Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | January 11, 2014

Some Book Reviews and Book Lists for the Weekend

1. Colin Moore at the Monkey Cage: “Five books of American political history that you must read.” Included on the list are Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967); W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935); and Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962).

2. Professor Clarissa has been reading Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, by Jeremy Treglown. To say that she is not impressed would be an understatement. For example: “The argument Treglown makes in his new book Franco’s Crypt is quite bizarre. If you agree that beautiful works of art were created during Franco’s dictatorship, he says, then you have to agree that the dictatorship wasn’t all that bad. And if you insist that the crimes of fascists should be investigated and discussed, you must surely hate Laforet, Berlanga, Saura, Cela, Marse, etc. It logically follows from this that if you believe that the Diary of Anne Frank is an important and poignant book, you can’t afford to be critical of Hitler.” See also here and here.

3. Clarissa also has a list of the worst books of 2013 and, complementarily, a list of the best books of 2013. See also this list of books.

4. At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has his lists of the best fiction books of 2013 and the best non-fiction books of 2013. See also Alex Tabarrok’s list at the same site.

5. Over at Slate, Michael Robbins has this review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen. From the Robbins review:

Apostles of Reason, then, is a chapter in the broader history of secularization, and as such it makes an interesting companion to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I happened to be reading alongside it. “It’s a commonplace that something that deserves” the title of secularization “has taken place in our civilization,” Taylor writes. “The problem is defining exactly what it is that has happened.” (The vulgar popular version has it that science in some sense proved religion to be false; this is simply another way of saying that scientism is the faith proper to late capitalism.) Regardless of the precise content of secularization, Worthen’s neo-evangelicals saw that a coherent picture of the world, a shared presumption of the truth of the Christian religion, had disappeared. And they set about trying to figure out how to restore it.

What philosophers call the “background,” Taylor writes, has shifted from one in which a naive theistic construal was almost ubiquitous to one “in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option.” This transformation cannot be undone but by another, equally earthshaking transformation, and such events cannot be brought about deliberately.

One unfortunate consequence of this background shift is that as unbelief seems to more and more people the only plausible construal, they find it difficult to understand why anyone would adopt a different one. Thus “they reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief,” and we are subjected to ignorant books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Take Dawkins on Thomas Aquinas, for example, a discussion so inept that it’s as if Noam Chomsky had decided to publish a primer on black metal. (See David Bentley Hart’s elegant demolition of Dawkins’ analysis in The Experience of God.)


One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety. If Christianity actually entailed the beliefs that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and homosexuality is evil and there really was a Noah who built a gigantic boat, I wouldn’t want anything to do with it, either.

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)



  1. Colin Moore at Monkey Cage refers to John Judis’s list of 10 bks on Am. history/politics. The bk on the Judis list I’m most embarrassed not to have read (though I’m familiar w its argument in a general way) is Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. I’ve prob. read a little of the Bailyn, but so long ago I don’t really remember it.

    Surprised a bit that neither Judis nor Moore lists McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which I’ve read much of (though not the whole thing).

    Ronald Steel’s bk on Walter Lippmann is, I think, an excellent window into large slices of 20th U.S. history. Again, on neither list.

  2. Prof Clarissa says an MFA is “always a sign a person can’t write worth a damn.” Not true.
    The list of decent novels, short stories, and poetry that have come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop alone is pretty long, I’d bet.

    • The bias of a literature PhD against MFAs, perhaps. It would be better if more writers could recognize their own biases.

  3. To my shame I haven’t read the Bailyn, but I am working on acquiring it. (Funny me – I seriously thought it would be a “must-stock” for Barnes & Noble. Some days I have no idea how that chain stays in business. Stock the damn books in the stores, not in warehouses!) The Judis list seems a bit idiosyncratic, but maybe it’s me.

    • The Judis list looks pretty idiosyncratic to me too. On the other hand, when reading such lists, it can be refreshing or thought-provoking to read some titles beyond the standard classics in whatever field is under discussion. No one wants to reread recycled variations on the same top-10 list all the time.

      Not sure what titles I would include if I were trying to come up with a version of the Judis list.

    • Also, as best I can tell from my most recent visit, B&N stays in business by carrying 200 copies of each latest title in the YA genre and 500 copies of each book that’s on middle school or high school reading lists. This, of course, leaves no room for specialty works.

  4. On Barnes & Noble and TBA’s “stock the damn books in the stores not in the warehouses”:

    Sadly, Borders went out of business partly, I think, b.c it stocked too many books on the shelves. It had a much better/wider in-store selection than B&N but that ‘business model’ apparently doesn’t work well for a chain bkstore in the Amazon era b.c it takes up a lot of square footage — and some of the Borders stores were quite big — w books that relatively few people buy.

    So B&N — at least the one I’m most familiar with — concentrates its in-store stock on either just-published books, reading list/YA stuff, or other things it thinks will sell. Plus a lot of toys and games, i.e. things that aren’t books at all. Even a classic like the Bailyn I wdn’t expect to find on the shelf there unless it had just been re-issued in a new edition, and maybe not even then.

  5. P.s. I don’t want to overstate — it’s still possible to find interesting as well as standard books in e.g. the philosophy or history shelves of B&N. But it’s no Borders in terms of in-store selection. And it’s still struggling to survive, I think

  6. LFC, are you implying that Anderson and I are not representative of the median B&N customer? I’m shocked, shocked.

    George Orwell once worked in a bookstore, and the experience gave him some insight into the book-purchasing habits of the masses. As I recall the essay, he was a little dismayed at how much the pulp romance novels and the like outsold the classics and “serious” books.

    I think Borders also lost ground by not getting in on the tablet reader trend. For that matter, though, I think B&N’s Nook is losing ground every day to the iPad and Kindle.

  7. “I think Borders also lost ground by not getting in on the tablet reader trend”

    No doubt. (I have resisted e-readers so far but I know a lot of people like them.)

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