Review: The Babur Nama

Review: The Babur Nama

The Babur Nama by Zahirud-din Muhammad Babur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this History I have held firmly to it that the truth should be reached in every matter, and that every act should be recorded precisely as it occurred.

I do not think I ever would have read this book, had it not been gifted to me last Christmas. It is quite a beautiful volume—hefty but compact, the pages thin but not fragile, the font and layout quite attractive—and yet, I still felt daunted by the prospect of reading an autobiography from a time and place that I knew so little about. It was a kind of miniature adventure.

By any standard, the Baburnama is an extraordinary book. The memoirs of Babur, founder of the mighty Mughal Empire, the book covers his life (with notable lacunae) from his early years to a short time before his death. It was written in Chaghatai, an extinct Turkic language that was Babur’s mother tongue. This edition, by the way, was translated by Annette Beveridge, who was something of an extraordinary figure herself, having completed this translation at her English home for linguistic amusement. It was no easy task, as the mountains of footnotes—almost all comments on a particular Chaghatai word or phrase—attest.

Babur’s life was nothing if not eventful. The story begins in Central Asia where, at the tender age of 11, Babur first becomes a ruler. From this moment he is thrown into the thick of politics and war, conquering and losing territories, fleeing for his life, gathering forces again, and repeating the process. Eventually his changing fortunes force him southward, to India (or Hindustan, as he calls it), where he conquers vast territories in a series of massive battles, thus setting the groundwork for the Mughal Empire that would dominate for centuries to come.

And yet this thumbnail sketch does not really capture the experience of reading this book. For one, it reads a lot more like a diary than a polished autobiography, full of short entries of quite quotidian details. One senses that Babur wrote this either for himself or for a small circle, as he does not take many pains to explain who people are. In any case, there must be well over 200 individuals mentioned in this book, which can make for a pretty frustrating reading experience—especially when you are also unfamiliar with the geography of the region. (I do wish Beveridge’s footnotes added historical context rather than expanding upon linguistic puzzles.)

In most professional reviews I have read of this book, the writer dwells upon Babur’s virtues. There is, indeed, much to admire in the man. His prose is plain and unadorned, cutting straight to the point with no unnecessary flourish. Even more important, Babur is frank to quite a surprising extent. He admits, for example, that his first feelings of love were for a boy (even if he did not go after men, women did not seem to excite him all that much). He can be disarmingly sensitive; at one point he cries after a melon reminds him of his lost homeland. And he is consistently honest and fair-minded, neither magnifying his victories nor minimizing his defeats.

Babur also boasts many intellectual virtues. He was clearly quite cultured and literate. This book is scattered with poems, many his own. Clearly, he cared deeply for the written word; near the end, he even takes the time to chastise his adult son for sending him a badly-written letter. And in the section on the flora and fauna of Hindustan, Babur reveals a penetrating eye for nature. He divines, for example, that the closest living relative of the rhinoceros is the horse—a brilliant deduction, considering how superficially different the two animals appear. He consistently dwells on his love for beautiful natural spots and well-made gardens.

So much can be said for Babur. But not enough is said—either in those reviews, or the introduction to this edition—of the river of violence that courses through these pages. True, Babur does not dwell on this violence; he usually mentions it as a passing detail to a more interesting story. But it is never far off, and I always found it disturbing. Babur speaks quite casually about executing prisoners and, indeed, putting whole cities to the sword. Probably I should not be shocked by this. After all, Babur was one of history’s great conquerors; and it is obvious from his own narrative that he lived his entire life under threat of violence.

Even so, I could not bring myself to admire the amateur naturalist knowing that he had, some time before, been strolling through the streets of a conquered city, stepping over the bodies of hundreds of massacred civilians. And I think that this considerably diminished my enjoyment of the book, as I found it far more difficult to savor the quieter, more human moments of the text. This, along with the preponderance of names and the diary-like brevity, made the book a bit of a slog at times. However, if you have any historical interest at all in this time or place, then the Baburnama is obligatory. It is full of so much valuable detail that a historian could easily spend a decade on this book alone, parsing out all of the references, piecing together the wider story. And even if you are a complete amateur, like myself, this book is still quite an educational experience.



