Beach Reads That Aren't Lightweights

Paperbacks for fans of history, philosophy, art, politics, and corporate intrigue

Compiled by Hardy Green

Epistemology, anyone? Last summer, I surprised my wife by carrying to the beach a 550-page hardcover book on the American school of pragmatist philosophers. Then I got her hooked by reading aloud engrossing passages--for example, on how handwriting analysis based on probability theory figured in a celebrated mid-19th century lawsuit over a whale-oil fortune.

Now, you can have the same beach-blanket fun with less of an arm-wearying workout. City University of New York literature professor Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history, is just out in paperback (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15). There's plenty of philosophy here: Kant, Hegel, and Locke all figure, as, of course, do the men at the center of the story, American intellectual giants Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and Thomas Dewey. But Menand leavens his book with other fascinating stuff, including an account of how the Civil War cleaved an intellectual gulf between the moralistic, abolitionist generation of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and the combat-bludgeoned, skeptical cohort of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Still too heavy? Well, it's only one of the widely varying books in BusinessWeek's annual summertime roundup of new paperbacks.

Another set of gripping historical portraits can be found in Joseph J. Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Vintage, $14). Nothing was certain in the chaotic decades after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. America could have easily splintered into regional republics or fallen to the British military. The country, says the Mount Holyoke College historian, was "an improvisational affair, in which sheer chance, pure luckand specific decisions" determined both the U.S.'s survival and its political institutions. Key were the efforts of Ellis' cast of combative revolutionaries: John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. "What emerges are bustling stories that achieve Ellis' goal of describing how our early republic `looked and felt,"' found reviewer Dennis K. Berman.

If more recent politics interests you, there's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang, $17). Author Rick Perlstein, who has written for The New York Times and The Nation, suggests that the enduring political legacy of the 1960s came not from the much-publicized New Left but from the rightist movement that formed around the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate. In this account, Goldwater comes across as rude, crude, surly, and moody. But the focus of Perlstein's work is on the intellectual heavies, canny political operatives, and far-out conservative fellow travelers--including the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., Warren Burger, Robert Bork, Caspar Weinberger, and William Rehnquist. Reviewer Richard S. Dunham found the analysis of their ultimate rise to power "comprehensive and compelling."

Two business titles take stock of the federal antitrust litigation against Microsoft Corp. World War 3.0: Microsoft vs. the U.S. Government, and the Battle to Rule the Digital Age by The New Yorker writer Ken Auletta (Broadway, $16.95) places the reader inside the courtroom. The action commences with the opening arguments of Oct. 19, 1998, before federal judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, and the narrative takes readers up to the November, 2001, accord between the U.S. government and the corporation. Auletta offers arresting portraits of such key figures as prosecuting attorney David Boies and Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III. He observes that the latter "wouldn't be picked out of a lineup as a leader of men." But the author's coup came in getting the judge to express his personal opinions about the parties--for instance, calling Gates "Napoleonic" and "arrogant."

Wired magazine correspondent John Heilemann's Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era (Perennial, $14.95) isn't about the trial per se but about everything that went into the litigation. Heilemann shows how the anti-Microsoft movement evolved from the complaints of a few Silicon Valley executives into a federal case. He details the troubles the Justice Dept. had in getting Microsoft's detractors to testify on the record. And he ushers the reader into many of the bargaining sessions between Justice and the corporation's lawyers. This book, which has a new epilogue discussing the appeals court ruling and the Bush Justice Dept.'s settlement, is "almost like a thriller--fast-paced and hard to put down," found reviewer Dan Carney.

Dennis McDougal's Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty (Da Capo Press, $18) tells two related stories: The emergence of The Los Angeles Times as the most powerful newspaper in the West and the history of the Chandler family that dominated that paper, and Southern California, for much of the 20th century. "The author's depiction of some of the major players is compelling, especially that of Harry Chandler," the paper's longtime publisher and the head of a vast business empire, said reviewer Chris Welles. The figure who dominates the book, though, is Otis Chandler, Harry's grandson. McDougal, a former Los Angeles Times writer, describes the transformation of the scandal sheet into a respected newspaper--and the paper's ultimate decline and takeover by Chicago-based Tribune Co.

