Drawing on decades of experience in Europe, initially as a journalist and later in the nonprofit world, William Drozdiak examines the unraveling of the dream of a united European order. While this dream had been fostered by such post-Cold War developments as the expansion of NATO and the creation of the Euro, it’s now being eroded by a range of challenges, including Britain’s move to leave the EU, the refugee surge and backlash to it, Russian aggression, and the renewed strength of authoritarian, populist, and nationalist alternatives. Compounding matters, the Trump administration is pursuing an America First agenda that calls into question U.S. security guarantees and existing trade pacts and is straining ties with European allies. In Fractured Continent, Drozdiak provides a concise, engaging narrative of how the threat to European cohesion is being experienced differently in each European capital.
While no reproduction matches being in the presence of an ancient manuscript and experiencing “the weight, texture, uneven surface, indented ruling, thickness, smell, tactile quality’’ and sheer aura of a rare book, Christopher de Hamel says, his sumptuous Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin Press, $45) surely comes close. Anything lost in the rich, full-color images is made up in de Hamel’s spirited, illuminating text. One of the world’s top authorities on medieval manuscripts, de Hamel has frequented the world’s finest reading rooms. He’s a veteran of Sotheby’s and the former librarian of Cambridge’s Parker Library, home to the Gospels of St. Augustine. The first of the dozen meticulously presented manuscripts of this dream collection, the Gospels are the “oldest non-archeological artifact of any kind to have survived in England.” Mining these treasures for information about script, pigments, bindings, conservation techniques, and more, de Hamel turns palaeographic details into fascinating cultural narratives. Textual clues in the Codex Amiatinus reveal that “the oldest complete copy of the Latin bible,” housed in Florence, “was…made in England.” It looks like a suitcase and weighs 75 pounds. The Book of Kells, “the most famous book in the world,” is riddled with errors and inconsistencies, which prove that it was meant to be admired as a superlative art object rather than studied as a text. Among the other highlights of this timeline of books “characteristic of each century, from the sixth to the sixteenth,” are the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian transcription of a classical astronomy treatise that commemorates 18 March, the medieval Christian anniversary of the day of creation; the literally shimmering late 12th-century Copenhagen Psalter; the 13th-century Carmina Burana, profane love lyrics with images so realistic de Hamel completed in fifteen moves the depicted layout of a chess game; and the oldest surviving manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, replete with the “mysteries of medieval publishing.” As de Hamel uses these works to trace wider historical arcs of politics, war, literacy, class, and the shift from religious to secular cultures, he gives us an incomparable lesson in how many ways there are to read a book.
Editor, biographer, and storyteller Michael Korda has a very particular set of skills, and they are all masterfully employed in Alone: Britain, Churchill and Dunkirk, Defeat into Victory (Liveright, $29.95). Merging history with memoir, Korda expertly weaves the events of May 1940 with the dramatic effect they had on his family. The rise of Winston Churchill, the German war machine marching across Europe, and the unprecedented, inspiring rescue of allied soldiers at Dunkirk are all here, humanized by the author’s own memories of his famous movie-industry family and his escape from London as a child. Compellingly and comprehensively written, peppered with pictures and maps, Korda’s book takes an immense, seminal, and now mythic event and makes it live again from both a global and a personal perspective.