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Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


By some fateful coincidence, I find myself writing this review on the 55th anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder. The coincidence feels significant, if only because this is probably one of the most crucial books in my reading life. I originally encountered the little paperback in university—borrowed from a roommate who had to read it for a class. Though I had only the vaguest idea of who Malcolm X was, the book transfixed me, even dominated me. Every page felt like a gut punch. My love of reading was substantially deepened by the experience. One decade later, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has lost none of its power.

This book has so many things going for it that it is a challenge to focus on a few. For one, Haley has beautifully captured Malcolm X’s voice. You can really hear him speak through the page—with humor, with wit, with passion, and most of all with righteous anger. (This time around, I listened to Lawrence Fishburne’s excellent audio version, which brought an extra dimension of realism to Malcolm’s voice.) What is more, the story that he tells is simply a good story on any terms, even if it were all made up. His childhood poverty, his gradual introduction into the ‘hustling life’ (as he called it), his incarceration, his conversion, his betrayal, his journey to Mecca—a novelist would have difficulty coming up with anything better.

But what is most valuable book is, as Malcolm X himself says, its sociological import. The first time I read this, I thought of it mainly as a historical document. Yet the sad truth is that Malcolm X’s story is still very much possible—indeed, a reality—in the United States. All of the essential ingredients are still there: segregation (de facto if not de jure), limited job opportunities, and mass incarceration. Indeed, while some things have gotten better, and much has remained the same, in some ways things have gotten worse. For example, the US certainly imprisons more people nowadays (disproportionately POC) than in Malcolm X’s day. There is still a direct pipeline from the failing public school in the black neighborhood to the prison cell.

Malcolm X is often contrasted with Martin Luther King, Jr., for presenting a “violent” alternative to King’s non-violence. But the perspective that Malcolm X consistently articulates cannot be simply boiled down to violence. His essential point is that, if any group of people in the world had been treated like black people in America have been—enslaved, lynched, legally disenfranchised, economically shut out, thrown into jails—then they would be well within their rights to fight back, “by any means necessary.” One can hardly imagine a group of, say, German immigrants, after undergoing such an ordeal, marching “peacefully” for their rights. Few ethical or legal codes prohibit self-defense. And it is the height of moral hypocrisy to hold the oppressed to a higher ethical standard than the oppressors.

The best response to this I know is from James Baldwin, who, while conceding the premises, wrote: “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” In other words, if blacks did unto whites what whites did unto blacks, they would do spiritual damage to themselves. Now, not being of any religious bent myself, I at first treated this as a vaguely mystical sentiment. But I have to admit that, during the presidency of Donald Trump, I gradually came to see the real, practical truth in this statement. Racism is really a kind of psychic rot—not localized simply to our attitudes about race, but spreading in all directions, poisoning our sense of justice, spoiling our intelligence, stultifying our emotions. Though Malcolm X never gave up his insistence on the right to self-defense, he agreed with Baldwin in treating racism, not simply as a matter of prejudice to overcome, but a gnawing cancer at the heart of the country, capable of destroying it. And, for my part, I am no longer inclined to view such statements as merely rhetorical.

So in addition to being a thrilling story, wonderfully told, The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents us with a challenging indictment of America—still as true and valid as when he spoke it, fifty five years ago. I think any citizen will be improved by wrestling with Malcolm’s story and his conclusions. But let us not forget the personality of Malcolm, the man—someone who radiates genuine charisma. For my part, what I find most appealing and inspiring in Malcolm X is his intellectual side. Deprived of a formal education, he largely educated himself in prison by reading voraciously. And this curiosity stayed with him all his life. He recounts the thrill of debating college students—white and black—during his speaking tours, and speaks wistfully of going back to school to get a degree, and filling up his days studying all sorts of arcane subjects. In a saner society, Malcolm X would certainly have become a respected member of the intelligentsia, pushing the bounds of knowledge. It is up to us to create such a society.



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Review: A Promised Land

Review: A Promised Land

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barack Obama rose to national prominence after giving the speech of his life at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I remember it. I was 13 at the time, on a camping trip in Cape Cod, listening to the speech in a tent on a battery-powered radio. Though I was as ignorant as it is possible for a human to be, I was completely electrified by this unknown, strangely-named man. “That should be the guy running for president!” I said, my hair standing on end. Four years later, I watched Obama’s inauguration in my high school auditorium, cheering along with the rest of the students, and felt that same exhilaration.

