We asked some of our friends about their reading plans for Christmastime. We hope their ideas broaden your reading and gift-giving.
Once or twice a week, I get books posted opportunistically through my mailslot. They’re from publishers hoping I’ll review them. My policy is to give all comers a 100-page chance but to review only those I find really striking.
The above approach served me well for decades, when I wrote colour pieces, review-essays, and cultural commentary interspersed with fiction. Leave’s victory in the European Union Referendum put paid to it utterly, however. Since June 2016 I’ve written roughly 50,000 words on Brexit and now routinely find myself in unexpected sections of the newspaper. I have become a different sort of writer and even when Brexit passes into history (?) there will be more politics than colour in my oeuvre.
This means I have a significant pile of unread books languishing in my “chancers” pile, even the 100-page taster foregone. I plan to read at least some of them during my December social media detox.
Because I am a novelist and would like one day to return to making things up, my attentions turn first to Michael Crowley’s The Stony Ground and Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail. Crowley’s novel is an imagined life of James Ruse, a Cornish farmworker reprieved from the hangman’s noose and transported to Botany Bay on the First Fleet in 1788. Ruse was Australia’s first successful farmer and probably the most important convict on that fleet or any other. Infinite Detail is a work of science fiction that imagines what the world would look like after an act of cyberterrorism means the Internet is no more. Maughan is a tech writer who has long warned of the dangers attached to brokering autonomy and privacy for comfort and convenience; I will be interested to experience his novelistic vision.
When it comes to non-fiction, my interest is very much in why we are the way we are. To that end, I have two “chewy” books to consider: Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson’s Persecution and Toleration: the Long Road to Religious Freedom and Armand D’Angour’s Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher. Koyama and Johnson are eminent economic historians who put paid to claims that anarchism could ever be possible: it turns out that achieving religious freedom depended on strong, state-backed institutions determined to stop people killing each other over differing conceptions of the divine. D’Angour is a distinguished Oxford classicist who (among other things) argues the model for Diotima in Plato’s Symposium was actually a real woman—Pericles’s mistress, the intellectual superstar Aspasia.
While writing about Brexit, I’ve tried to bring a colour-writer’s skills to bear and be at least mildly amusing. This is something I seek in others, too, so I’m looking forward to Asa Bennett’s Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics, which views Brexit through a prism provided by the fall of the Roman Republic and features on its cover Boris Johnson as a triumphant, be-charioted Roman general fanned by none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg. For the same reason, I’m also keen to read Dominic Frisby’s Daylight Robbery: How Tax Shaped Our Past And Will Change Our Future. Frisby is a moonlighting phenomenon: a finance journalist by day and Edinburgh Fringe comedic star by night, he brings wit to the world of policy-wonkery in a way that is probably unique.
—Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford and Edinburgh. Her latest novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction. She lives in London.
I’ve been doing some work lately on citizenship, and in that vein, I’ve found myself perusing John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. Some people (perhaps especially my fellow conservative Catholics) would doubtless say that the book is now dated. Murray looked forward with hope to an envisioned American Republic in which Catholic natural-law thinking provided a framework for American pluralism, bringing faithful Evangelicals and secular Enlightenment thinkers into a common conversation. Today, as animosity between these camps continues to grow, those hopes may seem anachronistic or just naïve. Even if that’s true (and I’m not sure it is), I’ve still found that this book justifies a reread. Murray isn’t as sunnily optimistic as some people seem to think. He understands how painfully difficult it is to bring people of wildly diverse perspectives into a single society, with a shared common good. The fact that he doesn’t see this as absolutely impossible, is to my mind just another good reason to pick up the book.
For lighter reading, I’ve become rather fascinated with a book I found for a buck at a used book sale: Studs Terkel’s Working. Published in 1972, the book profiles ordinary people, explaining “what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” Read how Conrad Swibel, a gas meter reader, avoids mean dogs while helping his fellow readers find the houses with cute girls. (“That kinda brightens up your whole day.”) Hear Terry Mason explain that, even though it made her parents proud, the life of a stewardess isn’t quite as glamorous as some seem to think. The book profiles farmers, jazz musicians, business executives, and grave diggers. Obviously, labor questions have become quite pressing in our own time as well, so it’s fun to peek back into a previous era, for some insight into what’s changed and what hasn’t.
—Rachel Lu is a moral philosopher and a regular contributor to America Magazine, The Week, Law & Liberty, National Review, and other publications.
