Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gift Books 2010: Biography

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
by Nicholas Phillipson
Yale Press

It would be difficult to find a figure who needs rescue from a mythology built on self-serving propaganda more than does Adam Smith. Next to Darwin, Smith's actual thoughts have been the most kidnapped and distorted (often enough by the same folks.) Though the usual documents that feed biography are scarce, Nicholas Phillipson locates Smith in the historical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Perhaps most importantly, he gives us the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations. By reconciling these and placing them in an even larger context of Smith's thought, Phillipson provides some guidance for the invisible hand. There's also enough personal information for the reader of biography. I could do no better summarizing the content than James Pressley does, but I can add that it's an attractive and well-made book, suitable for gift-giving.

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela; Foreword by President Barack Obama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In letters, journal entries and manuscripts as well as excerpts of conversation from his 27 years of imprisonment and afterwards when he was President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela reveals a personal as well as political and moral chronicle. There are a lot of mundane matters discussed in a mundane manner, suddenly followed by something important, revealing and even surprising. It's not a narrative, but a portrait by means of fragments. The process of his thoughts, the personal and political tactics that changed him and his country are revealed slowly, in concrete moments. It's a unique view of a great man of our time, not for everyone perhaps, but a fine gift for the right person.

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