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Los Angeles Times 1985 Book Prize Nominees

October 27, 1985

The sixth annual Los Angeles Times Book Prize program takes place this year on Nov. 1.

Today we publish excerpts from the five books nominated for the current interest prize.


Ordinary Vices (Harvard/Belknap: $7.95)

Eager to appear enlightened and open-minded, liberals have become increasingly tolerant of daily, commonplace inhumanity, argues Shklar, a professor of government at Harvard. Drawing upon examples from novels and plays, she explores these "ordinary vices": cruelty, hypocrisy, betrayal, misanthropy and snobbery.

The word snob has had many meanings since it surfaced in the late Middle Ages, none of them good. It began as an all-purpose insult, used to express contempt. By now, it has certainly earned its evil reputation. For us, snobbery means the habit of making inequality hurt. The snob fawns on his superiors and rejects his inferiors. And while he annoys and insults those who have to live with him, he injures himself as well, because he has lost the very possibility of self-respect. To be afraid of the taint of associations from below is to court ignorance of the world. And to yearn for those above one is to be always ashamed not only of one's actual situation, but of one's family, one's available friends, and oneself. . . .

The defenders of snobbery have not been numerous. Indeed, the only claim on its behalf is that it can be useful. At best it is forgiven as a side effect of more noble ambitions. Aldous Huxley warned us that without culture snobs, such as the tone-deaf patrons who pretend to elevated musical taste, artists could not survive and real music lovers would be without operas and symphonies. Snobbery does much to support such unproductive and nonutilitarian pursuits as the arts and humanities. Indeed, Huxley went on to say, "a society with plenty of snobberies is like a dog with plenty of fleas: It is not likely to become comatose." . . . If anything favorable can be said about snobbery, it is in the realm of literary imagination, not in action. Our memories of the ways of the old gentry and aristocracy are woven into our dreams of the past, and they can still enchant us. Whether in laughter or tears, the greatest novels, from Jane Austen to Marcel Proust, have been nourished by them. Snobbery may well be a private and a social menace, but like misanthropy it does nourish the creative imagination. That is a feeble recommendation perhaps, but it is the only possible one.


Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (Morrow: $15.95)

Convinced that " Marxism is not inherently difficult to understand" if one looks closely at its philosophical roots, Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, offers this guide, " neither an uncritical exposition of Marxism nor a continuous sniping at the Marxian ideas in the process of explaining them."

Some of Marx's thinking, especially as regards economic and social factors in history, is in fact now so much a part of our general intellectual tradition that it makes interpretation of the original Marxian theory of history more difficult. The normal tendency to view any theory in contrast to what we already believe is here misleading, for much of what we already believe contains insights contributed by Marx. For example, Marx's emphasis on the economic factor in history--in his peculiar, sociological conception of "economics"--often seems an overemphasis or a monistic explanation, simply because we already give it considerable weight vis-a-vis ideas or great men, or other factors.

Marx's legacy is not merely an intellectual legacy, however. It is also a legacy of behavior not only in content but in style. Much as Marx may have explicitly advocated the idea of a democratic workers' government, his own personal style was dictatorial, manipulative, and intolerant.

Those who complain that the Soviet Union has betrayed Marx have in mind the intellectual theories rather than Marx the man. Whether Marx would have gone as far as Lenin or Stalin or Pol Pot is one of the great unanswerable questions of history. But Marx's own behavior already pointed in that direction, however much his words proclaimed a proletarian democracy. Moreover, even in the intellectual realm, the long Marxian tradition of speaking boldly in the name of the workers--not only without their consent but in defiance of their contrary views and actions--made Marxism an instrument of elite domination, with a clear conscience, long before Lenin or Stalin.


Fire From the Mountain (Crown: $13.95)

"To be a revolutionary," Cabezas said in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, "you have to love life. You have to have a little bit of craziness, a sense of humor, a lot of luck, a tremendous desire to live . . . (That's why) in 'Fire From the Mountain,' I am talking about my emotions, not ideology."

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