This is the first installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservative‘s editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, will share with our readers what they themselves have been reading.
Robert W. Merry, editor: This week I descended into the dark netherworld of international intrigue with David Ignatius’s latest novel, The Quantum Spy, which certainly rises to the level his readers have come to anticipate. It is hugely entertaining, with plot twists aplenty and the highest of stakes on the line, but also is tremendously enlightening. Ignatius, who traverses the globe as Washington Post columnist when he isn’t writing novels, is known for the authenticity of his narratives, and this book is no exception. Here the fundamental subject is quantum computing—which, when it finally comes, will transform human life on this planet. Through his narrative of global intrigue, Ignatius educates readers on just what quantum computing is, why it’s important, and why the United States and China are locked in an existential race to unlock the key to computing that is thousands of times more powerful than anything ever seen before.
I tip my hat also to Clyde Prestowitz’s piece in the current Washington Monthly, a review of Dani Rodrik’s latest book, Straight Talk on Trade, a kind of sequel to his earlier Has Globalization Gone Too Far?, published some two decades ago. The earlier work warned that globalization was generating what Prestowitz describes as “fissures in developed nations between the better educated, who prosper under the new regimes, and the less educated, who do not.” Rodrik suggested a possible result would be “social disintegration.” Now we’re seeing that social disintegration, and Rodrik parses it in his latest book. The underlying merit in the Prestowitz piece (and presumably in the Rodrik book) lies in a measured approach that rejects much of the free trade regimen of recent decades without retreating to any kind of neo-mercantilism. The answer lies in the concept of “reciprocity” between trading nations, an idea as old as William McKinley.
Matt Purple, managing editor: I’ve been reading Truman Capote, albeit purely by accident. Searching on Christmas Day for something festive beyond the usual Dickens, I stumbled on Capote’s A Christmas Memory, which I read, followed by its companions The Thanksgiving Visitor and One Christmas. The three short stories gently unfold the childhood of a boy named Buddy growing up in the Depression-era Deep South, as he prepares for the holidays, contends with a bully, and, in the slightly darker third entry, spends a Christmas with his philanderer father. The glaze of nostalgia is applied throughout, and sometimes over-applied, leaving the sense that Capote, by now living in New York City, was seeking something he’d left behind in his own Southern upbringing. That something is perhaps reflected in Buddy’s elderly companion Sook, a kind woman who remains child-like even at her advanced age.
From there it was on to Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, about a boy awakening to his homosexuality—the nature of the plot is covered in only the lightest Victorian concealer, which garnered considerable controversy at the time—and The Grass Harp, a novella about a group of lovable fugitives who hole up in a treehouse. Both works contain glimpses into Capote’s childhood mirror: adventures through the woods, fragile male protagonists, guileless adults, absent parents (Capote’s divorced when he was four). Cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. are distant and unreachable; snow is sought after but never found. Southern stereotypes are undermined by delightful misfits who evade pigeonholing. Capote, nemesis of Gore Vidal and host of what was supposedly New York’s glitziest party ever, had in him a Jeffersonian tenderness towards the agrarian. His Deep South is well worth a visit.
Addison Del Mastro, assistant editor: I’ve been reading The Bones of the Earth by Howard Mansfield. I discovered this book while I was doing some research on the retail history of Route 22, one of New Jersey’s iconic post-war highway strips. It happened that Mansfield wrote a couple of pages about Route 22 here, and the kitschy midcentury signs and buildings there, some of which survive today.
The Bones of the Earth is not, however, so much about historic preservation or suburbia, as it is about cultural memory and how we think about the past. Mansfield visits some old stone bridges in New England and ponders how they were built with no mortar, by masons who could tell from the shape of a stone exactly where in the bridge it needed to go. He also wrote about a tradition sparked by the now-defunct Boston Post, in which the paper distributed gold and ebony canes to the oldest residents of several hundred New England towns, and stipulated that upon death, the cane would be transferred to the next oldest resident. At the time of its writing in 2004, a handful of towns still participated in the tradition.
When does a corporate sweepstakes like that turn into a genuine tradition? When does a faded neon sign of a smiling anthropomorphic bowling pin on an ugly highway strip meld into the nation’s cultural patrimony? Terms and ideas like “culture,” “historic preservation,” “the past,” and so many more have no clear definition and are based on many underlying assumptions. Mansfield wades into all of this to great, thought-provoking effect here.
Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor:
- Irresistible, by Adam Alter: Apple’s shareholders are putting pressure on the company to address smartphone addiction amongst its younger users. Jean Twenge’s book iGen shines a (rather troubling) light on the technological obsessions of today’s young adults. And more and more Americans are experiencing “nomophobia”: the fear of being without a phone or cellular connection. Which means Alter’s book and the topics it addresses—namely, technology addiction and the businesses that profit by it—are going to be relevant and important for a while. Thus far, it’s a fascinating and insightful book.
- Water at the Roots, Philip Britts: Philip Britts was a farmer, poet, pastor, and member of the Bruderhof community during the early 20th century. He died at 31, but this collection of poems and insights shows the depth and richness of his wisdom during those shortened years. Britts’ writings are reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s: they touch on the same themes of earth and faith, community and presence. It’s a short but lovely read.
- The Lifegiving Home, Sally and Sarah Clarkson: This is probably the coziest book I’ve read in a while, and it’s already inspired some thoughts on surviving January’s coldness by making home a haven. This mother-daughter team share thoughts both theological and practical on fostering a hospitable, creative, soul-inspiring space—and in a world that’s increasingly vacated the home (for long commutes and frenzied careers, eating out and movie theaters and gyms, etc.), the Clarksons’ vision of home is both inspiring and challenging. They encourage their readers to take back the home front, and make it a place that roots and nourishes hearts and minds, giving both a space in which to blossom.
Mark Perry, contributing editor:
Few historians can equal author Barbara Tuchman’s exquisite timing. The Guns of August, her celebrated account of how Europe stumbled into World War One, was released just as John Kennedy was weighing a showdown with the Soviet Union, while Stilwell and the American Experience in China preceded by a year Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing. The books rocketed onto the bestseller lists, garnered Tuchman a pair of Pulitzers, and solidified her standing as one of the premier historians of her generation.
The problem, of course, is that Tuchman’s views have failed the test of time—Germany did not stumble into a conflict in August of 1914, but purposely worked to bring it about, while the release of hitherto unaccessed archives in China show Stilwell to be far more feckless than Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who Tuchman derides. In truth, the fault is not Tuchman’s: time’s gift is not simply that it leads to more sober reflection, but that it allows once-sequestered documents to illuminate history’s initial draft.
Such is the case for Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally, which (spurred on by Beijing’s new openness and Chiang Kai-shek’s partial rehabilitation) provides a startling and compellingly coherent account of China’s bloody conflict with Japan. Mitter’s narrative recasts the popular notion that Japan’s defeat resulted primarily from America’s military prowess—and two atom bombs. That’s true, but incomplete. The weight of the Pacific War was borne primarily by the Chinese, who lost four million soldiers and 11 million civilians (the Americans lost 65,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines), while facing the largest portion of Japanese ground forces. This was an ugly and bloody fight, matching in intensity anything the Red Army faced in Europe.
The acerbic Stilwell, sent by Roosevelt to help the Chinese, believed Chiang’s Nationalist forces could defeat the Japanese. Chiang knew better; his army was poorly trained, poorly armed, and many of his commanders were plotting against him. Chiang adopted a strategy that reflected this reality: he bled the Japanese, depended on the Americans to deliver victory, and saved his soldiers for the inevitable post-war face off against Mao’s communists. Or, to use a phrase popularized by Ulysses S. Grant, Chiang was determined to hold the beast, so long as the Americans skinned it. That “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell remained clueless about what Chiang was doing remains one of the great puzzles of the war—unresolved by Tuchman.
Chiang’s strategy worked. While Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur were fighting in the Pacific, Chiang’s ragtag division forces tied down hundreds of thousands of Japanese that might have been used against them. MacArthur, in particular, understood this, as evidenced by his later advice (to John Kennedy) that the U.S. “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” The warning is worth heeding, Mitter told me in a telephone conversation several months ago: “The Japanese kept thinking that at some point the Chinese would surrender,” he said, “but they never did. They just kept coming.”
Mitter is among a new generation of China specialists (the list includes Ezra Vogel, Richard Bernstein, Frank Dikotter, John Pomfret and Jay Taylor, whose biography on Chiang Kai-shek, The Generalissimo, inaugurated the rethinking), who are providing us with a new history that leaves readers with the discomforting notion that World War II was primarily a fight between the Soviet Union and Germany on the one hand, and China and Japan on the other. Which is not to say that Americans are wrong when they claim that “we” won the war against Japan, it’s simply to suggest that the “we” is plural.