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A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  587 ratings  ·  117 reviews
A stirring defense of liberalism against the dogmatisms of our time from an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author.
Not since the early twentieth century has liberalism, and liberals, been under such relentless attack, from both right and left. The crisis of democracy in our era has produced a crisis of faith in liberal institutions and, even worse, in lib
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published May 14th 2019 by Basic Books
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Jul 23, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics, history
‘Liberal’ is a tricksy term, and I'm not really sure what it means, even after reading Adam Gopnik's airy defence of it. In the UK, it brings to mind historical thinkers such as Locke, or John Stewart Mill; in the US, it vaguely means ‘supportive of the Democratic Party’. With the addition of a harmless prefix – neo – it's a bogeyman of the new world order.

For Gopnik, it seems to represent a kind of benevolent pragmatism, opposed to both ‘the revolutionary tendencies of the left and the authorit
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How can I adequately review this book? I will do my best, but one really needs to read it to understand all that it contains, perhaps reread it and reread it. I am grateful I had my own copy. It is now marked up like a college textbook with exclamation and question marks and side notes.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for The New Yorker, details the history of liberalism and what it means to be a liberal today. Through the evolution of liberal thinking from Montaigne (often considered the father of l
Aug 25, 2019 rated it liked it
There's a lot to think about in this book and a lot to agree with. I share Gopnik's views of how reform is done--little by little, but constant. Revolutions don't always work out so well. I don't know if the thing he is defending is Liberalism per se, but the impulse for swift change. The right and the left are pushing for big and fast changes and Gopnik is worried. I worry about the effects of sudden upheaval too, but I think Gopnik too easily dismisses the harms of centrist neoliberalism. He s ...more
Seema Rao
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thought-provoking ~ Well-written ~ Right-on

tl:dr: Liberalism isn't crazy; its human and important.

Gopnik starts with a story about helping his teenaged daughter through the political stresses of the 2016 election. From that introduction, the reader is introduced to Gopnik's approach, wide-ranging but grounded in reality. Gopnik's book about Liberalism as a function of humanism is a compelling, and comforting, text for any reader who feels unsettled by the contemporary political climate. He help
Jun 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
Yes, I decided to read this so the author could preach to me in the choir, and while that did happen, I found the “preaching” flying right over my head in many cases. There is no doubt there are many highly intelligent and highly quotable lines in this book, but it felt like I needed a pre-reading list to fully grasp the messages.

The book was logically laid out, but I still had the impression of being bounced around - it all lacked a certain flow. All-in-all it packs a dense punch, and I’m glad
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
So I'm feeling a little like I just drank the kool-aid and a little like I found a nice framework within which I can wiggle. Moderation is one of my most favorite sayings; not abstinence (with most things) or complete indulgence, but the recognition that a little bit of almost everything is okay.

In this treatise to liberalism, Gopnik rejects the existence of the unicorn and claims the hardier, pragmatic, and competent breed of rhinos as his mascot for the liberals. He presents a typical wishy-wa
Matt Schiavenza
Jun 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Reading an Adam Gopnik book is like having dinner with a witty, erudite, charming friend who nevertheless leaves you wondering what the conversation was about. I don't mean this as an insult — I generally enjoy Gopnik's writing, but readers looking for precise argumentation here will be disappointed. Gopnik organizes his book elegantly, devoting a chapter to what liberalism is and one each to why the right and left hate it so much. But I occasionally found it frustrating parsing through the digr ...more
Jul 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-politics
A love note from the author, an involved liberal (in the current US usage of the term “liberal”), to all involved liberals everywhere. I enjoyed this book. Your opinion may vary depending on your attitude towards involved present-day US liberals. However, even a review that was generally critical of the writer's politics had to admit that Gopnik's writing possessed the following qualities: “engaging, conversational prose; a wry sense of humor; a seasoned eye for the telling anecdote; and a great ...more
Jul 20, 2020 rated it liked it
Sometimes I read a book and find myself a total believer; other times I don’t finish a book as I find it too obtuse or pedantic. This book found me as a fulcrum between the two.

Gopnik presents much to think about in A Thousand Small Sanities. To prove his points he invokes a panorama of people, ideas, and positions. Some of the time I followed his thoughts. Gopnik is, among other things, a person who is able contextualize ideas both large and small and do so in a convincing manner. On the other
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not abso
Paul Kelly
Jul 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
10 Quotes that will help you evaluate this book

1. The secret truth is that what we are having most of the time is the same reform, over and over again, directed to new places and people: a removal of socially sanctioned cruelty.

2.The real source of reform is often far from any obvious political action. Morals and manners change politics more than politics change morals and manners

