rosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree. Santa’s on his way, and has filled his sleigh—with some good book recommendations from friends and colleagues of the Claremont Institute (and maybe a Trumpy Bear or two)….
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Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
Fellow, AWC Family Foundation
The Heritage Foundation
here is only one word to describe 2017: Trump! More than a year after the election, the reverberations of the Trumpian earthquake continue to ripple across the American political system.
Trump the man, and to a lesser extent his policies, have since received tremendous attention. His worldview, meanwhile, has not. Trumpism—the political lens through which Donald Trump looks at the world—remains a somewhat nebulous idea in the minds of most. Until the definitive accounts are published, here are the three books which I found most helpful in making some sense of Trump’s unconventional mix of populism, nationalism and conservatism:
All were published before Trump ever came on to the scene and he is not mentioned in any of them. All advance distinct ideas and none perfectly captures the Trumpist worldview (Trump, for example, favors a much more muscular foreign policy than Buchanan, is not as socially conservative as Codevilla, and is nowhere near as radical as Francis). And it is unlikely that Trump has ever read any of these works.
Still, their analysis of American politics—in particular the pronounced emphasis on defending the interests and values of ordinary Americans against the perceived corruption of elites in both parties—constitutes the beginning of wisdom when it comes to Trumpism.
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Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy
Claremont McKenna College
ere are my recommendations, concentrating on books about the origins and results, good and bad, of modern thought. First, you should acquaint or reacquaint yourself with Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, which uncovers a central aspect of modernity that many readers of the CRB may not examine sufficiently. Next is On Modern Origins, a collection of Richard Kennington’s indispensable essays on Descartes and other early modern philosophers. One might then explore political matters more directly by studying Machiavelli’s works together with Catherine Zuckert’s Machiavelli’s Politics, and turn next to Thomas West’s The Political Theory of the American Founding. One could conclude the examination of modernity, or begin it again, by reading Leo Strauss’ masterful On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the recently published transcript of his course on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, edited by Richard Velkley.
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Editor, The Fortnightly Review
Yves Bonnefoy: Poems (Carcanet). This edition, edited by Anthony Rudolf, John Naughton and Stephen Romer, is a wonderful collection of poems by one of the greatest of post-war French poets. For those who, through negligence or lack of interest, think French poetry became irrelevant after Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, spending a few hours with this wonderful genius, who, sadly, died in 2016, will transform any afternoon into a remarkable, unforgettable experience.
If Night Is Falling, by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander). I have very little tolerance for long, epic bouts of fiction these days. I don't know why—well, I do, but that would require much more space. So when fiction must be read, this is the way to read it. John Taylor's short pieces are bright and satisfying and they get to the point the way a skyrocket does.
How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct, by Greg Gutfeld (Crown). This book is for anyone (and I think this means practically everyone) who thinks the current political environment is immune to humor. Beneath these hilarious and funny "tips" is a deep pool of complicated intelligence. Gutfeld is the Jim Thompson of modern punditry. Great stuff, as they say.
Audel's Guides. Various authors. Audel's beautifully illustrated little volumes of how-to are souvenirs from what used to be a man's world. Need to know everything about the analog world and its magnetos and dynamos and fasteners? It's in one of Audel's guides. For a decade or two, starting in 1914, these leatherette-bound gems untangled all that was once new-fangled and is now quaint. Still, some things don't change, and if you want to rise in the world, Audel's will tell you that the tread should be twice the riser plus 10, or you'll tumble. Because the originals are now in public domain, new versions of these are popping up in revised, republished and pdf versions. But the joy is holding an original Audel guide, which feels like a Bible. Which, in a way, it probably is.
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Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies
University of Illinois, Springfield
on Chernow, GRANT. Like his earlier blockbuster biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, Chernow’s GRANT is long, highly readable, thoroughly researched, and judiciously argued. Without being hagiographic, it reinforces Grant’s military reputation while helping to rehabilitate his reputation as a president, when he championed black civil rights, His treatment of Grant’s drinking problem is sophisticated and convincing.
Harvey Silverglate, THREE FELONIES A DAY: HOW THE FEDS TARGET THE INNOCENT. Though a few years old, this eye-popping expose of how federal prosecutors abuse their power against people high and low is most relevant today. Silverglate, a leading defense attorney in Boston, deals with famous cases, like the hounding of Michael Milken, Arthur Andersen, and Martha Stewart, as well as less well-known victims whom he himself represented.
Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, THE SHADOW UNIVERSITY: THE BETRAYAL OF LIBERTY ON AMERICA’S UNIVERSITIES. Another book that is a few years old, it gives a good background for understanding the woeful state of free speech on campuses today. Kors is the courageous history professor who defended a student in the infamous “water buffalo” case and, along with Silverglate, founded FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) which does what the ACLU used to do—defend free expression against threats from the left, right, and center.
Stuart Taylor and K. C. Johnson, THE CAMPUS RAPE FRENZY: THE ATTACK ON DUE PROCESS AT AMERICA’S UNIVERSITIES. The same pair of authors who wrote the definitive study of the shameless persecution of the Duke lacrosse players a decade ago provide a detailed account of the way in which colleges and universities have run kangaroo courts that have grotesquely ignored elementary principles of fair procedure in adjudicating cases of alleged rape.
