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The Best Books of 2003

Nonfiction

December 07, 2003

The single most devastating statistic in American life is this: The average black high school senior reads at the level of the average white eighth-grader. This, more than anything else, explains why race remains such an overwhelmingly salient fact in American life. It explains why affirmative action is, or at least appears to be, necessary. It explains to a very large degree why blacks continue to lag so far behind whites in income and socioeconomic status. And, as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom demonstrate with remorseless lucidity in "No Excuses," the gap cannot be explained away by racism, testing bias, inequitable resources or even by poverty itself. The gap is not only an incontrovertible fact but a fact rooted in black experience and behavior. The Thernstroms do not believe that school is the cause of black failure, but they insist that, given the right innovations, school can offer a solution. "No Excuses" is the most closely argued and deeply considered version of a claim that has become increasingly common among conservatives -- that school choice is the best cure for persistent black poverty. The Thernstroms have done an enormous service by tracing the great problem of our time to its root and, at the same time, by clearing out of the way so much of the cant that clutters discussion of school reform.

-- James Traub

*

Order and Exclusion

Cluny and Christendom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam, (1000-1150)

Dominique Iogna-Prat

Translated from the French by Robert Edwards

Cornell University Press: 392 pp., $45

A renowned French medieval historian, Dominique Iogna-Prat in "Order and Exclusion" has written two books: one on monastic history and the other on the history of intolerance. The history of the Cluniac monks, which takes up roughly half the volume, is the most concise and insightful survey yet written of the place of monasticism in medieval society from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Anyone who wishes to understand how monasticism took shape in Western Europe and how it was, exactly, that monks and monasteries fit into the whole of medieval society will find here a superb introduction to the subject that is not only anchored in an impressive array of primary sources but also in constant conversation with other historians through footnotes as dense as the forests of medieval Europe. Though this is a book aimed at scholars, nonspecialists should not fear getting lost. When it comes to clarity of expression and insights into often puzzling complexities, "Order and Exclusion" complements and even rivals Georges Duby's magnificent "The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined." "Order and Exclusion" is indispensable reading, especially for anyone trying to understand the deep roots of the religiously inspired fanaticisms that still bedevil us in the 21st century.

-- Carlos Eire

*

The Pinochet File

A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability

Edited by Peter Kornbluh

The New Press: 552 pp., $29.95

Exactly 30 years ago, on that other Tuesday, Sept. 11, as Chilean Air Force jets bombed the government palace where I worked as a young translator to elected socialist President Salvador Allende, as Chilean troops trampled a century of democratic rule (and the dark night of a dictatorship that would last 17 years descended), we understood that the U.S. played some role in the coup.

A year before, Jack Anderson made public some of the anti-Allende machinations concocted by the Nixon administration in cahoots with the ITT corporation. In the ensuing years, kick-started by the 1976 Senate Church Committee investigations, much more about American covert action has come to light in dribs and drabs.

Now, thanks to Peter Kornbluh, we have the first complete, almost day-to-day and fully documented record of this sordid chapter in Cold War American history. Much in the way Stephen Kinzer's "Bitter Fruit" fully chronicled the CIA intromission into Guatemala, "The Pinochet File" should be considered the long-awaited book of record on U.S. intervention in Chile. Here is a veritable catalog of all the smoking guns used by Washington to obliterate Chilean democracy. But anyone hoping to find documentary evidence only of an arrogant imperial power blithely manipulating its pliant Latin American ally for its geopolitical gain is in for some surprises.

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