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Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

July-August 2022

A Mughal baby jacket, masterful textile work

Mughal masterwork: baby jacket, southeastern India. Cotton, hand painted, mordant and resist dyed.

Photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Mughal masterwork: baby jacket, southeastern India. Cotton, hand painted, mordant and resist dyed.

Photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Art of Cloth in Mughal India, by Sylvia Houghteling ’06 (Princeton, $65). To wide public knowledge of Mughal masterpieces in painting and architecture, Houghteling now adds comprehensive appreciation of the textiles created and traded at the height of the empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An assistant professor of history at Bryn Mawr, she is a sure guide to exquisitely wrought baby clothes, enormous wall hangings, and everything in between, from their making to the meanings they convey. Ravishing.

Chinese Art and Dynastic Time, by Wu Hung, Ph.D. ’87, D. Art. ’19 (Princeton, $65). In a demanding overview spanning nearly three millennia, the eminent University of Chicago scholar examines the familiar dynastic narrative of Chinese art in the works’ sociopolitical and cultural contexts. His 10 case studies suggest the need for a more complex framework, incorporating nondynastic periods of history, multiple centers of artistic production, and heterogeneous artistic traditions. Perhaps principally for specialists—or dedicated connoisseurs.

Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova, by Leo Damrosch, Bernbaum professor of literature emeritus (Yale, $35). The clever title gets at the subject’s infamous serial seductions (many of them abusive by any standard) and at his multiple roles, not widely known, woven through Enlightenment Europe. Damrosch, a celebrated biographer of Johnson and Boswell, Swift, Blake, Rousseau, et al., is an ideal guide to the man, the age, and the self he presented in his enormous Histoire de Ma Vie.

Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet, by John W. Reid, M.P.P. ’93, and Thomas E. Lovejoy (W.W. Norton, $30). A veteran conservationist and climate biologist, respectively, drive home a clarifying thought: a lot of Earth’s climate depends on the health of its forests, and there are really only five big ones left—the Amazon, the Eurasian Taiga, the North American boreal, the Congo equatorial, and the New Guinea island habitats are enormous carbon sinks, as well as reservoirs of biodiversity and of indigenous people. All are threatened.

Liberalism and Its Discontents, by Francis Fukuyama, Ph.D. ’81 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). The political theorist, now at Stanford, defends “classical liberalism” as originally understood: the seventeenth-century response to absolutist government, protecting individuals’ rights with laws and constitutions. It needs to be reclaimed, he argues in a succinct book, invoking the (unfashionable) idea of moderation. Contra neoliberalism, he writes, economic freedom is not improved by removing all constraints. Nor is unlimited autonomy the path to personal fulfillment. Accepting limits—“recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal”—is essential to the survival of the liberal order and its benefits.

Unsustainable World, by Peter N. Nemetz, Ph.D. ’73 (Routledge, $34 paper). An emeritus professor of business economics at the University of British Columbia assembles an exhaustive review of the scientific and economic literature to answer the question in the subtitle: “Are we losing the battle to save our planet?” He leaves little doubt, relentlessly dissecting unsustainable industry, automobility, and agriculture. He casts a similarly disciplined eye over proposed solutions, concluding that given “the narrowing path to sustainability” (i.e., human survival), “nothing less than an extraordinary coordinated effort” by civil society, business, and government can turn the tide.

Now that travel is a thing again, several writers are offering suggestions for itineraries familiar and un-. And So I Walked, by Anne Gardner, M.Div. ’05 (Adelaide, $20 paper), the most recent account of walking the Camino de Santiago, is an appealingly straightforward journal, as the title suggests, of putting one foot in front of the other for 500 miles of spiritual and personal pursuit. The author is head of the chaplaincy program at Harvard-Westlake school, in Los Angeles. Togo: A Travel Memoir, by Philip Heckscher ’66 (Seapoint, $22.95), recounts 1969 and 1971 visits to Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and the Sahel with a friend, now deceased. The world he captures, in words and photos, is long defunct, too, but his evocation is a reminder to seek new experiences, people, and places. The Shores of Bohemia: A Cape Cod Story, 1910-1960, by John Taylor Williams ’60 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), covers a much more conventional destination, but, appropriately for a well-known literary agent, focuses on the star-studded artistic colony that flourished in and around Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet.

