Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features The War of Words by Harold James, God Save the Queen by Dennis Altman and The Ruin of All Witches by Malcolm Gaskill.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization by Harold James (Yale University Press), £20.
“Globalisation”. A good thing or a bad thing? Once it was just a thing. This scholarly book traces not just the etymology of words such as Globalisation, Hegemony, Populism, and Debt, but what they meant at conception. It then shows how their meanings have changed over time depending on who is using them.
Harold James cuts through conceptual thickets within chapters on the above terms, as well as ones on Capitalism, Socialism, Multilateralism, Technocracy, Neoliberalism, and, in chapter 6, “The Frightening German Politik Terms”. The latter is probably the strongest as James deals with Weltpolitik, Realpolitik, Machtpolitik, and Geopolitik, whereas the other chapters focus on a single term and can at times become bogged down in detail.
The War on Words subtitle is “A Glossary of Globalization” but it is more than that. It can be read as a history book, and simultaneously a book about ideas and how, through politics, they can be used as praise or abuse. James argues that for clarity we will need to come up with new terms for the modern world. The book’s strength is its depth. It’s not always an easy read, but then it’s not an easy subject.
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God Save the Queen: the Strange Persistence of Monarchies by Dennis Altman (Scribe Publications), £9.99.
Avowed republicans sharing their thoughts on royal families are two a penny these days, but Dennis Altman, who is not just a Republican but an Australian republican, dishes out insights along with the insults in his measured God Save the Queen.
This slim but fact-packed volume makes a strong case for constitutional monarchies, so by the final chapter – Do we need a head of state at all? – it doesn’t seem strange that they persist, in some countries at least. In considering royals from Spain to Thailand, from Belgium to Japan, Altman offers a global guide to who’s in and who’s out, what works and what doesn’t.
For sheer entertainment, though, nothing beats the British “Firm”. As an Aussie, who bears the scars from his country’s unsuccessful bid to ditch the Queen in 1999, Altman remains preoccupied with the Windsors’ hold over the public heart. He might rile at the “absurd” reach of the Commonwealth, but he acknowledges that there is a lack of political will to change the status quo (the book just missed the severing of royal ties by Barbados).
As for the future, although stability stems in part from the character of the person occupying the throne, his “hunch is that when the Queen dies, the desire for continuity will produce a surge of affection for her heir”.
Altman doesn’t let his own sentiments get in the way, and his “unease” about monarchies is related principally to inherited privilege. In a world that can elect a Trump as head of state, even republicans tilt towards a system that safeguards the separation of actual and symbolic power.
The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill (Penguin Books), £20.
Grazie Sophia Christie
You might expect Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches to be a “micro-history” of sorcery or 17th-century religious hysteria. Instead, what readers encounter is the love story of Hugh and Mary Parsons and a community of beleaguered, exhausted ghosts in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1651.
The Ruin of All Witches is a relentless ledger of colonial life. Maize and medicines, the going price of bricks and the bottomless accounts in the general store, worry readers and characters alike. As Gaskill untangles the quarrels and coincidences that put the Parsons on trial, he presents witchcraft as more than a scapegoat for religious mania. Witchcraft becomes a tool for thinking about contradiction, especially New England’s essential one: Christian charity and the ruthlessness of free-market commerce.
The impulse after reading is, of course, to draw parallels to claims of witch-hunts in the present day. But Gaskill, in his account – elegantly spun, excepting a rather dissonant epilogue – charts a divide more relevant: what happens when we call some people damned, and some people saved.