Books March 2003

New & Noteworthy

What to read this month

Readers of this section will have noticed that we subscribe to the poet Samuel Rogers's maxim: Every time a new book is published, read an old one. We regularly review and run essays on previously published works—some from the recent past, some centuries old. Our aim is to discuss, and to help acquaint our readers with, ideas and literature (by which we mean history, biography, and social, cultural, and literary criticism as well as fiction, drama, and poetry)—not simply to report what's au courant. The most recent history of, say, the high Middle Ages may be widely reviewed and may bedeck the display tables of all the bookstores, but should the reader turn to it rather than to, for instance, R. W. Southern's captivating The Making of the Middle Ages, published in 1953?

Books are a business as well as an art. Every season will see new nonfiction works on old subjects, whether the public needs them or not—and the quality of remakes for books isn't much higher than that for movies. To be sure, scholarship continually accretes; but much of that scholarship is recondite (or irrelevant) and merely conforms to the fads of academe. We'll tell readers about an important new argument, but we also want to highlight the clearest, most intelligent, or most imaginative treatments of a given subject, regardless of their publication date. Fiction, of course, is another matter. Although we regularly re-examine the classics and draw readers' attention to undeservedly neglected older novels and short stories, it's important to assess the trends—encouraging and otherwise—of this constantly evolving art form.

From the archives:

"Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores " (July/August 2001)
Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-A-Million have enormously enriched the nation's cultural life. By Brooke Allen

Given our embrace of not-new books, we find two developments particularly heartening. The first is the burgeoning of the chain superstores. For better or worse, when readers want to find a book about a subject, be it mortgages or the Spanish Civil War, most of them browse the shelves of the bookstore, not the library. The chains stock a remarkable number of relatively obscure, not recently published works, which means that stores in suburban malls now have, say, philosophy and ancient-history sections of a breadth and depth that fifteen years ago could be found only in a very few university and urban bookstores. Second, more and more publishing ventures are reissuing old books. Modern Library and Everyman's Library (both revived in the 1990s),

Liberty Fund books and Penguin Classics and Akadine Press and Oxford World's Classics, are now joined by (to name a few) NYRB Classics; Grove Great Lives, which brings back into print extraordinary biographies by eminent authors; Yale's Nota Bene series; and the just launched Hesperus Press, which is finding, and often newly translating, astounding forgotten works. Life is short; one's reading time is considerably shorter. Don't limit yourself to the display tables—choose from among all the volumes in the store.

Literary Studies

The Book of Prefaces
edited by Alasdair Gray

The editor of this exuberant anthology was inspired by William Smellie's 1790 observation that every preface should include "the motives and circumstances which led the author to write on that particular subject." Smellie wrote, "If this plan had been universally observed, a collection of prefaces would have exhibited a short, but curious and useful history both of literature and authors." And indeed this book—containing prefaces by great British and American (mostly British) writers from the beginning of vernacular literature to 1918—is an idiosyncratic, illuminating, and, although 640 pages long, succinct survey of Anglo-American civilization. Thanks to its chronological arrangement and concise, perceptive marginal glosses (printed in red—one aspect of the book's sometimes overly whimsical design scheme), readers can see the language change from decade to decade and can discern that a culture's literature is a conversation across centuries. (Hence in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley bolsters his "passion for reforming the world" by enlisting Bacon against Malthus and William Paley.) This book is delightful, amusing, and instructive.


Gustav Stresemann
by Jonathan Wright

Wright, an Oxford don, has written the first comprehensive biography in English of one of Germany's three greatest diplomats. Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar Republic's Foreign Minister from 1923 to 1929, often characterized himself as "a man of contradiction," and his much debated aims and policies embody the enigmas at the heart of the "German problem," which has haunted Europe for over a century. His diplomatic strategy, informed by little more than the stark glare of realpolitik, was to maneuver adroitly among the great powers in order to revise, undermine, and finally liquidate the onerous provisions of the Versailles Treaty (involving reparations, disarmament, occupation of the Rhineland, and the frontier with Poland), thus allowing for the safe revival of German strength. This meant, of course, that Germany would eventually emerge as the preponderant power on the Continent. Stresemann, committed to the perhaps irreconcilable values of liberalism and nationalism, professed himself a good European who sought only German equality among the great powers, but because equality—indeed, even security —for Germany meant danger for the rest of Europe, an inherent tension underlay his policies. Stresemann recognized that tension, even if he was unable to resolve it, and it is the greatest tragedy in Europe's history that Weimar's aims would soon be pursued by the Nazis. This is an admirably old-fashioned, academic biography: lucidly and crisply written, it deftly bridges domestic politics and diplomacy and effortlessly synthesizes the enormous body of scholarship in German. Although I find Wright's verdict less convincing (and more charitable) than the older conclusions of Hans Gatzke and Annelise Thimme (whose own biography of Stresemann lacks an English translation), his judicious work is indispensable for understanding both interwar diplomacy—one of the most important and complex subjects of modern history—and the German problem, a conundrum perhaps still with us.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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