Yale University Press

The books we read and collect can provide telling insight into our lives. Indeed, bookshelves often draw the immediate attention of our guests, who seek to discern clues about us from the titles that we have accumulated. With Stalin’s Library: A dictator and his books, Geoffrey Roberts takes on the role of a curious visitor perusing the impressive library of Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), who, as head of the Soviet Union, amassed a collection of some 25,000 items. Conceptualised as a biography and intellectual portrait, Stalin’s Library joins a crowded field of works aimed at cracking the Stalin enigma. Setting this latest biography apart is its focus on Stalin’s personal library as a basis for constructing a ‘picture of the reading life of the twentieth century’s most self-consciously intellectual dictator’.

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Daniel Cottier: Designer, decorator, dealer by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Max Donnelly, with Andrew Montana and Suzan Veldink

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March 2022, no. 440

Among the most celebrated of nineteenth-century British decoration firms, but one that is almost completely forgotten today, was Cottier & Co., founded by the Glaswegian decorator and stained glass artist Daniel Cottier in 1869. The volume Daniel Cottier: Designer, decorator, dealer is the first comprehensive scholarly treatment of this decorator and his eponymous firm. With branches in London, New York, and Sydney, this was a remarkable international enterprise disseminating the principles of Aesthetic interior design, the movement that construed the role of art to be the provision of uplifting delight through visual beauty.

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The life of Charles Lamb reads like a tale by Charles Dickens. In 1775, a sweet-natured boy is born in the Inns of Court, the ancient legal district in the city of London. The boy’s father, John Lamb, works as clerk, scribe, and all-round dogsbody for an imbecilic barrister called Samuel Salt – the names themselves are Dickensian – who does nothing without first consulting his servant. Charles, the youngest child by eleven years, grows up amid the great halls, libraries, chapels, staircases, sundials, fountains, and hidden orchards of the Inner Temple; his early youth is an Eden, but there is a serpent in the garden, because madness runs in the Lamb family.

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The convict Thomas Brooks was transported to Sydney in 1818. He had been sentenced to seven years but would serve twenty-seven, with stints in some of Australia’s most brutal penal settlements. His life became a cycle of escape attempts, recapture, and punishment. Each grab for freedom made his chains heavier, the floggings ever more severe. Eventually the penal system broke him, his spirit and will to escape crushed. When Brooks was finally released, he went bush, content to live in a humpy, drink, and ponder his past. He wondered how Britain could see fit to abolish slavery and yet maintain the convict system. ‘For our slavery there was no balm. Those who believed in the freedom of men had cast us out; and those who were incapable of reflection must have seen the impassable gulph between the stains of our bondage and the free position of honest liberty.’

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To kidnap one pope might be regarded as unfortunate; to kidnap two looks like a pattern of abusive behaviour. Ambrogio A. Caiani tells the story of Napoleon’s second papal hostage-taking: an audacious 1809 plot to whisk Pius VII (1742–1823) from Rome in the dead of night and to break his stubborn resolve through physical isolation and intrusive surveillance.

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Harold Bloom died in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. Always prolific, he continued working until the very end. Throughout his final book, he digresses at regular intervals to record the date, note his advanced age, and allude to his failing health. At one point, he reveals that he is dictating from a hospital chair.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that pride comes before a fall, and ‘Anyone with a historical sense would have realised that the hubristic attempt to make the world into a frontier and culture-free single market would end in tears.’ This opening salvo in Professor Robert Skidelsky’s new book is part of his answer to what is wrong with economics. Besides arrogance, this includes amorality, ahistoricism, sociopathy, over-formalisation, and unscientific dogmatism.

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I must admit to being intrigued by any self-proclaimed ‘Histories of Everything’, so I leapt at the prospect of a dense history of my favourite creative art and how it flourished in our past centuries, right down to a couple of writers who died in 2019. And occidental only: that is, apart from a sidelong glance at Hafez, Tagore, and Li Po’s fellow poets. Unless you regard the Russians, that is – bridging East and West.

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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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The Letters of Cole Porter edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh

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April 2020, no. 420

Sometime in the early 1970s – his health poor, his country’s no better – the English composer Benjamin Britten asked his good friend and publisher Donald Mitchell to write his biography, imploring him to tell the truth about his long-term relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. In the ten years that followed Britten’s death in 1976, Mitchell amassed thoughts and notes, all the while deflecting the common query among friends and those outside the hallowed circle, ‘How’s the biography going?’

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