Intimations of Mortality: Medical Decision-Making at the End of Life, by Barbara A. Reich, J.D. ’90 (Cambridge, $110). A sober analysis of the institutional obstacles (payment systems, liability) and human factors (clinical uncertainty, denial, avoidance of communication) that make it so difficult to “think well about dying.” The systemic deficiencies are another indictment of American healthcare—an ultimate one in far too many cases.

A Man Walks into a Barn, by Chad Oldfather ’90 (Trafalgar Square, $24.95). The author, professor of law at Marquette, wrote charmingly about his young Harvard self (“Throw Your Fastball,” September-October 2019, page 46). Here he is introduced to another world strange to him—barns, riding, and horse shows—through his three inexplicably horse-obsessed daughters. Supporting their passion while resisting the pressures of a high-end sport and families with the willingness to apply their much ampler means, yields valuable life lessons, gently expressed.

Rocky Mountain Modern, by John Gendall, M.D.S. ’06 (Monacelli, $50). A sort of wish- and viewbook for people passionate about high-end, exclusive domestic architecture. This stunningly photographed album of mountain homes is gorgeous (the residences and their settings); chilly (no people appear, and the uninvited seem unlikely to drop in—perfect for pandemic getaways); and worrisome (in an era of escalating wildfire danger—a good thing so much concrete and steel is in evidence).


Rocky Mountain Modern, indeed: Dragonfly, designed by Olson Kundig, on Whitefish Lake, west of Glacier National Park
From the book

Willful Defiance: The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, by Mark R. Warren ’77, Ph.D. ’95 (Oxford, $22.95 paper). What happens to students—often children of color or those with disabilities—who are suspended for behavior deemed “willful defiance”? Too frequently, they end up in the justice system—and never emerge. A professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston details where the sanction came from, and grassroots efforts to push back against it, in the interest of humane justice for the hundreds of thousands of children affected.

The Emperor’s Nightmare: Saving American Democracy in the Age of Citizens United, by Robert A. G. Monks ’54, LL.B. ’58 (De Gruyter, $34.99 paper). The veteran shareholder activist (Institutional Shareholder Services, Lens Investment Management) looks beyond “the voluntary exercise of responsibility by corporate shareholder-owners” to a “legal and Constitutional framework that will…rebalance America in favor of those who live within its borders,” whom he sees as at the mercy of unaccountable corporations.

The Shadow of God, by Michael Rosen, Clark professor of ethics in politics and government (Harvard, $35). Guiding the reader into “very dense and tangled terrain,” Rosen melds philosophy with intellectual history to address the notion of secularization and to challenge assumptions about the transition to modernity effected by Kant and Hegel (the “passage from heaven to history” of the subtitle). A long struggle for morality when “objective moral truth allied to developing human reason” has not protected against horrors like Auschwitz.

Into the Great Emptiness, by David Roberts ’65 (W.W Norton, $30). A posthumously published, harrowing account of a 1930-1 expedition to the Greenland ice cap, by the veteran adventure writer, profiled in “Defying Limits” (January-February 2021, page 56).

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Late-winter thunderstorm atop snow in New England, February 2014

A thunderstorm atop late-winter snow in New England, February 2014: just the thing to delight “weather nerd” Matthew Cappucci

Photograph by Matthew Cappucci

Off the Shelf

Portrait of John Kenneth Galbraith

DeLong’s analysis resembles John Kenneth Galbraith’s (shown 1965) critique of the “affluent society.”

Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Where We Went Wrong

John Singer Sargent self-portrait, 1892

The public, self-portrayed Sargent, 1892

Public Domain

Sargent’s Other Sides

You Might Also Like:

Late-winter thunderstorm atop snow in New England, February 2014

A thunderstorm atop late-winter snow in New England, February 2014: just the thing to delight “weather nerd” Matthew Cappucci

Photograph by Matthew Cappucci

Off the Shelf

Portrait of John Kenneth Galbraith

DeLong’s analysis resembles John Kenneth Galbraith’s (shown 1965) critique of the “affluent society.”

Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Where We Went Wrong

John Singer Sargent self-portrait, 1892

The public, self-portrayed Sargent, 1892

Public Domain

Sargent’s Other Sides