Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World

James MacGregor Burns, Author
James MacGregor Burns. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-02489-3
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You’d expect this book from an author who claims F.D.R. as a hero. Burns’s 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment—the flourishing of ideas that’s the subject of this book—is essentially the New Deal writ large, the story of intentional improvement brought about by thoughts and action. Nearing the end of a long career, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award (for 1970’s Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, 1940–1945) now adds to his long list of publications (each of which is a heady mix of history and reform liberalism) this captivating tale of the (mostly) men who altered the Western world’s way of thinking. Briskly and beautifully told, it’s basically a triumphal story, and therein lies the book’s only flaw: Burns scarcely addresses the longstanding conservative and communitarian opposition to the Enlightenment (especially its emphasis on individual freedom). The writing never lapses into academese, and it has the same propulsiveness of another, though vaster, survey of ideas: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Even if you can’t take this as an authoritative study of the Enlightenment, and even if it relies on the more detailed scholarship of others, it’s still a superb work of synthesis. Agent: Ike Williams, Katherine Flynn, and Hope Denekamp; Kneerim, Williams & Bloom. (Oct. 29)
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