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t is starting to seem like the enjoyments of the Sexual Revolution were bought at an exorbitant price in dignity. This season of harassment scandals is uncovering excesses and brutalities, but it is also revealing something about the essence of the Baby Boom generation. Its mores remained mostly unrebuked as long as the Boomers themselves were numerous and vigorous. Eros is destiny—at least most great short fiction starts from that proposition.
Arthur Schnitzler is to fin de siècle Vienna what F. Scott Fitzgerald was to our Jazz Age—both chronicler and embodiment. A lot of his stories are about sex and its paradoxes, but his subject is love of all kinds, including fraternal love. The heartbreaking, “Blind Geronimo and his Brother” (1900) concerns a misunderstanding between a street musician and the brother who passes the hat for him. It is anthologized in a dual-language edition of German Stories, edited by Harry Steinhauer (University of California Press, 1984/2010).
For Isak Dinesen, the Danish baroness and writer of tales, love is wrapped up in ambition, metaphysics and the supernatural. “The Heroine” (in her 1942 collection Winter’s Tales) describes a military hostage-taking in a guesthouse during the Franco-Prussian War. One of the prisoners tells a lie in order to protect sexual convention ... in order to protect the self-respect of the others ... in order to protect a higher kind of truth.
An irony of American culture is that the greatest novel of Nathaniel Hawthorne is often read in high-school classes by young people who lack a context in which to place its intimate messages of passion, remorse and redemption. The Scarlet Letter is not a book for most 16-year-olds, but it is the perfect Christmas present for anyone who has been sufficiently knocked around by life.
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Editor, Washington Free Beacon
f the books I read this year, six stand out. Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams is a captivating memoir of a young black writer known for his criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Shadow in the Garden, by James Atlas, tells the story of how Atlas came to write the biographies of Delmore Shwartz and of Saul Bellow, and also tells the story of biography as a literary form. (My reading list grew by several titles as I made my way through Atlas's text.) Ronald Reagan: The Working Class Republican, by Henry Olsen, is a provocative and earnest revisionist history of Reagan's statesmanship and political thought. Even if you think, as I do, that Olsen overstates parts of his case, his book will change your perceptions of Reagan, of Donald Trump, and of the future of the Republican Party. The Lessons of History, by Will Durant, is a classic that you can read in one sitting. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, combines a thrilling detective story, a history of Sumerian religion, and penetrating satire into one cyberpunk novel. And to read A Man of Letters, the selected correspondence of Thomas Sowell, is to spend an evening with one of the intellectual giants of the second half of the twentieth century, as he tells you his life story.
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Member, Board of Directors
The Claremont Institute
John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, by Jeffry Morrison
You have probably read that John Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even the best have made that claim, and it has survived the editing process more than a few times. A quick check of the signers of the Constitution will remind you that Witherspoon was not in fact one of them, but the claim he was has to be the most forgivable error in the scholarship of the American Founding. It certainly can seem Witherspoon was there, if not in person then as the tutelary spirit of the place and the proceedings. He was more than James Madison’s mentor. His students, by one count, included five delegates to the Constitutional Convention—and twenty-eight U.S. senators, forty-nine U.S. representatives, twelve governors, and three Supreme Court Justices. That list goes on and on.
Consequently, understanding the thinking of the American founders and understanding Witherspoon’s impact on the Declaration and the Constitution are related in this way: the better you understand one, the better you will understand the other.
Morrison’s fine book deserves the attention of every lover of the Founding.
The Roads to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments, by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Today, generalizations about the Enlightenment are all too often actually generalizations about the French Enlightenment. Yet the great works of the American founding—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers—are quite properly included in collections of Enlightenment writings. They are among the greatest works of the Enlightenment era. If we want to understand the American idea, we need to understand the American Enlightenment, and also how it differs from the one in France.
The two outstanding chapters in Himmelfarb’s important book are the ones on the French and the American Enlightenments. They are models of brevity, clarity, and scholarly command of the subject. The French and the American Enlightenments are brought into sharp focus, and their profound differences are made clear. Because the study of the Enlightenment has traditionally focused on France, these two chapters provide the interested reader with an opportunity to make a great leap forward not just in understanding the Enlightenments, but also in understanding America. Himmelfarb’s thoughtful analysis makes a powerful case for the uniqueness of the American Enlightenment.
JFK and the Reagan Revolution: A Secret History of American Prosperity, by Lawrence Kudlow and Brian Domitrovic
A walk through the Reagan Library will remind you, perhaps painfully in light of subsequent events, of Reagan’s sure and certain grasp of economics. His brief remarks on economics, mounted in large print for the convenience of visitors, provide a virtually complete set of clear guidelines for America’s voters and also for those Americans in Congress and the White House. The Democrats may be beyond hope in these matters, but the GOP has not exactly covered itself with glory post-Reagan. If you have occasionally been made uneasy by the thought that the GOP’s problems in this area are not simply the fault of the folly of the other party, this is the book for you.
Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars.
Let me simply say this: prepare yourself to be astonished. The more you know about WWII, the greater will be your astonishment. The Second World Wars demonstrates once again that VDH is a constantly renewing American national treasure who continues to go from strength to strength.