Daniel J. Mahoney
Frank Dikötter is the author of a monumental trilogy on Maoist tyranny and terror, addressing The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine, and The Cultural Revolution, respectively. Works of exquisite scholarship and archival research, they explode any claims made on behalf of the moral legitimacy (or historical “necessity”) of Mao’s brutal tyranny. Dikötter has followed up this remarkable achievement with How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019). One might quarrel with the author’s account of the relative weight of ideology and ‘the cult of personality’ in many 20th century tyrannies. That said, the book consists of eight lucid, succinct, and revealing sketches, addressing Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Duvalier, Ceaușescu, and Mengistu (of Ethiopia). Dikötter allows us to see demonic ambition, ideological fanaticism, and personal cruelty at their feverish worst. The chapter on Kim Il-Sung is worth the price of admission. It is must reading for everyone who wants to understand the phantasmagoric Hermit Kingdom. These monstrous regimes and tyrants were too often praised by “distinguished intellectuals and eminent politicians” who should have known better. In societies that “destroyed common sense, enforced obedience, and crushed” human dignity, they saw socialist liberation or national grandeur at work. Required reading for anyone who wants to come to terms with the totalitarian temptation that haunted modern man in the 20th century, and may continue to do so for the indefinite future.
Who better sketched the connection between moral character and political destiny than the moral biographer par excellence, Plutarch, a Greek thinker and writer prominent in a Roman world? The Circe Institute, admirably dedicated to promoting and preserving classical and classical Christian eduction, has published a superbly translated, annotated, and illustrated edition of the lives of Numa Pompilius and Lycurgus, the semi-mythological founders of Rome and Sparta. These deftly drawn and suggestive portraits allow us to better understand political founding, and the moral foundations of civic order, as perceived by the best wisdom of antiquity. The book, called The Lawgivers, is ably translated by C. Scott Hicks, and David V. Hicks, and is available on Amazon and from the Circe Institute. It is highly recommended.
For those interested in exploring more Plutarchian insights, I also recommend the three essays, “To an Uneducated Leader,” “How to Be a Good Leader,” and “Should an Old Man engage in Politics?” collected in Plutarch, How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership, selected, translated, and introduced by Jeffrey Beneker and published by Princeton University Press in the fall of 2019. This useful and inexpensive bilingual edition shows how Plutarch took his bearing from the lived experience of statesman and not from the abstract theories beloved by modern philosophers and social scientists. As Beneker argues in his brief introduction, Plutarch encouraged ambitious men to learn to seek glory (and nobility) by putting “city over self”—a permanent imperative for men and women of good will.
Georges Bernanos was a great French Catholic twentieth century novelist and essayist who fiercely and fearlessly defended the imago dei in human beings against soulless technocratic leveling and the twin totalitarian Molochs of Nazism and Communism. Bernanos’s final work, Liberty: The Last Five Essays, is in print again in a beautiful and inexpensive edition from Cluny Media, a publishing house out of Providence, Rhode Island committed to recovering the heights of Catholic wisdom of the 20th century. Bernanos’s “last essays,” first published in English in 1955, are a powerful cri de coeur against the despiritualization of the West, against the threat of totalitarianism, and also against the emerging age of robots and scientistic tyranny. Bernanos is not always measured in his judgments and he perhaps hated bourgeois “mediocrity” and spiritual indifference too much. But he was an admirable—and eloquent—defender of “civilization” against barbarism in all its forms. His voice still inspires and rallies the soul to a defense of the things that ultimately matter. A critic of facile optimism, Bernanos always held on to hope, but not without effort and the grace of God. That is a theological and political lesson for all time.
I strongly recommend a small but illuminating gem, Pierre Manent’s Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press on February 28th of the coming year. A rich repository of classical and Christian wisdom, these Gilson lectures delivered in Paris in 2017, recover a framework of reflective choice, free will, conscience, and practical reason rooted in the natural motives of the human soul, beginning with utility and ascending to nobility. Manent forthrightly defends the notion of “liberty under law.” Groundless choice, he establishes, is necessarily arbitrary and dehumanizing when it is severed from the ends and purposes inherent in human freedom and human action. Manent brilliantly defends the authoritative institutions—the nation, the Churches, the liberal university, that have a rhyme and rhythm, a telos of their own. These institutions are subverted when their modus operandi are reduced to political activism and to rights claims that recognize no limits and that close off the political deliberation integral to a regime of liberty. Manent also establishes that human prudence, reasonable choice and action guided by the natural law, are essential parts of God’s providential order. He thus encourages serious Christians to overcome the temptations of passivity, despair, or accommodation to the spirit of the age. In a particularly rich final chapter, Manent shows why Communism was and remains incompatible with the natural moral law. And in a provocatively countercultural argument—a reasoned argument and not a hateful prejudice—the French political philosopher argues that there can be no genuine marriage unless it is built on the complementarity of men and women rooted, as one used to freely acknowledge, in a natural order of things. The book is expertly translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with his usual grace, precision, and accuracy. It is introduced by yours truly.
