A valuable civic exercise that invites “thinking about thinking.”



A historian delves into “some of the most compelling episodes and abiding preoccupations in American intellectual history.”

The term “intellectual,” used to designate a professional thinker’s “relationship to a broader public” was not coined until the turn of the 20th century, and then as an import from France. In this brief but academically dense survey, Ratner-Rosenhagen (History/Univ. of Wisconsin; American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, 2012, etc.) considers American intellectual history in the form of a survey of the broad, influential ideas that have held sway over the public mind and related institutions since America’s inception, from the Puritans’ highly literate sense of “moral mission and exceptionalism” to today’s postmodern clash of identity politics. Of course, the early definitions of “American intellectual life” are problematic: The Native-Americans left very little record of how they “made sense of the arrival of Europeans,” and then bloody warfare with them “drove their ways of understanding to fade from historical memory.” Furthermore, early European arrivals “did not belong to ‘America’ but rather to their home countries and to their local companions in their tiny enclaves.” The author emphasizes that the early colonists’ embrace of religion (“moral sense”) gave their views a distinct form from those of the European Enlightenment. However, enlightened early Americans retained crucial “blind spots”—e.g., regarding the role of women and blacks. Ratner-Rosenhagen dashes through history, picking and choosing important protagonists and movements to illustrate particular striking currents. These include Thomas Paine’s ignition of revolutionary republicanism; Noah Webster’s use of his standardizing dictionary to shape a distinct American identity; Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transcendental movement’s ability to forge an individualistic “vision befitting the experience of the new nation”; John Brown’s abolitionism; and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book assumes that readers possess a solid grounding in American history and epistemology.

A valuable civic exercise that invites “thinking about thinking.”

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-19-062536-8

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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


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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