Michael Ignatieff is first and foremost an academic, and it is perhaps best to judge his contribution to public discourse on this basis. Setting aside his politics for the moment, his merits as a scholar have been widely acknowledged by his peers, and while it may be best to spare oneself his most theoretical works, the others are by contrast highly accessible. Such is the case with his official, authorised biography of Isaiah Berlin.
Ignatieff, who at Harvard earned a doctoral degree in history, is at his best with this fluid tale of Berlin’s personal journey, balancing the man’s professional life, personality, and place in the world. While Berlin made a name for himself as a professor and public intellectual and never sought adventure for himself, one could hardly find such an active participant in so many world events without falling into fiction. Born under the old Russian Empire, Berlin was a first-hand witness, in Petrograd, to the Russian revolutions of 1917, which left a profound impression on the boy. Following studies in Depression-era England, he served as a war propagandist in the United States, then a neutral country. He continued serving as a diplomatic attaché in wartime Washington but resisted the call to serve the new state of Israel. Meanwhile, a post-war battle between Marxist and Liberal scholars followed the battle for military victory. Berlin counted himself among the latter and devoted the rest of his high-profile career, through the entirety of the Cold War, to the philosophical defence of freedom.
Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin: A Life is not a dull recitation of philosophy or politics; it is the remarkably interesting story of one man who found himself immersed in a number of world-changing events, sometimes in spite of himself, over the course of nine decades. In truth Berlin could not have selected a better biographer. In Ignatieff he found a fellow son of Eastern European emigrés, a promising academic as he himself once was, and a talented writer. Much as Berlin was never far removed from the realm of politics, so it is with Ignatieff, from his work on human rights to his ill-fated jump into elective politics, which, incidentally, offered strong echoes of Berlin’s political creed. Berlin died in 1997 and the book, begun as a series of conversations with Ignatieff, appeared the following year.
Ignatieff, like Berlin before him, has been confronted with very treacherous situations, through the years; if their adventures leave readers desiring more, it may do to turn to fellow historian Dotsy Lamb, a creation of novelist Maria Hudgins. Dotsy Lamb represents the historical profession about as accurately as Indiana Jones does archaeology, but that is precisely the fun of these mysteries. In Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, she enlists her research and analytical skills to resolve a gruesome murder in the midst of a group of American travellers in Italy. This short book is staged much like a murder-mystery event, where readers are invited to play along but must rely on the investigator’s expertise.
The eighth and final session of the TD Summer Reading Club will take place next Wednesday. Staff and volunteers hope to see a numerous turnout for this farewell, as many children will then be off to school. Throughout the summer there has been talk of imaginary animals, and thus it is fitting that the library should now offer The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a hardcover volume of twenty-three stories that are enlivened by the author’s original sketches and watercolours. Long before the mischievous Bugs Bunny, there was a mischievous Peter Rabbit who, in the first of Potter’s books, strayed into Mr. McGregor’s garden. There he narrowly evaded the fate of his father who, as his mother casually remarked, “had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” Luckily, as shown by that mighty test of time, all of these stories are child-friendly and children-approved, as with such endearing adventures as those of “Two Bad Mice” and Miss Moppet, Tom Kitten and the Flopsy Bunnies. The volume will surely seem intimidating to children, but whether borrowed to be read to others or by readers for their own enjoyment, it will not disappoint – indeed it may well please the whole family.
– Patrick Lacroix, August 10, 2012