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22 May 2024

From Sarah Harkness to Roger Crowley: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Invisible Doctrine by George Monbiot and Peter Hutchison and Everything Must Go by Dorian Lynskey.

By Michael Prodger, Finn McRedmond and Jonny Ball

Literature for the People: How the Pioneering Macmillan Brothers Built a Publishing Powerhouse by Sarah Harkness

The trajectory charted by Sarah Harkness in her revealing and sympathetic biography of Alexander and Daniel Macmillan spans impecunity and a hardscrabble crofting life on the west coast of Scotland to London and the greatest names of Victorian literature. Under the brothers’ guidance, the firm Macmillan published everyone from Thomas Hardy and Lord Tennyson to Lewis Carroll and Matthew Arnold. The company grew to become an international concern built on the brothers’ Christian socialism and commitment to publishing books of the highest quality for enthusiastic middle-class readers who, like themselves, may not have had the most comprehensive of educations.

In Harkness’s persuasive and fluent telling, the Macmillans were at the heart of Victorian intellectual concerns. Their authors were at the forefront in the debates around Darwinism, the condition of the poor, the role of orthodox religion and the status of children. As she shows, it was the sense of moral purpose imbibed in their youth that drove them. Although Daniel died some 40 years before his brother, the Macmillans never lost a sense of wonder at what they had achieved: “I have lived among the gods,” said the aged Alexander.
By Michael Prodger
Macmillan, 496pp, £25. Buy the book

Everything Must Go: The Stories We Tell About the End of the World by Dorian Lynskey

Humans have always envisaged, feared and celebrated the end of the world. From pestilence in ancient times to nuclear holocaust in the 20th century, each era has fostered its own fascination with the apocalypse. The “deathly appeal” of Revelations – as Everything Must Go contends – is timeless.

This cultural history of apocalypse anxiety seems especially apt for our age: fears abound about unchecked AI; we have emerged from a pandemic; nuclear war is trailed as an increasingly likely prospect. But perhaps our modern preoccupation with Armageddon is just a product of narcissism. Are we really on the brink in 2024 more than in, say, 1962?

Lynskey’s sprawling investigation into the cultural artefacts that describe and predict the end of the world can sometimes read more like a literature review than an argument. But if the book contains a central moral, it is that – in the face of existential threats – neither denial nor despair are useful, or virtuous, dispositions. We should indulge our instincts for doomerism no more than we should stick our heads in the sand.
By Finn McRedmond
Picador, 512pp, £25. Buy the book

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The Invisible Doctrine: The Secret History of Neoliberalism by George Monbiot and Peter Hutchison

Some on the right complain that the term neoliberalism has become a pejorative catch-all that the left deploys against any instances of private sector malfeasance.

The Invisible Doctrine stands thoroughly within that progressive trend, but that doesn’t detract from a well-argued potted history. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot and his co-author Peter Hutchison could have called this book “Neoliberalism for Beginners”; the tale will be familiar to many. But if the left has been guilty of lectures on the topic, that’s only because neoliberalism has become so omnipotent that we forget that it is an ideology, with its origins in theories cooked up by cliques of Austrian economists, eccentric philosophers and corporate think tanks. Instead we interpret it as a neutral, default state for advanced societies and succumb to ever greater inequalities because “there is no alternative”.

But there’s a reason why capital flows across borders in a way that was once unimaginable, why services are marketised, why infrastructure and the public realm are seen as yet more investment opportunities for private equity. To understand how this all came about, there are worse places to start than this neat, concise explainer.
By Jonathan Ball
Allen Lane, 224pp, £12.99. Buy the book

Spice: The 16th-Century Contest That Shaped the Modern World by Roger Crowley

Spices, says the historian Roger Crowley, were the first global commodity. Some, such as cloves, were so rare they were found on only five tiny volcanic islands in the Malay archipelago. “Lightweight and durable”, by the time they arrived in Europe the mark-up could be 1,000 per cent. Small wonder, then, that from Magellan’s foray into the archipelago in 1511 spices drove both Portuguese and Spanish exploration and competition. They also fuelled the growth of their overseas territories and extended trade routes that took in the Americas.

Crowley is an accomplished narrative historian whose previous books have included studies of the Venetian and Portuguese maritime empires. The spice craze, he points out, was not confined to the Latin countries: in 1553 an expedition left London loaded with English wool and headed round the coast of Scandinavia in search of a northern route to the Orient. Profit came at a cost, and Crowley’s propulsive narrative is as full of storms, privations, enslavement, piracy and blood as the heady whiff of spice.
By Michael Prodger
Yale University Press, 320pp, £20. Buy the book

[See also: From Hari Kunzru to Eugene Rogan: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024