The Corner

Books

The Book the Boomers Deserve

The main reading room of the New York Public Library (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Crazy times in our politics are often the best times to seek some perspective and clarity and to look for a framework for understanding how we got here. And there’s a new book out this week that offers just that, and in a wonderfully engaging form.

Boomers, by Helen Andrews, is told as a set of profiles of prominent Baby Boomers (on the model of Lytton Strachey’s classic Eminent Victorians) that seeks to get to the core of the character of an era. There are lots of reasons to worry about generational analyses, and especially the danger of painting with too broad a brush, but Andrews is keenly aware of the dangers and the approach she takes is suitably humble.

By talking about particular individuals, their lives and characters, rather than just telling a sweeping story, she helps us get to the bottom of some patterns without pretending to be comprehensive. Each portrait is wonderfully done in itself, and by the end it’s clear she really is drawing a portrait of a set of attitudes that have just utterly dominated American culture and politics for as long as most of us are old enough to remember.

The book is not, however, just a tirade against the Baby Boomers (though it is that in parts, and rightly so). It is exceptionally fair to its subjects, sometimes surely too fair and appreciative, yet it also doesn’t hesitate to reach right to the core of their weaknesses and insecurities and put those starkly before the reader. And it doesn’t hesitate to criticize the Boomers’ children, the Millennials, of whom Andrews is one. (It could have said more about the generation in the middle, Generation X, which is of course the truly Greatest Generation, but I know our greatness is a sore subject for both Boomers and Millennials, as evidenced by their peculiar reticence to acknowledge it.)

Each chapter, each profile, is full of brilliant nuggets of both biography and analysis, but I have to say that, rather oddly and unexpectedly, I learned the most from the chapter about Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, which is a kind of diagnosis of contemporary American life all in itself.

This sort of book could easily become a chore to read, but Andrews avoids that through sheer talent. She’s a great writer. It’s such fun you won’t even notice how much you’re being persuaded of. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.