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Day January 24, 2005

Book 2: All the books which span the holiday

I’m keeping myself honest here. I read a stack of books towards the end of the year which spanned both late December and early January. So I’ll summarize the lot of ’em as “Book Two” and then move on.

Christopher Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War: Hitchens’s latest collection of essays was surprisingly interesting, given that he’d excised most (but not all) of the Iraq material and focused instead on material prior to 9/11 on the themes of — surprise — love, poverty, and war. Here’s my deal with Hitchens. I love reading him. I often agree with him, he’s often incredibly perceptive, and he often jars my mind out of familiar ruts in the same way that Orwell was capable of (a capacity which Hitchens consciously cultivates, no doubt). I simply disagree with him about the wisdom of letting Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of their Merry Men run amok throughout the world in their neocon fantasy of spreading something they confuse with liberty at the point of a gun. If you ordinarily love Hitchens, I heartily recommend his latest. If you have the kind of relationship I have with Hitchens’s work, I recommend the book, along with a bottle of wine and box of antacids.

Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: don’t get me started. An excellent example of how the “Clash of Titans” (oops, civilizations) school of historical analysis can seem so superficially rational and scholarly. Seriously, I had to pick this up after reading Gilles Kepel’s fine book The War for Muslim Minds, which I recommend highly. Lewis, on the other hand, seems to have turned the breadth of a lifetime of scholarship into a laser-focus on proving that there’s one simple story playing itself out in the Muslim world today. There are numerous problems with Lewis’s recent work, among which is a lack of appreciation for the incredible diversity within “fundamentalist” Islam itself, ranging from the quietism of clerics like al-Sistani to the apocalyptic jihadism of Qutb. It is by no means a foregone conclusion how the struggle within Islam itself is going to play out, but one thing seems clear: if Americans listen to Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and liberal hawks like Paul Berman, Hitchens, and Peter Beinart, we may very well end up facing an Islam united behind the hardest of the hard-line. Kepel believes this is avoidable; Lewis less so. Sad to say, however, it is Lewis that lunches at the White House and gives lectures to Vice President Cheney.

Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten: A Thursday Next Mystery: OK, I’ll admit it, I was re-reading this over the holidays, along with the three previous Thursday Next novels. Hey, if you were reading Bernard Lewis over the holidays, you’d need some comfort and comic relief, too. What can I say…the man is a genius. The notion of a world where fiction needs to be policed from within in order to keep books from being subverted by evil masterminds is both wacky and sublime. If you love books, and love British humor, you’ll disappear inside Fforde’s four Thursday Next novels and emerge with a crooked smile and a warped mind. The only sad thing about the most recent novel, Something Rotten is the vague possibility that the series is wrapping up, given how many loose ends Fforde ties up. Say it isn’t so!

Taking the 50 book challenge, and book one: Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers

Reading Will Baude (of Crescat Sententia fame) today, I decided to take up the 50 Book Challenge: read 50 books this year and blog about them. This ought to be fairly easy, because I managed to read quite a few more than this in 2004. How many more? If I told you, you’d really know how little social life I had last year. So let’s just say if I stay on the same pace, I can spend much of autumn watching bad movies and catching up on Tivo…

Book One was Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Billing itself as a history of secularism, the book can equally be read as a history of religious opposition to secularism in America. Jacoby performs a great service, however, by elucidating the context of Founding commitments on religious tolerance. In particular, I was fascinated to learn of the tactical coalition between southern Evangelicals and secularist Northerners in supporting the constitutional ban on religious tests and the need for Establishment Clause protections. The irony of that founding coalition increases daily as the culture war unfolds in the United States.

Much of the book is an effort at historical revision (in the best sense of the term), retelling the stories of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and other infamous "freethinkers" whose importance to contemporaries was immensely greater than the short shrift they’ve received in historical recollection. Jacoby demonstrates how diverse and variable the abolitionist and women’s rights movements really were, as opposed to the now-standard accounts of both as conventionally Christian reform efforts. In reviving the history of diverse secularist thinkers, Jacoby performs a great service: demonstrating that morality and reform have never been the exclusive province of religion in this country, and that the secular left can be justifiably proud of its accomplishments, even as we work to find a modus vivendi within an increasingly religious America.