Wilfred M. McClay
SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S. Gregory
This very important and impressive book provides a model for historical revisionism at its best. Not only does it challenge settled views of the past by invoking the insights of modernity and postmodernity, which is what we expect revisionists to do, but it also challenges us to consider whether some of our most settled views about the present day should be reconsidered in light of the past. It is a remarkable book whose insights will require years, even decades, to be fully assimilated.
College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco
A distinguished professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, and biographer of Herman Melville, among many other subjects, Delbanco here offers a very thoughtful defense of the traditional liberal arts college, and of the high and humane mission to which it has always been dedicated. He is probably more sanguine than I am about the extent to which such institutions are doing a good job at present. But he sees very clearly the dangers that lie ahead, not the least of them being the danger that liberal education will become a luxury for the rich.
Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
This book is 17 years old, but I only just now discovered it, in the process of working on a book about guilt in modern life. It is a delightful, compulsively readable, and wonderfully concrete account of the orthodox (or neo-orthodox) Christian understanding of sin, a doctrine that has lost none of its relevance in our world, even if that world has convinced itself that it is better off without it—a view whose periodic emergence the doctrine itself predicts.
Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (Vintage), by Robert Hughes
One of the many sad losses of 2012 was that of Robert Hughes, a lavishly talented and inimitable art critic who was hardly infallible, but who was always insightful, always passionate, and always worth reading. He brought a welcome anti-theoretical groundedness and manly directness and energy to his work, and those qualities manifested themselves in the rich and imaginative way that he made use of history. It has been said that his best books were those on his two favorite cities, Barcelona and Rome. I don't know about the first one, but his Rome is a feast, and a work that all who love the Eternal City will appreciate.
Why Capitalism?, by Allan H. Meltzer
This has become a very real question in our time, one that needs to be answered more forcefully than it has been. Fortunately, this strong and elegant (and thin) book from one of our most eminent students of monetary policy and history, the man who literally "wrote the book" on the history of the Federal Reserve, is an excellent place to begin.
Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others?, by John Fonte
Anyone who wants to understand the deep intellectual roots of the current drive among the global elites of this country and other countries to deep-six the nation-state, and what those elites have in mind for us in the future, will find everything they are looking for in this clear, forceful, and deeply researched account. This important book appeared last year, but has not yet gotten all of the attention it deserves.
The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts
This book appeared in 1994, but just came to my attention as I was doing reading about the effects of the internet on our cognitive abilities. It is the best description I have yet read of the likely consequences of the slow loss of the printed word as an anchor in our social and individual lives. Amazingly, it was written well before that loss seemed even thinkable for most educated people.
Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, by Jean M. Yarbrough
In this case I cannot improve upon the blurb I wrote for the book: "This is a book of the first importance, and comes at an important moment. No one before Yarbrough has endeavoured, with such patience and ingenuity, to demonstrate that, contrary to his bluff and unreflective public image, Roosevelt was a man heavily driven by ideas. And no one before Yarbrough has had the temerity to point out that, for all Roosevelt's sincere professions of devotion to the Founding Fathers, those ideas were a dagger aimed at the heart of the Founders' Constitution. A hundred years after the passing of Progressivism's high tide, it is long past time for a reevaluation of Theodore Roosevelt and his legacy. Here is the book to begin with."
Let me conclude with works by two California brothers, each of whom constitutes a kind of national treasure:
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, by Ted Gioia
Students of jazz will know Ted Gioia's many fine books, particularly his study of West Coast jazz. But this newest tome is in a class by itself. It is a guide to the 250 most important jazz compositions, telling the story of the songs' composition and providing a listening guide to several thousand recordings. This could be deadly, but in Gioia's masterly hands the result is an endlessly readable and browsable book, which represents the distillation of a lifetime of reading about, listening to, writing about, and playing jazz. I don't agree with every single selection or every single judgment, but who cares? What pulses through Gioia's pages is the lifeblood of an art form that has always thrived on covers and commentaries and standards and re-interpretations, a kind of musical midrash, and one that will always be quintessentially American at its core. If you love jazz and want to spread the gospel, buy a bunch of copies of The Jazz Standards and give them to your friends at Christmas.
