In the current climate of debate over national surveillance, Darnton’s vibrant history takes on particular relevance.



Darnton (History/Harvard Univ.; The Case for Books, 2009, etc.) takes an ethnographic approach in this deeply researched comparative history, examining how censorship functioned in three authoritarian regimes: 18th-century monarchal France; 19th-century India under the British Raj; and 20th-century East Germany.

The author’s surprising discoveries complicate the definition of censorship as repression by a ruling class in its effort to control social order. In Enlightenment France, censors acted as collaborators with authors, taking on the role of peer reader or copy editor to make a manuscript viable for royal privilege—i.e., an official stamp approving publication. These censors, often authors themselves, assiduously carried out their role, and authors often willingly revised their work. “Despite the occasional disputes,” writes Darnton, “censorship…drove authors and censors together rather than apart.” The British in India, in an effort “to understand the Indians, not merely to defeat them,” were intent on gathering information: “Everything was surveyed, mapped, classified and counted, including human beings….The catalogues of books belonged to their effort to catalogue everything.” By monitoring publications, they could detect signs of rebellion. Not until the British noted “explosions of nationalism” in the early 20th century did surveillance lead to police repression and legal prosecution. Authors, publishers and printers were arrested and tried according to newly created laws. In Germany, Darnton talked with two censors and had access to considerable archival dossiers. The censors claimed their job was to publish works that fit into the government’s overall plan: “Censorship as they understood it was positive. In some ways, it was downright heroic—a struggle against heavy odds to maintain a high level of culture while building socialism.” Dossiers reveal the details of that struggle: manuscripts purged of references to individualism; dire restrictions on travel, even within the country; and outright violence. Censorship in East Germany, as elsewhere, involved an interlaced system of authors, editors, bureaucrats, publishers and, not least, readers themselves.

In the current climate of debate over national surveillance, Darnton’s vibrant history takes on particular relevance.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-393-24229-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...


A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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