Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

Painted fresco of a landscape, from a Roman villa
Landscape from a villa at Boscotrecase—an inventive illustration in Mosaics of KnowledgePhotograph by Sites & Photos/Shmuel Magal/Alamy Stock Photo

The Inside Game, by Keith Law ’94 (Morrow, $28.99). Absent baseball games, fans fall back on books. In his latest, a senior baseball writer for The Athletic suggests he is pursuing larger prey (the subtitle talks about “what baseball behavior teaches us about ourselves”), complete with references to Thinking Fast and Slow-style analyses of anchoring bias (the case for robot umpires), groupthink, etc. No matter: it’s still baseball—painfully so for Red Sox fans, as in “Grady Little’s Long Eighth Inning Walk,” on “why doing nothing is the easiest bad call.” Ouch.

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, by David Stasavage, Ph.D. ’95 (Princeton, $35). The author, who professes politics (and is dean for the social sciences) at New York University, advances a sweeping and original thesis about how the distribution of power among rulers and the ruled has been arranged, and the particular circumstances and unexpected situations in which democracy arose. Given current conditions, one may hope that the trajectory implied in the title holds true.

Mosaics of Knowledge, by Andrew M. Riggsby ’87 (Oxford, $74). With the world drowning in online information, it proves illuminating to dive into the past. Riggsby, professor in classics and of art history at the University of Texas, Austin, conducts a very scholarly guided tour of how the Romans represented information (via concepts such as lists, tables, weights and measures, landscapes, and more)—often for very limited, rather than universal, uses. The best kind of academic work, rendering the commonplace unfamiliar. The landscape examples dazzle.

How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, by Scott Newstok, Ph.D. ’02 (Princeton, $19.95). The author, founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, aims to encourage thinking about thinking, rather than education for instrumental purposes. To that end, he enlists everyone from The Bard to Yogi Berra (“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him”), in brisk, unexpected, and amusing ways.

From Darwin to Derrida, by David Haig, Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology (MIT, $39.95). A broad, deep explanation of “how directionless chance” (Darwinian evolution) “could generate something as complex as a living thing. But chance does not act alone,” in that natural selection “preserves the progeny of fortunate accidents and the progeny of those progeny with additional fortunate accidents, while it eliminates progeny with unfortunate accidents and those without recent serendipities.” This, the difference “between a false note and nailing it,” drives evolution because “the serendipitous error is retrospectively endowed with meaning once it is copied and recopied.” A lyrical scientific voyage to “the meanings of life” emerging from the workings of nature.

Eva & Otto: Resistance, Refugees, and Love in the Time of Hitler, by Tom, J.D. ’73, Kathy, and Peter Pfister (Purdue, $29.99, paper). A family memoir documenting the Jewish Eva and Catholic Otto, who opposed Hitler from within Germany before 1933, then in exile in France until 1940, and ultimately in the United States—including on assignments for the Office of Strategic Services. Drawn from diaries, correspondence, and other documentation, their children’s account is vivid, and the retelling for present readers about the risks and costs of opposing fascism remains relevant.

The Blood of San Gennaro, by Scott Harney ’77 (Arrowsmith Press, $20). This posthumous poetry collection, gathered by Harney’s partner, Megan Marshall ’77, RI ’07 (herself a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer), includes the stark 1981 essay, “Getting Along in Charlestown,” about Boston’s racial divisions. Although Harney ranged widely, local readers will understandably gravitate to what he did poetically with raw material drawn from Somerville and Revere Beach.

Twilight of the Gods, by Ian W. Toll, M.P.P. ’95 (Norton, $40). The concluding volume of a vast Pacific War trilogy, this huge installment encompasses the war in the western Pacific theater during 1944 and 1945. Toll’s narrative prowess is a fine match for the tale he tells. The scope of the battles and blood was epic (“During the first 21 days of the fight on Iwo Jima, the medical corps handled an average of 1,000 casualties per day”), and, if anything, the fighting can now be seen as the starting point of U.S.-Pacific transformations that have altered the world unimaginably ever since.

Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution, by David A. Bell ’83 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). Beginning with Cassius’s simultaneous praising and denigration of Julius Caesar, the Princeton historian examines those who have charisma (“a gift of divine grace”) and their effects on the polity. He traces political charisma to the age of democratic revolutions, in the mid 1700s. A brisk and thought-provoking way of thinking about Napoleon, Washington, Bolívar, and others—and ourselves. Beautifully written.

