■ The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, by Paul Johnson: This 1992 book was included last year on the Kindle’s coming soon list, but it ultimately never made it into electronic format. It’s too bad; I’ve enjoyed the book in dead tree format, and would love to go back and luxuriate in it once again in electronic format. As Commentary noted in their review at the time of the book’s original publication:
Paul Johnson boldly argues in this vast and vastly rich book, “the matrix of the modern world was largely formed” in the years between the battles of Waterloo and New Orleans in 1815 and the overthrow of the restored French monarchy in 1830. According to Johnson,
modernity was conceived in the 1780′s. But the actual birth, delayed by the long, destructive gestation period formed by the Napoleonic wars, could begin in full measure only when peace came and the immense new resources in finance, management, science, and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes.
By then, thanks to steam power, the world’s first passenger railway (Manchester-Liverpool) was running, and nine daily newspapers were being published in London. The same new technology had spawned gunboat diplomacy after the shallow-draft steamer Diana penetrated 500 miles up the Irrawaddy River in 1825 to chase a fierce fleet of oar-driven Burmese imperial praus until their thousands of oarsmen were exhausted and the praus were sunk at leisure by the Diana’s guns, proving to one eyewitness that “the muscles and sinews of men could not hold out against the perseverance of the boiling kettle.”
■ Fatherland, by Robert Harris: The birth of the modern world in the early to mid-19th century gave man many blessings, but it also created the technology — and more importantly, the totalitarian worldview and the concept of “Start From Zero” — that unleashed newfound horrors a century later, as seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But how similar where these two ideologies?
In Robert Harris’s best-selling alternative history book, first published in 1992, it’s 1964, Nazi Germany won World War II by getting to the atom bomb first, and a stalemate — a Cold War, if you will — exists between America and Germany. President Joseph P. Kennedy, who won the White House due to the appeasement with the Nazis he preached during World War II, is scheduled to fly into Germany to begin discussions leading to détente between America and an Evil Empire. Sound eerily familiar? As Orrin Judd wrote in a perceptive review of Harris’s book, Fatherland is a brilliant metaphor for the Cold War:
A nuclear balance of terror surely would have kept America from invading Europe and, after a suitable period of huffy pretense, there surely would have been a significant segment of public opinion, particularly in academic intellectual circles, advocating detente–just as has actually happened with both the USSR and Red China. And just as the Holocaust failed to draw the U. S. into WWII in the first place, and just as the millions of victims of Russian and Chinese communist oppression failed to deter rapproachments with those countries, it’s easy to believe that the “disappearance” of Europe’s Jews would have little impact on an American/German détente.
The story is engrossing enough on its own, but these speculations, and the subtle way in which they implicate the past sixty years of Western history, turn the book into a disturbing and subversive novel of ideas. Conservative historians–like Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes and Allan Bullock–have beaten their heads against a wall for years, demonstrating to an uncaring elite establishment how little the Soviet Union, Stalin and Communism differed from Nazi Germany, Hitler and Nazism. But this popular thriller makes the same points, and reveals the moral emptiness of our policy of détente, in a wonderfully imaginative way. What more can we ask of an author than that he entertain us and at the same time raise questions that trouble our souls?
Apparently, Fatherland was included in the early books rushed into Kindle format, and is still available on the Amazon UK site for British Kindle owners, but isn’t currently available in the States. Is it a case of Amazon or the publisher losing the electronic format licensing rights? Otherwise, what on earth is stopping Amazon from rectifying this?
■ Conversations with Tom Wolfe, Compiled and edited by Dorothy Scura: Think of this as the real-life Cliff’s Notes to Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network. Long before Wolfe became a best-selling novelist, he was first a working journalist, and then a master of long-form non-fiction. This collection of interviews, spanning Wolfe’s career from the 1960s through the publication of 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities, is an excellent look at how mass media — the “overculture,” as James Lileks would say — functioned at the height of its power. (In the meantime, however, Wolfe’s 1982 anthology, The Purple Decades, is available on Kindle, and an excellent, cost-effective electronic compilation of the best of his original non-fiction.)