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Somewhat Divine

Simon Schaffer: Isaac Newton, 16 November 2000

Isaac Newton: The ‘Principia’ Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy 
translated by I. Bernard Cohen.
California, 974 pp., £22, September 1999, 0 520 08817 4
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... This incomparable author having at length been prevailed upon to appear in public, has in this treatise given a most notable instance of the extent of the powers of the mind.’ This is how the very first review of the Principia began, in summer 1687: from the start, you were forced to admire Newton’s modesty, and his genius ...

Dealing in futures

W.R. Mead, 21 March 1985

The 2024 Report: A Concise History of the Future 1974-2024 
by Norman Macrae.
Sidgwick, 198 pp., £9.95, September 1984, 0 283 99113 5
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The Resourceful Earth: A Response to ‘Global 2000’ 
edited by Julian Simon and Herman Kahn.
Blackwell, 585 pp., £14.95, September 1984, 0 631 13467 0
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... For some years, 2000 has been rivalling 1984 as a golden number in the calendar of futurologists. It has now taken over. And while Europeans have been casting economic horoscopes for their continent at the dawn of the next millennium, nothing is good enough for their American cousins but a forecast for the great globe itself – hence Global 2000: Report to the President, the establishment of the Global Tomorrow Commission, and Global Future: Time to Act, with its list of a hundred recommendations ...

Kurt Waldheim’s Past

Gitta Sereny, 21 April 1988

Waldheim 
by Luc Rosenzweig and Bernard Cohen.
Robson, 192 pp., £12.95, March 1988, 0 86051 506 0
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Waldheim: The Missing Years 
by Robert Edwin Herzstein.
Grafton, 303 pp., £12.95, April 1988, 0 246 13381 3
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... A very disturbing thing has happened to journalism, to the writing of history, and even to justice. In anything to do with the Nazis, whose doings continue to preoccupy us 45 years on, any attempt at detachment is considered suspect, any degree of objectivity reprehensible. Somewhat obsessed with the subject myself, I have a good deal of personal experience of this phenomenon ...

‘Someone you had to be a bit careful with’

David Sylvester: Gallery Rogues, 30 March 2000

Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser 
by Harriet Vyner.
Faber, 317 pp., £20, October 1999, 0 571 19627 6
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... of wealth, and they also know how to charm the old rich, key sources of supply. When they deal in the work of living artists they shape the careers of some of the most charismatic and paranoid individuals of their time. Their operations tend to sail dramatically close to the wind of commercial ethics and sometimes of the law. And, having lived lives ...

The kind of dog he likes

W.G. Runciman: Realistic Utopias, 18 December 2014

Justice for Earthlings: Essays in Political Philosophy 
by David Miller.
Cambridge, 254 pp., £18.99, January 2013, 978 1 107 61375 1
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... David Miller isn’t drawing a contrast with justice for creatures from outer space. Nor is he taking issue directly with Ronald Dworkin’s ‘justice for hedgehogs’ in Dworkin’s book of 2011 with that title, although Miller does say in a footnote that he disagrees with ...

‘No view on it

Paul Foot, 22 October 1992

Nuclear Ambiguity: The Vanunu Affair 
by Yoel Cohen.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 297 pp., £10.99, July 1992, 1 85619 150 8
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... Mordecai Vanunu is starting his seventh year in solitary confinement in an Israeli jail. He is convicted of treason and espionage and his sentence is 18 years. The few members of his family who are allowed to see him have doubts about whether his mind will last that long ...

On and off the page

Thomas Nagel, 25 July 1991

Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration 
by Edna Margalit and Avishai Margalit.
Hogarth, 224 pp., £25, June 1991, 0 7012 0925 9
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... and then extrude something better than they are, something detached, pure and free-standing. I was put in mind of this recently while reading Ray Monk’s painful biography of Wittgenstein, who succeeded in creating a body of philosophical work so much finer and nobler than himself ...

