Reviewing the Review: July 19 2009

There’s always the hazard, when we hear about new non-fiction books on our favorite topics, that we’ll construct our own fantasy versions of these books, and pay more attention to our fantasy versions than to the books themselves.

I’ve long been wanting to read a historical critique of the concept of nationalism. The intense identification of a mass population with its national identity, somewhat surprisingly, has few ancient roots. In royal and feudal societies, the masses correctly understood that they were not empowered in their governing systems. The egalitarian American and French Revolutions in the late 18th Century brought the first “national” societies, and it became Napoleon Bonaparte’s mission to conquer, modernize, equalize and nationalize all of Europe. From these idealistic roots came the horrific wars over communism, fascism, colonialism, reactionary fundamentalism — fervent nationalistic systems, all of them — that dominated the 20th Century and continue to blight our world today.

I have been wanting to learn more about this entire phenomenon, and about the intellectual or popular trends that support the phenomenon, which is why I was so excited to see a review by David M. Kennedy of a book called Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan in today’s New York Times Book Review:

The formal, university-based study of the past … emerged only in the 19th century. So did the mass societies fostered by newly robust central governments ruling over dispersed, disparate populations whose members had somehow to be convinced that they owed their principal loyalty not to parish, village or province, but to what the scholar Benedict Anderson has called the “imagined community” of a distinct and coherent people: the nation. Meiji Japan, Bismarck’s Germany, Cavour’s Italy and Lincoln’s re-United States were all products of the nation-building surge that swept much of the Western world in the mid-19th century and spawned models for the rest of the world in the 20th century, usually under the banner of “self-determination.” But “for all the talk about eternal nations,” MacMillan notes, “they are created not by fate or God but by the activities of human beings, and not least by historians.

This is the kind of stuff that gets me really excited, but there’s a danger in that. Am I excited because of the book Margaret MacMillan has written, or because of the book I want to imagine she has written? I guess I’ll have to read the book and find out.

I already have read Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, and talked about it over at Ed’s place. Laura Shapiro likes Ruppel Shell’s work a lot more than Janet Maslin did in the daily Times. My take remains closer to Maslin’s: Ruppel Shell’s topic (the psychology and hidden economics of discount shopping) is definitely a worthwhile one, but she may not have written as incisive and convincing a book as the topic demands.

Economics, historiography — it’s an exciting Sunday! It is for me, anyway. I can barely pay attention to the other reviews here, though I’m happy to hear that Rafael Yglesias had a happy marriage and wrote about it in a book called A Happy Marriage, happily reviewed by Malena Watrous. Now let’s see somebody write a book about a happy marriage that doesn’t end in one partner or the other dying of cancer, and I’ll be really impressed.

Greg Grandin has written a book called Fordlandia about businessman Henry Ford’s attempt to build an idealized industrial society in Brazil. Ben Macintyre recommends it, I want to read it, and I’m also interested to learn from Michael Orthofer that he once reviewed a different book with the same title, a novel by Eduardo Sguiglia, on the same topic. I want to read that too, though I wonder if I’ll ever get around to either.

It takes the critical talents of Francine Prose to snap me back into literary reverie today. It’s too bad that Jean Thompson’s new book of short stories Do Not Deny Me has to serve as the vehicle for Prose’s superb summary of what’s wrong with the cottage industry of the modern short story: despite the best efforts of the authors to be utterly original, the epiphanies seem manufactured, the sympathies gratuitous, the messages, ultimately, repetitive and therefore empty. But let Prose tell it better:

Part of the trouble with “Do Not Deny Me” may be that the structure of these stories can seem more formulaic than organic. At times, Thompson appears so determined to part the clouds and let a ray of light shine through that the convenient change, however subtle, in the psychic weather can border on the implausible. In one of the least successful fictions, “The Woman at the Well,” a jaded prisoner who watches a fellow inmate possessed by the holy spirit during a Bible study session is persuaded that “love was the only way back into heaven.” However true to the plainspoken straight­forwardness of the characters whose inner depths it plumbs, Thompson’s language rarely soars beyond the serviceable and competent to impress us with a closely observed detail, an original perception, an elegant or unexpected turn of phrase. Too often, she seems more interested in finding something with which the reader can safely identify (oh, right, I remember the time I ate all those brownies after the divorce) than in risking the searing, disquieting honesty that makes us (as we do, reading Munro) see and admit something secret and previously hidden about ourselves, our behavior and the world in which we live. It’s the reader, not the character, whose epiphany can make a story memorable.

Amen, I say, to that. I don’t know if Jean Thompson has written a valuable book or not, but Francine Prose’s review of the book definitely earns my applause.

2 Responses

  1. Levi,

    I’m just realizing

    I’m just realizing that I’ve been reading your blog for like 5 years. Haven’t a clue as to how I found it, I don’t comment much (or at all), and I don’t read any other blog but I’ve seemed to read this one at least once a week during that entire timespan. Always seem to see eye-to–eye w/ you (except when you said Colson Whitehead needs to get over being black, which I personally object to; as a black man myself, I connect w/ few contemporary writers as deeply as Whitehead I believe because he hasn’t ‘gotten over it’).

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you for the good read (x half a decade).

    -John (25- year old, sociology grad student)

  2. Thanks for the note, John —
    Thanks for the note, John — that’s nice to hear.

    Yeah, I remember me making that comment about Toure’s review of the latest Colson Whitehead — to make it slightly better, though, I think my real message was more that Toure needs to get over Colson Whitehead being black, rather than that Colson Whitehead needs to get over Colson Whitehead being black.

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