NR Digital

Ambition and Its Problems

by Adam Garfinkle
The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart (Harper, 496 pp., $27.99)

Just as it really does take two to tango, it is a notorious if oft-forgotten truth that it also takes two to book, so to speak. It takes, in other words, not only an author to write but a reader to read to complete any lexical transaction. A book is useful largely on account of the experience and the purposes that the reader brings to it. And, as we all know, too, the same book can produce different effects on first and subsequent readings by the same person.

Why belabor the obvious with a thumbnail phenomenology of the verb “to book”? Because Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome is particularly elastic in this regard. Survey histories like this one tend to attract relatively heterogeneous audiences, so judgments about its quality depend more heavily on who is reading it than would judgments of a strictly scholarly account of, say, Justinian’s Plague or the neurophysiology of the hypothalamus. The Icarus Syndrome takes this elasticity of judgment even further, however, because it bestrides two guilds: those of the journalist and of the professor. Those of the first guild, those who aspire to it, and those satisfied by its wares will warm to Beinart’s narrative. He is a gifted writer who really knows how to tell a story, and in this case the story itself happens to be endlessly fascinating. Those of the second guild, particularly those who already know these stories (partly from having lived through them), may find themselves rather more frosted by Beinart’s work.

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