A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting—and have consequences.




Historian Blom (Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914, 2008, etc.) returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy.

The real star here is Denis Diderot, who, though he never created a comprehensive philosophical system, nonetheless wrestled with troubling ideas of human nature and culture that continue to vex. Blom begins and ends with personal perspectives, wondering why Voltaire and Rousseau (one-time regulars at the salon) are revered, and Diderot and Baron Paul-Thierry d’Holbach (who hosted and wrote, as well, often under a pseudonym) are not nearly so honored. Diderot is known, of course, for his innovative fiction and for his magisterial work—the 17-volume Encyclopédie that took him and his colleagues many years to produce, but which Diderot saw as an onerous burden. Blom then sketches the backgrounds of each of his principals, but he is most interested in the ideas that drew them together, later divided some of them and animated their discussions. Foremost among these is religion. Many at the salon were avowed atheists, during a time when such a position was risky, even suicidal. Diderot went to prison and was released only after promising to eschew blasphemy henceforth. Blom charts the rise and fall of the once-intimate friendship between Diderot and Rousseau, which ended in bitterness and recrimination. Other notables were in and out of the salon, among them David Hume, whose intelligence and philosophy Blom also highlights, Adam Smith and Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Diderot, as Blom reiterates often, reveled in the flesh, believed shame and guilt were instruments of oppression, anticipated Darwin and believed that what we call “intelligent design” is nonsense.

A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting—and have consequences.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-465-01453-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010

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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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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


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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