I am telling you this because I want to explain where I am coming from. Obama was the politician who introduced me to politics, so I cannot help but feel a special affection for him. You can even say that Obama was foundational to my political sensibilities, as he was president during my most sensitive years. This makes it difficult for me to view him ‘objectively.’

In this book Obama displays that quality which, despite him having almost nothing in common with me, made it so easy for me to identify with him during his presidency: his bookishness. He is clearly a man delighted by the written word. And Obama is able to hold his own as a writer. While I do think his prose is, at times, marred by his having read too many speeches—his sentences crowded with wholesome lists of good old fashioned American folks, like soccer moms, firefighters, and little-league coaches—the writing is consistently vivid and engaging, pivoting from narrative to analysis to characterization quite effortlessly. If Obama is guilty of one cardinal literary sin, it is verbosity. This book—700 pages, and only the first of two volumes—could have used a bit of chopping.

Obama is notorious for his caution, his conservative temperament, his insistence on seeing issues from as many perspectives as possible. But what struck me most of all in this book was his confidence. Aiming to justify himself to posterity, I suppose, Obama spends the bulk of this book explaining why he made the right decision in this or that situation. Indeed, Obama attributes even his few admitted missteps to noble intentions gone awry.

As Obama goes through the first term of his presidency, explaining how he tackled the financial crisis, healthcare, global warming, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the central tension of his presidency becomes apparent: the conflict between idealism and realism. Obama the speaker is, as I said, electrifying—soaring to rhetorical heights equaled by very few politicians. And yet Obama the president does not soar, but plods his way forward, examining the earth for any pitfalls five steps in advance. Indeed, I think Obama’s philosophy of governance could by fairly described as technocratic, preoccupied with effectiveness rather than liberty or justice.

This, I would say, is the central flaw in Obama’s governing philosophy. Obama ran for office with a simple message: the promise that we Americans could put aside party loyalty and work together towards a common goal. But this both underestimates and overestimates the forces that pull us into competing factions. In other words, this is both naïve and slightly cynical. Naïve, by failing to understand that politics is about power, and that there was more power to be gained through division than unity. But cynical, by considering our differing political ideologies to be superficial and ultimately unimportant.

Obama seemed to believe that the goals were obvious—that we all basically agreed on the sort of country we wanted to live in—and that the only thing needed was somebody competent enough to actually get the job done. Admittedly, this is quite a compelling idea, even an inspiring one in its way; and Obama is a very convincing proponent. But the limits of this thinking are on display all throughout this book. Obama is constantly making pre-emptive concessions to the Republicans, thinking that a market-friendly healthcare plan, or a strong commitment to killing terrorists, or a more modest stimulus bill will win them over, or at least mute their dissent. The consequence is that, in his policy—such as the deportations or the drone strikes (hardly mentioned here)—he is sometimes unfaithful to the principles he so eloquently expounds at the podium.

I am being somewhat critical of Obama, which is difficult for me. He was subjected so much silly and unfair criticism during his presidency that it can feel mean to add to this chorus of contumely. And I do not wish to take away from his very real accomplishments. Compared to either the administrations that came before or after his, Obama’s presidency was an oasis of calm, sensible governance. Though the fundamental change promised by his campaign failed to materialize, by any conventional standard Obama’s policies were successful—helping to heal the economy, expand healthcare, and slowly disentangle us from foreign wars.

It is also difficult to criticize Obama because it is clear that so much opposition to him was fueled by racial resentment. Obama was continuously subjected to a double-standard, constrained in the things he could do or say. No story better illustrates this than the Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy. After Obama rightly called the decision to arrest a black Harvard professor on his own property ‘stupid,’ the political backlash was so fierce that he had to recant and subject himself to an insipid ‘beer summit.’ And, of course, the moronic birther controversy speaks for itself. In short, it is difficult to imagine the opposition to Obama’s policies being so fierce and so persistent had he been a white man.

I listened to a part of this book on January 6th, the day of the Capitol Riot. After watching the events unfold on the television all day, I decided I could not take anymore, and went out for a walk. As I strolled along the Hudson River, I played this audiobook, listening to Obama narrate his presidential campaign. The contrast between that time and this was astonishing. I could not help but feel nostalgia for those days of relative innocence, when Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” qualified as a scandal. But I also could not help wondering to what extent, if any, Obama was responsible for what was becoming of my country. If he had embraced bolder initiatives, rather than striving to be as respectable as possible, could he have staved off this backlash of white rage? It is impossible to say, I suppose.