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Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society
University of Pennsylvania
On a mid-term examination in my Princeton University introduction to American government course, I asked a short-answer question about James Madison’s views on religious liberty. One student wrote in reply, “Madison wants Americans to have lots of sex.” Hmm. It quickly dawned on me that the student was probably intending to reference these lines from Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 51: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights. It consists in the one case on the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.” I gave half-credit.
With several major church-state cases pending or coming before the U.S. Supreme Court, this is a good moment to make recourse to The Federalist Papers, starting with Madison’s Nos. 10 and 51. In the former, he lists a “zeal for different opinions concerning religion” first among the causes of “factions” that undermine “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (a.k.a., the public interest or common good). Any unabridged edition will do, though I remain partial to the old Clinton Rossiter edition.
And probably the best two contemporary books to read if you want to cover the waterfront on thinking about religion in the public square, faith-based programs, and what the Court has dubbed the “play in the joints” between the First Amendment’s two religion clauses (free exercise and anti-establishment) are these: Marci Hamilton, God Versus the Gavel, 2nd edition (2014) and Steven V. Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies, Free to Serve (2015).
The late, great Monsma, a former state legislator in Minnesota and professor at Calvin College, was the dean of social science scholars who study American religious nonprofit organizations and programs. You will get intellectual whiplash reading these two outstanding books back-to-back. Hamilton is not simply “anti-religion” any more than Monsma and Carlson-Thies are simply “pro-religion.” But whereas Hamilton, a Professor of Practice at Penn, emphasizes “religious narcissism” and rails against “extreme religious liberty,” Monsma and Carlson-Thies, the latter the director of the Institutional; Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), emphasize individual religious conscience and collective religious action. Hamilton and Monsma together co-chair Penn’s Common Ground for Common Good Project. One of them will be very happy, the other very sad, when the Court decides the on-the-docket case involving the baker who refused to bake for a same-sex couple.
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Associate Professor of History
Sam Houston State University
na Siljak, Angel of Vengeance: The “Girl Assassin,” the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World (St. Martin’s Press, 2008)
At this centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it is apt to revisit one of the most fascinating books on the intellectual history of the nineteenth century of the last generation. Here is the history upon which Dostoevsky based The Devils, the drama of how left Hegelianism first penetrated Russia in the 1860s and 1870s, driving utterly peripheral cadres of impecunious, spiteful, and somehow idealistic student agitators to feats of revolution-preparation that would include attempts at assassination. It appears to be an acutely wasteful tale of idiots, but for the movement the heroes-manqué seeded that would in time be led by one in their midst as yet still a boy: Lenin.
Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason (Vintage, 2016)
If Paul Johnson asserted that the modern world began the day Einstein’s theory of relativity was confirmed empirically in 1919, it may as well be said that the medieval world ended fully two centuries after the Renaissance and Reformation, on All Saints’ Day 1755, when the capital of the vast Portuguese empire, Lisbon, was devastated by a preternaturally destructive earthquake, tsunami, and then fire. Here was a dense city busy at its Catholicism, adhering to Islamic codes of dress, and soaking in the treasures and pleasures that come to a metropole long at its business. It was all wiped out, not in an instant, but over the course of weeks, as the succeeding catastrophes hit the city with stunningly increasing severity. Out of the ruins emerged a selection of self-imagined modern men, stern and intent to “plan” the city and empire anew, an outrider of things soon to arrive in France and beyond.
Robert L. Bartley, The Seven Fat Years: And How To Do It Again (The Free Press, 1992)
The premier political-economic memoir of the American century. Its reading is repaid every time this country catches itself thinking that economic underperformance and diminished expectations must be the new normal, that glory days and the American Dream are the world we have lost—or even fictions. Via his editorship of the Wall Street Journal, Bartley couriered supply-side economics, in the 1970s and 80s, from its hermetic points of origin in the universities and backbencher Congressional staffs to the center of American discussion and power as stagflation reached its peak. That the solutions concerning limited taxation and sound money that Bartley held high were largely adopted in Washington to extraordinary effect in the real economy makes his one of the great lives of our time. Here is one who stood athwart history and saw into realization the winning course of action.
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Senior Research Fellow
Faith and Reason Institute
nce upon a time, as CRB readers know, soi-disant enlightened progressivism merely disdained religious believers and other traditionalists. Nowadays, it goes after them with spite and glee. Yet the force that to the slammer would drive the cake-baker—and others—now bears paradoxical fruit: it’s inadvertently inspiring some of the finest writing of the time. 2017 has been a banner year for books about faith, by writers of faith and otherwise.
For literary as well as spiritual pleasure, one new offering of interest to anyone who luxuriates in reading is George Weigel’s Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II. With settings as panoramic as those of a thriller, and anecdotes about some of the most fascinating figures and scenes of the twentieth century, it’s a moving, personal, melodically rendered memoir of the biographer’s times with the late great saint.
As others have noted in 2017, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is the religious book of the year. It’s also a modern pilgrim’s progress whose passion and sincerity stand as a tacit rebuke to secularist prejudice. Dreher’s truth-telling has achieved something rare these days: a respectful hearing outside the flock for a moral traditionalist.
