Must-Read Books on Serious Evil Are Perfect for 2018

(Bloomberg View) -- No two books have brought me more enjoyment in recent years, or stayed with me more, than “Popular Crime” and “Cultural Amnesia.” By coincidence, both authors have the same last name: Bill James wrote the first, Clive James the second.

In addition to being famous as a writer on baseball, Bill James has read nearly every book written about the infamous crime stories of the last two centuries. The book contains his thoughts about those cases and those books. He is, to my mind, a bit defensive about the intellectual worthiness of his interest in his subject, but once he gets his apologia out of the way the book is conversational and fascinating.

His treatment of the Sam Sheppard case is the purest illustration of his general method: Here are the facts that contradict the books that say he murdered his wife; here are the facts that contradict the books that say Richard Eberling did it; here is my theory (Sheppard hired Eberling) that accounts for both sets of facts. Sometimes he adds his thoughts about what the case told us about the times. He applies the method to Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh baby, JonBenet Ramsey -- nearly every case you have heard of, and many you haven’t.

He is never contrarian for its own sake. Everyone who has studied the matter seriously, he establishes, has concluded that Borden was innocent; so has he. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed for the Lindbergh murder. On a 100-point scale of likely guilt, Bill James estimates him at 213. Writing about the Black Dahlia, he cautions us against a common temptation in trying to solve long-ago cases: assuming, without thinking about it, that it must have been someone about whom we have records. (Pretty much every Jack the Ripper theory I’ve ever come across accuses such a person.)

He built enough credibility with me that I was willing to entertain his most contrarian theory, which concerns the Kennedy assassination. Read the book if you want to know what it is: But be warned that you are at risk of becoming an evangelist for the book, as I am. (I believe I have a fellow Bloomberg View columnist to thank for recommending it some time ago.)

“Cultural Amnesia” is a set of sketches of major Western intellectual and cultural figures, mostly of the last three centuries. An exception is Tacitus, to whom the author applies Sainte Beuve’s remark about Montaigne: His prose was like a continuous epigram. It’s a standard that Clive James’s own book achieves for long stretches, as in this passage:

Optimism, cocksureness, Professor Hindsight, call it what you like: there is a disposition of personality that likes to impose itself on the past and turn it into a self-serving cartoon. One becomes a seer in the safest possible way: retroactively. One predicts the past as a dead certainty. Golo Mann, who had been there when it happened, always remembered the uncertainty. According to him, the Weimar Republic didn’t have to collapse: after it did, to say that it had to was yet another way of undermining it — sabotage after the fact.

The book abounds with smaller, more self-contained epigrams. “Everything that the cult of celebrity can do to destroy an artistic gift has been done to Mailer.” Of Sartre: “He pretended that he had been brave: the single most shameful thing a man can do when other men have been brave and have paid the price.”

As the Sartre and Mann examples suggest, Clive James is concerned above all, especially in his discussion of 20th-century figures, with the intellectual and cultural responses to totalitarianism: who passed the test, who didn’t, and why -- and why so many historical reputations do not account for that record.

Both of my Jameses ramble but never bore. (Clive James interrupts his retelling of the story of Sophie Scholl, a young White Rose activist martyred by the Nazis, to explain why he thinks Natalie Portman should play her in a movie. He knows he is on thin ice; I think the ice cracks.) There are other similarities: They both involve serious evil, on different scales. You can dip into either. Both have many suggestions for further reading.

I didn’t want either book to end. Luckily, both have sequels of a sort: “Cultural Cohesion” by Clive James, and “The Man From the Train” by Bill James and his daughter Rachel McCarthy James. I'm still accepting Christmas presents. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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