The powerful case for a society of mutual respect.
Novelist and sociologist Sennett (The Corrosion of Character) offers an unusual, well-intentioned, but frustratingly vague series of essays on fostering respect across barriers of social inequality. To tackle his subject, Sennett, who is affiliated with the London School of Economics and New York University, combines personal memoir, sociology, and deep reading in history and the social sciences. The first chapter is the best: a personal memoir of growing up poor and white in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project, with a reminiscence of a "glass war," a game in which black and white children throw broken glass at each other; of becoming a proficient cello player only to lose his musical career to a hand injury; and of his early experiences as a sociologist. These stories vividly illustrate how difficult it is to respect oneself and others, particularly given race and class differences. But the rest of the book is too abstract and meandering to provide either sharp analysis or clear proposals. Sennett explores the meaning of the term "respect" and performs an inconclusive "inquest" on three ways of earning it: "make something of yourself, take care of yourself, help others." He argues against the current view that welfare bureaucracies should be dismantled and suggests ways in which the "relationship between society and character" might "lead people to treat each other with mutual respect." Throughout, Sennett's ideas seem tentative, in keeping with his stated view of this volume as an "experiment" providing neither "practical policies... nor a full-blown autobiography." The concluding section is headed "Instead of a Conclusion," and there are times when it seems he has written something instead of a book. Still, his efforts, while incomplete, succeed in provoking thought on a worthy subject. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.