have seen so often with well-intentioned laws, activist groups have exploited the law to advance their pet agendas. She discusses how, starting in the 1990s, the law was interpreted to demand equal funding of men’s and women’s sports programs (something not explicitly written in the law), despite the obvious fact that fewer adult women than adult men are interested in participating in such programs. The result has been the termination of many men’s sports programs in colleges throughout the country.
The law continues to be used to push quotas for women — but only selectively. So women’s groups have demanded that the law be used to force math, engineering, and physical science departments to institute quotas for admitting women, under the theory that the statistical difference between male and female graduates from these programs indicates that women are victims of invidious discrimination. The fact that men are hugely “underrepresented” in many other programs and fields — such as psychology — is not considered a fact worth discussing, much less a fact that calls for the implementation of quota schemes. And the fact that women are now 56% of all college undergrads is not seen as a problem requiring affirmative action for men. The victimhood game is played in a very peculiar way, one that guarantees that women and the other “minorities” (women, in fact, are in the majority), at least those anointed by the liberal elites, will always win, or appear to win.
The second book is “Power to Save the World: the Truth about Nuclear Energy” (2007), by Gwyneth Cravens. Cravens is a novelist and environmentalist writer who was a longtime skeptic about nuclear power. After an odyssey of nearly a decade studying the nuclear power industry under the guidance of Dr. Richard Anderson, a nuclear scientist specializing in risk assessment at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, she now completely supports nuclear power.
Her book is a detailed and thoroughgoing (419 pages!) analysis of the feasibility of dramatically increasing our use of nuclear power. She deftly disposes of many of the myths that people resort to in opposing that use. She shows why nuclear power is safe, reviewing its history of safe operation here and abroad, both on land and in ships at sea, and showing that the design of modern nuclear plants makes accidents highly unlikely and very containable.
Along the way, she notes some facts that will surprise the average reader. For instance: people around Chernobyl and in Hiroshima receive a lower dose of background radiation than people in Denver. People in a uranium mine receive a lower dose than people in Grand Central Terminal. Sailors in a nuclear sub receive a lower dose then sailors on shore leave. Cravens reviews the costs of nuclear power and plans for safe storage of nuclear waste — again, covering issues that are often believed to be insurmountable problems for the industry.
I consider her book the clearest and most comprehensive review of the industry in recent times, and I cannot commend her enough for writing it.
Both these worthy books are all the more commendable for the intellectual honesty demonstrated by their authors — Gavora, a woman who played sports in school, and Cravens, a devout environmentalist.
— Gary Jason
Gary Jason is a contributing editor of Liberty.
My book is “The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato” (1945), by Karl Popper. It should be read, with appropriately open minds, by classical liberals and libertarians, especially those interested in Popper’s achievements in the philosophy of science and his lifetime quest for knowledge. When, in 1943, he wrote this insightful attack on utopian thought, Popper was a social democrat, and social democracy’s egalitarian and democratic sentiments are voiced throughout. However, Popper was, as one presumes Einstein and many other intellectual socialists to have been, an individualist and lover of freedom. Over the years, through his association with Friedrich Hayek, he became more of a classical liberal — something bemoaned by many of his biographers and associates.
In order to make that transition, he must have had the intellectual honesty to realize that his chosen means, socialism, was incompatible with his end of an “open society,” a society based on individualism as opposed to tribalism. And his analytic approach allowed him, even in 1943, to make criticisms of totalitarian society that could have led to tremendous breakthroughs had he simply dropped certain assumptions about politics.
To say that Popper had too much confidence in democratic government goes without saying, especially when he presents his ideas of “social engineering.” He clearly identifies the problems of the utopians — those who, like Plato in the “Republic,” wish to remake the entirety of society based on some sort of abstract model — and supports a more gradual “piecemeal” approach, one in which incremental change could be reversed or modified by voters based on what was learned in the experiment. At this point he is on the verge of an intellectual leap that, with his prestige, might have changed the course of history. If he had not been blinded by his assumptions about the crucial role of political decision- making, he could have proposed a truly free society, in which consumers “vote” on experiments every day.
Popper recognizes and includes clearly private institutions as part of the social fabric, for instance when he mentions in a list of social institutions “such things as an insurance company, or a police force, or a government, or perhaps a grocer’s shop.” Even to do so indicates thinking that is open to a discussion of the market’s problem-solving capabilities.
It would seem strange to write about this book without more emphasis on its discussion of Plato himself, but Plato is not my interest here. Popper was writing in the time of a great world upheaval and attacking someone he perceived as the most important philosophical supporter of a tribal or “closed” society. In the second volume, having prepared his ground, Popper takes on Hegel and Marx.
— Brian J. Gladish
Brian J. Gladish is a longtime libertarian and more recently a student of Austrian economics residing in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
Lack of disposable income this summer will spell doom for many a beach trip or mountain retreat. Fortunately, the cost of escape by book is still manageable within even the tightest budget — at least if you, like me, follow the domestic economy of Erasmus, who said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”
Still, not just any book will do. What kind of escape is it to plunk down your few spare dollars, only to read about people and places much like your own? Conversely, why force your- self through a travel diary about an exotic place that you could be visiting, if only Wall Street and Washington DC hadn’t colluded to bankrupt the country?
Instead, here are some novels that will allow you to get as far away as it is possible to go: deep into alternate worlds and realities.
“The Magicians,” by Lev Grossman (2009) starts in something very much like our world, though one permeated by magic and dotted with academies of arcane study; and the academies are not finishing schools but colleges. Grossman rips up the conventions of magical-school fantasy: the magic here is more about dead languages and weather conditions than wand-waving, and the students behave like the elitist brats they mostly are. But this is not a satire. It’s more like an imaginative mashup, especially when the magicians are turned loose on Fillory, a Narnia-like childhood literary refuge where they quickly find themselves out of their depth. As many have noticed, the pains of adventuring and the pains of growing up are closely linked, and Grossman manages both well, while neatly tying up all the strands of the story.
A bit farther into adulthood is “The Stranger” by Max Frei, the first in a series of books that has captivated Russian readers much as J.K. Rowling’s enchanted Anglophones. It is now finally available in translation (2009; paperback out June 1). Frei — “Sir Max” for most of the novel, and also a pseudonym for the author Svetlana Martynchik — is a listless, insomniac 20-something who dreams himself into the city of Echo, where he is offered a job as the nighttime representative of the Minor Secret Investigative Force: essentially, a magical detective. The resulting mix of pulp noir, B-horror movie, fantasy, and folktale, told by Max himself as the chatty, idiosyncratic first-person narrator, provides an experience unlike that of any other book I’ve read. It also bucks the trend of short chapters in popular fiction, providing meaty 80-page episodic chunks that are just about right — it’s not a book to be sped through.
The book that will keep you up well past any semblance of a bedtime is Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” (2008), which is told by the narrator Erasmas (or Raz), a fid in the math of Saunt Edhar. Confused? After 50 pages or so it will all seem utterly natural, but the basic translation is that he is a young monk in a secular monastery devoted to research and preservation of the natural sciences. The novel starts inside this institution and slowly telescopes out to reveal a complex world of inquiry and intrigue. By the end, it’s a full-blown space opera that, unlike so much of the genre, refuses to dumb down once the action kicks off. “Anathem” is the first novel I’ve read in ages that actually allowed me to block out the rest of the world — perfect stuff for a summer getaway.
— Andrew Ferguson
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing editor of Liberty and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Virginia. At present he is working on a biography of science-fiction writer R.A. Lafferty.