Can great books help us become happier and better people? Over the past 15 years, the writer Alain de Botton has sought to show how Proust, Montaigne and Seneca, among others, can change your life. He has been widely mocked for his efforts, but in the lead books essay in the new issue of Prospect, the novelist John Banville defends de Botton’s project. Reviewing a new series of books—Life Lessons from great thinkers: Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, Byron, Kierkegaard and Hobbes—Banville argues that “every time we read a halfway serious book we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, helping ourselves to the fruits of the author’s hard work, his thoughts and discoveries, and in the process adding to our store of wisdom, making a small adjustment to our life’s course.” It is time, says Banville, to give bibliotherapy its due.
Richard J Evans, in his review of Frederick Taylor’s The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class, takes on the received wisdom about the collapse of German democracy in the interwar period. Historians have commonly argued that the hyperinflation experienced by the Weimar Republic in 1923 was partly responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. According to this view, the Nazis were able to appeal to the German middle classes by promising to rescue them from years of financial chaos and poverty. Not so, argues Evans:
“In 1929 the fragility of Germany’s post-inflationary recovery was demonstrated when the Wall Street Crash caused American banks to withdraw the loans on which Germany depended, causing bankruptcies, business failures and mass unemployment on a scale never seen before. It was the Depression, not inflation that drove voters into the arms of the Nazis.”
Ruth Franklin reviews MaddAddam, the final part of Margaret Atwood’s science fiction trilogy that began with her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. This trilogy stands as one of Atwood’s finest achievements, says Franklin. Highbrow readers with a lingering suspicion of science fiction should leave their prejudices behind:
“Science fiction, Atwood has said, deals with ‘things that could not possibly happen,’ whereas her works explore things that are possible but have not yet happened—also the concern, it might be noted, of all realistic fiction. As such, she is firmly in the fantastical tradition that starts with The Tempest and continues through Defoe, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and even Virginia Woolf. The fact that a writer such as Atwood—the author of more than 40 books, including short stories, nonfiction, works for children, and poetry—has chosen to focus her energies for the last 10 years on imagining the future tells us that she finds this form uniquely appropriate to examine the way we live now.”
Vanora Bennett investigates the mythology of Stradivari’s violins. For centuries, “Strads,” as they’re often known, have been viewed as among the world’s greatest instruments, prized by legendary virtuosos such as Yehudi Menuhin. But what makes them so prized? And as Strads become increasingly valuable, are musicians being priced out of the market by wealthy collectors?
Plus, Books in brief:
Jesse Norman on Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd & Edward Young
Jonathan Derbyshire on The Last Vote by Philip Coggan
Wendell Steavenson on The New Middle East by Paul Danahar
Hephzibah Anderson on Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
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