American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked. by James Burke
This was a disappointing book to read, and one that could have been so much better. When a book is praised by someone like Bill Gates, one expects this to be a glorious tour de force of networking expertise. What one finds instead is the sort of reportage that one would get from the gossip rag at the grocery store checkout line. Perhaps this is the sort of work that passes for contemporary and hip historical analysis of the founding fathers, a group that has no shortage of historical writing . Nevertheless, this book is not something that I found to be an enjoyable or edifying read, and it is one that gave me rather more pessimism than I had already concerning the relationship of political, economic, and cultural elites. There was a lot of decadence to be found here and this author celebrates it with reckless abandon. It is one thing to chronicle decadence and corruption and to note it however sadly or ironically, but this author positively revels in it to a degree that made me uncomfortable as a reader and would likely make others uncomfortable as well.
The basic conceit of this book is to take all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and connect them through a chain of networks until one gets to somewhere close to the present day with either a person who is somehow connected with them personally or with a different person of the same name. Thus every chapter of this book–some 300 pages or so–end with the same name that begins the chapter. Most of the chapters are mercifully short, but they are also largely devoid of any genuinely uplifting moral value. The author includes a large collection of sources, but overall the connections are an uninspiring lot and they reveal the author’s own interests to an unhealthy degree. A lot of people are connected through evolutionary “scientists,” people involved all kinds of bizarre living arrangements, as well as people involved with various businesses and universities. The author consistently refers to intellectual people as noodlers, as if it was a bad thing, and seems also to have an unhealthy obsession with people who write prolifically but remain obscure in their own lifetime and afterward, a fate that seems very likely to be my own. At times several different stories intersect with the same small group of people over and over again.
Ultimately, this book is a clever idea that is sunk by the author’s love of decadence and corruption. Yet there is a serious point that can be made here, even if it is not a serious point that I think the author of many of its readers would get. The world of elites is a very small world–that is true whether we think of art, literature, music, science, business, politics, religion, or any other number of fields. Moreover, elites from different fields tend to know each other, as this book amply demonstrates. On top of all of all of this is the fact that many of these elites have corrupt thinking and living. When you think of moral corruption like adultery and promiscuity and incest–all of which this book is extremely fond of–you will find elites involved in that. This corruption also seems tied to political and economic corruption, left-wing politics, and worldview corruption, although that may be a matter of the author’s own interests redounding back in a negative fashion than in the actual prevalence of corruption among the population of elites that the connections of this book are composed of.
 See, for example: