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Wilfred M. McClay
SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, by Mustafa Akyol
A courageous and hopeful book by a talented young Turkish journalist, arguing that there are more than sufficient resources within Islam to supply the requisite foundations for liberal democracy in the Muslim world. He may or may not be right. His case rests on the example of modern Turkey, whose success as a secular Islamic nation seems far less secure today than it did even five years ago. Nevertheless, his book is an impressive challenge, from a writer who is exceptionally friendly to the United States and the West, to the belief that Islam is in its very essence opposed to liberty.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
This novel by the distinguished British writer won the 2011 Booker Prize. It is a haunting story about the mutability of memory, and specifically about what happens to a man when one of the premises around which his early life was built turns out to be false—how much there is to disentangle, to be reconceived, how hard it is to be confronted with the fact that so much of our way of remembering our past involves subtle acts of self-justification. And in this particular case, there is the realization of a sin for which there is no ready means of atonement.
The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner
Speaking of sin and guilt: this is a wild ride of a book, and in some ways a typical product of French intellectual culture (i.e., much stronger on assertion than on proof), Bruckner's study nonetheless bravely raises the question of why the West has become so pervasively guilt-ridden in our times, and insightfully notes all the ways that quasi-religious judgments have insinuated themselves into the thinking of a supposedly secular world. As a consequence, guilt has become a cultural pathology, and it threatens to disarm and demoralize the West at a time when it can ill afford it. Bruckner also counsels his fellow Europeans to knock off the cheap anti-Americanism, and recognize that they have no future without a strong, capable America. I'm not sure he understands America very well, but one nevertheless welcomes the warm sentiments.
The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, by Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein spent nearly eight years in the White House as a domestic policy advisor, with particular responsibility for liaison with the social-conservative and religious communities. This memoir, despite the absence of either kissing or telling in its pages, offers an absorbing glimpse into that world, and an admiring look at the leadership style of the 43rd president. It will tell you a lot about Goeglein that he chose to begin his book with an account of his own personal downfall, a plagiarism scandal that cost him his job. He could have buried the story, or treated it as a sidebar. Instead, he led with it, and presented his own story as an account of redemption and gratitude.
The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill, by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Everything issuing from Gertrude Himmelfarb's pen is worth reading and worth pondering, and this small, imaginatively conceived book is no exception. It has several levels of significance. On the surface, it is a graceful account of the very real, if neglected, strain of philosemitic ideas and sentiments running through British history, from Cromwell's support for the readmission of the Jews to Britain in the 17th century, to Churchill's strong support for the creation of the modern nation of Israel in the 20th century. But on a deeper level, it is a rebuke to the dangerous and impoverishing idea that the core of Jewish identity is anti-Semitism and almost nothing else. It is at the same time a grateful tribute to the nation and people to whom Himmelfarb has devoted most of her scholarly energies in a long and brilliant career. And finally, it is an expression of hope that the British nation will prove worthy of its legacy in the years to come.
Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch
Adam Kirsch may well be the best younger literary critic of our time, and those who do not yet know his writing would do well to start with this small book. It is a defense of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling against his often mindless detractors. But in defending Trilling it is chiefly defending the things that Trilling defended: the independence of the imagination, the seriousness and moral gravity of art, the indispensable importance of literature, and the value of the individual sensibility, over against all the forces that impinge upon it and coerce it. And one might add, it supports the value to our culture of the very kind of literary criticism that Kirsch now so impressively practices. Kudos to Yale University Press, too, for initiating this "Why X Matters" series, which is a great way of reintroducing a whole generation to formative figures of the past who have been silenced or caricatured by the regnant conventional wisdom.
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Manager, the American Enterprise Institute's Program on American Citizenship
I spent a month in China last summer, and quickly became a fan of travel writer Peter Hessler. Hessler is an official MacArthur Foundation "genius" (he won earlier this year), but don't hold it against him. He is also the author of three extraordinary, closely observed books about modern China: River Town (2001), about teaching English in rural China as a Peace Corps volunteer; Oracle Bones (2007), a collection of portraits (including an oracle bones expert, a factory worker, and a Uighur trader); and Country Driving (2011), a journey through China's new car culture.
If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the delightful Country Driving. As he begins his 7,000-mile trip along the Great Wall, Hessler describes the joys and hazards of driving in a country new to automobiles—the long stretches of open road, the sketchy maps and absent street signs, and a driving test which features such questions as:
If another motorist stops to ask you directions, you should
a. not tell him
b. reply patiently and accurately
c. tell him the wrong way.
