Marc Wortman’s Admiral Hyman Rickover (Yale University Press, 2022) is a tightly-written biography of brilliance: Rickover at age six came to the U.S. from Poland, gained an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, and set a record by serving in the Navy for 63 years. He oversaw the invention of the world’s first practical nuclear power reactor by essentially abolishing rank and creating “an island of brainy, work-until-the-job-gets-done, shirtsleeved nonconformity inside what was perhaps the most regimented, hierarchical, and polished organizational culture in US society.”
Rickover, Jewish and secularized, insisted, “There is no hierarchy in matters of the mind.” When someone brought in a copy of the Naval Regulations books, Rickover yelled, “Burn it!” Wortman zestfully writes, “When the Defense Department called for an organizational chart for the 350 or so men and women who worked for him at his Washington office, he sent back one filled in with Chinese characters.”
Michael Brenner’s In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution, and the Rise of Nazism (Princeton, 2022) reports how Jews and many others briefly created a socialist government but Jews got the blame. (Some historians have avoided the topic out of fear of giving ammunition to anti-Semites: Brenner courageously takes it on and shows that most Jews were not on the far left, but those who took visible leadership positions became targets.)
Anti-Semitism was common in Germany, as was refusal to take responsibility for it once Germany lost World War II. Harald Jahner tells that story—rubble, robbery, rationing, re-education, and repression— in Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955 (Knopf, 2022).
The book that influenced me the most at age 13 was The Outline of History by H.G. Wells (1920). I didn’t know he was such a lecherous liar, as Claire Tomalin reports sedately in The Young H. G. Wells (Penguin Random House, 2021). At that time I might have admired him all the more.
Lena Andersson’s Son of Svea, translated by Sarah Death (Other Press, 2022), is a Swedish novel that shows why Swedes supported social democracy and the welfare state—until many found out that it did not work.
Donald Critchlow’s Revolutionary Monsters: Five Men Who Turned Liberation into Tyranny (Regnery, 2022) has brief readable biographies of Lenin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, and Khomeini.
To gain a sense of the brutality of ISIS, read Hollie McKay’s Only Cry for the Living (DiAngelo, 2020): It’s a gutsy, frontline look at four years of war and its effect on civilians. McKay writes that she “felt more at home sitting with [refugee] women like Basma—who had pushed through decades of hardship and stood resilient in the face of uncertainty—than I ever would at a Hollywood party or a highbrow Manhattan club.”
In The Color of Abolition (HarperCollins, 2022), Linda Hirshman takes us inside the slavery abolitionist movement’s infighting: She plows familiar territory with her looks at journalist William Lloyd Garrison and eloquent ex-slave Frederick Douglass, but also writes about behind-the-scenes management by Maria Weston Chapman, known in the movement as “the Contessa.”
Caroline Janney’s Ends of War (U. of North Carolina, 2021) shows why the Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox: Many Southern whites never admitted defeat. They waited out Reconstruction and put into effect a new form of semi-slavery that did not end until the 1960s.
The title of John McWhorter’s new book, Woke Racism (Penguin Random House, 2021) shows that the W-word is being overused as a pejorative. (I’ve also received copies of Woke Capitalism.) Nevertheless, McWhorter’s content is good as usual, and his indictment of “The Elect” who look down on deplorables parallels Thomas Sowell’s quarter-century-old critique in The Vision of the Anointed. “Not much new under the sun” is now a cliché, but there’s also not much new alongside the sin.
Jacob Mchangama’s Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media (Basic, 2022) displays truth-in-titling: It’s a good overview with reminders that Hitler took advantage of the suppressive laws that liberal politicians had passed. Even though reasoned arguments produce fewer likes and clicks, and false news stories (according to a 2018 MIT study) are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news, censorship shoves us from fakery to fire.
Erik J. Larson’s The Myth of Artificial Intelligence (Harvard, 2021) and Gary Smith’s The AI Delusion (Oxford, 2018) are good, basic introductions to artificial intelligence. They both say faster processing speeds and larger computer memories won’t give AI human-like intelligence: No one yet has figured out the approach that will produce that result.
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