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Books in Brief

The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs (New York: Knopf; 1,024 pp., $45.00).  This superb, and superbly readable, book is a model of historical writing for a general readership, outstanding for its concision, clarity, and even-handedness.  The strong narrative component easily accommodates a tremendous amount of detail without ever becoming weighed down by it, while never losing touch with the book’s formative themes: the historical experience of the English people, and their memory and understanding of that experience.  Tombs believes that “most nations and their shared identities are modern creations, the products of literacy, urbanization, and state-led cultural and political unification,” yet he acknowledges that ancient nations (mostly on the edges of Western Europe) do exist, and among these is the English nation.  It is often said in the present ideological era that the United States is a nation dedicated to an abstract principle, or rather a collection of principles—a concept Tombs, whether consciously or not, reformulates in the case of England, the idea of which indeed preceded the reality, but rather in the sense that the English became aware of themselves as a distinctive culture, beginning with the arrival of Augustine from Rome in 596 and the creation of “a single Church of the gens Anglorum.”  Also in a time...

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