Another essential new volume is Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture—an often plangent, and always crystalline, homage to civilization as it should be, unplugged from the distractions and delusions that diminish us.
Also vital is Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, an erudite tour-de-force whose graceful writing makes it one more must-read among the believers—the believers in secularism itself emphatically included. It should be read in tandem with Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, last year’s potent book by First Things editor R.R. Reno. He makes the case that religious renewal requires solidarity with society’s poorest and weakest—the human collateral damage, he argues, of laissez-faire politics and economics.
In addition to Strangers, 2017 also saw publication of two other books by leading intellectuals within the Catholic clergy. Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s The Light of Christ—which rose immediately to the top of the Catholic University of America Press bestseller list, and sold out its first printing in weeks—is an uncannily clear, must-have tour of Church teaching, for apprentices and masters alike. Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion is inspirational in another way: as a serene and absorbing series of reflections on the Church’s aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual patrimony.
Yet another compelling 2017 book, Rodney Stark’s Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, joins the rest of the sociologist’s oeuvre illuminating religion and religiosity. Like the other works recommended here, his should be read not only by the faithful, but by anyone who wants to understand the wider pushback and conversation now emerging thanks to all of these recent offerings, and others.
Also invigorating this year are two bold new books shedding light on everybody’s old favorite subject: sex.
Ashley McGuire’s Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, maps out just how much the effort to erase sexual difference is distorting society—and harming women, especially. It’s a perfect gift for feminists, and for anyone else who cares about what used to be called the fair sex (hitherto, maybe, “the sex whose members are badly underrepresented as culprits in today’s harassment scandals”).
One more indispensable book is sociologist Mark Regnerus’s Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy. Riveting from the title onward, this volume and its extensive new data are quintessential reading for anyone wondering why so many women can now be found on Tinder, and why so many men are down in the basement.
Finally, and in a different key, one recommendation for an enduring classic that’s an antidote to today’s toxic identity politics: Taylor Branch’s magnificent trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, beginning with the volume Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. It’s an enduring literary monument against the identitarian rock-throwing out there, and it reminds us of the inimitable cadences and ineradicably religious purpose of one of the twentieth century’s greatest men.
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Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
The Heritage Foundation
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. Only a truly gifted writer could capture the unbounded beauty of the American Southwest where American, Mexican, and Indian cultures collide. The novel is an elegy to a mythic land and a requiem for a devout missionary who epitomizes the classic virtues of courage, justice, and wisdom.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This Nobel Prize-winning novella first exposed the ugly brutal reality of the vast network of Soviet concentration camps. It set in motion the forces that ultimately led to the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The power of the word, indeed.
Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, Benjamin P. Thomas. Among the very best of the thousands of Lincoln books is Thomas’s biography, by virtue of its vivid writing, scrupulous research, and considered judgments. Thomas brings Lincoln and his times to vibrant life, concluding that the martyred president embodied America’s fundamental principles of liberty and equality.
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Director, William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution
The Witherspoon Institute
ne of the most enjoyable and instructive books of the year is Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Live Well Lived, a collection of 48 of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s speeches, edited by his son Christopher Scalia and his former clerk Edward Whelan. As I remarked in reviewing the collection at Public Discourse, each of the diverse lectures, addresses, informal remarks, tributes, and eulogies in the book “is a polished gem of its particular genre, with wit, insight, and sentiment shaped exactly right for the audience and the occasion. On every page, we witness Scalia enjoying himself immensely and giving his listeners an unforgettable performance.” The editors have given us the man in full.
For insight into the origins of the administrative state, read Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era. Leonard examines the origins of the profession of economics, its aspiration to “scientific” direction of markets, and the disturbing Darwinian racialism of Progressive social scientists and policymakers, which gave rise to the eugenics movement over a century ago. There’s much food for thought in Leonard’s work regarding the extent to which this era still casts a shadow over our politics.
The recovery of much nobler strains of thought is the work of Christianity and Freedom, a two-volume collection of essays edited by Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke. The first volume, Historical Perspectives, traces the idea of freedom—and of freedom of religion in particular—through Christian thought from the earliest of the Fathers to the modern age, while the second volume, Contemporary Perspectives, illuminates the challenges faced by Christians in unfree societies today. These volumes are history and social science at their best. (Full disclosure: I contributed one of the more than thirty chapters.)
Australian historian Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion, based on his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 2011, is an eye-opening treatment of how “natural philosophy” and “natural history” evolved into “science,” how “religion” changed from being “an inner disposition” and virtue to being “a system of belief,” and how the two words—science and religion—and the conceptions they represent came to be thought in conflict with one another only well into the modern age. One comes away from Harrison’s work beginning to think that colossal intellectual mistakes have been made.
Speaking of intellectual mistakes, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette persuasively argue in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, that Catholic death penalty abolitionists are mistaken about the natural law, have contradicted centuries of Church teaching, and unwittingly call into question the whole magisterium, all while advocating a public policy change that would harm the community. The book has stirred up a bit of controversy, but one thing is clear: this is the book that must be refuted if further steps are to be taken by Church leaders to condemn the death penalty.
