Wednesday, July 28, 2010

History Book Reviews Reviewed, July/August 2010 edition

Chris Beneke

What follows is the first installment of a semi-regular update on historical reviews in the London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and other places that we bothered to look.

Jeffrey Rosen, “Why Brandeis Matters: The Constitution and the Crash” (TNR, July 22) Review of Melvin I. Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (Pantheon)

Writing admiringly of both book and subject, Rosen says that Urofsky’s “definitive,” “masterful” biography of the great supreme court justice is timely given Elena Kagan’s nomination to Brandeis’s Supreme Court seat and the rediscovery by progressives of “the virtues of judicial restraint.” Rosen is confident that Brandeis “would have predicted the crash of 2008.” (The bearish justice would have no doubt still preferred bonds, as he did in the 1920s, rather than credit default swaps on mortgage backed securities.) Rosen details Brandeis’s long-standing critique of concentrated financial power (“the curse of bigness”), his commitment to judicial restraint on most matters but “judicial vigilance” on the especially urgent matter of civil liberties, and his support for Zionism as both a complement to nationalism and a source of intra-national cultural vitality. The 2008 financial crisis figures centrally in this piece and Rosen builds on a distinction of Paul Krugman’s, positing the existence of two historically-informed schools of thought on financial reform: “the Jeffersonian-Brandeisians, who want to break up the big banks and prevent them from engaging in risky behavior, and the Hamiltonian neo-New Dealers, who prefer top-down government regulation.” Rosen suggests that the Jeffersonian-Brandeisians (like Paul Volcker) have gotten it right, but the Hamiltonian-New Dealers (like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner) have gotten the votes. Urofsky’s biography is itself quite big. Given its hefty 955 page count, you might want to read Rosen’s longish review before taking the plunge. Or maybe even wait for Rosen’s own forthcoming book on Brandeis.

Anthony Grafton, “A Jewel of a Thousand Facets” (NYRB, June 24) Review of Lynn Hunt, Margaret C. Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World (Belknap/Harvard); and, Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, eds., Bernard Picart and the First Global Vision of Religion (Getty Research Institute)

The two books reviewed here might be a good complement to Stephen Prothero’s hot-selling God is Not One (not mentioned by Grafton). Prothero’s conclusion that the world’s religion’s do not much converge is today’s contrarian position. That wasn’t the case in Bernard and Picart’s time. Grafton observes that the emphasis on the similarity of the world’s faiths was a subversive stance in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Also subversive in that period: dense, weighty compilations of global knowledge like Religious Ceremonies of the World, and chatty, “ironic” footnote commentary on “orthodox inanities.” By detailing (in both print and image) the nuances of religions across the globe and by comparing the common forces underlying their different practices, Bernard and Picart injected sociological and anthropological substance into enlightened appeals for toleration. Though wondering what contemporary readers thought of Bernard and Picart’s Religious Ceremonies, Grafton is impressed by the collaborative, interdisciplinary effort that went into this two-volume project. He concludes that the authors “have done justice to a great work of eighteenth-century humanistic learning. And they have shown us some of the directions in which humanistic scholarship should move in generations to come: not only away from older narratives of intellectual change, but toward new models in which books and digital media, grand accounts and detailed inquiries shed light on one another.”

Bee Wilson, “Stuck with Your Own Face” (LRB, July 8) Review of Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry (Oxford)

Beauty trends may rise and fall, but the beauty industry only rises. In 1916, roughly “four fifths of Americans used neither toothpaste nor shampoo, never mind mosturiser or deodorant, lipstick or hair gel.” Today, “[c]onsumers around the world spend ‘$330 billion a year on fragrances, cosmetics and toiletries’.” Scent was the first sense to be addressed by the broadly conceived category of beauty products. Salvaging the body from early modern street odors was not an easy job. Perfume helped. By the mid-nineteenth century, this early beauty product was sold in mass, factory-produced quantities, along with “‘the first factory-made, non-toxic mascara’.” Over time, manufacturers moved away from beauty products that poisoned their users and toward products adapted to the visual revelations of electric light. They also went global with products, such as skin-lightening creams, that changed or reinforced prevailing conceptions of race and personal attractiveness. The greatest of the beauty industry’s innovations, according to Wilson, may have been lipstick. It’s legitimation “over just a few decades [in the twentieth century] must have brought about one of the biggest changes to the appearance of the Western female body in history.” Wilson is generally pleased with the data that Jones offers. She is less impressed with his grasp of the “artifice” that has gone into the sale of these high-margin products with often questionable claims to effectiveness.

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