The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, by Isaiah Berlin (Pimlico, £15 in UK)


Sir Isaiah Berlin died last year, aged 88, and this book had appeared in hardback only months before his death. Essentially he was a philosopher, but the various essays rarely deal with metaphysical ideas or abstractions; Berlin was a pragmatic thinker with a strong sense of history and of political and social realities. He belonged to a generation which was consciously internationalist, libertarian, rationalist and secular, looking back to the 18th century and the Enlightenment more than to the great German thinkers of the 19th century. Predictably, he was hostile to nationalism but capable of admiring Churchill. Since he had spent his childhood in Russia, he was well qualified to understand Russian writers and thinkers, and among the best things in the book are the essays on Tolstoy and Herzen, and Berlin's account of his personal meetings with Akhmatova and Pasternak when they were objects of deep official suspicion in their homeland.