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Modern Library Chronicles

March 28, 2003

For those of you now finished reading the “Penguin Lives” — those short biographies of interesting and important figures from Buddha to St. Augustine, Herman Melville to Marcel Proust — here’s a similar history series.

“The Modern Library Chronicles” are short books — like the Penguin Lives, about 200 pages — written by informed and thoughtful people.

For example, “The Catholic Church: a short history” was written by Hans Kung, a religious scholar most famous for his book, “On being a Christian,” and for influencing the modern Church viewpoints reflected in Vatican II.

Ian Buruma wrote “Inventing Japan, 1853-1964.” He was educated in Holland and Japan and spent much of his life in Asia. He has written many books and articles about Asia and was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for the Humanities in Washington, D.C.

Paul Johnson, who also wrote “Napoleon” for the Penguin Lives series, wrote “The Renaissance: a short history” for the Modern Library Chronicles. Johnson is a British historian lauded as “one of the most passionate and eloquent journalists of his generation.”

Mark Mazower has written about modern Europe and the Mediterranean region and so was well-suited to write “The Balkans.” He is respected for his detailed historical research and analysis of Greece during the first half of the 20th century.

“Islam: a short history” was written by Karen Armstrong, a reknowned writer on religious topics, including such books as “A history of God.” She left a life studying theology and church history in a strict Catholic convent to attend Oxford and begin her very productive writing life.

Harvard professor Richard Pipes takes on “Communism.” He was born in Poland in 1923, served in the U.S. Air Force 1943-6, completed his PhD at Harvard in 1950 and has been there ever since, conducting a career in writing, academics, and national politics through the Cold War.

Robert Wistrich writes on “Hitler and the Holocaust.” He was born in the USSR in 1945 and has written extensively about modern European and Jewish history. He is fluent in French, German, Polish, Russian, and Hebrew, and is well-traveled — implied, perhaps, by such fluency.

“The German Empire, 1870-1918” was written by German scholar Michael Sturmer, who has been a Research Fellow at such places as Harvard University and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and has written much about German history.

History professor Anthony Pagden wrote “Peoples and empires : a short history of European migration, exploration, and conquest, from Greece to the present,” which is the kind of book that seems quite impossible but is thereby all the more appealing. You can’t help but read it to see if he can do it.

And I chose first to read “The company: a short history of a revolutionary idea” by John Micklethwait, a business journalist and the U.S. Editor for the journal “The Economist.” We’re so accustomed to the idea of a corporation that we never stop to think about what an extraordinary thing one really is.

Why read history?

Paul Johnson notes that the spread of Islam through the Balkan region actually threatened Vienna as late as 1680. Hmm. And Mark Mazower’s research reveals how communism and fascism made powerful bids for the domination of Europe and that liberal democracy did not have all the answers to Europe’s troubles.

As one of his reviewers said: “It might all have turned out differently — and the future is uncertain.”

If you like liberal democracy … participate. Let’s keep it around.

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