In the fiction department, I warmly recommend two authors. The first is Olivia Manning, whose cycle of six short novels set in World War II is published today in two volumes as The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Also known collectively as The Fortunes of War, these highly autobiographical novels follow Harriet Pringle and her husband Guy as they bounce about as civilians on the edges of the war, first in Bucharest and Athens, then in Cairo and Jerusalem. Manning has an uncanny gift of description—of places, of people, of experiences—and one quickly finds Harriet in particular a flawed but irresistible character. Years ago, the novels were brought to the small screen with a young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh memorably playing the Pringles.
A second novelist I recommend is Allan Mallinson, whose work will be appreciated by those who loved the late Patrick O’Brian and his Aubrey-Maturin nautical novels set in the Napoleonic era. O’Brian was rediscovered by Americans after his novels initially gained little traction in the U.S. and ceased to be published here. Once republished, their American popularity soared. Mallinson, who does for the early nineteenth century British cavalry what O’Brian did for the Royal Navy, likewise deserves a second look by American readers. His novels of Matthew Hervey, officer of the light dragoons, are available but not as widely known in the U.S. as they should be. Hervey is a complex figure—a Christian beset with temptations, a man ambitious to rise but disdainful of politics, and a superb soldier and commander who has a tender heart where his men and even his horses are concerned. His adventures take him from Canada to the Black Sea to India, and from Spain to Belgium to South Africa. Mallinson, a retired soldier, knows military life as well as history. Readers should begin with A Close Run Thing. The thirteenth Hervey novel, The Passage to India, will be out in the UK in early 2018.
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endy Cope—a celebrity in England but almost unknown in the United States—is a light verse poet who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron and Dorothy Parker. She bookends her short new book, Christmas Poems (Faber & Faber), with her classic epigram, “A Christmas Poem,” and ends it with this new epigram in the same vein:
Another Christmas Poem
Bloody Christmas, here again.
Let us raise a loving cup:
Peace on earth, goodwill to men,
And make them do the washing-up.
Lighten someone’s gloom about today’s world with this dourly optimistic and very funny book by Wendy Cope.
Emily Wilson has been receiving considerable attention for being the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English. That accomplishment, however, tends to distract critics from her literary achievements. Modernist translators have used Homer’s classic as a trampoline for self-indulgent and highly inaccurate renderings. Professor Wilson’s new book from W.W. Norton refreshes older literary traditions in order to render this epic into taut, musical and faithful English.
Something must be in the classical air because David Ferry’s new translation of Virgil’s great epic deserves much of the same type of praise that Wilson should be receiving for her translation. While a little less metrically strict than Wilson’s The Odyssey, Ferry’s Aeneid (University of Chicago Press 2017) captures Virgil’s timeless qualities in beautiful English. It is also heartwarming to see one of the nicest people in American poetry still producing superb work at 93.
There is too much dull, shrill, and incomprehensible poetry being published each year, but true poetry lovers should enjoy this year’s winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize, Moira Egan’s Synaesthesium (St. Augustine’s Press 2017). Those up for a fascinating challenge should take on Aaron Poochigian’s ambitious verse novel Mr. Either/Or (Etruscan Press 2017). Other recent poetry books that would make joyous holiday presents include: Maggie Smith’s Good Bones (Tupelo Press 2017); Jennifer Reeser’s Fleur-de-lis (Saint James Infirmary Books 2016); and Alison Brackenbury’s Skies (Carcanet 2016).
Sadly, A.M. Juster’s eighth book, The Elegies of Maximianus, will not be released by the University of Pennsylvania Press until two weeks after Christmas.
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Professor of Naval and Military Strategy
Naval War College
he idea that federalism and representative government are discoveries or inventions of what Alexander Hamilton called "the new science of politics" is today universally accepted. Yet it is quite false. While these institutions are indeed barely acknowledged in the histories and philosophical treatises of past times, they existed in practice, and to an extent that is completely unappreciated. In two pathbreaking books, Representative Government in Greek and Roman History (1955) and Greek Federal States (1968), J.A.O. Larsen long ago made the case that the Greek polis, particularly in its Athenian incarnation, cannot be taken as the paradigm of the ancient Greek state; but he has been largely ignored. The appearance of an important new book, Federalism in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015), edited by Hans Beck and Peter Funke, upends the conventional wisdom and vindicates Larsen, while bringing into play a formidable array of new evidence from archeological and epigraphic sources. The implications of all this not only for the historiography of the ancient world but for comparative politics and political theory can hardly be overstated. In this connection, mention should also be made of Daniel Deudney's Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton, 2007), which for the first time restores to federalism its rightful place in contemporary international relations theory.
Politics is only one area in which classical antiquity gives the lie to any linear notion of historical progress. Consider K. D. White's Greek and Roman Technology (1984), a fascinating account of a sorely neglected subject. Accustomed as we are today to link technological sophistication with modern science, it is staggering how advanced these societies really were in spite of the limited tools and power sources available to them. Mention may be made particularly of the so-called "Antikythera Mechanism," a device, salvaged from the bottom of the Aegean in 1901, intended as a navigational aid utilizing complex astronomical observations; it has been described as the first "analog computer." Roman roads were built with greater durability under the empire than they are today.
