Chris's Reviews > Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name

Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash
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Sep 02, 2012

it was ok
Read from March 17 to September 03, 2012

This is a collection of Timothy Garton Ash's pieces published from 2000 to 2009. However, they concern modern world history - with a slight emphasis on Europe and the United States, roughly from the end of the second World War to today. Consequently, the subtitle is literally true, but ever so slightly misleading. As a journalist whose pieces I frequently read and have consistently enjoyed in the New York Review of Books, I saw this collection and had to give it a chance. Many of his pieces for the NYRB are available here.

I would recommend reading them in whatever order is interesting for you, and skipping sections which don't interest you. The sections near the end on George Orwell and Gunter Grass were most interesting for me. Next, the sections on the US and Europe. And while Ash admires Orwell, neither his own journalistic style or moral stances are anywhere near as interesting as Orwell. The phrase "bien pensant" comes to mind - thinking exactly what a liberal, western, educated, cosmopolitan "should think" on basically every social issue, i.e., totally bland reportage with opinions and explanations which barely take a stance on many of the most complex moral and political issues of the day. Reading it felt like reading a year's worth of the New York Times.

While some people might resist engaging in the type of "Big Think" that Ash and many of his better-known colleagues practice (e.g., Paul Krugman, Nicholas D. Kristof, or Thomas L. Friedman etc.,) I find these broad and far-ranging discussions at least have the possibility of being engaging. Despite the interesting and timely pieces in the NYRB (interesting BECAUSE they ARE timely), when his writings are lumped together as a collection at the end of a decade, it becomes clear that Ash does not engage in the type of writing which will stand up for longer than the relevance of his subject matter. At best, it is very well-researched and informed journalism, though it is neither very engaging, nor will it be read in decades to come - as Orwell's best reportage is (e.g., The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia).

To get a sense of whether you would like this book, I recommend watching Ash on Charlie Rose. If you are not a bit bored by the end, then maybe this book is for you. Another collection of pieces by a regular author of the NYRB which is in the same vein, I feel that Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics is a better exemplar of the great pieces the NYRB contains.
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