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In Praise of Nepotism


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About the Author

Adam Bellow is the former editorial director of the Free Press and is currently an editor-at-large for Doubleday. His articles and reviews have appeared in Talk, National Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, where a section of this book appeared.


George Orwell once wrote, "To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others." This logic is at the heart of Bellow's conception of nepotism, which he means to rescue from the near-universal scorn it suffers today. Son of Nobel-winning novelist Saul, former head of the Free Press and now an editor-at-large at Doubleday, Bellow seeks to redefine nepotism not as a "deplorable lack of public spirit" but as the very "bedrock of social existence"-a natural, healthy concern for family and, by extension, those ethnically or otherwise similar to ourselves. This is no brittle screed, as the title might imply, but rather a impressively full-blooded and wide-ranging work of scholarship, demonstrating that the individualistic U.S. is quite exceptional in its rejection of nepotism. Bellow assimilates biology, theology and gargantuan chunks of human history with brio, never losing the thread of his argument or the attention of his audience. Since nepotism is about power, the book has an unavoidable top-down orientation, as it is almost exclusively about the ruling class throughout history, from Borgia and Bonaparte to our own Adams, Roosevelt and Kennedy clans. Since nepotism is synonymous with familial interest, it is hardly surprising that Bellow is able to find ample evidence of its existence throughout history-even in "egalitarian" America. At times he casts such a wide net that he risks blurring nepotism with the entirety of human history. However, his analysis of the flexibility and complexity of nepotism's forms is utterly enthralling and stimulating. (July 15) Forecast: Given Bellow's reputation and connections, this will receive major review and media coverage (though his assertion that the U.S. needs more nepotism will rankle many); it will be excerpted in the July/Aug. issue of the Atlantic. It is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club. 50,000 first printing Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Nepotism is widely condemned yet even more widely practiced. Adam Bellow shows why this is so, and he makes a fascinating and well-researched argument that this is not necessarily a bad thing."
-Walter Isaacson, author of Kissinger: A Life and former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time

"Some features of human nature, like aggression and adultery, get a consistently bad press but remain stubbornly persistent. Nepotism, likewise, is universally condemned but seems just as ineradicable. Adam Bellow explains to us why we are so addicted to what we so deplore, and does so in plain English with convincing scholarship. He brings together biology and history in a way that is intelligible to the general reader and challenging to the discipline-bound professional. Nepotism has never looked so good."
-Robin Fox, professor of anthropology, Rutgers University, and author of Kinship and Marriage and Encounter With Anthropology "I read In Praise of Nepotism straight through in about a day and a half. It is a most engaging text, exceedingly well written, concise, lucid, with marvelous descriptions and characterizations. It is also the first time I have read such an angle on history. Adam Bellow is almost alone in relating the family to politics, to power and affairs of state. This is the book's originality, and it makes for a fresh contribution to the study of history."
- John Patrick Diggins, Distinguished Professor of History, Graduate Center, The City University of New York "Nepotism, like sex, is a powerful human motive that many people are too squeamish to examine. Adam Bellow has made an important contribution to our understanding of the human condition with this sparkling and eye-opening natural history of an underappreciated but eternally fascinating topic."
- Steven Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor, MIT, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works

"Adam Bellow is like the best teacher you ever had. You are awed by his range and erudition, and you are carried along by the page-turning drama he makes of ideas and history. To see nepotism as a natural human impulse, a force in the advancement of civilization, and an enemy and friend of democracy and free markets was all a revelation. And Bellow's description of a benevolent and inclusive nepotism is a strikingly original idea that will make this book a landmark."
-- Shelby Steele

This expansive book is, surprisingly, the first major work on the historically pervasive phenomenon of nepotism. Bellow argues that nepotism (considered broadly as a wide range of behaviors to benefit natural or acquired kinship groups) is a basic human instinct and intrinsically beneficial if frequently ill practiced. He posits real and fictional Mafia families as emblematic of nepotism, notes nepotistic behaviors in animal societies, and tours human history from ancient China, India, and Africa, through Greece and Rome, the Hebrews, and the early Christian Church, to the Borgias, Bonapartes, and Rothschilds. He then assesses nepotism in America, where democratic ideals of equality, freedom, and merit stand in apparent opposition to family favoritism, yet such dynasties as the Adamses, Roosevelts, and Kennedys flourish alongside countless business, sports, professional, trade, and entertainment families. An editor at Doubleday and former editorial director of the Free Press, Bellow is also the son of Saul Bellow and a confessed beneficiary of nepotism. His engaging history and articulate defense of this much-maligned practice will spark a good deal of discussion. This work exemplifies the joy and value of amateur scholarship and is warmly recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/03.]-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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