A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse.




A top-notch addition to the why-America-is-in-such-a-mess genre.

Writing with Garrett, Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and winner of the National Humanities Medal, portrays a prosperous nation driven by technological innovation but burdened by massive, concentrated wealth and widespread poverty: Corruption and sex scandals fill the media; politics is gridlocked; xenophobia and white supremacist violence are rising; substance abuse runs rampant. The author then delivers a jolt by revealing that this describes Gilded Age America (1870-1890), a time when “doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties” filled the media. Putnam’s inverted-U graph illustrates what happened since. Four nearly parallel lines rise, tracking economic equality, goodwill in politics, community social bonds, and cultural altruism. All peak during the 1960s when, although far from perfect, “America had been transformed into a more egalitarian, cooperative, cohesive, and altruistic nation.” Then all four steadily decline into the present. There follows an insightful history of what Putnam labels an “I-we-I century.” Economic equality rose mostly through the explosion of education, high schools after 1900 and college after World War II and the Progressive movement, which produced government reform, encouraged unions, passed industrial regulation, and created the first social programs (“a veritable boom in association-building”). The first half of the 20th century gave birth to iconic social institutions such as the Rotary Club, NAACP, and the League of Woman Voters. Startlingly, both political parties contributed. About half of Republicans in Congress voted in favor of Progressive and New Deal programs, nearly two-thirds for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The number voting for Obamacare in 2010? Zero. The 1970s saw the steady decline of this so-called affability: “The collective norm that ‘we’re all in this together’ was replaced by a libertarian…norm that we’re not.” The narrative is brilliantly argued throughout, although the traditional how-to-fix-it conclusion could use a more specific action plan.

A tour de force exploration of why America got better and then went into reverse.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-2914-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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