I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler
At the top of the list this Christmas, the book everyone should be reading—especially after the election. The writing moves easily and gracefully, and almost every page delivers passages to be marked. Kesler notes Obama playing the theme of "hope," a passion with a special appeal to the young, who have not reflected overly much on the things for which an instructed man would rightfully hope. As for young people,
their inexperience of life and of their own shortcomings disposes them to be full of hope and heedless of dangers, noted Aristotle, just as drunks are. Obama, like most liberals, looks to the young for confirmation of his hopes and dreams and urges the old to adopt the inexperienced and immoderate as their guide.
The Upside-Down Constitution, by Michael S. Greve
In the review in the CRB Michael Uhlmann was rhapsodic in his praise, though he neglected to quote from the quotable lines that run through the book, with this savvy and sardonic writer. This is a sober assessment of the state of our jurisprudence by one of its most intense students. Greve is not diverted by the usual clichés about the Constitution, and even the clichés of federalism that have lured conservatives from their sobriety.
Redeeming Democracy in America, by Wilson Carey McWilliams, edited and with an introduction by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams
A collection of essays from one of our most gifted teachers of political philosophy, who rarely bothered to assemble his essays in the form of a book. The work here was lovingly done for our late friend by one of his leading students, Patrick Deneen, now at Notre Dame, and by his daughter, Susan, one of my own star students at Amherst and Princeton, and now an accomplished professor of political theory herself at Pomona College. The book contains, for example, Carey McWilliams on "The Bible in the American Political Tradition." One of the joys here is that one cannot read these essay without hearing Carey's voice.
The Modern Age, by James V. Schall
Fr. Schall, retiring now at Georgetown, delivered a Farewell Lecture to a packed Gaston Hall at Georgetown on December 7. It was remarkable to see the throngs of young people who had formed their souls in such as a way as to receive the teaching of James Schall on the classics of political philosophy. I used to have long walks with Fr. Schall in Georgetown, mulling over the mysteries of my late professor Leo Strauss. Fr. Schall, in his own way, preserved the concerns of Strauss in his teaching. The concern for "reason and revelation" threads through several of Schall's books as it does in this recent book. And it gives us the occasion to call back the other books and read anew.
How is Nature Possible?: Kant's Project in the First Critique, by Daniel N. Robinson
Daniel Robinson is one of those rare professors of psychology, fluent in Latin and Greek, and for the past 20 years he has been lecturing at Oxford in philosophy. His lectures there on Kant have produced something rare among the English with their style of understatement and reserve: each of his lectures on Kant last term ended with applause from the students. This analysis of Kant's First Critique will never produce a Cliff Notes version or reading at the beach. Nor is it Kant-for-Dummies. But for those who wish to get past the caricatures and venture into the serious depths on what can be "known," this book will find its place.
Stillborn Crusade: The Tragic Failure of Western Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1920, by Ilya Somin
Most of the "established" historians who have written on the intervention of the Allies in the Russian Civil War had assumed that the venture was destined to fail, and they began also with the premise that the intervention was slightly illegitimate. Ilya Somin sought to show that the project was not at all impracticable, that it was indeed quite workable; and if it had succeeded, the world would have been spared vast evils, including the deaths of millions. This book belongs on the shelf of every conservative, and especially everyone in the Claremont circle, for the writer shows that Churchill, with his remarkable acuity, saw at once the evil of Bolshevism as he saw the evil of Nazism, while others around him were willing to concoct clever theories to discount the evil and the dangers. The other remarkable thing is that the book was written by the 22-year Ilya Somin as his senior thesis at Amherst and published a year later in 1996. (Ilya's family came from Russia when he was 6 years old, before the Soviet Union fell.) I've been rereading the book and trying to make up now for a commendation I should have entered long ago. Ilya went on to take his law degree at Yale while completing also a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard. He is a professor now at George Mason University Law School. We should keep an eye out for his new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, due out from Stanford University Press this coming summer.
Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg
I finally got around to reading Jonah's book, which was too long neglected on my part. I must have assumed that it was journalistic commentary, but it is far more than that. This is a work of genuine scholarship and insight. I thought I knew quite a lot about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, but even I could learn some things new here. The only point of concern is that Jonah seemed surprisingly nonchalant in expressing a certain willingness to settle in with same-sex marriage. The implications unfolding from that novelty in our law could one day make a story as startling as the one he recovers in this book on fascism as a happy liberal scheme.
Over Here: The First World War and American Society, by David M. Kennedy
Jonah's book in turn led me to read this thoroughly remarkable account of America during the First World War: the character of Woodrow Wilson and his administration, its attitude on black people, the sweeping suppression of civil liberties by liberals filled with liberal conviction, the emergence of wartime controls, the international political economy, and even the management of the war itself. The book fills in a curious vacuum of what people no longer recall of those years.
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Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College
In Sunlight and In Shadow; Winter's Tale; A Soldier of the Great War; Memoir From Antproof Case; Freddy and Fredericka; and Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto, by Mark Helprin
By his own account, Mark Helprin is a Luddite when it comes to digital publishing. His book Digital Barbarism makes the case that the digital world is leading us to that state. When he publishes something in an Internet publication, he likes to call the column "Written on Water"; Mark does not want his writing lost in eddies and swirls.