Readers of Law & Liberty will also benefit immensely from an engagement with A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty (University Presses of Kansas, 2019), co-written by Law & Liberty’s Richard Reinsch and the late, great Peter Augustine Lawler. Against those who condemn the liberal order and those who confuse it with a project for government-sponsored liberation from natural moral constraints, Lawler and Reinsch outline a principled and salutary middle way. Drawing on the 19th century giants Orestes Brownson and Alexis de Tocqueville, they defend the “relational person” and demonstrate that true democracy is incompatible with “political atheism” that recognizes no higher law than the human will. The book is a most welcome contribution to that perennial task of understanding and articulating the moral foundations of modern—and American—democracy. It must be reckoned by with all those wrestling with the relationship between Christianity and liberal democracy.
—Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. His latest books are The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker (St. Augustine’s Press, 2014) and The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018). He is working on a book called The Statesman as Thinker: Ten Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, which is under contract with Encounter Books.
I plan on reading three books over the holiday, each of which touches on an area of great interest to me. Nicola Gardini’s book Long Live Latin defends Latin on the grounds on which it should be defended—the beauty of its poetry and its role as the parole of Western Civilization. As a classics major and believer in the value of the language, I want to understand the arguments fully so I can persuade my young daughter to make its study central to her early education.
Thomas Edison was the Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg of his day all wrapped into one. He was also the greatest self-made man since Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin. I am fascinated by him, so I want to read Edmund Morris’ new biography, Edison. I understand that Morris, a splendid stylist, writes the biography backwards from Edison’s last decade to his first. It is an interesting concept that may help show how the child is the father of the man. I hope that it works out better than the fictional narrator he inserted into Dutch, his biography of Ronald Reagan.
Finally, I intend to pick up Douglas Murray’s book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. I am a university professor and I have not only an intellectual interest in this subject but a practical one. I want to know how best to avoid being crushed by the ever changing twists and turns of the academic tsunami generated by identity politics
—John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013.
I had a busy fall semester, traveling to D.C. two days per week as part of my Heritage Fellowship and to Baltimore the rest of the week as part of my Loyola teaching obligations, so I am looking forward to some restful reading and contemplation over the Christmas Break (how restful the break will be—with three young children to watch and an old farmhouse to renovate—is an open question).
On the top of my list (and it is, I must confess, an embarrassingly long list) are three books that promise to provide insights into, and tools for navigating, the increasingly troubled state of American law and politics.
One is Andrew Lewis’s The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (2018). Dr. Lewis, for those not familiar with his work, is one of the most interesting and insightful scholars writing about judicial politics and the Christian Right (see his informative Twitter page here). I have read several of Dr. Lewis’s articles, and I am eager to read his book, particularly given its relevance to my interest in the legal conservative movement’s various factions and changing agenda.
A second book is one recently reviewed here by Virginia Arbery, and that is Mark Mitchell’s The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom (2018). I will soon be joining Patrick Henry College as an associate professor, and over the past several months, Dr. Mitchell (PHC’s Dean of Academic Affairs) and I have become close friends. In our conversations about Christianity, the meaning of the American identity, and the value of communal life, I have already learned a great deal from Dr. Mitchell. And I expect to learn just as much from the book—particularly how Mitchell’s conceptualization of tradition and liberalism relates to my own research on conservatism and judicial politics.
Finally, I am looking forward to reading Rusty Reno’s recently published book, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West (2019). Reno, more than just about any other writer out there, has his finger on the pulse of the populist ethos sweeping over Europe and America. Reno has interesting ideas about how to harness and shape our longing for rootedness, community, and meaning—a longing that is increasingly strong in Middle America due to our changing economic and political landscape.
How to conserve faith, family, and community in a secularized, globalized, and multicultural polity—these will be the most significant issues confronting 21st century America and indeed Western Civilization. In their own particular ways, Lewis, Mitchell, and Reno are tackling these questions. For that reason, I consider these books essential to read. Over Christmas Break, I will be taking on that task—once the grades are in, the kids are asleep, and the bourbon is poured.
—Jesse Merriam is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and the 2019-2020 Visiting Fellow in American Political Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
Alex J. Pollock
Endlessly fascinating, at least to me, is the puzzle of financial crises—why brilliant people do things that in retrospect were really stupid. Although I have myself written a book on the odd nature of financial reality (Philosophy and Finance—Why We’re Always Surprised), I keep pondering the conundrum. So on my reading list over Christmastime is The Global Financial Crisis in Retrospect, by Anthony Elson (2017). I am beginning with Chapter 3, “Why Did Economists Get It So Wrong?” in which Elson discusses the abject failures of professional economists and government policy-makers in the context of the “intellectual climate” of the times leading up to the crisis of 2007-2009.
Looking further back, I want to review an exploration of the issue from 35 years earlier, now only available in libraries: Financial crises—Theory, history and policy, edited by the great economic historian, Charles Kindleberger and Jean-Pierre Laffargue (1982). One of the book’s academic contributors in that year boldly stated with intellectual hubris, “It is also a fact that financial crises have become rarer and less acute and indeed have almost disappeared.” This may have been a fact up to that point, but was a terrible prediction. Shortly thereafter, the global debt crisis of the 1980s began, as well as that decade’s collapse of the savings and loan industry. The 1990s featured a string of international crises, and the 2000s, of course, the global financial crisis.
A notable feature of financial behavior over centuries and right up to now is the frequency of defaults on their debt by sovereign states. Sovereign governments don’t go bankrupt, but they do go broke. A perpetual favorite of mine on this topic is Foreign Bonds: An Autopsy, written by Max Winkler in 1933, as the sovereign debt boom of the 1920s was collapsing in defaults. Winkler also discusses the numerous defaults by states of the United States. To expand on this last topic, the distinguished financial historian Dick Sylla recommended to me American State Debts, by B.A. Ratchford (1941). I have begun this instructive history, of course thinking of the current financial pressures on Illinois and other financially stressed state governments, which found a way to exceed their prudent levels of debt by creating pension liabilities.
Speaking of Dick Sylla, I want to finish reading, perhaps to mark the New Year, his Alexander Hamilton (2016). In its dedication, this book marks Hamilton’s “key insight into the power of modern finance to make better our lives.” Of course, finance also gets us into troubles and crises along the way. The book is wonderfully illustrated—page 114, for example, displays an example of how American currency used to be a promise to pay something, that is, it actually was a note. Today, Federal Reserve “notes” don’t promise to pay anything. Contrast to that the text of the ten dollar bill from 1878: “This certifies that there have been deposited with the Treasurer of the U.S. at Washington, D.C. payable at his office to the bearer on demand TEN SILVER DOLLARS.”
These reading suggestions may not be exactly merry, but they are definitely interesting.
—Alex J. Pollock is the Principal Deputy Director in the Office of Financial Research, U.S. Treasury. He was most recently a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C.
Yuval Levin’s A Time To Build and Matt Grossmann’s Red State Blues are first on my list because I very much want to read them and because—well, fine, I’ll admit it—I’m on deadline to review both. I refuse to start the New Year on the wrong side of editors.
Next up will be Leo Strauss’s 1952 classic Persecution and the Art of Writing. I’m drafting an essay on how Trump’s centralizing I-alone-ism has caused prominent Republicans to conspicuously go silent on decentralization and limited government. I’m fascinated by the longstanding, understandable, but not-so admirable tradition of public figures’ hiding their beliefs in order to stay in the good graces of authority. Since Strauss thought through these issues and is admired by many on the political right, I should consult—but not bow to!—his authority.
I’m also finalizing the curriculum for the new fellowship I’ve started on conservatism and policymaking—meaning I’m looking for good essays and chapters to assign. So I’ll be reading Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Greg Weiner’s Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence, and the ISI collection What is Conservatism?
Lastly, I’m increasingly intrigued by Louis Brandeis’s idea, “the curse of bigness”—that danger lurks in big government, big corporations, big international bodies. I’m convinced today’s problems don’t need consolidation and nationalism but pluralism and localism. So I’ll read Jeffrey Rosen’s Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet.
—Andy Smarick is the civil society, education, and work director of the R Street Institute.
Nothing pleases me more than having some uninterrupted reading time, even as someone who more or less reads for her work. Over the holidays, here are some of the titles I’m looking forward to.
I’m always prepping for our next online reading group, either at Econlib or AdamSmithWorks. Over the holidays, I plan to read Deirdre McCloskey’s newest book, Why Liberalism Works, for a potential reading group in January. McCloskey is endeavoring to stake a claim for a “true liberalism” distinct from its rivals on the right and the left. I have my doubts about the efficacy of this quest, but am most interested to read her case. I’ll also be reading The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas. This is one in a series of titles I’ve been exploring all trying to align the Austrians exclusively with the alt-right and/or “neoliberalism,” whatever that means these days. This is the title that will likely frustrate me most, so there may be quantities of Bordeaux consumed while reading.
