[Note: I read this book a year ago. Things have changed no small bit since then, but a review is a review and I’m posting it as is.]
A great election-year book. An exploration of the journey of personal politics with a pleasantly academic and occasionally poetic voice. Oppenheimer does well in remaining objective and succeeds rather well in the dissection of a handful of lives and the winding paths that led to their political allegiances (with the exception of Hitchens who he seems to have an almost sentimental ax to grind, but here I could be overreaching).
However, there is a necessity for knowing the characters in this book before reading it. Their journey of change is documented, but the specifics of their post-transition is never delved into. The background we are given on each person varies in its depth and usefulness, but the book feels on the edge of incomplete, like pieces of political biography, and with some wonderfully insightful observations and turns of phrase, but every section feels sudden in the way it drops it’s subject and moves on to the other. Oppenheimer attempts to remove this glaring stop-start by tying the previous chapters subject to the new one in some way, but this succeeds only in underlining how sudden the shift is.
It stops at the pivot, not quite going far enough to draw parallels of changed views that would result in a fuller, but larger book. More quotes from primary sources, a less chronologically obsessed narrative and I can see something much more powerful than the one as is.
That is perhaps simply another case of me wanting a book to be something it is not, but as it stands the book feels more like an exercise in something that could have been brilliant, but in some sort of hurry, decided to cut corners in the name of page count or editorially oversight.
A fascinating, worthwhile read, just not a great one.
There is another note, a somber one I’m pinning down here because it is for me and that is, at the heart of my writing, who it is for.
This is a strange book in that when I started it I had no idea it would be the one I read while grandfather went from stroke to seizure, hospice to some deathful “h” sounding place that isn’t hell. He was a man of the right as long as I was born. As far as politics ever mattered in the sunset of senility. He was, throughout my childhood, a man who earned the adage/cliché of being “just to the right of Genghis Khan”.
There is no real connection here other than that of death and politics, which then, I suppose is something akin to 80% of life anyway, so maybe there is something to it. Either way, reading it while he lay swaddled in the warm kiss of morphine changed the way I engaged this book, twisted it slightly into something less free of judgments.
I never knew what he believed in youth, I never knew the depth of the man the way Oppenheimer does his five subjects here. And as he died at a ripe old age it makes it nigh impossible to find out through my own research. All primary sources are dead and he was never a public figure. There is something discouraging there: that a man can know five strangers better than I ever knew my grandfather.
But then I suppose love never needed a reason to be. That was always sort of the great thing about it.