Le dernier rire

I am frequently asked to recommend the best book on ancient history or moral philosophy or the French Revolution, and, since I do not believe there is one best book on anything, I usually content myself with saying what not to read: Do not read Donald Kagan or Paul Rahe on the ancients; and do not read Martha Nussbaum or Mortimer Adler on anything.  With that caveat issued, a few cautious recommendations of a number of books might be made, accompanied by the warning that each of the writers has his biases and flaws.  Above all, readers should go to books written in the period that interests them—the historians, naturally, but also the poets and dramatists.  Do not rely on the synthesizers, even if they are great minds such as Arnold Toynbee rather than fat wallets such as Mortimer Adler.

The case of the French Revolution is very hard.  There are, of course, excellent monographs on the revolutionary army or the economy or the political infighting among revolutionary factions in Paris, written by such solid historians as Richard Cobb, George Lefebvre, Norman Hampson, and Alfred Soboul, among many others, but there is, in fact, no one good comprehensive book that reveals the full extent of the evil.  Most of the great older historians were, after all, liberals who wanted either to put the best face on the entire project or, at least, to prove that the excesses of the Terror did not stem from...

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