On a lighter note, anyone not familiar with the quirky novels of Neal Stephenson is missing a very good time. Cryptonomicon is a good place to start.
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Daniel J. Mahoney
Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship
yranny is a phenomenon coextensive with human and political life but ideological despotism is something new under the sun, so the best wisdom and all recent experience teaches us. In Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, & Terror, a bracing example of old-fashioned political history informed by humane political and philosophical reflection, Waller R. Newell expertly explores the garden variety tyranny known to the classics, the state-building or “modernizing” despots from Henry VIII to Peter the Great and Ataturk in the twentieth century, and the “millenarian" destroyers of bodies and souls from Robespierre to Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin. He also suggestively examines modern terrorists as “tyrants in waiting.” Must reading for those who want to understand the ever-present possibility of tyranny.
We have just witnessed the centennial of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which did as much as any event to shape the destiny of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago remains the best guide to the terror and mendacity that informed “really existing socialism” in its heyday. I recommend the authorized abridgment, edited by Edward E. Ericson, and introduced since 2007 by Anne Applebaum, herself the author of a fine history of the gulag archipelago. Solzhenitsyn makes clear that the systematic muzzling or suffocation of the soul was far worse than political repression and made the Communist regime unlike any in human history. If it rivaled an equally demonic National Socialism in violence and repression, it surpassed it in making mendacity a soul-destroying way of life. But Solzhenitsyn never succumbs to darkness and despair. In this remarkable “experiment in literary investigation” he beautifully conveys the capacity of the human soul to struggle with evil and to find solace in the truth and light that are integral to God’s creation.
With Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology, Richard Reinsch restores the greatness of Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) as a guide to American constitutionalism rightly understood. A one-time pantheist, gnostic, and secular humanitarian, Brownson came to articulate a mature Catholic political philosophy that defended American republicanism on Catholic and natural law grounds. Brownson firmly advocated for religious liberty even as he attacked the “political atheism” that would subvert the moral foundations of republican government. He appealed to “eternal justice” and the civic and moral virtues as indispensable supports of a liberty worthy of man. And he did so while being deeply suspicious of “social contract” theorizing that rooted liberty in unmitigated human self-sovereignty.
In Where We Are: The State of Britain Now, Roger Scruton shows the way forward for Britain after Brexit. He defends the dignity of the nation-state (indispensable to self-government) and draws on George Orwell to sketch a humane and self-limiting patriotism that has nothing to do with rapacious nationalism. He shows that true freedom is always situated and avoids undue abstractions, and he does justice to both the Christian inheritance of Britain and the West, and the secular dimensions of the liberal state. Where We Are is graciously written, and full of bon mots, as we have come to expect from Scruton.
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Professor of Government
ust now I am reading, and highly recommend, Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars. The plural in the title recalls the fragmented nature of that war, and the author supplies an eye-opening analysis of judgment and comparison rather than another narrative.
This year we also have books from each of two capi of the Straussian sect, supplying contrasting views of the relation between religion and philosophy: Pierre Manent’s Beyond Radical Secularism (on the situation of France and the rest of us), and Heinrich Meier’s Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Revealed Religion (with penetrating studies of Machiavelli and Rousseau).
I would also like to repeat my recommendation earlier this year in CRB of James E Campbell’s Polarized, the best book of political science I have found on the situation of American politics just before Trump. For the situation under Trump, and to see how far Trump might go if he wanted to go far, have a look at the speech of the unnamed Florentine orator in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories (III 13).
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John J. Miller
Director, Dow Journalism Program
ince starting the Great Books podcast for National Review a few months ago, I’ve had my head in the classics: reading them, re-reading them, and cramming on synopses. My weekly, 30-minute conversations with scholars have covered Macbeth, Pride and Prejudice, The Gulag Archipelago, and more. The book I’ve enjoyed getting know the most—or in this case, getting to know again—is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain,” as Huck himself might say, and I hadn’t studied it since middle school.
What a great discovery, aided in large part by Kelly Scott Franklin and Benedict Whalen, a couple of English professors who are my colleagues at Hillsdale College. This fall, they taught an online course about Twain. I played a minor part in the course and learned a bunch of things: Why the book is about a vagabond boy and a fugitive slave, how it’s stuffed with classical and biblical allusions, and so on. (I also podcasted with Ben.) “Persons hoping to find a moral in it will be banished,” warned Twain in a notice to readers at the front of the book. It turns out that this isn’t just a joke: At the end of the story, after Huck has learned his own tale’s great moral truth about equality, he lights out for the territory, banishing himself.
I also take breaks from the homework. This year, I’ve also enjoyed several thrillers: The Cuban Affair, a romp through Castro’s island prison, by Nelson DeMille; August Snow, a Detroit murder mystery, by Stephen Mack Jones; and The Quantum Spy, an espionage novel about the next great technological breakthrough, by David Ignatius. They won’t endure like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but they’re great for today.
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Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics
Claremont McKenna College
wo books by Adam McHugh have great appeal to us quiet, bookish types. The Listening Life makes a simple but profound point: "We need to learn how to listen because all the talking in the world will not make our relationships what we want them to be, and it will not make us into the sort of people we want to be." Introverts In the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (revised and expanded in 2017) examines a related topic. Outgoing and dynamic religious leaders get a great deal of attention, which is fine, but there is also a place for introverts in communities of faith. Both books address a Christian audience, but readers from all persuasions can find much of value in these tributes to the quiet people.
