Toynbee's A Study of History, in DC Somervell's two-volume abridgement.
Trouble is I'm reading several other books at the same time, all shorter and more digestible than this magnum opus. I think I'll need to read it end to end at least twice before a verdict emerges. Expect one about Christmas.
You have to be impressed with Somervell though. Do English schools stil have such teachers ? It's WWII, and for your own amusement you devote the evenings to condensing the first six volumes of Toynbee's 12 volume work. After the war you send the great man a copy - and he loves it, and asks you to do the rest.
Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate - pretty digestible - although like Toynbee, his whirlwind, one-chapter tours round some subjects - like sociology and philosophy - leave you taking a lot on trust. Nonetheless, terrific stuff with highly political implications - as well as a valuable update on what current science tells us about the nature-nurture debate.
"Why is the author's name bigger than the book title ?" said my 11-year old daughter - and yes, he is a bit of a clever-clogs and a good mate of Richard Dorkins. Read it regardless.
His juxtaposition of two opposed views of humanity in his chapter on politics, the Tragic Vision to which Laban is now signed up after years of subscription to its opposite, the Utopian vision, sent me to the source of this idea (to which Pinker gives full credit), Thomas Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed. The most readable of the three and absolutely cracking stuff. Get it from Amazon.
"The crucial role of vision," Sowell argues, "is that it enables a vast range of beliefs to be regarded as presumptively true until definitively disproved by unchallengeable evidence." Liberals --or, to use Sowell's disparaging label, "the anointed" -- view the world as "a very tidy place," where "prescient politicians can 'invest' tax dollars in 'the industries of the future,' where criminals can be 'rehabilitated,' irresponsible mothers taught 'parenting skills,' and where all sorts of other social problems can be 'solved."' All this is possible, as liberals see things, because human nature, as a "social construct," is far more malleable than most people imagine. Thus, in the vision of the anointed, "there is obviously a very expansive role for government and for the anointed in prescribing what government should do."
Sowell contrasts the vision of the anointed with "the tragic vision" of conservatives. What is "tragic" about this vision is that it assumes that problems such as crime, poverty, and irresponsibility cannot finally be "solved." Conservatives, recognizing that "there are no solutions, only trade-offs," do not go in for grand schemes to put an end to poverty, for example, or make health care a fundamental right, or pursue what Sowell derisively calls "cosmic justice." It is not that conservatives are happy that some people are poor, or without health insurance, or whatever. Nor, for that matter, are they complacent about it. Rather, they realize that liberal schemes to eradicate these evils a) never work, and b) inevitably impose huge social costs of their own.
Which is why, after thirty years of ever increasing sex education in British schools, and thirty years of increasing sexual activity and sexually transmitted disease among schoolchildren, sex education will soon be compulsory in English schools. It's already compulsory in the Land of My Absent Fathers.
"Whatever you did before that didn't work, do more of it"