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’Neath the Christmas Tree

Get out the wrapping paper—“Bookstack” host Richard Aldous tours the 2020 book landscape.

Richard Aldous

It’s difficult to imagine a more invidious marker of entitlement than this observation about 2020: “At least it’s given me plenty of time to read.” No doubt there are more books to come about the social, educational, and mental health costs of the coronavirus crisis; but Kimberley Brownlee’s timely study, Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms, speaks to an issue exacerbated by the crisis: the chronic problem of loneliness, particularly in Anglophone countries in which extended family bonds are often relatively weak. Protection against social deprivation should not be an afterthought, she argues: it’s a basic human right.

The pandemic has also painfully revealed the tension between politics and science, so it’s instructive to read Samanth Subramanian’s excellent, occasionally darkly hilarious, biography of the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who understood and defined the role of scientist as public intellectual. The book was ultimately titled A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane, but Subramanian’s original title was, appropriately enough, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything.”

Clearly the next individual to know everything will be a machine, not a human. Daniel Susskind, in A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, echoes some of the same concerns as Brownlee’s about human unhappiness and offers suggestions about how to check big tech companies in order to give life more meaning. Don DeLillo, too, skewers our technology addiction in The Silence.

But what, wait!—we all love Netflix this year, right? No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, explains how the streaming company transformed the way we watch TV. Bonnie Tsui, in Why We Swim, makes a good case that we might be better off with the life aquatic. Ross Douthat, in The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, and Tara Isabella Burton, in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, both suggest that we explore other spiritual avenues, with Douthat (whose book came out just as lockdown began) eerily wondering whether some act of God might be required to shake us out of our decadent ways.

In an election year, Barack Obama—a writer before he was a politician—provided, in A Promised Land, a more nuanced take on his first presidential term than we usually get from political memoirs. His assessment of George W. Bush is particularly telling, showing that it is possible to disagree with political opponents while still accepting their basic integrity. That’s a theme Mark Salter draws out in The Luckiest Man: Life with John McCain, a memoir of working for the man who ran against Obama in 2008. Salter pulls off the trick of being both affectionate and self-aware: His accounts of the senator’s ferocious outbursts of temper are bracing.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham drew some sniffy reviews, but this counterfactual novel navigates the difficult task of making Obama’s successor at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket sympathetic, while perhaps also getting to the nub of why she lost. The book’s reimagined Bill Clinton, here a tech mogul, manages to do in a couple of sentences what neither the real nor the imagined Hillary ever quite could: explain why she wanted to be commander-in-chief. The presidency of the Republican who beat her in 2016 is chronicled by Bob Woodward in Rage. Woodward’s reporting style, with its long quotes and unnamed sources, has gone out of fashion these days; but I’ve been enjoying and using these “first drafts of history” for decades now. Astonishingly, by the time of the next presidential election, Woodward will have been producing them for fifty years. When that date comes around, it’s a pretty good bet that there will be a new Woodward “access all areas” account of the Biden Administration


The new administration won’t be short of issues to face, even beyond coronavirus. Race and the corrosive legacy of slavery have been front and center this year, a fact reflected in publishing, too. Malcolm X already had an outstanding biographer in Manning Marable, but now he has two more: Les Payne (who, sadly, died before the book was completed) and Les’ daughter, Tamara Payne. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X is intensely researched historical writing at its best. Daniel Q. Gillion’s timely The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy traces the impact of protest movements. The conservative writer Christopher Caldwell, in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, attempts to trace the genealogy of our current social and political discontents back to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “The new system for overthrowing the traditions that hindered black people,” he says, not uncontroversially, “became the model for overthrowing every tradition in American life.”

For Isabel Wilkerson, in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, race is only half of the question. Just as important for her are the inflexible rules of a system that divides us into upper and lower castes. Priya Satia, in Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, argues that historians have themselves been complicit in this stratification process, putting the likes of J.R. Seeley and Lord Macaulay in the dock. While not everyone will agree with the conclusions, it’s a clever, absorbing book, not least in affirming, to this particular historian, why politics are best left outside the classroom. Both Ian Buruma’s The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit and Alan Allport’s Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938–1941 neatly illustrate how Britain’s wartime prime minister, the ultimate historian-politician, played that particular game. Simon Ball’s first-rate Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services shows how spies like to get involved in writing their own history, too: Ian Fleming would use case histories from his own time in World War II naval intelligence for his Bond stories.

Come January, the new President may find that “The World Is Not Enough.” H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser to President Trump, in Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, and Charles A. Kupchan, former special assistant to President Obama, in Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World, come to similar conclusions about the dangers for America and the world if the United States disengages from global leadership. Barry Gewen, in The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, offers a brilliant portrait of the legendary grand strategist of postwar American foreign policy. Influenced by European thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, and Leo Strauss, Kissinger shook off notions of perfectibility and even exceptionalism to bring a more pessimistic mindset to bear.

Another influential secretary of state, James A. Baker III, gets the full biographical treatment from Peter Baker and Susan Glasser in The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III. The authors illustrate the opportunities and pitfalls of having a ruthless political operator—the “velvet hammer,” people called him—running foreign policy. The same period at the end of the Cold War is well covered in Kristina Spohr’s detailed account, Post Wall, Post Square: How Bush, Gorbachev, Kohl, and Deng Shaped the World after 1989, which expertly mines newdocuments in multiple languages.

Pastimes have taken a hit this year. Football (a.k.a. “soccer”) has been luckier in keeping the show on the road than the arts have. Juve! 100 Years of an Italian Football Dynasty by Herbie Sykes provides a clue about why that might be in this slick account of the political, financial, and even criminal clout wielded by one of Europe’s biggest clubs over the last century. The composer-impresario Richard Wagner might have been able to exercise more influence on behalf of the arts than his equivalents do today, although the fine Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross reminds me how much I prefer Mozart. Jan Swafford’s Mozart: The Reign of Love does the same, also confirming what Mozart’s music itself tells us: He was much happier than the tortured genius of the movie Amadeus.

If, as with Emperor Joseph II’s famous complaint about The Marriage of Figaro—“Too many notes, Mozart!”—there are too many books here to gift in a single year, let me double back to my favorite. No one will be disappointed to receive Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s brilliant life of James Baker, the best and most enjoyable book of a year like no other. One of Baker’s contemporaries said of him, “In the two-party system, purity is the enemy of victory, and Jim Baker was a winner.” So is this outstanding biography.

Richard Aldous, host of the weekly “Bookstack” podcast for American Purpose, is professor of history at Bard College. His most recent book is Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian (2017).

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