The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights, by William F. Schulz and Sushma Raman (Harvard, $29.95). A Carr Center for Human Rights Policy fellow and its executive director, respectively, explain why rights are not immutable, and their evolution in the context of how people perceive society. They explore new situations—recognition of transgendered identity, robotic weapons that may kill civilians in combat, genetic engineering, and recognition of animal and ecosystem rights—and the accompanying challenges to conceptions of prevailing rights.

The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen (Norton, $30). As U.S. international relations and engagements are being rethought, or torn apart (or both), this analysis probes the intellectual origins of the worldview and strategies propounded by alumnus/professor/national security adviser/secretary of state/consultant/éminence grise Kissinger ’50, Ph.D. ’54, L ’55. One may embrace or abhor his realism, driven by a pessimistic outlook on nations’ competition for power. But it is worthwhile to engage with some worldview at a time when much of what is happening on the global stage appears unmoored to anything other than chest-thumping. Realism may be enjoying a moment: Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography, by Vanderbilt historian Thomas A. Schwartz, Ph.D. ’85, is forthcoming from Hill and Wang.

Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order, by Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon ’95 (Oxford, $29.95). Scholars from Columbia and Georgetown, respectively, put the changing world order in theoretical context. An image of Donald Trump appears on the cover, but the import is that no matter who is in the White House, it’s a different planet out there. Whether realist (see above) or some other flavor of leader, the authors can envision a new Cold War, various kinds of multipolarity, “globalized oligarchy and kleptocracy,” or some combination thereof. What they don’t see is “maintaining a mystical American exceptionalism.”

Rumpelstiltskin’s Secret: What Women Didn’t Tell the Grimms, by Harry Rand, Ph.D. ’74 (Routledge, $36.96 paper). A scholarly reading and interpretation of the truly odd—in some senses, repellent—folktale, as seen by a Smithsonian senior curator of cultural history. Hardly Disney material, the tale gets at men’s sexual inadequacy, workplace harassment, and more: “an unlovely story about unpleasant people,” which nonetheless is widely told to children. These levels of weirdness are explored from multiple perspectives, in astonishing depth.

The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, by Eric Cervini ’14 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35). An in-depth history of the battle over gay rights, told through the story of astronomer Frank Kameny, Ph.D. ’56, and his foundational fight against federal government sanctions against homosexuals. The author is a director of the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus.

Skiddaw Mountain, in England’s Lake District: human-shaped, read by Richard T.T. Forman

Photograph b John Finney Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Towns, Ecology, and the Land, by Richard T.T. Forman, professor of landscape ecology emeritus (Cambridge University Press, $51.99 paper). Between cities and undeveloped natural areas lie the towns and villages in which half the world’s people occupy half the world’s land. A preeminent ecological landscaper has given these places their due, in an exhaustive text-cum-sourcebook, culminating in thoughtful, productive principles for making better towns within their settings.

Sexual Citizens, by Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan (Norton, $27.95). The authors, faculty members at Columbia and leaders of its Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation, present their research into sexual assault there, with global implications and applications: “Most of us have never committed assault. But all of us have allowed social conditions to persist in which many young people come of age without a language to talk about their sexual desires, overcome with shame, unaccustomed to considering how their relative social power may silence a peer, highly attentive to their personal wants but deaf to those of others, or socialized to feel unable to tell someone ‘no’ or to give a clear and unambiguous ‘yes.’”

Fast Carbs, Slow Carbs: The Simple Truth about Food, Weight, and Disease, by David A. Kessler, M.D. ’77 (Harper Wave, $26.99). The author, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, notes that the U.S. government “has played a central role in shaping American agriculture since the nation’s birth.” Unfortunately, despite nature’s bounty, policy choices have led to “products that emerge from huge processing plants,” yielding a “fast carbs” diet of starches and sugar that produce a population “plagued by obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and incredibly, our food has become the number one cause of these ailments.”

Demagogue, by Larry Tye (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $36). Whatever your feelings about “the life and long shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” (the subtitle), this new biography is of parochial interest for the details about the intersection of the Communist-hunting senator and Nathan Pusey, then president of Lawrence College, in Appleton, Wisconsin (McCarthy’s hometown and base)—and their subsequent clashes when Pusey came to preside in Massachusetts Hall.

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