19th June 1998 at 01:00
Life, wrote Hobbes, is solitary, nasty, brutish and short. While today's claustrophobic planet is a far from solitary place, increasing nastiness festers in the tensions between ideologies of freedom and the growth of interdependence.

This moral conflict is Geoff Mulgan's starting point. His solution to it is Connexity (Vintage pound;7.99). Essentially, connexity is humanity's need for cumulative co-responsibility. If that sounds trite Nineties mutualism, its implications are significantly explored for politicians, business leaders, et al. Not least in education, where "managing connections", not just exam passes, accepts that freedom (parental choice, information) involves a web of shared obligations. The absence of connexity implies exclusions, rejection, even criminality.

Success in developing responsibility among criminals depends on their character, which is why standardised justice systems are anachronistic. Imprisonment, the subject of A Sin Against the Future (Penguin pound;8.99) was devised for the needs of 18th-century society; it needs urgent reappraisal for the 21st. Vivien Stern, wise and experienced in penal reform, provides it in this unforgiving analysis of a flawed system and offers a better way. The rationality of this disturbing book puts populist claptrap to shame. If you believe in the concept of society, please read it. Stern's hopes, like Mulgan's, rest with a qualitative improvement in the nature of relationships and responsibilities.

In Tropical Diseases (Flamingo pound;8.99) Robert Desowitz also warns that our world cannot be compartmentalised. Syphilis swept 15th-century Europe; today's equivalent might be Aids. Thankfully, humankind has been blessed in its research-heroes. Thus, in 1793, a Dr Firth proved his anti-contagionist theories by drinking the black vomit of yellow fever victims. Survival might depend on a modern Dr Firth probing the lymphoid tissue of a chicken's rectum. A witty, erudite, enjoyable medical history.

Life was inescapably deranged for anyone trapped in the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, in which more than 4 million people died. Gavin Young's A Wavering Grace (Penguin pound;7.99) personalises its horrors through his account of the gracious Bong family. This is a poignant story, of the war and its aftermath, when Young returned to a country he loved. He writes memorably of people and places: the beautiful landscape; the ugliness of death and American redneck civilians. The book is unpolitical, often surprising (Ho Chi Minh's "dalliance" with Mae West) and affecting. As Dang Van Que, Young's friend of 30 years, asked of the war, "Pourquoi?" Who was co-responsible?

The same questions, repeated after the Tories' catastrophe in May 1997, are analysed in Major (Phoenix pound;9.99) by historian Anthony Seldon, who is also headmaster of Brighton College. This scholarly, balanced biography eschews the one-dimensional explanations favoured by the assassins who targeted John Major's own failings. Its permeating fairness and decency reflect both subject and author.

The impressive 856 pages brim with detail, such as Messrs Howard, Lilley and Chris Patten contesting contemporaneously the Huntingdonshire seat. Incidental or significant? Major favoured consensual leadership, which requires co-responsibility. Instead, many luminaries made plain their lack of common beliefs and loyalty. "That's just not cricket," as John probably said to Norma en route for the Oval.

For real sledging, however, try The Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell edited by Richard Greene (Virago pound;9.99). Elizabeth I meets Elizabeth (Prozac Nation) Wurtzel. A treat.

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