Admirers of contemporary European literature and continental philosophy will find this engaging and provocative.


Italian polymath and publisher Calasso (The Art of the Publisher, 2015, etc.) continues his multivolume exploration of the origins of modernity and the modern world.

In The Ruin of Kasch (1983), the author examined the rise of nationalism and its twin, totalitarianism. In the present, comparatively slender volume, he looks at the world that has resulted, a world of unfixed meanings and constant dread. At midpoint comes a remark on artificial intelligence in the form of a programmer’s quip about gorillas fashioning humans and then realizing they are still gorillas. How to keep the machines from taking over? Calasso answers: “Create doubt, uncertainty in robots. Make them humble. Teach them not to follow programs too literally.” So it is with humans, whose various quests for meaning have led to fundamentalism here and agnosticism there. These days, we fight not over things that lie beyond and above society “but at society itself,” abandoning norms, substituting new ones, arguing over what is politically correct and not. Meanwhile, well, suffice it to say that Calasso rejects aspects of relativism, certainly those that defend Islamic extremism. His reasons are subtly developed and delivered episodically, more akin to Hitchens than Fallaci: “The freedom of the shari‘a,” he writes, “is not compatible with that of the Founding Fathers.” Sometimes the author’s argument can be a little scattershot and even obvious, as when he introduces tourism into the modern mix and then complains that no tourist would dream of wearing silly tourist garb at home. Mostly, though, the book is a deeply learned if allusive disquisition that brings in Walter Benjamin, Leibniz, the Bhagavad-Gita, and various TED talkers. The two-page ending, turning on a dream of Baudelaire’s, is a tour de force and among the most memorable things Calasso has written over the course of his series.

Admirers of contemporary European literature and continental philosophy will find this engaging and provocative.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-27947-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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