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Books this Season: Nonfiction

Autumn 2007

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2007 autumn season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction

Political books

Roberto Saviano's book "Gomorrha" about the Camorra in Naples has received extensive praise from the critics. The NZZ, for example, lauds it as a "breathtaking mixure of literary reportage and documentary novel." The critics are unanimous that Saviano, who is now under police protection, has collected a hitherto undreamed of wealth of material on Europe's largest Mafia organisation and its internal wars, relating for example how the Camora plays a key role in Italian haute couture, how it has modernised the drug trade and how people who get on its bad side disappear in acid baths. The FAZ calls the book an "epic of our times." The SZ notes that in concentrating on decentralisation, flexibility and franchising, the Camorra is in very good company. The SZ, however, is on its own in finding the literary qualities of the book limited.

The critics agree that Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanian-British philosopher teaching at Princeton, is predestined to write a philosophy of cosmopolitanism. In "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, now available in German, Appiah argues that disparate truths and a plurality of value systems can only enrich cultural interaction. For the NZZ Appiah is simply a "brilliant mind," and his arguments absolutely convincing, while the SZ praises their shrewdness and readability. For its part, the FR flearns from Appiah to turn its gaze from the edge of the world to its centre and seek commonalities rather than universals. The taz however is dissatisfied, feeling there's more to cosmopolitanism than developing an "ability for discussion" whose goal consists of "getting used" to the foreign.

The Bruckner-Buruma debate which took place at and its German sister-site attracted international attention. All contributions have now been brought together under the title "Islam in Europa." Available in German only, the book also includes Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Berlin speech" and Ian Buruma's portrait of Tariq Ramadan.


Rüdiger Safranski couldn't have brought out his bestselling history of "Romanticism" at a better time. Romanticism is in the air, as Die Welt comments somewhat smugly about the recent convergence of culture and belief in the German culture pages. Nevertheless it feels deeply rewarded by this book, and predicts that Germans will be caught up in this "German affair" for a long time to come. Die Zeit calls the book "simply fantastic," praising the devotion and the exactitude of Safranski's portrayal of the poets and thinkers of the Romantic era. The FAZ flatly declares any criticism as superfluous. And the taz notes with interest that Safranski puts the 68ers in the Romantic tradition. Only the NZZ is disappointed. Not only has Safranski has taken on more that he can chew, it writes, he has also neglected events outside Germany. (For more on this book, read our feature "The enchantment of the world")


Thomas Karlauf seems to have done everything right in his biography of the charismatic poet and prophet "Stefan George" who influenced among others Claus von Stauffenberg, ringleader of the failed plot against Hitler. The NZZ is delighted with Karlauf's dauntless examination of the homosexuality of George and his circle of followers. The FAZ considers the book a "didactic play on the momentous meanderings of the German literary intelligentsia." The taz praises Karlauf's stylistic asceticism, and is relieved that rather than being artifically hauled into the present day, George is left in the past, a "feverish figure in a nervous epoch." And the FR is delighted that Karlauf doesn't chip away at George's reputation as one of the "major poets of the 20th century." (See our review "The spell of the poet führer.")


The critics are wowed by Fritz Stern's reminiscences "Five Germanys I have known," now available in German. The FAZ is much impressed by the way the Jewish historian's blends his personal narrative with a century of German history. The NZZ admires the book's humour and intelligence, while the FR lauds Stern's unshakeable liberalism and his ability to remain the "educated grand seigneur," even when in the wrong. The SZ taxes Stern for his flights of grandiloquence, especially when he starts listing his meetings with major world figures. In Die Zeit, historian Norbert Frei praises his colleague's book as "instructive, clever and deeply moving."


Recent years may have witnessed the return of religion, but that hasn't stopped prominent atheists from striking back this autumn with feisty attacks against belief, earning them indignant reactions from the feuilletons in the process. The least unscathed is Christopher Hitchens with "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," now out in German. Although the NZZ dismisses the book as one-sided and banal, the SZ finds it ingenious, subtle and stylistically brilliant, and is particularly in awe of Hitchens' description of the destructive consequences of belief for rational cohabitation. Die Welt is also much impressed by Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" (German version) which it calls an "outcry of reason against unreason run rampant." The NZZ believes that Dawkins is simply rabid however, while the SZ casts him as a "biologistic hate preacher."

Cultural history

The critics are dumbfounded that before David Blackbourn, no one had ever had the idea to write a history of the German landscape. Because in "The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany," now available in German, Blackbourn delights his readers with enlightening insights, arguing, for example, that for all their romantic idealisation of streams and woods, the Germans' relationship to nature has primarily been technical. For the FAZ the book exudes "exquisite tranquility," while the NZZ calls it "magnificent". Die Zeit, for its part, finds this study on the conceptual history of the German landscape both profound and entertaining.


With his book "Galilei der Künstler" (Galileo the artist), art historian Horst Bredekamp has enraptured colleagues and critics alike. Rarely, all agree, has someone written so profoundly or so grippingly about the relationship between art and science. The taz celebrates the book as an "adventure of knowledge." The NZZ also gives top marks, impressed above all by Galileo's images of the moon, printed here for the first time. The SZ finds the book exciting, Die Zeit "breathtaking" and the FAZ "bewitchingly beautiful."

Hanno Rauterberg's "Und das ist Kunst?!" (and that's art?!) has received mixed praise from the critics. The book, an attempt to orient readers in the thicket of the art business, the museums and art history, lists the ten most popular errors of contemporary art, and provides a benchmark for judging art. The FAZ has learned much from the work, and is particularly pleased by Rauterberg's "instructions for looking." The FR, by contrast, is not at all happy with the author's "I criteria" for aesthetic judgment.


Misha Aster was commissioned on the 125th anniversary of the Berliner Philharmoniker to write a study on the orchestra during the Third Reich. The critics are delighted with Aster's talent and versatility as an author, as well as his understanding of history, dramaturgy, composition and opera directing. The FAZ lauds Aster for his clear, coherent and balanced account of "Das Reichsorchester," which was both priveleged and manipulated by the Nazis. Der Tagesspiegel appreciates Aster's "steadfastly objective tone," which refrains from any urge to moralise. The SZ also pays tribute to the book, in particular its analysis of sources which have long been ignored or repudiated.

Fiction / Nonfiction

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