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Biography & Memoirs

This category contains 9 posts

The Living Truth

The Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870) is an elusive figure: just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. In her book ‘The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen’, Aileen M. Kelly makes a heroic effort to give unity and coherence to Herzen’s oeuvre. Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects, Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a paradigm for exploring all that is contingent, messy and disruptive. And yet, argues BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, Kelly focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not. But this does not diminish Kelly’s achievement: to synthesise Herzen’s enormous literary output into various interconnected themes and strains.

Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.

Work and Structure

Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”

Unifying Historical Perspectives

Greg Frost-Arnold’s first book, ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’ (Open Court, Chicago 2013), has as its subject matter a manuscript by Rudolf Carnap that was recently discovered in the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives of Scientific Philosophy. The original German manuscript is about the conversations of Carnap, Tarski and Quine (sometimes featuring Goodman) which took place at Harvard in the academic year 1940-41. That year marks a decisive point in the evolution of Carnap’s thought on semantics (one year later, he published his Introduction to Semantics). As Carnap and Quine reported in their intellectual autobiography, the dispute about analyticity played a crucial role in that highly productive year. ‘Carnap, Tarski and Quine at Harvard’, argues BRB reviewer Adam Tamas Tuboly, is a highly elegant edition and commentary of Carnap’s notes, claiming just as much as is warranted on the basis of the manuscript and other relevant texts. Its scholarly assumptions are carefully formulated and manage to unify three co-existing historiographical strategies: narrative, argumentative and micro-historical. The micro-history, in this case, consists in the conversations between Carnap, Tarski and Quine, yet the overall story fits with an emerging bigger narrative concerning the history of logical empiricism and analytic philosophy.

The Great Rubber Robbery: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis

In ‘Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis’, Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer tell a meticulously researched story of how entrepreneur Julius Fromm, who had built a lucrative enterprise around a series of inventions and improvements of latex production techniques, lost his ‘condom empire’ in the process of ‘Aryanization’ in Nazi Germany. However the injustice persisted until well after the fall of the Nazi regime. Following Julius’s death in 1945, the Fromm family attempted to regain possession of their property, yet in 1951 they were merely offered a settlement that required the Fromms to pay (!) 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa who, as a profiteer of the ‘Entjudung’ had gained ownership in 1939. Why then, asks reviewer Leon Rocha, did the American publisher tone down the original title of the book, ‘Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F unter die deutschen Räuber fiel’ (‘Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers’)?

Happiness, Sadness, Death

Ten days after submitting the manuscript of his novel “Suicide” in October 2007, French artist and author Edouard Levé hanged himself in his Parisian apartment. Yet, as reviewer Hugo Wilcken argues, it would be quite misleading to read Levé’s last book as a fictionalised account of his own suicide; it many ways it is a negative image of it. While the book may start as if it was a memoir, the reader soon begins to doubt. There are unlikely moments (the night where the protagonist talks for eight hours straight about Marx and Freud); even more suspicious is the way the author gets inside the suicide’s head, and recounts scenes he couldn’t possibly know about. “Suicide” was widely and favourably reviewed in France. It has since been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; translations into German and English are in preparation.

A New Grammar of Images

German filmmaker Werner Herzog — this year’s President of the International Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival 2010 — has long been as famous for his statements about film and culture as he has been for his actual movies. In his book ‘Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo’, Herzog chronicles his experiences between 1979 to 1981 while shooting (or, more often, waiting to shoot) his acclaimed film about a bombastic anti-hero in the Brazilian jungle. The journal form, writes reviewer Laura Kolbe, may well be the genre to which his writing is best suited: it provides an inherent structure, in which seasons change, personalities clash and reconcile and clash again, and budgets dwindle.

The Passion of Thought

Share By Sara Farris Intellectual voyeurism is alive and well, especially when it is permitted to intrude into the private life of a classically repressed personality like Max Weber. Joachim Radkau’s biography accomplishes the task of scholarly snooping well, and will satisfy even the most prurient curiosity. In this 700 page work we are informed […]

“Typocalyse Now?” The Legacy of Jan Tschichold

Jan Tschichold is best-known as one of the great typographers of the 20th century. A recent book (“Jan Tschichold, Master Typographer”, Thames and Hudson, New York 2008) traces his personal and artistic development from the ‘New Typography’ of the 1920s to his late (post-war) appreciation of classical typography. First and foremost, however, writes reviewer John Holbo, this “prodigal son of classical typography and design” is a man of paradox, who is forever grappling with the question of how to identify rules in what is essentially an uncodifiable art.