Contributing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
"If we wish to know the force of human genius," said Hazlitt, "we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators." Replace "Shakespeare" with "United States Constitution" and you grasp our present dilemma: men of genius wrote the sacred document; men of genius have not always been on hand to interpret it. Thank goodness, then, for Hadley Arkes, perhaps our nation's most searching writer on the Constitution.
One needn't suffer through three years of law school to appreciate the brilliance of Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law, but it helps. The book does what most law students sniff at: it traces a constitutional principle from its pre-constitutional grounds, through famous Supreme Court cases, to the pressing legal problems of today. Where others write wearying excurses on the Contracts Clause, Arkes shows us, in artful English, why Chief Justice Marshall was right in Fletcher (1810) and how Chief Justice Hughes was wrong in Blaisdell (1934). Others know to disagree with the infamous Pentagon Papers decision (1971), but Arkes, in a cheerful dismantling, shows the case to be unjustified even on its own reasoning. Where others excoriate Lochner (1905), Arkes rehabilitates it. In each instance, he tells a story, full of wit and engaging detail, and rightly so: these tales are ongoing. Mortgage crises of the sort facing the New Deal court are back. Wikileaks forces us to ask, again, when speech must yield to national security. Economic regulation of daily life ranges beyond the wildest dreams of fin-de-siecle Progressives. With Arkes we are equipped to grasp any particular right and then to examine its permissible and impermissible uses.
Arkes, alas, has been mistreated in many of his reviews. Some caricature him as representing a view that the natural law is a sort of hunting license for judicial policymaking, when he explains beautifully how that law, rightly understood, is a rigorous restraint on the power of a judge. Others treat the book's substance, but not its genuine literary charm. One is equally likely to find reference to Jack Benny as Aristotle—often in sentences that exemplify the better qualities of both. But no spirit hovers over this book like that of the immortal James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a man who was, like Arkes, an elegant theorist with a fighting spirit. Wilson told us that "[t]here is not in the whole science of politics a more solid or a more important maxim than this—that of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles." And there is not, in the whole empire of academia, a more dazzling guide to constitutional renewal than Hadley Arkes.
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Michael M. Uhlmann
Visiting Professor of Political Science, Claremont Graduate University
The late Peter Rodman was a man of considerable parts—at once brilliant, charming, and self-effacing—who served his nation with great distinction in important government posts during the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush Administrations. His cogent writings on national security and foreign policy, both in book form and in numerous thoughtful essays, retain power long after their first appearance. Leukemia took him from us at the height of his powers at the age of 64, but not before he had completed Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. It is arguably the best short introduction to modern American foreign policy now in print—lively, engaging, instructive, and wise. The book is a fitting monument to his dazzling skills.
For the budding Thomas Edison in your midst, you can't beat Allen and Max Kurzweil's Potato Chip Science, which will lead eight-year-olds (or thereabout) through 29 scientific experiments, all of which can be mastered with a few kitchen implements, a bag of potato chips, and a hearty whole spud or two. The kiddos will entertain themselves happily and safely in the kitchen with this one, while you settle into your easy chair for a quick nap.
For kids and adults who perceive and love the humor of language, you can't go wrong with anything by Richard Lederer, as for example Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon Our Language or The Play of Words: Fun and Games for Language Lover.
Finally, whenever our greatest living poet brings out a new collection, it should be an occasion to remember dear friends with a gift that will keep on giving. Seamus Heaney has just given us Human Chain, which will remind you (and your dear friends) why he's in a class by himself.
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Author, Churchill's Military Histories
The novelist and essayist Thomas McGuane is pushing 70 and has just published his 15th book. But it is the first three novels he wrote that have given me the most pleasure of any of his stuff: The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973). No recent American novelist short of Saul Bellow has commanded such a glittering arsenal of comic weaponry and taken such delight in deploying it against most known varieties of native foolishness. Not that McGuane reads like Bellow: he is more in the line of Hemingway, if Hemingway had worn his hair down to his waist, mocked his own need to be the toughest guy in the bar, carried on like the Marx Brothers, and written prose that never grew tiresome. McGuane's heroes are young men in danger of losing all dignity who attempt to salvage some residue of seriousness about themselves, with varying degrees of success. Fishing, motorcycles, rodeos, embittered middle-aged antagonists, fetching women who promise and deliver trouble by the truckload, and elegant uncoiling madcap sentences on every page are among the joys that define the young McGuane's world. He's a blast. Try him on.
