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Cullen Murphy Reads 'Are We Rome?'

by Linda Kulman
Jun 18, 2007

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Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

In Cullen Murphy's new book, Are We Rome? the author argues that in fact we are — just in unexpected ways. It's not so much America's tendency toward decadence and our astounding military might that make us like Rome. It's the dangerous blurring of public and private responsibilities, paired with an inflated sense of power that can blind us to what's happening beyond our borders. Fortunately, Murphy's book displays no such hubris. The Boston Globe says it's a lot like the author himself: "reflective, curious, mild and measured."

Murphy's interests are nothing if not eclectic. His previous books include Rubbish!, an anthropological study of garbage; The World According to Eve, about women and the Bible; and the aptly named Just Curious, a collection of essays taken largely from his column in The Atlantic Monthly. And Murphy has put his degree in medieval history to good use: For 25 years, he wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, illustrated by his father.

Murphy is even better known as the unflappable editor who spent two decades helping define the Atlantic. But he moved to Vanity Fair last year rather than follow the Atlantic when it relocated to Washington.

Official Washington, like Rome, prizes its status as the city around which the world revolves, Murphy writes in Are We Rome? Yet there's a crucial difference. Where Rome was all about self-satisfaction, America prides itself on self-improvement. It's this optimistic quality, he believes, that may make it possible for us to reinvent ourselves instead of going the way of the ancient empire.

This reading of Are We Rome? took place in May 2007 at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.

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