Before Foucault

Roy Porter, 25 January 1990

The Normal and the Pathological 
by Georges Canguilhem, translated by Carolyn Fawcett and Robert Cohen.
Zone, 327 pp., £21.95, June 1989, 0 942299 58 2
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... When is a disease not a disease? No quibbling academic riddle this, but a problem increasingly pressing upon medical practice and ethics alike. So many questions crowd in. Is it valid to talk of a person being ill without a disease, or having a disease without being sick? When and how do we draw dividing-lines between conditions, disabilities and abnormalities, on the one hand, and diseases, on the other? This can be a crucial issue when it comes to final authority in deciding the fate of severely-malformed babies ...

We came, we saw, he died

Jackson Lears: Clinton’s Creed, 5 February 2015

Hard Choices 
by Hillary Clinton.
Simon and Schuster, 635 pp., £20, June 2014, 978 1 4711 3150 9
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HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton 
by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.
Hutchinson, 440 pp., £20, February 2014, 978 0 09 195448 2
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... The rise​ of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males ...

Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter: Imperial Spooks, 21 March 2013

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire 
by Calder Walton.
Harper, 411 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 00 745796 0
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... It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or the Netherlands, or Belgium, the process was smooth and friendly ...

Is everybody’s life like this?

Ruth Bernard Yeazell: Amy Levy, 16 November 2000

Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters 
by Linda Hunt Beckman.
Ohio, 331 pp., £49, May 2000, 0 8214 1329 5
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... assimilated Jews whose English roots went back to the 18th century, she appears to have grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual tolerance and playfulness. Beckman has been able to discover little about the Levys’ religious practices, but the evidence suggests that they were not particularly observant. When Amy’s father was asked what person he would ...

Walking among ghosts

Paul Fussell, 18 September 1980

The Private Diaries of Sir H. Rider Haggard, 1914-1925 
edited by D.S. Higgins.
Cassell, 299 pp., £14.95, May 1980, 0 304 30611 8
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... The large university library I use contains few books which the undergraduates have read virtually to pulp. One is Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, published 95 years ago. Its pages are falling out and its binding has been worn to threads and cardboard. Clearly students told off to go and read Wittgenstein and George Eliot have been spending delicious secret hours enjoying Allan Quatermain’s phlegmatic accounts of people crushed to death, impaled, dismembered and beheaded ...

My Feet Are Cut Off

Barbara Newman: Lives of the Saints, 3 December 2009

Gilte Legende Vol. I 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 496 pp., £65, November 2006, 0 19 920577 9
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Gilte Legende Vol. II 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 1036 pp., £65, August 2007, 978 0 19 923439 4
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... the Golden Legend, with its staggering thousand exemplars, must have been second only to the Bible in popularity. Compiled by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine around 1260, it became a standard text on every preacher’s bookshelf and was translated into every vernacular. Its first English version, the Gilte Legende ...

Capital Folly

Avi Shlaim: The Jerusalem Syndrome, 21 March 2002

Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City 
by Bernard Wasserstein.
Profile, 420 pp., £9.99, March 2002, 1 86197 333 0
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... More than any other capital city, Jerusalem demonstrates the power of symbols in international politics. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one of the most bitter and protracted of modern times, and the Jerusalem question, a compound of religious zealotry and secular jingoism, lies at its heart ...

Nobbled or Not

Bernard Porter: The Central African Federation, 25 May 2006

British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part I: Closer Association 1945-58 
by Philip Murphy.
Stationery Office, 448 pp., £150, November 2005, 0 11 290586 2
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British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part II: Crisis and Dissolution 1959-65 
by Philip Murphy.
Stationery Office, 602 pp., £150, November 2005, 0 11 290587 0
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... was one of the most bizarre creations of late British imperialism. Formed controversially in 1953 out of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), it never looked like succeeding, and spluttered to an ignominious death ten years later. Everything about ...

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