For what reviewer Patricia Kranz found to be a "vivid and entertaining" glimpse of Russia during the boom years of 1996 to 1998, check out Matthew Brzezinski's Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism's Wildest Frontier (Touchstone, $14). To describe a time when oligarchs lived like czars and Western investment bankers sold stocks all day and drank in strip bars all night, the former Wall Street Journal staff writer casts himself, his friends, and his relations among the main characters. For example, when his wife takes a high-paying job with a private investment group, Brzezinski tells how he becomes infected with the spirit of the times--and dreams of buying a yacht. But the author also keeps one eye on the have-nots--the millions of Russians who have to sell heirlooms or their bodies to survive.

Those who are drawn to exotic places may enjoy River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by New Yorker contributor Peter Hessler (Perennial, $13.95), a book that reviewer Karin Pekarchik found "perceptive and engrossing." As a Peace Corps volunteer, the author traveled in 1996 to the remote Sichuan city of Fuling, the first outsider there in half a century. Sent to teach literature and writing at the local teachers' college, he quickly became a student himself. He was exposed to haunting stories of persecution and starvation during the Mao Zedong period. And he struggled to understand local "passivity" in the face of daunting change--including the construction of the huge Three Gorges Dam, which is set to begin flooding the area in 2003, transforming an area where millions now live.

Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun (Vintage, $14) is a distillation of 40-odd years of visits to Africa by a distinguished Polish journalist. The author's method is to skip the strongmen and corruption that make headlines and immerse himself in daily life--in the continent of village pathways, roadside tailors, millet beer, and huts shared with cobras. Whether describing his experience of a coup d'état in Nigeria, the difficulties of coping with the constant turmoil and robberies in his Lagos neighborhood, or a brush with death in the Sahara, the author is never less than profound. Said reviewer Patrick Smith, Kapuscinski explores "that sliver of high, thinly populated ground on which journalism and literature are occasionally joined."

India's religious conflicts may be in the limelight, but on the economic front there are some encouraging signs, notes Gurcharan Das in India Unbound (Anchor Books, $15). For years, an obsession with achieving social equality and self-sufficiency held the country back, says the retired Procter & Gamble Co. executive and columnist for The Times of India. This is changing, as India has "begun to flex its muscles in the global information economy." The original book suffered a bit from pre-tech-bust hyperbole, but that's tempered by a new afterword. Reviewer Pete Engardio found the effort to be "one of the most readable and insightful books to appear on India's tortuous economic path."

Art lovers will be intrigued by Vermeer: A View of Delft by Anthony Bailey (Owl Books, $16). Even though thousands throng to museums to view the mere 35 paintings that are accepted as his extant work, extremely little is known about this 17th century Dutch painter. But Bailey, who has written books on Rembrandt and J.M.W. Turner, gets around this problem by focusing on the prosperous and broad-minded city in which Vermeer lived. And, he argues, far from being a solitary genius, Vermeer was in fact a commercial genre painter working in the tradition of many others in Holland. Reviewer Harry Maurer also found Bailey to be "good on the paintings, analyzing how they were made, their ambiguous meanings, and their luminous and tactile qualities."

Finally, if too much reality has left you longing for a bit of storytelling, check out Esquire's Big Book of Fiction, edited by Adrienne Miller (Context Books, $21.95). Most of the book's 50 short stories, which first ran in Esquire magazine, are by established masters. This can be handy: If you're not familiar with the work of, say, the late Raymond Carver, but you're curious why it has received so much praise, his voyeuristic "Neighbors" is a good starting point. Expect a lot of red-blooded prose, as in Robert Stone's chilling "Under the Pitons" or Arthur Miller's sans-Marilyn "The Misfits." Dos Passos, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald share space with more recent literati including Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, and Jayne Anne Phillips. Even on a rainy day, you'll spend some enjoyable hours.

Green is Books Editor.

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