A thoughtful account of John Adams’ ideas and life, warts and all.



John Adams (1735-1826) does not lack biographies, but this book by a fellow lawyer delivers provocative insights and makes clear why he remains our least charismatic Founding Father.

Lacking Washington’s gravitas or Jefferson’s or Madison’s political acumen, Adams excelled as a prosecutor—pointing out British offenses against American rights in the 1774-1777 Continental Congress—and as a constitutional scholar. Bernstein agrees with historians that his major contribution to the republic was the American system of government. Unlike Jefferson and Paine, who claimed that whatever government the common people chose would be perfect, Adams insisted that humans were selfish, competitive, and envious. His solution was our present balance-of-power structure of executive-legislative-judiciary. His career may have peaked during the Continental Congress, where he led the fight for independence. Jefferson later called Adams “our Colossus on the floor.” Sent to France in 1778, he irritated its government by pushing American interests more aggressively than the far more agreeable Benjamin Franklin. They didn’t get along; indeed, it seems that not getting along with people was an Adams specialty. He spent an unhappy eight years as vice president, an unexpectedly powerless office, and “narrowly” won the 1796 presidential election. Entering office in 1797, Adams kept Washington’s cabinet almost intact. A mediocre group, they preferred Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton to the new president. On some issues, they publicly disagreed with Adams and worked against his policies. Equally disloyal, Vice President Jefferson spent his term campaigning for the 1800 election. Adams left office bitter and unpopular. It is only in the last 50 years that scholars have agreed that his political ideas reveal more insights into the real world than competing Founding Fathers. David McCullough’s bestselling 2001 biography smooths out many rough edges that Bernstein does not ignore in this more balanced rehabilitation.

A thoughtful account of John Adams’ ideas and life, warts and all.

Pub Date: June 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-19-974023-9

Page Count: 344

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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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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