This column is becoming something of a tradition, and traditions must be maintained.
Sitting on various handy tables and shelves around the office and the den at home are, among many other things, the following books taking front and center pride of place during the summer of 2022 (an unordered list):
- Richard Overy, Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2022):
- “If you only were going to read one….” book about WWII, this might well be it. Weighing in at > 1,000 pages (OK, OK, counting notes and references), this recounts what the author, Richard Overy, argues was the last “imperial war” there will ever be, launched as the territorial aspirations of Italy, Germany, and Japan ran into resistance and culminating in the end of empires. The book embraces far more territory, politics, history, and strategy than the conventional Axis vs. Allies European and Pacific theaters, and as many reviewers had it, engages in covering typically neglected geographies and the war’s impact on noncombatants. Shattering.
- Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations (1984):
- Remedial reading: A classic of socioeconomic literature that I had never read in the original. Olson provided the first and still the most durable and comprehensive theory of why, the longer a society enjoys political stability, the more likely powerful political interests will emerge that corrode economic efficiency. Think: Rent-seeking in general, special interest pleading and lobbying more specifically, and the deeply established and flourishing industry of beggaring the massive millions of Peters, pennies at a time, to enrich the handful of Pauls, by the millions and even billions. As depressing as it is persuasive. I am not aware of any snappy comeback rebuttals.
- Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021):
- Another doorstop/history (650+ pages). Confession: I know disgracefuilly little about the Middle Ages–here, defined as starting with the sack of Rome in 410 and running through the first European voyages of discovery to the New World over a thousand years later. Far from the dark, cold, impoverished, and intellectual wasteland and demolition derby that we might imagine, this period produced, for example, St. Augustine and Muhammad, as well as establishing the enduring contours of the great European nations and empires, the dominant strains of Christianity, and saw the emergence of art, architecture, literature, and the scientific method as we recognize them today. Eye-opening on every page.
- William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence,and the Pillage of an Empire (2019):
- A story that I shamefully knew next to nothing about. In August 1765 the EAst India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and replaced his government with–itself. At a stroke it morphed from another conventional company to an ambitious and ruthless colonial power, ruling the vast bulk of India south of Delhi from a boardroom in (where else?) East India House on Leadenhall Street in the City of London. Dalrymple is a prominent historian of his native Britain and his adopted India, and I am finding the book poses probing questions about the proper span of corporate power and businesses’ obligations to their communities and the wider society. These issues were not put to bed by the ultimate downfall of the East India Company; their shadows linger today.
- Ben Wilson, Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (2020):
- OK, I’ll confess, a sentimental favorite for yours truly. I find great cities indispensable to civilization as we recognize it, to the great industries I’m so fond of including finance, law, publishing/media and the commercial literary arts, not to mention those humane and endlessly inventive, if less mercenary, pursuits from restaurants, museums, and the great performing arts venues, to parks, leading academic institutions, and foundations. Of course New York is my home, but give me a few months and I know it could as well be London, Amsterdam, Rome, Zurich, and doubtless others I’ve given little thought to and never set foot in. And lastly:
- Jay Newman, Undermoney: A Novel (2022):
- Pure unadulterated distracting beach read. Zero redeeming intellectual value. (OK, I took editorial license when I used the throwaway line, “beach read” just then. Blond, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, I avoid beaches at all times save dawn and dusk. But it is an evocative phrase with no handy short-hand substitute.) The book invents an all too credible pressure-cooker at the intersection of Russia’s loose cannon geopolitical ambitions, uber-finance (the world’s [fictional] largest hedge fund, the world’s [fictional] most enormous hidden pool of private capital in history), the #1 private military buccaneer, and throws them together in evocative settings ranging from the Carlyle and Pierre Hotels in New York, to a (fictional, new) 100+ story “supertall” near Columbus Circle, to Geneva’s freeport, a private 747, and you get the drift. A once annually sort of indulgence. But then again, what if there might be a grain of truth to some of its imaginings?…..
Happy reading to one and all!