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By John Wilson


Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf

"When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin' man."

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Rambling in books, anyway—always on the move via some black marks on a white page, rather than by hopping a train. The soundtrack this week is Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" as rendered by Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha on a CD called Re-Covers. I hate the term "postmodern" and all its variants (as I have said before, I think that whatever modernity was and is, we're still in it), but some of the local observations adduced as evidence of "postmodernity" are illuminating if you strip away the theory. All of which is to say that this version of the marvelous Hank Williams song, a fusion of Tuvan-style throat-singing and weird rock, recognizes our distance from the "original" and yet doesn't wallow in self-referential irony—indeed, it's funny, moving, haunting, and absurd, all at once, with more of Williams' spirit than you will find in a reverential, expertly performed cover of the song. (The album as a whole is quite uneven, but there are some other gems on it, including "Playing with Fire").

Publishers are understandably frustrated when reviewers jump the gun and talk about books before they are available. But I can't resist telling you now about Jeremy Black's George III: America's Last King, due next month from Yale University Press. (Wonderful subtitle, isn't it?) Black is one of those prolific British scholars who write engagingly brisk books at great speed and rarely disappoint. If you have a history buff on your Christmas list, consider this book (and keep an eye out for a B&C review.)

This past June, reporting on the convention of The Historical Society, I mentioned Deepak Lal, the polymathic economist whose book In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) argued that peace and prosperity are likely to flourish under the umbrella of empire, while convulsive disorder typically follows the decay of imperial power. Lal's latest book, Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twenty-first Century (Princeton Univ. Press), repays attention as all of his books do, yet it suffers from a peremptory manner, sometimes bracing but often unsatisfying, especially in the chapter on "The Greens and Global Disorder." When I finished the book, I wished that I could sit in on a long conversation between Lal and Bill McKibben, say, who appear to be inhabiting different universes, or Lal and Gene McCarraher, or Lal and Ron Sider, or all four of them together, to see if their contrasting views of the world we share might inform one another to any degree.

Not long ago I came across a book from 1999, David Bruce Hegeman's Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Canon Press), which would be good to read alongside Lal and McKibben and the crop of interesting books on cities, suburbs, and so on. Hegeman's writes that "Culture is the divine mandate to transform the earth from its initial, natural state to a glorious network of gardens and cities spread out across the whole face of the globe." His exposition throughout is closely tied to biblical texts. 

I like books that don't have any baggage, books that seem in a small way to mimic the divinely gratuitous Creation. A current example is The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard (Crossroad), by Robert Royal. The author most recently of The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (Encounter), which I review in the Bookmarks section of the December issue of Christianity Today, Royal tells his story concisely, but he always has an eye out for telling details. By following the course of his rather obscure subject, he sheds light on 500 years of European history and church history as well.

More books next week!

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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