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Senior Editor, Claremont Review of Books
In the course of reviewing one of Alain de Botton's books, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I became acquainted with others. I particularly recommend Status Anxiety and The Consolations of Philosophy. De Botton shows how a deft and reflective writer turns questions that are usually rendered boring and obscure by academic experts into ones that illuminate, elevate—and complicate—the decisions we all make every day.
This talent for rendering important things accessible was shared by the art historian Kenneth Clark, whose BBC series, Civilisation, first appeared on American public television nearly 40 years ago. It is now available on DVD and holds up extremely well. Clark's politics are unknowable on the basis of his 13-part survey of European cultural history. Appearing at a time when New Leftists on both sides of the Atlantic were declaring Western civilization to be a contradiction in terms, however, Clark gave heart to millions of viewers by reminding them of the ways in which what Europe gave the world was both magnificent and fragile.
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James Q. Wilson
Senior Fellow, Boston College's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy
Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, by Pauline Maier
Professor Maier's magisterial account of the ratification debates is eye opening. You were probably told that many states demanded a bill of rights be added, but you may not have been told what these new rights were supposed to be: annual election of members of the House and a ban on Congress controlling the time and place of elections.
Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson
Many writers have long assumed that there was a conflict between Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Not so. They jointly expressed the workings of this extraordinary mind and the influence of Smith's friend, David Hume.
Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman
The best book ever written about the Philadelphia convention, one that takes the reader beyond limits imposed on writers who stick too closely to the notes of James Madison.
Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser
The author of the legendary Flashman novels recounts his life as a private in the extraordinary campaign, led by General William Slim, to expel the Japanese from Burma. It is the best account I have read of how enlisted men, many of whom disliked each other, formed tight bonds so as to fight bravely in the face of a ruthless enemy.
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Jean M. Yarbrough
Professor of Government, Bowdoin College
Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order, by Charles Hill
The appearance of this book helps us better appreciate David Brooks' admiring portrait of Professor Hill some years back in the New York Times. It is an extraordinary meditation on statesmanship by one of its master practitioners and professors. Would that every college and university taught diplomacy and international relations in this learned and humane way. A beautiful book.
Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli
Readers of the CRB need no introduction to Bill Voegeli, whose judicious essays have been a staple of the journal. In this fact-laden, data-driven analysis, Voegeli starts with a question so obvious that we wonder why it took so long to be asked: at what point would progressives and liberals be willing to say that their welfare state programs had succeeded? Voegeli's argument, which also considers conservative and libertarian critiques of the welfare state, has the great merit of moderation and common sense. Don't be put off by the charts and tables, the book brims with dry humor.
The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes
New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America, by Burton W. Folsom, Jr.
Both these books offer powerful challenges to the reigning orthodoxy about FDR's economic policies and their effectiveness in ending the Great Depression. So entrenched is this orthodoxy that readers will be astonished by some of the authors' revelations, such as FDR setting the daily price of gold by "lucky numbers." It is enough that these books drive economists like Paul Krugman mad. May they signal the beginning of a much needed revisionism of this critical period.
Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought, by James W. Ceaser
A tour de force through three centuries of European views of America, with Tocqueville and Leo Strauss emerging as two of her greatest defenders. The chapters on Heidegger and the end of history are gems. If you missed this when it was first published, now is the time. Do not delay.
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Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley School of Law
Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
Having made it through all of the Sharpe series, I decided to take on another British saga, but this one at the opposite end of British life. Dance to the Music of Time is made up of 12 separate novels. They follow the lives of Britain's upper class from the 1920s to the 1970s, roughly tracing the profound effects of the fall of the British Empire on its upper crust. While pessimistic by the end, the series reminds me of how different Americans are from the British and how fashionable comparisons today between the decline of Britain and the position of the United States miss the mark completely.
Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, by Robert Kagan
Kagan's book is part of a growing trend that upends the grade-school version of American history—one put forward by John Kerry during his ill-fated try for the Presidency—that sees the U.S. as historically isolationist, all of its wars as ones of self-defense, and its expansion across the continent as a peaceful inevitability. Along with excellent works by John Lewis Gaddis and Walter McDougall, Kagan argues that the United States, the "Dangerous Nation" has launched wars of its own to achieve its foreign policy goals of expanding across the continent and removing any powerful competitors along the way. A second volume is to come that takes the story of America's expansionist foreign policy into the 20th Century.
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, by Edward N. Luttwak
Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1979) is a classic account of the way that the Romans defended their empire from centuries of external threats. The Romans provide centuries of information that allow for the testing of various ideas about military strategy. Luttwak now turns to an equally important, but less well known, question: how did the Byzantines preserve their empire for so long? It's a fascinating read for those not just interested in military strategy, but those who want to learn more about the successor to the Roman Empire.