3.The reason liberals are confident that reform can happen is because they know, instinctively and empirically, that
Mark Lawry
Liberal and conservative are two words that have evolved over the last few 100 years. This fact almost makes these two words meaningless. A great frustration for myself is that being an American liberal does not make one a classical liberal, or even a liberal. As Gopnik points out Adam Smith was understood in the 18th and 19th centuries to be a liberal. In fact, he was a radical. Smith explained why and how slavery destroyed wealth. This a generation before people seriously spoke of the abolitio ...more
Steve Greenleaf
A single word can’t easily contain a complex concept, and a concept cannot easily (if ever) contain a reality. A linguistic referent (word), to supply any value, must include an essential aspect of the referred chunk of reality. So, we can go on at length, and often fruitfully, about the most important concepts we live by: love, freedom, God, imagination—and liberalism. The list could continue at length. The discussion goes on indefinitely and yet fruitfully. Might one conclude that any concept ...more
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-politics
We seem to be living in an age of ‘cancellations.’ If the rabid Coronavirus is not busy cancelling our well laid out plans, we seem to be busier cancelling out each other. The Left brigade unsatisfied in its pursuit of cancelling the Right, is now steadfast in going after its own creed. What’s Left over after not being the target of the Left is derisively labelled as “Woke” and is in spectacular irony hunted down by the “Wokes” themselves! What an era of paradox mankind seems to be inhabiting. I ...more
Paul Szydlowski
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
The most important passage in this book refers to the salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, out of which liberalism and democracy grew, finishing with the observation that parliament is only as strong as the coffee house next door. That single sentence inadvertently captures what ails American politics today, thanks to what at the time seemed a good idea - Newt Gingrich's instruction to his new GOP majority in 1995 that they refrain from moving their families to Washington, as had been the trad ...more
Albert Stern
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was ok
Just finished this and some of the reviews, mostly from left-leaning publications like The Nation and New Republic that basically eviscerated it. From a right of center point of view, what's annoying is that Gopnik equates liberalism with virtue, that it is born of and embodies all that is best of the human spirit. The deeper flaw is his failure to acknowledge how both modern middle of the road liberalism and conservatism are products of classical liberalism - I got this quote of Alan Wolfe's of ...more
Jesse Young
Sep 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
I gave this book 110 pages before giving up. I'm not totally sure what Gopnik hoped to accomplish with this tract, but he's produced a deeply meandering and boring recitation of the lives and opinions of mostly 18th and 19th century political figures. It's exactly the kind of book he says he wishes to avoid -- a dreary intellectual history that allows him to wallow in his fetish for bygone political philosophy. Not useful or even particularly interesting.
Aug 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I could have sworn I reviewed this book for GoodReads but maybe I didn't. Or maybe I inadvertently deleted it? I have done stranger things. I know for sure I have recommended it to every Democrat in the presidential race, every member of the DNC and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in particular.

So why.

I don't actually much care for Adam Gopnik. I find him supercilious and arrogant, frequently offering a subtext that says something along the lines, "I know you are nowhere as smart as I, and that m
Joseph Stieb
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thought this was a brilliant defense of liberalism as well as a fair-minded and thorough consideration of conservatism and leftism. You might be wondering: What could Gopnik possibly contribute to the proliferation of defenses of liberalism? Well, he starts by clarifying that defending liberalism is not the same thing as defending moderation or centrism. Liberalism is much more than that. Historically it is a challenge to entrenched privilege and injustice and a demand that human practices and i ...more
Glenn M
Jun 28, 2019 rated it did not like it
Horribly pretentious
Aug 09, 2019 rated it liked it
I'd first seen Gopnik on a political talk show and he impressed me with his insights though I thought he might "read" better in print, as many authors naturally do, than in such a contentious format. Not so much, as it turns out. I can't add much to the other reviews I've seen of this book. They are fair, if harsh. His style is frustratingly nonlinear. I was left feeling hungry for him to finish the thought(s). However, there are plenty of glimpses of a truly poetic, thoughtful writer exploring ...more
Kathy Mcconkey
Dec 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
I completely stumbled onto this book as I browsed in Barnes & Noble. (Yes, I go to brick and mortar book stores and browse. Long live such bookstores and long live browsing!)
I cannot fully vouch for the scholarship or the depth, but it was just what I needed at this moment in my political life. In discussions with friends and family (who will definitely vote Democratic), I tend to agree with the key issues and desperate needs of our country, but take a more moderate view of how to make progress
Jun 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you read one book this year, let it be this one.
Apr 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For those who might enjoy some Political Science, this is a good read. I haven't done this much Poli-Sci since college. I have always been a bit to the left of center, certainly Liberal, but not comfortable with either the extreme left and certainly not the extreme right. I seem to feel most comfortable in what I call a "blended" economy, with both a strong dose of capitalism and with checks and balances of socialism. Clearly a social safety net is necessary. Health Insurance for all is but the ...more
Tom Walsh
Aug 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Makes a good case for a formal definition of Liberalism.

Highly readable, not bogged down by politics, but occasionally padded with more biographical information of his Liberal/Socialist/Communist heroes. I liked his largely successful attempt at a definition that will survive today’s ideological ephemera.
Jul 28, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. Loved the thesis, but the writing was clunky.
Ian Tallett
Apr 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Spot on. Thoughtful defense of “big L” Liberalism which combines historical truths with philosophical / academic ones to remind readers that Liberal shouldn’t be a dirty word, even if it is by definition a messy one. After all, most of what we see as societal progress is chipped away by Liberals! Read this in a week which is about the highest praise I can give.
Sep 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a lovely defense and explanation of liberalism; not wimpy but visionary, not non-radical but committed to social change without violence.
Bill Berg
Oct 01, 2019 rated it did not like it
I was recommended this book by a friend associated with a small left Lutheran (ELCA) college. I wasn't very far into it before I thought of Bill Buckley's "God and Man at Yale" .. I imagine unsuspecting parents sending youth off to a school that they think is "christian" only to find them returning as godless atheists worshipping pleasure and self -- the book puts up as "heroic" adultery, cohabitation, atheism, and homosexuality ... or anything new that comes along that trips their trigger.

I'm a
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An American writer, essayist and commentator. He is best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker—to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism—and as the author of the essay collection Paris to the Moon, an account of the half-decade that Gopnik, wife Martha, and son Luke spent in the capital of France.

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