In the end, if I came away somewhat disappointed from this book, it is only because the Obama I found did not measure up to the messianic figure I embraced as an adolescent. But that is an unfair standard. Judged as a mere mortal, Obama is as about as impressive as any person can be—a man of prodigious talents and keen intelligence, whose presidency provided a relief from the onslaught of Republican incompetence. For that we can say, thanks, Obama.



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Review: The House of Morgan

Review: The House of Morgan

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I picked up this book, I assumed it was a biography of the two famous John Pierpont Morgans. But this is far more; indeed it is a true history of the Morgan bank, though admittedly with heavy emphasis on the biographies of the key figures. Given that this history spans over a century and includes a huge number of players, politics, and policies, the fact that Chernow could put out such a polished book in two and a half years is a testament to his skill as a writer and researcher.

The book is most colorful in its beginning and slowly fades into the dullness of contemporary reality. The Bank of Morgan began with the 19th century financier George Peabody, a sort of Dickensian miser turned philanthropist. Lacking a son, Peabody passed on his business to Junius Spencer Morgan, another personality of a bygone age, who managed to combined pious moralizing with strict business. His son, Pierpont, is by far the most colorful character in this panorama. A rabid art collector, an amateur archeologist, and an inveterate womanizer with a swollen nose and an enormous yacht, Pierpont was a central figure in the American economy of his age.

His son, “Jack,” though resembling Pierpont physically, was a far more mild-mannered sort of banker. His life is mostly lacking in racy and romantic stories (except for the time he was shot by a would-be assassin). The Morgan line mostly fizzles off after Jack; but there are many other Morgan bankers to take note of. The most important was undoubtedly Thomas Lamont. Chernow tracks Lamont’s strange journey from the cosmopolitan advocate of the League of Nations to an apologist for Italian fascism and Japanese aggression. It appears wide culture and smooth manners do not immunize one from ugly politics.

The wider historical arc of Chernow’s book gave me a bit of nostalgia. We begin with bankers in top hats and stiff collars, guzzling port wine and sucking on cigars. (Pierpont was a heavy drinker and smoker, and believed that exercise was unhealthy.) These bankers relied on charisma and relationships as much as they did on any technical understanding. The early House of Morgan was paternalistic towards its employees and stressed an esprit de corps—the importance of banking tradition over personal egos. This sleepy world of respectable bankers gives way, in the late twentieth century, to the high-octane world of trading, where highly trained employees work twelve-hour days trying to beat one another in an enormous casino.

The activities of the bankers also change markedly in this history. While nobody would argue that Pierpont was saintly or altruistic, his main activities consisted of reorganizing industrial companies to make them more productive and effective. This is a great contrast with the bankers of the 1980s, who are mainly concentrated on speculative activities and hostile takeovers which seem to have very little to do with work of real value.

Of course, my impressions of this history are colored by the fact that I know relatively little about finance and thus at times had trouble following the business side of things. Chernow, for his part, is typically vague when it comes to any technical details; his preferred style is to focus on individuals and their foibles. This was a bit frustrating, since I felt that I could have learned more had Chernow simply included more in the way of explanation.

But, as it stands, this is an extremely readable and compelling history of one of America’s most important banks. Things have changed since the publication of this book. Morgan Stanley is still going strong, though J.P. Morgan mainly serves as a brand used by Chase bank, and Morgan, Grenfell & Co. does not even exist as a name anymore. Even 23 Wall Street, the iconic home to this iconic bank, now sits empty and unused, apparently owned by a shadowy billionaire who is reportedly sitting in a Chinese jail. Such is the fate of all great empires.



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Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman by Robert Skidelsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keynes’s paradox, which few could grasp and which many would find unacceptable today if expressed in ordinary language, is that horrendous events may have trivial causes, and easy remedies.

This is an ambitious and impressive biography of one of the most influential men of the last century. Robert Skidelsky was a pure historian before turning his attention to economics; and in this book he attempts to do justice to Keynes’s moment in history as well as his ideas. It does not make for light reading. After trying to read Keynes’s own General Theory and finding many parts of it impenetrable, I hoped that Skidelsky’s book would provide a gentler introduction to Keynes’s ideas. But this this book is not economics for dummies.