It is therefore a wonderful fact, in all senses of that term, that Mark's books are now available in e-book format. All of them are lovely, but they take time to read. If you are cursed with too much travel, having a digital copy of them is a blessing. Never mind what the author thinks. Buy them all, have them with you on your tablet, and give yourself a treat.
Mark's newest book, In Sunlight and in Shadow, begins with beauty and power. Early on a young man back from the war spies a girl and is felled. He loses her before they can speak. Then he finds her again on a crowded ferry where he first saw her. They talk, and she is receptive. This is a life-changing fact to the young man, and you feel the same way. She is not merely a stunning woman: she is the idea of that walking. He falls in love with the stitching on her blouse, and you do too. They get very close, but they are just a half step out of time, and you twitch for them to fall into rhythm. You are seized in suspense over nothing but two people meeting whom you do not know very well. Then the book turns into a sort of crime novel, but lovely and deep.
Portrait of the Monster as a Young Man: The Formative Years of Adolf Hitler, by Alan Bullock
The first English biography of Hitler was published in 1952 by Alan Bullock, former research assistant to Winston Churchill, though later a supporter of the Labour and Social Democratic parties. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny is still one of the best studies of the archetypal modern tyrant. Written only shortly after the war, it shows Hitler as a party hack, a brawling political conniver, who descended before his suicide into isolation and neurosis. This is not exhaustive, but it is true, and the book conveys a vivid picture in fine language. The early chapters about the young Hitler have been republished this year as Portrait of the Monster As a Young Man. Read this. Or better, read the whole thing, still in print.
Writing a decent book about Winston Churchill is not easy. He is a big subject, and he wrote so many wonderful books about his own life. Generally, it is better to read Churchill himself. Several recent books about Churchill are nonetheless worth a look.
Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made, by Richard Toye
Richard Toye has written a thorough, competent, and interesting book about Winston Churchill and empire. It provides a good summary of the many ways the British Empire, dear to Churchill, was involved in all that he did. In war and in peace, in domestic turmoil and relative tranquility, it was never far from his thoughts. His hopes for it and the pressures it brought were ever influential with him. Toye helps us to understand this.
Churchill's purposes as an imperialist have long been misunderstood and long misrepresented. I do not think Prof. Toye corrects this problem. What is needed is to relate Churchill's views on empire, especially the controversial and important subject of India, to his larger understanding of politics. First one must uncover that understanding, which is embedded in the vast evidence of a long career of doing, thinking, and writing. The key would be to take seriously what Churchill said, understand it, and test it against the evidence.
Toye makes a poor beginning with his title: if the world made Churchill, what is the standing of his thoughts, or especially of his principles? If he made the world, what reality is there in it upon which Churchill might have based his actions? If Churchill and empire are understood as opposing or intertwined acts of creation, a struggle for mastery or a common act of production, what room is there for service, for justice, for Right? Churchill speaks in this very language of service, of justice, of Right; is he speaking of things that are empty of meaning, or is he simply using them as tools in his attempt to master and to avoid being mastered? About these questions, Toye makes assumptions more than he demonstrates or explains.
Toye tells a story of interests and pressures, of romantic attachments and controversies that stem from them and shape them. Lots of people testify about what Churchill is doing and also about what he is thinking, but there is too little careful reading of the things Churchill prepared so carefully to say and to publish. Churchill is one witness among many even on the subject of his own mental processes.
Churchill says that as he struggled for and against the many pressures he faced, he was trying to bring the power of human choice into command. Choice requires rational alternatives and a standard by which to rank them. Was Churchill successful in this effort? Did he find that standard? Did he rank the alternatives justly? We will need another book to discover.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid
Paul Reid, a journalist from Florida, took over the three volume biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester. Manchester, failing in health and now deceased, picked him to write the third volume, which covers the great life from the fateful month of May 1940 to Churchill's death. Like Manchester, Reid writes at a fine pace. This helps to capture the sense of excitement one ought to have when he understands what Churchill was and did. It is not I think a great book, but worth the time.
Churchill: The Power of Words, edited by Sir Martin Gilbert
Last April the greatest of all the Churchill writers suffered an arrhythmia and lost consciousness. His wife Esther kept him alive for several minutes. He was in a coma for a time, and now awake, still he may not recover to the place of resuming his work. This would be a loss to the study of history, and to some the loss of a friend and teacher, that is irreplaceable. One prays that he will be restored.
The author of more than 85 books, of course Sir Martin produced another shortly before he fell ill. It is entitled The Power of Words, a book of speeches and writings by Churchill. The preface by Sir Martin was written on January 10, 2012, four months before he was stricken. The readings are well chosen by the man who knows the most; the many photographs are superb. There are of course maps, at which Sir Martin excels, having dominated their use in history books for a generation.
On the dust jacket of the book Sir Martin places one of the finest Churchill quotes:
The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.
If these are the last words that Sir Martin writes about Churchill, they are well chosen to fit both author and subject.
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