Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Let us begin to judge

It has begin to happen: the arbiters of taste are taking turns declaring the "best books of the year." True, there have been a few such lists already (Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com), but they came a little too early, I thought -- we're only now half way through November, for Pete's sake. But I like the list that The Atlantic just published. I won't lie: I like it because it includes two Basic titles. Obviously I'm not an impartial judge...but I have to say I applaud their decision. Here's what their reviewers had to say about these wonderful history books (the links in the second review are original; the emphasis in both is mine):

The Arabs: A History, by Eugene Rogan (Basic, 9780465071005)

Describing the Arab world as perpetually reacting to the superpower du jour, Rogan, an Oxford scholar, provides a prism through which the lay Westerner can view five centuries of tumult, zealotry, and complication. During this period, Rogan writes, Arabs have had to contend with four geopolitical eras: the Ottoman Empire, European colonialism, the Cold War, and the current U.S. hegemony. But they have not been "passive subjects in a unilinear history of decline." Rather, these diverse people—making up a "national community stretching from Morocco through Arabia" and distinguishing themselves via wondrous linguistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements—"have worked with the rules when it suited them, subverted the rules when they got in the way, and suffered the consequences when they crossed the dominant powers of the day." Deeply erudite and distinctly humane, Rogan consistently plays up (and never papers over) the bountiful East-West parallels: "Nationalism, imperialism, revolution, industrialization, rural urban migration, the struggle for women's rights—all the great themes of human history in the modern age have played out in the Arab world." (reviewed November 2009)

The author, a scintillating young Cambridge historian, argues that the coming of a German prince to the British throne in 1714 and the consequent link with the House of Hanover made the United Kingdom into a true European power. In the next half century, the island nation became, thanks to a series of shifting alliances, a Continental juggernaut. Britannia's ascendance culminated in its victory over France in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War. This success, which included expelling France from North America, led Britain into the dangerous error of focusing on its empire across the Atlantic, rather than on its hard-won, newfound place among the Continental powers. Soon faced with a rebellion in North America, it found itself without allies to help it; indeed, its European foes and former friends alike helped the American colonists succeed. Simms has a superb knowledge of diplomatic and military history to buttress his passionate, elegantly written argument that 18th-century Britain needed to concern itself less globally and concentrate its primary energies closer to home—an argument that has particular resonance at the beginning of the 21st century, as Britain fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and fails too often to pull its weight at the center of European decision-making. (reviewed April 2009)

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