The week in books

March 19, 2009

The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Godfrey Hodgson, associate fellow, Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. Yale University Press, £16.99, ISBN 9780300125702

"The book is interesting and lucid as it examines the errors and exaggerations in the national self-image. But it lacks balance. Most, if not all, nations cherish national myths and, standing back from the current economic crisis, the US still has better grounds than most to be pleased with itself ... In the end, Hodgson finds the idea of American exceptionalism hard to bear only when it energises policies he disagrees with - that is, when it is married to stridently conservative politics and especially to neoconservative foreign policy."

Clive Crook, Financial Times

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics, Princeton University. Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9780330454582

"Although this book is an easy read, I do not recommend it for bedtime. It is not that you won't be able to put it down, but that once you've done so, you won't be able to get to sleep. The book challenges us individually where it most hurts: in the pocket ... Singer is not concerned with government policy, but with private charity and argues we can help individual people in the societies of the bottom billion simply by giving them our money. The guts of his theory are that, since our money can save lives in these societies, we have a responsibility to hand it over."

Paul Collier, The Observer

Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton, senior lecturer in philosophy, The Open University. Oxford University Press, £7.99, ISBN 9780199232352

"Warburton spans two millennia and more of knotty quarrels over freedom of expression and its moral or legal limits - from Socrates' death by hemlock to Salman Rushdie, David Irving and Aayan Hirsi Ali ... With admirable clarity, this VSI shows us how wobbly, hazy - but unavoidable - that line turns out to be. Warburton notes how internet rage and hate has written another chapter in this always-evolving story. If the art-and-porn section drags him into a quagmire (as it always does), he spares some good thoughts for the copyright wars that, in a digital age, can mean that the consumer's liberty entails the creator's penury."

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto by Samuel D. Kassow, Charles H. Northam professor of history, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Allen Lane, £10.99, ISBN 9780141039688

"With fine Yiddishist instinct, Kassow does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of those years, particularly the YIVO Institute in Wilno (now Vilnius), which was founded in 1925 to give class and clout to Jewish scholarly efforts. The early chapters of the book, full of hope and productive energy, make the final ones all the more effective. The subtle, interesting and complicated world of Jewish thought and culture boiled down to a bitter fight over bread or ... scrappy permits; either might hold off death for another few days."

The Economist.

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