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Bookshelf: The Best of 2007

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!


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