A takeaway point well worth the price of admission, but there are many more in this solid collection. Fruitful reading for...

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THE PURPOSE OF THE PAST

REFLECTIONS ON THE USES OF HISTORY

History teaches little and has scarce influence on the present. So why bother to study it at all?

This sometimes impatient set of essays by noted historian Wood (Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 2006, etc.) offers a provocative answer: Knowledge of the past may not necessarily guide decisions made in the present—would that it did—but it at least “can have a profound effect on our consciousness, on our sense of ourselves.” Rather hippie-ish sentiments, one might think, but in Wood’s universe consciousness embraces the political, which can be good and bad. Thus James McGregor Burns, for instance, comes in for a shellacking in a 1982 New York Review of Books piece for imagining in The Vineyard of Liberty that the 1850s were, like the 1960s, full of revolutionary potential, lacking but a sans-culotte leader to set things in motion: “But then one sometimes forgets,” writes Wood, “that Burns is a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means.” Similarly, Barbara Tuchman, who had a few political axes of her own to grind, gets a gentler but still tough assessment for her insistence that history has some utility. Wood is careful to distinguish her portentous popularizing from that of David McCullough, “who genuinely seems to want just to tell a good story about the past.” Elsewhere, Wood writes approvingly of big-picture endeavors such as David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989), while taking books such as Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (1991) to task for confounding history and fiction. History does teach one big lesson after all, Wood concludes: “Nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.”

A takeaway point well worth the price of admission, but there are many more in this solid collection. Fruitful reading for academics and history buffs alike.

Pub Date: March 17, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59420-154-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2007

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

THE LIBRARY BOOK

An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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