Reviewing the Review: October 4 2009

Politics Psychology Religion
I thought New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus said conservatism was dead? He's written some smart things about the wrong turns of the Bush/Cheney area, but his publication still worships -- absolutely worships -- the memory of Eisenhower-to-Reagan era foreign policy conservativism. Today's cover article is Michael Beschloss's review of Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, a book about the senior bureaucrat in the US Air Force who shaped the aggressive nuclear missile weapons program that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union's military strategy and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Yeah, we've heard the story of our victory over the Soviet Union a thousand times. Sheehan's book focuses on the internal Pentagon battle between proponents of airplane-based vs. missile-based nuclear weaponry (missiles held the day, and apparently this was the right decision). But Beschloss's review reads like a love letter to nuclear weaponry, and the deeper sadness of a world under permanent threat of nuclear destruction is not acknowledged here at all. Listening to old-school conservatives reminisce -- over and over and over -- about how we beat the Soviet Union with our big weapons is like listening to a poker player talk about his big winning hand -- over and over and over. The problem with this kind of nostalgia is that the stakes are still high, and we may not always pull out the winning card. Instead of rhapsodizing about how great nuclear missiles were in 1989, I'd love to hear Neal Sheehan, Bernard Schriever and Sam Tanenhaus tell us how we're going to deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear program in Iran tomorrow. That's a cover article I'd love to read.

Ross Douthat, another of Tanenhaus's conservative favorites, reviews Karen Armstrong's The Case For God in today's Book Review. I wish a more creative thinker had been chosen for this task: Douthat dutifully covers the controversy between literal and metaphorical approaches to religion in newsy, topical terms -- how are the voters feeling about it? -- but offers neither artistry nor personal engagement. So, does Ross Douthat believe in God? Has Armstrong's book changed his feelings about religion in any way? You'll never find out by reading this sterile summary.

The Book Review covers several interesting non-fiction books today; I just wish the coverage were better. I'd like to know more about Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler's Connected, a surprising study in social psychology that posits the intriguing (and somehow believable) idea that "getting a $10,000 raise is less likely to make you happy than having a happy friend is", but the book's thesis barely survives Scott Stossel's dense explanation. Here's how the review begins:

For those of us not actively toiling in a university, most modern writing in the social sciences can be placed into one of three categories. The first category, which is vast, consists of the arcane and the incremental -- those studies so obscure, or which advance scholarship so infinitesimally, that they can be safely ignored by the general reader. (Not that this work isn’t important; it keeps academic publishing in business, and significant knowledge accretes in tiny drips on the way to tenure.) The second category consists of statistical proof of the obvious. (Some actual study findings published recently: "the parent-child relationship ... commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence"; women are more likely to engage in casual sex with "an exceptionally attractive man"; and driving while text-messaging leads to "a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety-critical event such as a crash." Thank you, social science!) And in the third category, which is surely the smallest, are works of brilliant originality that stimulate and enlighten and can sometimes even change the way we under stand the world.

Do you want to keep reading this article? Me neither. Stossel hasn't even begun to tell us about the book he's reviewing yet.

Then, Pamela Paul mocks Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children for containing nothing new. But young parents who read a book about the psychology of child-raising today may not care if a book contains something new -- they care if it contains something true.

Let's move on to fiction, where the offerings are slightly better. Christopher Hitchens is amusing but harsh on Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro's new book of short stories taking place at night. Hitchens hates the book. He tosses wise guys like me a softball here:

It's the time of day that isn’t quite day when some people — such as myself — start to feel truly awake.

I'm not even going to crack the obvious joke and ask whether Hitchens is having it on the rocks or neat when this time of day makes him start to feel truly awake. Too easy.

The best article today is Jay McInerney on Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement, a book I'm about to read. McInerney spends too much time obsessing over Powers' nerdy scientific focus, but rises like a Coma Baby to a deeper appreciation of the book's value by the article's end. I expect I'll be writing about this book myself here soon.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: October 11 2009. The previous post in the series is Rushing the Review: September 27 2009.
4 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: October 4 2009"

by Kevin on

JW Black, neat. And Hitchens refers to it as his "breakfast of champions."

by Kevin on

You're being kind calling Douthat's review "sterile." I'm leaning towards "worthless." The last two sentences struck me as silly/ridiculous:
Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

And why no review of Dawkins' new book? I'm a bit annoyed by that.

I wish the so-called "liberal media" would find its way to the Sunday Review (Hitchens notwithstanding).

by Steve Plonk on

I find the categories of non-fiction listed in the article as self-limiting. However, technical writings in non-fiction are a huge representatation of what is available on the market. Lately,I've really been delving into biographies,autobiographies & collections of writings--both non-fiction and fiction.

President Eisenhower's exit speech is fresh in my ears from listening to it again last night on my youtube account's favorites page. In it he famously warns us of the toxic perils of the military/industrial complex (thus originating that name even). I doubt he would have thought much of the conservative era that followed on into Reagan's time.

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