A Modern Library chronicles the pastThe title of this review sounds like a manifesto for a good library. For that reason, it is apt in several ways, because it also announces a noble publishing venture: Modern Library, the estimable publisher of everyone from Proust to Tolstoy, has just launched a new series, Modern Library Chronicles.
The goal is to chronicle the eras and themes of past centuries the ideas and changes that laid the groundwork for our own world in less than 200 pages per outing. And no, these are not McBooks. Think of them as long essays, labors of love by people who know their subjects and care about language and style.
Like the excellent and popular Penguin Lives series of short biographies, the Chronicles emphasize accessible brevity and good writing.
The first two volumes, just released, hint at the series' projected breadth by addressing an era and a religion. Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times and A History of the Jews and several other volumes, has written an elegant little book to sit beside his elegant big books The Renaissance: A Short History ($19.95, ISBN 067964086X). Karen Armstrong, who has written everything from an account of her years as a nun to the recent bestseller The Battle for God, explores the history of one of the most influential beliefs in history, Islam: A Short History ($19.95, ISBN 0679640401). Two other volumes coming in November are Mark Mazower on the Balkans and Michael Sturmer on the German Empire.
These new books aren't written by academic borer beetles who haven't looked up from their tunnels since they got tenure. They're written by writers writers whose mastery of their topic never overshadows their sense of language and style. The result, so far, is extremely satisfying and, looking at the list of upcoming authors, it is safe to assume that the list will quickly develop a good momentum. Paul Johnson's Renaissance may be dwarfed by its predecessors' bulk, but it can hold up its head for quality. Throughout, it is intelligent, straightforward, and clear-headed. His very first sentences pull you in with their common-sense simplicity, but they also seem to state the very theme of the Modern Library series: "The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp if it can be labeled by a word that epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as Ôthe Renaissance' came into being." Johnson moves briskly along through the highly competitive world of Florentine artists and the roles of such art-supporting popes as Leo X. He demonstrates how the Renaissance art historian Vasari began shaping the immediate past by categorizing it with a particular artist embodying what he saw as the crucial themes of the period a practice than continues today, of course. Johnson's book becomes a fine little survey course of the arts. The Renaissance was a period of cultural revitalization growing from a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Johnson points out something we tend to forget: "Cultural rebirths, major and minor, are a common occurrence in history. Most generations, of all human societies, have a propensity to look back on golden ages and seek to restore them." Karen Armstrong is equally adept at weaving together the diverse strands of her topic, even though her theme is a belief system (and its consequent actions) that cover hundreds of years and, by now, the entire world. She smoothly unifies such differing elements of Islam as the struggle for power among the immediate successors to the Prophet, the unifying of spirituality and theology in Islamic discourse, and the rise of modern fundamentalist terrorism. For example, she clearly explains why Western notions of democracy must be hybridized before they can take root in Eastern soil: "The reformers who wanted to graft modernity onto an Islamic substructure pointed out that in itself the ideal of democracy was not inimical to Islam. . . . Part of the difficulty lay in the way that the West formulated democracy as Ôgovernment of the people, by the people, and for the people.' In Islam, it is God and not the people who gives a government legitimacy." Such an elevation of humanity could seem like idolatry.
If these first two books are any indication, the rest of the Modern Library Chronicles will be enlightening, digestible, and entertaining.