Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Michael Ignatieff, Author Metropolitan Books $30 (356p) ISBN 978-0-8050-5520-7
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. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/1998
Release date: 11/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 356 pages - 978-0-8050-6300-4
Paperback - 356 pages - 978-0-09-957731-7
Hardcover - 356 pages - 978-0-7011-6325-9
Open Ebook - 384 pages - 978-1-4464-2582-4
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