David Enrich gives us a real-life financial thriller in The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History. The Libor scandal had ugly economic repercussions throughout the world, but this wonderful book also shows that it had a cast of characters right out of a Coen Brothers movie.
Finally—and I am betting that I am not alone in this recommendation—is Henry Olsen's The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism. This analysis reveals a Reagan who was more complex and practical-minded than many of his admirers and detractors would like to admit. It's a splendid work about a great man.
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HARLOT'S GHOST, by Norman Mailer
Amid this year's agita surrounding the intelligence community, the "deep state," and the continuing failure of our spies and surveillers to stop leaks, hacks, and foreign operations, Mailer's melancholy magnum opus on the ostensible golden age of the CIA is more than worth revisiting. HUMINT, the boots on the ground of spying, is more important than ever. Yet from China to the Mideast and beyond, America is falling further behind. It's a recipe for a renewed power struggle over how and why the Agency does its job, and Mailer's quietly shattered spy scion Harry Hubbard casts a sobering light on enduring questions about who can be trusted to walk the edge of patriotism in troubled times.
FIRST PERSON, by Vladimir Putin
In the year's least surprising news, Russia's most important head of state since Catherine the Great will stand for re-election this Spring. This compilation of hours-long interviews with several Russian journalists often offers more of a peek behind the iron curtain of his public persona than Oliver Stone manages in his recent miniseries of chats with Vlad. By turns dismaying, revealing, infuriating, and entertaining, Putin reminds us that liberalism isn't the only enduring ideological or cultural strain in the West—and that we continue to caricature our canniest competitor at our peril.
INHERENT VICE, by Thomas Pynchon
Now over a decade since its release, which spawned a deeper-than-it-seems film adaptation by L.A. mythologue P.T. Anderson, Pynchon's breeziest novel is also his most intimate—and, amid the unprecedented exposure of Hollywood's sexual dark side, his most creepily portentous. Personally and professionally, time's running out for pot-smoking P.I. Doc Sportello. The Manson murders have shattered the last of hippiedom's illusions about the innocence of so-called free love, and more institutionalized forces of evil are happy to take advantage. As bad as the 2010s may be, they've got nothing on the 1970s.
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Jack N. Rakove
William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies
have spent the past couple years working on a book about the free expression of religion in American law and history. One part of my project has involved thinking about the ways in which the American experience has devolved from patterns of thinking and behavior in other parts of the world, and especially in the European or democratic societies with which that experience should be compared (and contrasted). That in turn involves exploring the ways in which European societies, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, began, under great stress and with mixed results, to foster tolerationist practices. On these issues I tend to be an American exceptionalist, but that is what makes the European comparison all the more interesting.
Here are three really valuable contributions to that project:
Teresa Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. This is the smartest book I have read recently. Seventeenth-century conversations were peppered with religious insults, freely rendered and insultingly taken, and the taming of the human tongue was regarded as one of the main tasks of attaining a modicum of civic toleration. Bejan brilliantly analyses the ways in which Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke tackled this problem, with Williams emerging as the improbable hero of her tale. Bejan also uses this historical approach as a basic for a critique of the contemporary works of Martha Nussbaum and Jeremy Waldron, both of whom regard hate speech as an offense worthy of regulation.
Benjamin Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Kaplan pursues a seemingly simple question: How did European communities—villages, towns, principalities—work out mechanisms that would enable neighbors to live at peace with each other? Every community was perceived as a corpus Christianum, and numerous civic rituals reinforced that sense of unity. But the Reformation permanently ruptured that idyll of unification, and different kinds of “flashpoints” could easily provoke communal violence. Kaplan explores the practical innovations that worked to restore a measure of civic peace.
The English historian Alexandra Walsham pursues a similar project in her book, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700. An ingenious pun is built into Walsham’s title. The physical coercion of religious dissenters could be justified, on Augustinian grounds, as a charitable form of hatred that was designed to persuade heretics of the other-worldly benefits they would receive for renouncing their doctrines. But toleration, too, was also a form of charitable hatred, in the sense that one was acting charitably toward those who clung to beliefs that one regarded as deviant and heretical.
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Lehrman Institute Lecturer
New York Historical Society
inon Heffer’s Age of Decadence covers a period of British history—1880 to 1914—that few would at first sight equate with decadence. As the British Empire reached its height, stiff upper lips seemed more in evidence than the louche trappings of decadence. Yet Heffer makes a convincing (and beautifully written) case that those upper lips were in fact quivering away, as the world went clanking towards its destruction.
James Evans’s Emigrants is subtitled “Why the English Sailed to the New World,” and it goes into the myriad reasons that no fewer than 400,000 people left Britain for the Americas in the 17th century. Some were looking for freedom (like William Penn), others to escape Cromwell, some to make a better living (like John Rolfe), some to fish cod, some to pray their own way, and some out of sheer, blind, splendid optimism. Evans tells the tale superbly.
