Everyone has a different idea of summer, or breach books. Some go for trashy novels, others thrillers. Myself, after a few rounds with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board's disclosure rules, I like to lug around thick bricks of history and biography. Last year, it was Ackroyd's "Dickens" and Caro's second volume on LBJ. This year, it's Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" (Harper Collins, 1,095 pp., $35).
What's the bond angle? This week we can afford a time-out; it's summer, yet still billions of dollars of bonds are coming to market every week, and every issuer or underwriter worth his or her salt needs a break from the game. And so to Mr. Johnson's book. It may not be making its way up the bestseller lists -- as his previous books did -- but it is a masterly work and a wonderful read.
Dynamism of the Age
Mr. Johnson says in his introduction: "I present the 15 years 1815-1830 as those during which the matrix of the modern world was largely formed. . . It is true that modernity was conceived in the 1780s. But the actual birth, delayed by the long, destructive gestation period formed by the Napoleonic Wars, could begin in full measure only when peace came and the immense new resources in finance, management, science, and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes."
"The Birth of the Modern" is a moral work: Mr. Johnson shows how the spirit of the time led to the tossing overboard of all manner of superstitutions and faiths, and led to what many would call the amoral, "modern" age we live in. But his book is "primarily an effort to bring back to life a remarkable epoch in world history, rich in grand and bizarre events and in human characters."
And it is excellent in its many, many parts. Mr. Johnson is a stylish writer, and his anecdote-laden narrative moves along swiftly. He knows how to tell a tale, of a not particularly well-known period, and he makes it gripping.
Perhaps what he renders best is what might only be called the dynamism of the age, the sort of thing we can certainly use more of in these whining, cult-of-the-victim days. He writes, "Willpower, industry, and an internal drive in a particular direction: these raised the great men of the 19th century above their circumstances."
And again: "In early industrial Britain, qualifications, degrees, certificates, professional rules, and trade conventions were swept aside by masters and men who were anxious to get on." These are bracing words for those who hear, day in and day out, about qualifications, degrees, rules, micromanagement, and overmanagement.
To be sure, this is not a book for the set that still reads with moving lips. One can be put off by a table of contents that includes, "Cobbett and Leigh Hunt in Prison Comfort," "The 'Edinburgh Factor': Naysmith, Jeffrey and the Review," and "The cult of gigantism and John Martin."
But it is well worth it. Here is Beethoven, increasingly deaf in his final years, pounding away wildly on his specially made iron piano. Here are Edinburgh intellectuals going out for a romp in the old town after a dinner party, and tearing signs off of buildings. And here is the naval battle of Navarino, featuring wooden boats being blown to bits at close quarters. This is just the thing to unwind with after a hard day in the market.