On Nov. 7, The Times will award its annual Book Prizes in five categories--biography, history, fiction, poetry and current interest--along with the Robert Kirsch Award for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West. This week we publish excerpts from some of the books nominated in history. Not excerpted, but also nominated, are: "The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic" (Knopf) by William Lee Miller, "Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings" (Simon & Schuster), translated by Dennis Tedlock, and "The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism" (Simon & Schuster) by Conor Cruise O'Brien.
"The Mountain of Names: A History ofthe Human Family" (Simon & Schuster) by Alex Shoumatoff.
Shoumatoff first became curious about his own Slavic roots, which he traced in a 1982 study, "Russian Blood: A Family Chronicle." Here, he considers "the family tree of the human race," looking at how kinship defines our sense of self and visiting the Mormon archives in Utah, a "mountain" of more than a billion and a half names that underscores "our multiple interrelatedness" and suggests broad political implications.
Everybody belongs to one enormous pyramid of descendants that fans down from the first humans, and at the same time, everybody has a separate, personal pedigree diamond. History can be seen as a mosaic of billions of overlapping pedigree diamonds. The kinship group to which we all belong--"the family of man," which anthropologists would describe as a kindred--extends indefinitely in every direction. Some genealogists have started to play with this notion, so that a new vogue in genealogy is horizontal genealogy.
By charting the overlap in the pedigrees of recent American political figures, for instance, the genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner has discovered that Hamilton Jordan, former President Jimmy Carter's top aide, and former Florida Gov. Ruben Askew are eighth cousins once removed; that Carter and former President Richard Nixon are sixth cousins (both descended from a New Jersey Quaker named Richard Morris, who lived before the American Revolution); that Nixon and Vice President Bush are 10th cousins once removed; that Bush is a seventh cousin of Elliot Richardson, attorney general in the Nixon Administration, as well as being a kinsman of Ernest Hemingway and of the 19th-Century plutocrat Jay Gould; and that California's Sen. Alan Cranston has in his constellation of known kin, through common descent from a man named Robert Bullard, who lived in Watertown, Mass., in the early 1600s: Queen Geraldine of Albania, Richard Henry Dana, Emily Dickinson, George Plimpton, the Dow chemical family, Julie Harris and Margaret Mead. "The more you dig, the smaller the world becomes," the New York Times reporter who interviewed Reitwiesner observed. . . .
The political implications of this great kindred to which we all belong are exciting. If everybody became aware of this multiple interrelatedness; if the same sort of "generalized altruism" (that prevails) in small communities . . . could prevail over the entire human population; if this vision of ourselves could somehow catch on--then many of the differences that have polarized various subpopulations from the beginning of our history, the result of adaptation to disparate climates and of genetic drift within geographically or culturally segregated populations (differences that are, for the most part, literally only skin-deep), would seem secondary. The problems we have with each other would become internal.
"The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union From Within"(Harvard) by Geoffrey Hosking.
Hosking combines a sympathetic study of the impact of the Soviet system on the Soviet people (they are "highly educated and much better informed about the world than Westerners tend to assume") with an analysis of how Soviet leaders used totalitarianism to reconcile contradictions between Marxism and Leninism, thereby preserving the Great Power status the nation won during World War II.
Stagnation in the Soviet Union itself, repeated deadlock in the Soviet's orbit, these are the direct results of the political system instituted by Lenin and consolidated by Stalin. If we return to the origins of the system, we can still see why it should have become one where the technique of exercising power, expertly practiced, has come to replace every other aim, including those for which the Bolsheviks originally seized that power.