Pity the Beautiful: Poems, by Dana Gioia
Not only is Dana Gioia one of the finest poets of our time, he has been an incomparable defender of poetry, both in his writings and in his splendid work as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Pity the Beautiful is his first book of poems since leaving the Endowment, and it shows that, like all great artists, he has continued developing. The formal perfection and clean, untangled diction of his poems are there, as is a tender autobiographical undercurrent that is humane and affecting, rather than being self-indulgent or self-lacerating. There is, it seems to me, a profoundly incantatory quality to many of the works—the title poem itself appears in a chapter called "Words for Music"—and a growing depth to the poet's engagement with the archetypal elements of his Catholic faith. Consider the following excerpt from the poem "Prayer at Winter Solstice," words that will perhaps resonate for many of us, and for a variety of reasons, this winter:
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.
Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.
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Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
Andrew Busch's Truman's Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America is the best book on the 1948 election ever written. Note triumphs, not just triumph. One of the book's many virtues is that is treats the state and congressional elections as well as the presidential contest. I confess an interest: Busch wrote this book for my American Presidential Elections series with the University Press of Kansas. But I would describe this as a confluence rather than a conflict of interest. I knew he'd write the best book ever on the subject, which is why I invited him to do it.
Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics also stood out. Douthat treats any subject he writes about intelligently and engagingly. In this book he evenhandedly skewers all those who wish to remake Christianity in their own image: both the liberals who dilute the faith to make it academically respectable and the conservatives who treat the Bible as a get-rich-quick manual.
Richard Russo is a wonderful novelist: funny, profound, and insightful. The great chronicler of the rural Northeast, he outs his fictional towns in Elsewhere: A memoir. It turns out that Mohawk, Empire Falls, and the rest are all Gloverville, New York, Russo's home town.
I know this last choice puts me about 50th in the parade of end-of-year celebrants, but so be it. Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is as superb as everyone says it is. Among its less celebrated virtues: Boo's grassroots portrayal of the entrepreneurial spirit in the least likely of places.
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John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
If Not Us, Who?: William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, by David B. Frisk.
This biography of National Review publisher William Rusher drives home a point that many other studies have overlooked: that the rise of the conservative movement not only hinged on ideas but on the leadership and political skills of its key figures. National Review, for instance, would not have been born without William Buckley, but as Frisk explains eloquently, it would not have survived and prospered without William Rusher. But as Frisk also points out, Rusher was much more than a manager: he was a spirited advocate for conservative views in print and on the air. Any serious student of American conservatism should read this important book.
Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason, by Amy E. Black
The subtitle says it all: in this wonderfully fair-minded book, Black urges her fellow Christians to remember that the Bible contains truth but is subject to interpretation by fallible humans. "Knowing these limitations," she writes, "we must be careful to avoid the trap of assuming God is on our side simply because our human interpretation suggests it." Both liberals and conservatives have fallen into this trip and both would benefit from Black's reflections.
Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh
If all you know about religion is what you see on cable television, then you might think that faith is all about booming voices and outgoing personalities. McHugh reminds us that there is also a place for introverts, those who draw their energy from solitude, who process information internally, and who prefer depth over breadth. He draws on his own experience as a minister, but the lessons of this fine, subtle book extend beyond the church walls. In exalting extroversion, he explains, our culture often neglects the contributions of the quiet people. McHugh did his theological training at Princeton, and his analysis calls to mind another Princeton-educated introvert who did a lot for this country: James Madison.
I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler
Before the 2012 election, a number of conservatives succumbed to wishful thinking, and they thought that Mitt Romney would win in spite of polls and political-science models pointing in the opposite direction. Since the election, the wishful-thinking virus has passed to the other side. Many liberals think that the president's modest reelection margin suggests that they will increasingly dominate American politics while their opponents go the way of the Whigs. Not so fast. Kesler's book should serve as a caution to liberals that they must confront both philosophical exhaustion and the brutality of fiscal arithmetic.
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