The hardest going sections were not, however, the bits devoted to economic theory, but the detailed reports of negotiations and plans undertaken by Keynes in his many official capacities. Here is just an example:

Keynes’s main effort to get the Stablization Fund to put on the clothes of the Clearing Union was his proposal to monetise unitas. The crucial structural difference between the Clearing Bank and the Stabilization Fund set-ups was that in the Keynes Plan member central banks banked with the central banks. Member central banks would subscribe their quotas to the Fund’s account…

And so on. Probably there are a fair number of readers who could follow this sort of writing with interest, but at the moment I am not one of them.

It would be seriously unfair, however, to suggest that the whole of the book is like this. Many parts are quite entertaining. The beginning years are especially so, when Keynes was in Cambridge and then a member of the famed Bloomsbury Group. I was surprised and amused at the open homosexuality of Keynes’s milieu, and the fluidity of his sexual life. Of more lasting interest, of course, is the intellectual climate in which the young economist was growing up. Skidelsky is wonderful when it comes to intellectual history, and he able shows how the circulating theories shaped Keynes’s attitudes for the rest of his life. I would not have guessed, for example, that Keynes was so deeply influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.

Skidelsky is also very skilled in his ability to trace the growth of Keynes’s major intellectual theories. He does this by pairing the influence of the historical moment with the inner machinations of Keynes’s mind, showing how the economist used, adapted, and discarded the economic orthodoxy he inherited when faced with the Great Depression. The chapter on the General Theory—Keyne’s most important book—is lucid and will greatly aid my further understanding of macro-economics. Thus, in the most essential task of a Keynes’s biography, Skidelsky undoubtedly succeeded.

Apart from the dryness and density of some sections of the book—mostly concentrated in the last chapters, when Keynes was heavily involved in planning for the post-WWII economy—the book has other flaws. The most notable, for me, was probably a consequence of Skidelsky’s intellectual seriousness. That is, he is so focused on Keynes’s ideas that Keynes himself can be left behind. Strangely, though one learns a great deal about Keynes, one seldom feels that one has “met” him. The economist’s personality remains rather vague and distant.

It would be generous to call this biography a page-turner. But Keynes is perhaps not the ideal subject for a readable biography. As Skidelsky repeatedly notes, Keynes was born into privilege and remained there the rest of his life. He was a thoroughbred member of the Establishment. Thus there is no spectacle of a struggling underdog or of rags to riches. Further, much of Keynes’s influence and activity resided in the intricacies of trade arrangements, exchange rates, currency valuations, and so on. He can come across as a hyper-competent civil servant.

There was another side to Keynes, however, which is quite a bit more attractive. As already mentioned, he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group—friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf—and deeply valued all of the arts. He spent a great deal of time and money supporting his painter friends, and was heavily involved in the world of ballet and theater through his wife. In spite of his great practical gifts and his flair for finance, Keynes was not a crass materialist and consistently thought that the good life required more than ready cash.

Politically speaking, Keynes appears to have not been particularly ideological. He could not be readily assimilable into the Right or the Left, and instead preached a “middle way” based largely on competence rather than values. As Skidelsky notes, “Keynes was moved to wrath not so much by a ‘fiery passion for justice and equality’, as by ‘an impatience with how badly society was managed’.” This is not an altogether winsome quality, I think; though it does have a certain appeal—a world of ultra-efficient technocrats resolving problems without partisan bickering.

Indeed, as Skidelsky notes, this was largely the promise of the Keynesian Revolution, which more or less collapsed in the 1970s. In the final section of the book Skidelsky includes an even-handed evaluation of the successes and failures of Keynes’s ideas in practice. Certainly I am not qualfied to judge myself. But I do think that, as we look another depression in the face, we will be thinking an awful lot more about Keynes in the coming months.

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Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



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Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Review: Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened the pages of this book, I knew little about Alexander Hamilton aside from the fact that he wrote most of the Federalist Papers. But that man had a life indeed. I immediately found myself transfixed at a story that seemed more suited to fiction than to fact. No wonder that Hamilton’s life has been made the subject of a musical. (Unfortunately, from what I have heard of the music, it is not to my taste.)