David Nicholson’s, Crisis of the British Empire, might be seen as a book-end for Simon Heffer’s Age of Decadence. Written from the resolutely politically-incorrect stance that the British Empire was a good thing worth preserving, Nicholson investigates all the wrong-turnings it took and moments that it could have elongated its half-millennium-long life. The author is an impressive historian and master of the counter-intuitive. I didn’t agree with everything, but the very fact that an author could take such a stance in 2017 is invigorating and pleasing. For anyone sick of virtue-signaling, this is the book for you.
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Columnist, Troy Media
hen I’m occasionally asked to put together a holiday/end-of-year reading list, I enjoy mixing and matching books. For this Christmas, I’m going to recommend the three non-fiction titles that helped pave the way for my intellectual journey to the Right.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) was an inspiring literary salvo during the American Revolution. A controversial pamphlet in some quarters, it provided colonists with a better understanding of the dangers of monarchical rule—and a sorely-needed defense for independence.
William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) was the fierce conservative roar against the growing tide of liberal academia. By exposing the collectivist and authoritarian nature at his alma mater, the soon-to-be founder of National Review opened up many eyes and ears about the state of higher learning.
Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) opened the doors to new horizons for free market advocates. Political freedom and economic freedom were indelibly tied, and concepts like school vouchers and a flat tax mobilized libertarians and conservatives in the fight against state interference in our daily lives.
I hope Santa Claus leaves these three life-changing books (for me) under your trees. Merry Christmas to one and all!
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C. J. Wolfe
Adjunct Professor of Politics
North Lake College
Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach and Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach, by David S. Oderberg
Oderberg was born in Australia; these two volumes appear to be a personal attempt to make up for damages done by his fellow Aussie, Peter Singer, to the field of bioethics. Singer, a utilitarian philosopher nonpareil, has been a powerful voice in favor abortion, euthanasia, non-human animal rights, and a general abandonment of traditional morality. So much so that in 1995 Singer wrote that the Judeo-Christian ethic was “dead.” Not so fast, argues Oderberg. The structure of several chapters in his two volumes directly mirrors Singer’s Practical Ethics, and indeed the title (A Non-Consequentialist Approach) was chosen with Singer’s contrary view in mind. The approach Oderberg lays out is “non-consequentialist” because it primarily focuses on the intended good or evil of actions, rather than a calculation of how much pain or pleasure will result for the world by an action. As such, the good for man is the ethical concept Oderberg starts with, before moving on to natural rights and duties (in the Moral Theory volume), and applied topics such as abortion, euthanasia, just war, and capital punishment (in the Applied Ethics volume). Oderberg defends the principle of capital punishment based on proportional desert for crimes of a maximal class such as murder. In this, Oderberg provides a condensed version of what his Thomist fellow traveler Edward Feser offers in his recent book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (coauthored with Joseph Bessette).
One thing that sets apart the approach of David Oderberg and Edward Feser among recent Thomists is that they mine valuable insights from the almost totally forgotten Thomistic manuals of the early 20th century (If you don’t believe me, when was the last time author names such as Fagothey, Higgins, and Cronin came up in discussion?). Oderberg’s use of these authors shows that the “Manualists” were unjustly forgotten. Oderberg uses the Manualists’ ideas especially well in his helpful discussion of natural rights. After quoting a Manualist on the subject, Oderberg puts it very well: “Every moral being has a duty to do what is good and avoid what is bad. Given that this is the fundamental obligation of morality, morality would be contradicting itself if it did not also offer protection in the doing of good (and avoidance of evil), if it gave no claims against others not to hinder an individual in his doing what is good (and avoiding what is evil). This is what the system of rights provides.” The right to life and the fact that life in itself is a good is the bedrock of Oderberg’s approach to bioethics. His writing combines a deep knowledge of the best of the Thomistic-Aristotelian philosophical tradition with an awareness of what contemporary analytic philosophers who reject that tradition believe, in addition to the medical facts provided by the latest scientific research. One could not hope for an introduction to today’s ethical issues with more common sense than these two volumes. And also like Feser, it should be said, Oderberg writes with spunk.
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Professor of Law
University of California, Berkeley
he threat posed by North Korea’s development of ICBM technology had me thinking about nuclear deterrence this year (also, working on Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots and Space Weapons Change the Rules of War, with Jeremy Rabkin, [Encounter, 2017] raised similar issues). I recommend giving these classics a try. They refreshingly appeal to common sense and everyday analogies, rather than mathematic equations, to make their point. I like to think that Madison and Hamilton—no strangers to the idea that people, groups, and nations would pursue their rational self-interests—would have found these books challenging and worth reading.
Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict. Schelling won the Nobel Prize in Economics for the work made accessible in this book, which analyzed the ways in which nations threaten and coerce each other. But the book goes beyond international security to illustrate his theories about bargaining, threats, credibility, and cooperation with examples drawn from daily life and business. Much modern game theory work about international conflict is either inspired by, or responds to, Schelling’s fundamental insights.
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War. Kahn was allegedly the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. But that insults Kahn. Kahn rigorously demanded that we think about what would happen when the unthinkable happened—a nuclear war. He thought not only about deterrence, but about what conditions could cause deterrence between the nuclear powers to fail, and then what life would be like in a post-war world. He famously asked, “would the living envy the dead,” in such a world.