Thu Mar 30, 2006

"Not a book so much as it is an alumni-magazine profile gone horribly, horribly wrong"

Scott McLemee is a superb critic, and one of the things that makes him good is that he is generous. He can get something interesting out of not very interesting books, and he doesn’t go out of his way to be snarky. But when he feels like filleting something, his knife is very sharp.

THE MAN ON WHOM NOTHING WAS LOST: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen. Houghton Mifflin, 354 pp.

… Charles Hill—a former Foreign Service officer who served in important positions under Henry Kissinger and George Schultz – has for a few years now taught a class at Yale University called Grand Strategy. Young aspirants to the diplomatic corps flock to it. … Molly Worthen, a recent Yale graduate, was one of Hill’s junior illuminati, and her book The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost is an authorized biography of the great man. … The result is not a book so much as it is an alumni-magazine profile gone horribly, horribly wrong. … Hill comes across as a single-minded careerist who did not notice his wife’s alcoholism until she mentioned it during the final days of their marriage. If not for the element of hero worship pervading the book, one might suspect an element of sarcasm in Worthen’s title … something is missing from Worthen’s gale-force proclamations of wonder … There is nothing resembling a substantial idea in the entire book. Worthen presents Hill as a neoconservative guru. But her portrait is that of a mind bearing less resemblance to the political philosopher Leo Strauss than a walking edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. … the author never forgets herself entirely. Or at all, really. … She also indulges in a considerable amount of “my generation” babble: “We sit in coffee shops and complain about the doldrums of ‘real jobs,’ the stress of having to commit to a career that won’t ever let out for the summer,” etc.

This is not a biography, but a study in self-absorption by proxy. The publisher ought to be ashamed. The manuscript should have been left in a drawer, where it might embarrass the author 10 years from now, and in private.

Ouch.