Engaging, even while some of the author’s ideas fail to coalesce.



An examination of the nature of decoration and adornment.

In an age when people are told aesthetics are a mere marketing tool, former Reason editor Postrel (The Future and Its Enemies, 1998) argues that style is part of our consciousness itself: “The issue is not what style is used but rather that style is used, consciously and conscientiously, even in areas where function used to stand alone.” But if, as she argues, aesthetics is more widespread than it used to be, transcending economic boundaries, why is this so? Examining the subject of clothing, Postrel notes that in the late 1920s, a typical woman would have owned nine dresses—outfits that would have to be worn through all seasons, for work and for leisure. She contrasts this with a conversation overheard in her local Target, where a mother informed her preteen daughter that she couldn’t have another top since she already owned at least 30. Rising incomes and falling production costs don’t explain the whole story, she posits. Social and cultural shifts of the late-20th century have also put more emphasis on aesthetics—but that raises a question. How can something that’s been deemed innate gain cultural importance? The question is never fully answered, but the author takes us on an entertaining romp through the aesthetics of cars (in the ’50s and ’60s, car buyers focused on looks, while the gasoline shortages of the 1970s gave fuel efficiency more importance) and toilet bowl brushes (it’s possible to buy a $400 crystal and gold brush). She covers the popularity of Starbucks, the cycle of children’s names (“Sarah” and “Jessica” have eclipsed “Susan” and “Kimberly”), the role of hair, and more. Postrel concludes that as new styles and technologies develop, at some point the primacy of aesthetics will fade, and a new “age” will come to pass.

Engaging, even while some of the author’s ideas fail to coalesce.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2003

ISBN: 0-06-018632-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2003

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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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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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