As funny as Country Driving can be, it's also a deeply affecting book, exploring the impact of China's extraordinary economic expansion on its people. In the book's middle section, Hessler takes a break from driving to chronicle the life of a poor family in the farming village of Sancha, where a new highway promises to bring in new business but at the cost of the residents' traditional way of life. While never sentimentalizing the farmers' poverty, Hessler shows exactly what is gained and lost as the once-dying village reinvents itself to become part of the "New China."
My second recommendation is Lin Zhe's epic novel, Old Town (translated by George A. Fowler, for whom it was a labor of love). Old Town tells the story of the marriage of Ninth Brother Lin and Second Sister Guo across nearly a century of Chinese history. Together, they endure years of separation, hardship, and political persecution, sustained by their Christian faith and deep love for one another. Few novelists today dare to write about happy marriages, and fewer still about religious belief, but Zhe does both beautifully, without mawkishness or preachiness.
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Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
Here's my theory of good writing: the less you notice it the better it is. Good writing is like a perfectly clear window looking out on an interesting scene—the virtue of the window is that it allows you to see the scene perfectly. In the mannered, pretentious era of literary fiction dominated by obscurantists such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon, the best popular fiction owned that virtue. There's a reason why books by, say, John Grisham, Lee Child, and Michael Connelly sell so well, and it has as much to do with their transparent writing as with their page-turning plots. Each of these authors, by the way, published yet another terrific book in 2011: The Affair (Child), The Fifth Witness (Connelly), and The Litigators (Grisham). There's nothing guilty about the pleasure of reading them, on the beach, in bed, or anywhere else.
What's especially heartening about the past few years is that the new trend in literary fiction is to be as smart as literature and as readable as bestsellers. Chad Harbach, an editor of the journal n + 1, recently pointed out that unlike the academy-based "MFA" author, whose income comes from the university, the self-employed "NYC" author "has to earn money by writing." For the latter but not the former, "to speak obliquely is tantamount to not speaking at all."
Harbach identifies Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as "the best American novel of the young millennium." He's right: it's an extended treatment of freedom in all its forms that floats on a fast-moving river of characters you care about, a plot that makes you wonder what happens next, and humor that is biting yet affectionate. Harbach himself wrote a terrific novel in 2011. The Art of Fielding not only shares these qualities but also manages to donate to the treasure of literary observations about baseball a comparison of the endless series of batter-pitcher confrontations with the duel-structured Iliad. And add Jeffrey Eugenidea's wonderful The Marriage Plot to the list of new novels that not only enrich the mind and soul but make you want to turn the page.
Astonishingly—appallingly—not one of these was nominated for a National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize. Take this as a commentary not on the books but on the warped MFA culture that pervades the judging for these awards.
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John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
One Nation Under AARP: The Fight over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future, by Frederick R. Lynch
In 2011, the first members of the Baby Boom generation turned 65. Toward the end of the year, the Census Bureau reported that senior citizens made up 13% of the total population, the largest share that it had ever recorded. Therefore, the timing of this excellent book could hardly be better. Lynch offers a detailed look at the demographics of graying boomers, explaining that ethnic, racial, and cultural differences deepen potential conflicts with younger generations. He also analyzes the internal politics of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and its role in debates about Social Security and Medicare. In 2012 and beyond, those debates will be crucial to the nation's economic fate. If you want to ponder what lies ahead for you and your country, read this rigorous and fair-minded study.
The Statistical Abstract of the United States, by the U.S. Department of Commerce
I know what you're thinking: "The Statistical Abstract on a holiday reading list? How nerdy can you get?" But there is a reason why it's here. The federal government has published this rich reference bookannually since 1878. But because of budget cuts, the 2012 edition will probably be the last. The decision to stop publication is justifiable. Most of the information in this book is accessible somewhere on the internet, usually in a more elaborate form. So if we have to slash spending somewhere, I'd rather cut books for my fellow geeks than tanks for the Army. Still, those of us who enjoy research will miss this amazingly convenient book and the stories it tells. For instance, take a look at page 65, which shows that there were 23.7 births per thousand people in 1960 but only 14.0 in 2008. Those two numbers explain a lot about the looming entitlement crisis that Fred Lynch discusses.
Autism and the Law: Cases, Statutes, and Materials, by Lorri Shealy Unumb and Daniel R. Unumb
A law book may seem like another unusual entry, but this one is a most useful guide to an important public policy issue. It is the first major compilation of key cases, statutes, and other materials on the legal questions surrounding autism. Researchers reckon that about one in 110 Americans is on the autism spectrum, a much greater prevalence than in the past. No one can be sure how much of the difference stems from a true increase, as opposed to greater awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria. But there is no question that autism poses enormous legal challenges to the schools and many other institutions. Moreover, people with autism are asserting their own rights in a variety of ways. This book provides more evidence for what Tocqueville wrote: "There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one."