Welcome to the first installment of Olasky Books: Not “great books” or “best books,” but a monthly list of new, well-written books (often histories) that taught me things I didn’t know or had forgotten.
For example, since “liberal” is now a curse word among many conservatives, I had forgotten how in the 1950s “liberal” wasn’t a euphemism for big government: It was a term encompassing those like Albert Camus or Reinhold Niebuhr who opposed both creeping communism and fire-eating fascism.
Liberalism in Dark Times by Joshua Cherniss (Princeton University Press, 2021) teaches us about intellectual heroes who refused to pledge allegiance to dictators, refused to believe that the end justifies any means. They were both unostentatious and defiant, focused on justice without falling into hatred. Cherniss provides a scholarly introduction to Camus and others. I come away thinking that sin drives us toward either homicidal radicalism or callous conservatism, but wisdom warns against use of “temporary” brutality. For extremists, the temporary never ends.
Here are a dozen other recommended books, in alphabetical order by authors:
Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans (Basic, 2021) is a readable history of a dynasty both European and Asian, with a steady influx of kids from Christian homes who converted to Islam to gain upward mobility. Turks practiced religious tolerance as long as the tolerated stayed subservient.
Marie Favereau’s The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World (Harvard, 2021) shows how Chinggis Khan and descendants defied the adage, “an empire cannot be ruled on horseback.” Eurocentric historians have ignored decentralized rule that emerged from Central Asia.
Rebecca Frankel’s Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) is a well-researched and endearing tale of Polish Jews who went into the woods in 1942 and amazingly came out alive. (The German reward for turning in a Jew was a cup of sugar.)
Given the publisher, evangelicals might think Aaron Griffith’s God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America (Harvard, 2020) is a sarcastic attack. Not so: It’s a Wheaton grad’s thoughtful, well-written history of Christian initiatives from the 1880s to Chuck Colson.
Kyle Harper’s Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History (Princeton, 2021) features 686 readable pages of misery from a materialist worldview. For example, I knew of religious reasons for the Thirty Years War, but Harper says the cause was lice and men, German germs.
Mark Mazower’s The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (Penguin, 2021) is a detailed history of what European romantics saw as a straightforward battle of liberty vs. Ottoman despotism. The reality was much more complicated and often ignoble.
Study of the classics, including Augustine and Plato, is not a luxury item, according to Roosevelt Montas, a once-poor immigrant from the Dominican Republic who now teaches at Columbia. His Rescuing Socrates (Princeton, 2021) says aimless students and colleges need courses that grapple with core questions of politics, religion, and philosophy.
Annalee Newitz’s Four Lost Cities (Norton, 2021) is engaging history about ancient Catalhoyuk (Turkey), Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia (now East St. Louis). These were big urban complexes in sophisticated civilizations.
Hitler’s American Gamble, by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman (Basic, 2021), has good writing that turns history into suspense. In 1941 the U.S. did not declare war on Germany: President Franklin Roosevelt for political reasons waited and hoped that Hitler would make a dumb move, which he did.
Kim Todd’s Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” (HarperCollins, 2021) tells how young journalists like Nelly Bly went around the world in the late 19th century but also exposed conditions in hospitals, sweatshops, and abortionist offices. It’s fun to read and maybe inspiring for talented young writers.
Could Ukrainian horror happen here? Barbara F. Walter’s How Civil Wars Start (Crown, 2022) draws on the experience of many countries to show how and why sporadic acts of violence, amplified by social media, could leave the U.S. in danger of dis-uniting.
In The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome (Oxford, 2021), Edward Watts narrates ups and downs, poking all the while at over-simplifiers who say the ancient empire fell off a cliff and America will too if we don’t obey them. Rome for centuries was on a roller coaster ride, sometimes with righteous leaders but more often with rascals.
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