Austin Bay opens his new book on the world’s flashpoints with a scene from the end of the Cold War. Or, at least, a scene from an American high-school during those strange days, as the Soviet bloc crumbled in the early 1990s. A retired Army colonel turned military historian and novelist, Bay was invited to join a panel of successful people who could tell an auditorium of high-school students and their parents about career development.
Leadership. Dozens of universities around the country offer courses in its study. Every other year casts up onto the bestseller list another book on the topic. And all of it is basically goo. The people writing about leadership can’t even agree on what it means. A few years ago, Bernard M. Bass pointed out that “a two-day meeting to discuss leadership” will often start “with a day of argument over the definition.” Joseph Rost looked at almost 600 academic papers on leadership and found well over 200 rival definitions of the word, bitterly dueling within them.
In the midst of all the new Christmas books that every year brings us, in the midst of all the made-for-Netflix holiday programs, in the midst of all the productions of The Nutcracker, in the midst of all the seasonal movies (from It’s a Wonderful Life to Die Hard), in the midst of all the Yuletide television specials, it might be worth remembering an indisputable truth about Christmas art: The single most successful bit of seasonal fiction is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
It’s ridiculous that Richard Brookhiser hasn’t received more acclaim for work on the Founding Fathers. Oh, he’s received plenty. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example, have both recently reviewed his latest book, John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court. He has authored PBS biographies on the Founders, appeared on countless radio shows, and contributed to dozens of panel discussions of the early republic. But none of it seems enough. In 1996, Brookhiser published a volume on George Washington, and in the years since, he has made the Founding era his own.
It’s hardly surprising news—more of a book-review section’s perennial subhead—to say that the University of Texas professor H.W. Brands has published a new book on American history. The man is a machine of popular historical writing, and his works appear at a rate only slightly faster than the average person can read. Thus, now as always, Brands has published a new book—this one called Heirs of the Founders, which relates the 19th-century battles among Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster: the Great Triumvirate of senators and public figures in the decades between the Founders and the Civil War.
Thirty years ago—in November 1988—the novel as an art-form sputtered out and died. And a man named Neil Gaiman killed it.
None of that is true, of course. At least, none of it is true in the sense of being the actual particulars, the genuine facts on the ground. Novels didn’t cease to be written. Novelists didn’t forget that book-length fiction was one of the central devices by which modern times tried to explain itself to itself. Publishers didn’t fold up their businesses and steal away into the night. There’s a lot of ruin in an art-form, and the novel, with its sneer of cold command, yet gazes out on the world of art it claims to dominate.
The political reporter Steve Kornacki wants to rise above the fray. You can see it in the first few pages of The Red and the Blue, his new book on the 1990s birth of tribalism in American politics. You can see it in the occasional sententious asides. You can see it in the hortatory conclusion. All of it is goo, of course—a little pomposity, a little pleonasm, an attempt or two at highmindedness, and there we are: the fray, successfully risen above.