Ron Chernow must have known that he had struck gold once he began research for this book. Hamilton’s story has all of the elements of a good Victorian novel: a poor and unfortunate upbringing (born an orphan out of wedlock); a good deal of bloodshed; an ever greater dose of scheming and argumentation; a tender love story and a sordid affair; and, to cap it off, an arch-rival who brings about a tragic end. Piloting through this maelstrom of adventure is the redoubtable Alexander Hamilton: clear-eyed, bright, industrious, at times imprudent and hasty, and always true to his own nature.

In short, I found this biography both extremely readable and a revealing portrait of the first years of this nation. Chernow is a flexible writer, capable of handling the pathos of melodrama, the intrigue of political scandal, the excitement of intellectual innovation, the frenzy of war, and the private moments of quiet intimacy. His primary strength is arguably his psychological insight. Unlike Robert Caro, who is a historian as much as a biographer, Chernow focuses in on the inner workings of his subject, letting us see history through the man’s eyes rather than the man ensconced in history.

Nevertheless, I do think that Chernow’s focus on psychology can lead him astray. At his worst, he is prone to a kind of cheap psychoanalyzing that I think adds very little to the subtance of this book. This was most in evidence in Chernow’s handling of Hamilton’s childhood on St. Croix. Chernow was quick to invoke this experience whenever he wished to explain Hamilton’s behavior. This is understandable, since it is arguably a biographer’s duty to make sense of their subject’s personality by tracing their experience; and Hamilton’s childhood was unique. However, the logic of psychoanalysis is so flexible as to be able to produce any conclusion you wish to wring from it.

Here is an example. We learn that Hamilton’s mother was accused of being a prostitute, and had children out of wedlock. She was abandoned by Hamilton’s father, cast out from polite society, and then died while Hamilton was quite young—penniless and alone. Now let us imagine that Hamilton, in adulthood, was scrupulously faithful to his wife and had a family life entirely free of scandal. The biographer could then say it was an intense desire to escape this childhood experience. Now let us imagine that Hamilton was a rake and constantly had affairs. The biographer could then say that he had a special sympathy for women on the outskirts of society. And so on. My point is that any subsequent behavior can be viewed as either a result of, or a reaction against, this childhood experience, which makes its use as an explanation extremely dubious.

This is my first critique of this book. My second is Chernow’s tendency to lionize his subject. It would be unfair to accuse him of writing a hagiography. Chernow is by no means blind to Hamilton’s faults. Still, one senses that Chernow for the most part puts a forgiving and generous interpretation on Hamilton’s actions, while casting the behavior of Hamilton’s foes—Adams and Jefferson, notably—in a far less tolerant light. As Chernow did in his biography of John D. Rockefeller, he is more eager to refute allegations against his subjects than to confirm them. In the hands of another biographer, I think that Hamilton could have come across as a less glorious figure.

In any case, Chernow has produced a well-researched biography that is both exhilarating and enlightening. It is a thoroughly fine book.



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Review: The Incomplete Book of Running

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running
The Incomplete Book of Running

The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the people on the face of this green earth, I never thought I would be the one reviewing this book. Indeed, I began this year by writing a blog post about my new year’s resolutions, confidently predicting that, whatever happened, I would not begin to exercise. Yet a month later I found myself in a sportswear store, perplexedly looking at running gear. What happened?

Nothing, really. Unlike Peter Sagal, my foray into running has not been the product of any personal troubles or existential crises. I am 27, too old for my quarter-life crisis, too young to be worried about entering middle age. I haven’t gotten married yet, and so have not had to endure any difficult divorce. I haven’t even had a bad breakup recently. I just decided to try something new, out of a sense of curiosity.

When I was in high school, you see, I dreaded the day when we were made to run a mile in gym class. It seemed like such an impossibly long distance. I was chubby and out of shape, so I could never make it the whole way without walking a considerable portion. Later on, at the ripe age of 17, I had to go to physical therapy for my knees after overstretching in Tae Kwon Do classes. These experiences convinced me that running was not my bent. But last February, feeling experimental, I decided to see whether walking a lot in Europe had inadvertently made me capable, finally, of running a mile without stopping. And it had.

Judging from this book, my experience was not typical. Running seems to be one of those hobbies, like meditation or prayer, that people pick up after some sort of acute trauma. Sagal got into running as he entered his forties, facing a midlife crisis which was to include a difficult divorce. As a comparison, it took the Buddhist author, Pema Chödrön, two divorces to become a celibate nun and celebrated teacher. (Lacking this experience, I am neither particularly enlightened nor especially fast.) Indeed, Sagal’s divorce haunts these pages as a kind of bitter undercurrent which seems to put many readers off. For my part, I do not require radio comedians to write about their ex-wives with saintliness.

