Book reviews

SCARE QUOTES: The Most Relatable President Ever

Review: 'How To Think Like Obama' by Daniel Smith

What do Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Bill Gates, Leonardo da Vinci, Stephen Hawking, and Sigmund Freud have in common? For starters, they have all earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Barack Obama in a discussion about history's greatest thinkers.

Listening Well

Review: ‘Dignity’ by Chris Arnade

Dignity is a book about giving voice to the voiceless, and it should be assessed by how well it achieves this goal. Where it succeeds it is moving, even heart-wrenching. But even the ways in which it fails tell us something about the problems of connecting America’s two halves.

A Race Against Reality

Review: 'The Gifted School' by Bruce Holsinger

Who would bother trying to write a novel of social commentary these days? You know, like Dickens, with Bleak House (1853). Or Trollope, with The Way We Live Now (1875). Or even Upton Sinclair, with The Jungle (1906). However much novelists might think they've found the perfect metaphor—the ideal synecdoche—for laying bare a culture's hypocrisies and inner mechanisms, cultural revelations now come along faster than good novelists can write. Actual events will beat them to the point, and the real world will prove weirder and more telling than any imaginary world could have predicted.

Reclaiming Orwell

Review: 'The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984' by Dorian Lynskey

1984 is 70. As much time has now passed since 1984 as passed between that titular year and the book's writing. 1984 has lived a life. And Dorian Lynskey describes that life in his masterly new book The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984.

The Art of a Glowing Screen

Review: 'I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution' by Emily Nussbaum

Yes, we've had some good painters over the years. A handful of distinctive poets. A smattering of brilliant novelists. But the greatest American arts—which is to say, the arts most distinctively American—prove surprisingly collaborative, when one stops to think about them. However much we pride ourselves on our muscular individualism, however much we think of art as the work of lone geniuses working alone in lonely garrets, America's archetypal contributions to world art have tended to be group projects and joint endeavors.

Reason Without Faith Is Dead

Review: ‘Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization’ by Samuel Gregg

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth," Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. Samuel Gregg wishes to see the human spirit soar, and his new book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization offers a concise intellectual history of the West through the prism of the relationship between faith and reason.

Social Media and Other Diseases

Review: ‘The Social Media Upheaval’ by Glenn Reynolds

There’s something fascinating about social media—the way it spreads, the way it mutates and transforms, the way it seeks its targets. A kind of organic activity seems to pulse within it, as though it were alive. As though it were a virus. An infection. We don’t join Twitter and Facebook. We catch them, like a disease.

Drawn to the Beat

Review: 'William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll' by Casey Rae

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joined to begin new recordings in 1972, they decided to call their band "Steely Dan," taking the name from a dildo—"Steely Dan III from Yokohama"—that makes a brief appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch. And from that stray bit of information, one could begin to construct a genealogy, a tree of inspirations and references, that takes us to a very strange place. Start with the fact that English-language rock 'n' roll, from the 1960s through the 1980s, remains the best-selling, most-listened-to music in the history of the world. Add the fact that just about every influential rocker has mentioned Burroughs's books, with half of them trekking across America at one point or another, on pilgrimage to meet the man. And we arrive at the conclusion that William S. Burroughs is the single most influential novelist who ever lived.

An Unknown Country

Review: 'The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West' by David McCullough

The American founding occurred in stages, at first violently in the Revolution of 1776 and then energetically—though not always peacefully—in the great push westward.

Better Than It Has To Be

Review: 'To Clear Away the Shadows' by David Drake

David Drake's books always seem to carry a blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times—a line extracted from an old review that claims Drake has a "prose as cold and hard as the metal alloy of a tank." He "rivals Crane and Remarque" as a writer of military fiction. And there you have it: The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) are joined by Drake's tale of intergalactic mercenaries, Hammer's Slammers (1979).