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Isaiah Berlin: a life Paperback – January, 2000

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage UK (January 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099577313
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099577317
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #726,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Russian by birth, Jewish by descent, English by choice, Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) knit together three identities into a cosmopolitan sensibility that informed his contributions as one of the 20th century's most influential and important intellectuals. Based on his experiences as a child during the Russian Revolution and his friendships with such beleaguered writers as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, Berlin affirmed the superiority of individual freedom and judgment to Marxist totalitarianism. But he made fellow liberals uncomfortable with his unwelcome reminders that their ideals--liberty, equality, social justice--inevitably conflicted and required painful tradeoffs. London-based journalist Michael Ignatieff, who spent 10 years interviewing Berlin before his death, adeptly captures an appealing man: lighthearted, spontaneous, a brilliant conversationalist and lecturer (one of Oxford University's most popular professors), able to savor private happiness despite an essentially tragic view of political life. Ignatieff admires Berlin's views without accepting them uncritically; similarly, he acknowledges personal failings while appreciating the serenity Berlin achieved against considerable odds. This lucidly written, thoughtfully argued work is a model of the well-balanced biography, carefully evaluating the complex interplay of character and conviction in one remarkable individual. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Over the last 10 years of Isaiah Berlin's life (1909-1997), Ignatieff tape-recorded conversations with the philosopher in what he describes as "a virtuoso display of a great intelligence doing battle with loss." Because this biography is based primarily on these talks?as well as on interviews with Berlin's widow, friends, students and colleagues?the tone is informally conversational rather than pedantically authoritative. After a prosperous childhood in Latvia, Berlin's family was forced to move to London, where young Isaiah absorbed the British values of decency, the toleration of dissent and the importance of liberty over efficiency. At Oxford, he developed intellectually under the likes of Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, R.G. Collingwood, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf. Berlin did well at Oxford?he was elected Tutor at New College, Fellow of All Souls?but with war coming, he welcomed a chance to work for the Ministry of Information, first in the U.S., where his brilliant wartime dispatches (avidly read by Churchill) established his reputation in both Britain and America, and later as part of a Foreign Office team in Moscow (where he met Boris Pasternak) and Leningrad (where he began his transformative friendship with Anna Akhmatova). Throughout the book, Ignatieff concentrates on his subject's conversation and flow of ideas. Berlin championed freedom but not dogmatically. In his view, to be true to human nature in its diversity, we have to embrace contradictory values; otherwise, we lose our humanity. Ignatieff's biography is worthy of its subject, lucidly explaining how this "Paganini of words" used philosophy to defend civilized society.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

The story is told with clarity and sympathy .
Shalom Freedman
Ignatieff is at his best in his painstakingly detailed biography of that intellectual giant, Isaiah Berlin.
Kartick Kumar
I just finished reading "Isaiah Berlin" and must say that it is one of the finest books I have ever read.
Richard F. Jackson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Norman Lezin, on March 12, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I would give this brilliant book six stars if I could. It was a great read, and I learned a lot about myself, as well as about Berlin.
It gave coherence and voice to many of my beliefs that followed Isaiah Berlin's, even though I only knew of him, if at all, as a mythic English intellectual whose writings were Delphic and seemed opaque to me.
I, too, could never identify with the smugness of idealogues on the left or the right. The narrow strand between these groups has been lonely terrain for the past 50 years of my adult life.
I congratulate Michael Ignatieff on a masterpiece, an evocation of a great, courageous man who literally kept his cool over the better part of the century, when all about him were shouting fire. I hope his values take root for the next century.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Mandel on November 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Isaiah Berlin was an intellectual figure whose deep subtlety of thought never made him inscrutable. His reputation as a standard bearer of liberalism is also widely but imperfectly known. Michael Ignatieff has made good this state of affairs, aided by the decade-long co-operation of his subject, who put none of the usual obstacles of authorised biography in his path.
Born in Riga to traditional Jewish parents and raised there and later in St Petersburg in the last days of Tsarist Russia and the early years of the Soviet Union, Berlin was taken providentially to Britain where he adjusted with ease to British education and mores. His detractors would later identify his defence of British institutions as a deformation of émigré idealisation. His school career gave only slight indication of the achievement to follow at Oxford, where he was elected at 23 a fellow of All Souls, perhaps the most rarefied, in its association of powerful men and untrammelled scholars, of Oxford colleges. The chaos and mounting dread left behind in Russia immunised Berlin from the millenarian ideologies that so infected his contemporaries.
Chance took him to America during the war and into the service of the British Foreign Office, where he dazzled his superiors from Churchill down with the probity and depth of his copious reports on the American scene. Churchill would comment approvingly on his memoranda to Eden, an insecure politician who appreciated Berlin's brain but suspected expertise and who took the opportunity to note in margin, 'There is perhaps a too generous Oriental flavour' (p. 125).
So impressed was Churchill with Berlin that he insisted that he be invited to dinner, where he quizzed his guest on the war and strategy, only to receive bland replies.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 5, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Michael Ignatieff spent many hours with Isaiah Berlin over the ten years before Berlin's death, aged 88, in 1997, and the frank portrait that emerges in this book is of a very human intellectual with a deep attachment to liberty. The book traces Berlin's life from his early years in Riga and revolutionary St. Petersburg, and his family's flight to England, to his sure rise through the hallowed halls of Oxford and the Foreign Office to the very pinnacles of the British academic establishment. Berlin quickly put aside the sterility of formal philosophical debate and engaged himself in a life-long study of the history of ideas, and in particular the evolution of liberal thought. Berlin's overwhelming interest was in people, and the book catalogues his varied encounters with a gallery of huge personalities over the course of the century. The reader catches glimpses of Churchill, Kennedy, and literary giants such as Anna Akhmatova. Berlin's persona is part Russian Jew, part Englishman of letters, and Ignatieff draws out the contradictions and felicitous harmonies in this cultural mixture. Berlin had an unerring knack for being in the right place at the right time, and in distilling Berlin's extraordinary life, Ignatieff provides a lively overview of a century of ideas. An excellent read.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Toby Joyce on November 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
A prophet 'speaks for God' or (more loosely) is a 'truth-teller'. Berlin was a 'truth-teller' in his re-statement of political liberalism in the midst of the 20th century. Berlin was one of many intellectuals transplanted due to the revolutions and upheavals following WWI - he fell in love with England, and became an Oxford don. He might have remained for the rest of his life a little-known figure on the fringe of the 'Oxford philosophy' movement (called 'linguistic analysis') but for three things. One was his Zionism, though it was more the gentle Zionism of Weizmann, than the triumphalist variety of Ben Gurion. Another was the Second World War, where he became a key figure in British diplomacy in Washington, and got to know many New-Dealers. A third (and perhaps the decisive one) was his long stay in Moscow in 1945, where he met the poets Anna Ahkmatova and Boris Pasternak. As a result of this, there grew his fascination with the history of ideas, where he was to make his greatest mark on the intellectual life of the 20th century. Berlin's main thesis is the inconsistency (and opposition) of human ends, and against the theory that all rational human ends must be one. Thus 'Libery, Equality and Fraternity' is a zero-sum game - if you pursue equality, then a dimunition of some (or some people's) liberty is inescapable. This is an excellent biography with a crystal-clear exposition of Berlin's ideas, and a fascinating insight into 'one man's life'.
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