What emerges in this well-researched assessment of a nasty problem are both the author’s love for his discipline and his...

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PAST IMPERFECT

FACTS, FICTIONS, AND FRAUD IN THE WRITING OF AMERICAN HISTORY

A professor of history takes to the woodshed not only the recent high-profile plagiarizers and prevaricators (Bellesiles, Goodwin, Ambrose, Ellis) but also those whose acts of omission and commission made possible the whole dreary mess.

Hoffer (Univ. of Georgia) brings a variety of capacities to this unpleasant task: he serves in the professional division of the American Historical Association, he knows some of those under scrutiny, he’s a practicing historian. He believes each of his besmirched colleagues did, in fact, commit academic dishonesty, and he frankly condemns them for it. The proof he assembles is devastating—particularly the side-by-side comparisons of texts. There is no question that Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin played fast and loose with secondary sources, no question that Michael Bellesiles fabricated data for his Arming America (2000), no question that Joseph Ellis (see His Excellency, above) lied about serving in Vietnam. But Hoffer also sees in this sad sky a constellation of factors that enabled these personal and professional failures. He chides his own profession for partitioning their demesne into “popular” and “scholarly.” Academic historians, he says, have become so specialized—so focused on the minutiae of ever narrower topics—that they often do not consider even worthy of discussion the highly popular histories and biographies for “general readers” that appear on bestseller lists (and often win prestigious prizes). These professors, Hoffer argues, abandon their watchdog roles. The author also blames commercial publishers for viewing works of popular history as commodities—things from which to make fast and sure profits. (Does anyone really care if they’re original?) Television—and its viewers—get a spanking, as well, for helping make celebrities of scholars and for insisting on works that celebrate rather than analyze American history. Hoffer also provides a useful summary of the changes in—and politics of—American historiography.

What emerges in this well-researched assessment of a nasty problem are both the author’s love for his discipline and his grief for the losses it has sustained.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-58648-244-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2004

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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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