I doubt I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I had bought the print version. Sagal is a radio personality, and the audiobook has his skillful delivery and signature voice. Using the audiobook also means that you can listen to the book while running. This is what I did, pledging that I would get through the book’s five hours and twenty-five minutes in five runs or fewer—and I succeeded. Listening to bald man who has struggled with his weight, and who had little natural talent to begin with, was great motivation as I shuffled my own soft body through Madrid’s Retiro Park. Now, here is an athlete I can identify with.

Apart from recounting some of his marathon experiences—which included the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he witnessed the bombing—as well as a few other running anecdotes, Sagal offers a bit of advice—all of it very sensible, and most of which I do not follow: don’t over-train, run with a group, eat healthy, etc. Most interesting to me was Sagal’s advising runners to go without headphones, in order to experience their environment and to mindfully monitor their bodies.

In fact, the way that Sagal describes running often reminded me of meditation books I have read. Both practices involve spending a considerable amount of time alone, paying attention to one’s breath and one’s body. Both practices are supposed to relieve stress and make one generally happier. And, as I mentioned, people tend to turn to these practices when they are having a problem. It is curious that focusing on the body can have such strong therapeutic effects.

One major difference between running and meditation is competitiveness. Runners are relentlessly challenging each other and themselves. This may not be wise, but it is fun on occasion. This foolhardy spirit of competitiveness has led me to sign up for Madrid’s half marathon on April 27. If you are standing near the finish line that day, and you wait long enough, you may see a tall, sweaty, teetering American stumble across the finish line. Wish me luck.



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Review: At the Existentialist Café

Review: At the Existentialist Café
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.

Sarah Bakewell has followed her lovely book about Montaigne with an equally lovely book about the existentialist movement. Comparing the books, one can see an obvious theme emerge in Bakewell’s writing: the interest in practical philosophy. Montaigne and the existentialists share the tendency to write about their own lives and, in various ways, to attempt to live out the tenets of their philosophies. This makes Bakewell’s biographical method especially revealing and rewarding, while at the same time adding a subtle, highbrow self-help aspect to her books—life lessons with the imprimatur of big names and fine prose.

Bakewell attempts to tell the story of the existentialist movement from its twentieth-century beginnings (skipping over precursors such as Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard) to its apparent end, with the deaths of its principle architects. The four main protagonists are Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, unsurprisingly, is the dominant personality), along with shorter appearances by other thinkers: Husserl, Camus, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, and Simone Weil, to name the most prominent. When you consider the sheer amount of biographical and philosophical material this list represents, you realize the magnitude of the task set before Bakewell, and the consequent skill she demonstrated in producing a readable, elegant, and stimulating book.

I am sorry to say that I have read very little of the writings of the principle actors, with the exception of Heidegger. Bakewell’s account of him mostly confirmed my own experiences with the infuriating metaphysician, especially in his disturbing lack of character and, indeed, of basic humanity. Sartre comes across as far more human, if not exactly more likable. Few people could hear of Sartre’s enormous philosophical, biographical, journalistic, and literary output, over so many years, without feeling a sense of awe. Nevertheless, Sartre’s opinions rarely struck me as measured or reasonable. Though I often mourn the decline of the public intellectual, Sartre’s example gives me pause, for his influence on contemporary politics was not necessarily salubrious. Perhaps it is true that intellectuals, seeking consistency and clarity, are naturally inclined towards extreme positions. Sartre was, in any case, and it led him into some foolish and even reprehensible positions.

By contrast to these two giants, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty come off rather well in this story. The former tempered her political opinions with a greater subtlety, thoroughness, and empathy; while the latter lived a quietly productive and happy life, while creating a philosophy that Bakewell argues constitutes the greatest intellectual legacy of the bunch.

Just as Bakewell argued that Montaigne’s writings are newly relevant for his sense of moderation, so she argues that the existentialists are newly relevant for exploring the questions of authenticity and freedom. Not having read most of their work, I cannot comment on this. But what I found most inspiring was their burning desire to think and to write—and to write like mad, for hours each day, in every genre, for decades on end. Though most of this writing was born today to die tomorrow, each one of them produced a magisterial tome for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.



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