I’m really looking forward to Richard Wagner’s intellectual biography, James M. Buchanan and Liberal Political Economy, which comes highly recommended by my friends in the field. Buchanan was a master at speaking to economists about economists—and not always in a good way. We still have a lot to learn from his legacy about the interrelationship between politics and economics, and particularly how we can reconcile the two in this age of polarization and clamoring for ever more economic “rights.”
I don’t just read economics; I’m a big fan of crime fiction, too (whatever von Mises would have to say). I’ve loved all of William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, and loved his first stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace. So, I am really looking forward to his second, This Tender Land, set during the Great Depression. I’m also (re)reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, and I’m about halfway through. I’ll hopefully get one of these in as well.
Speaking of fiction, I find myself trying to fill many gaps in my literary education as an adult, and so I shall attempt to tackle George Eliot’s Middlemarch this winter. This comes of course highly recommended by my lit friends—#BestNovelEver? I’m admittedly intimidated. Maybe you as readers can cheer me on!
—Amy Willis is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund and Director of Econlib and AdamSmithWorks.
Jessica Hooten Wilson
When I was younger and no one asked for my book recommendations, I created my own awards list: “Most inspiring book of the year” or “Most paradigm-shifting book of the year.” In 2016, the former title went to Ambition: Essays by Members of The Chrysostom Society and this year, the latter title goes to Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
Ambition is a collection of essays by writers such as Scott Cairns, Luci Shaw, Gina Ochsner, Diane Glancy, Eugene Peterson, Brett Lott, Jeanne Murray Walker, and others on the meaning of “ambition.” These writers wrestle with the drive for the work itself—writing—and the distraction of fame or the motivation for immortality. Is there such a thing as healthy ambition or is it all chasing after wind? Personally, I found Walker’s essay profound as she explores the question about ambition in relationship to women. I’ve often been on the receiving end of comments that one would never think to say of a man, such as, “She’s a force.” Whereas we expect men to be ambitious, we are surprised, maybe even thrown off, when we encounter ambitious women.
As a mentor to students, I find myself trying to topple their misplaced ambition towards false ideals of success. I want them to read David Brooks’ The Second Mountain or biographies of amazing men and women who did not follow well-charted paths. David Epstein’s Range offer scientific evidence—loads of it!—as well as hundreds of stories across times, places, and disciplines that overturn some of our assumptions about how vocation works, how success happens, or how to change the world. I first listened to the book on Audible, then bought a copy to lead faculty through a book club centered on the work. Epstein discusses Tiger Woods, Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Darwin, Gunpei Yokoi (the innovator at Nintendo), and others to show that success does not only come from becoming specialists at twenty-years-old. I hope this book compels people to stop forcing college students to choose “utilitarian” majors and allow them to study Chinese literature, art history, and botany to their heart’s content. Who knows where these passions and talents will lead them?
In 2011, I visited Mikhail Bulgakov’s apartment in Moscow with scholar Edward E. Ericson, Jr. who extolled the virtues of the novel The Master and Margarita as highly as the works of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. The story is surreal, comic, and gripping—winding together several seemingly disconnected plotlines from divergent times and places. In addition to the entitled “Master” who is based on Bulgakov himself, the despairing writer who fears that his manuscript will be destroyed by Stalinist stooges and “Margarita,” his loyal lover who devotes herself to his art; the novel features Satan, a hog-sized black cat as his sidekick, Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. TedEd made a video as a teaser for the book, and Ericson published The Apocalyptic Vision of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1991) as an attempt to unveil some of the subversive themes that Bulgakov hid from Soviet censors. Whether or not you catch all the layers of meaning, the novel is hilarious and worth the ride. Reading Master and Margarita is an act of defiance against ideological dictators, no matter which country they profess to rule. I recommend the Mirra Ginsburg translation.
Keeping with the Russian theme, let me recommend selections of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry. These verses were published during a time when political leaders feared poetry, for they knew that beauty could spark more revolution than argument. Christian Wiman, one of America’s greatest living poets, has selected some of these poems and created English versions of them in Stolen Air, a book I often hand out as a gift. The verses will inspire you to speak truth and delight in it: “Let’s take the track early, and pace ourselves/ Until all the trapped acids trickle out as sweat,/ And we take time between our teeth like a bit/ And let fly the wild.”
—Jessica Hooten Wilson is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at John Brown University. She is the author of three books, including Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky & the Search for Influence and Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. Her edited volume, Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West will be published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2020.