Reading Recommendations for 2014
Matthew Boudway, Commonweal
Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life is a kind of sequel to his 2008 book Nothing to Be Frighted Of, which was about the various ways the apprehension of our own mortality can thwart or amplify our lives. The new book is about how someone else’s death can make our own lives at least temporarily unintelligible to us. The book starts with a short historical essay about hot-air balloon, follows with a semi-fictional vignette connected to that history, and ends with a long essay about the author's grief at the death of his wife. In the hands of many writers, this combination would be inappropriately cute. Barnes's perfect pitch allows a quiet harmony to emerge around a single theme: radical disorientation.
George Scialabba is a critic's critic; he is also a one-man university, despite never having taught at one. His new collection, For the Republic: Political Essays, proves again what his writing has always proved: that even a short book review can become a stand-alone essay if a writer knows and cares enough about the topic at hand. Scialabba expresses large, unfashionable political hopes with both verve and modesty. He is a skeptical utopian, an idealist with both a tragic sense and a sense of humor.
Jack Fowler, National Review
Whether it's Christmas or Groundhog's Day, I always encourage Confederacy of Dunces. A unique and incredible novel.
An important book of recent vintage is by my friend and NR colleague, Jay Nordlinger—Peace, They Say. It’s an excellent history of the Nobel Peace Prize, a powerful international symbol and cultural force that truly deserves a thoughtful examination, which Jay provides in spades.
For me the year in biography was graced with Jill Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin, a book exquisitely written and so illuminating about how the biographer sifts evidence into narrative.
Daniel McCarthy, The American Conservative
A book I’ve been recommending since the summer is Michael Lind’s What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President. The title is misleading: this isn’t a hagiography, it’s a sober, and sobering, account of Lincoln’s views on economics, civil liberties, politics, and race. Lind sympathizes with Lincoln’s principles of political economy (which Lincoln derived from Henry Clay) but he is frank about the racial separatism that Lincoln also endorsed (again following Clay). It’s not a polemical book but a sincere effort to understand the intellectual world of the sixteenth president.
For readers interested in politics an ocean away, I recommend two books I’ve recently been reading by historian Robert Blake: The Conservative Party From Peel to Major and his Disraeli biography—called simply Disraeli—which though a mega biblion at 800 pages is not a mega kakon; it’s considered a classic political biography, and with good reason. Both books have appeared for the Kindle recently, which is how I’ve been reading (and extensively annotating) them.
Gerald Russello, The University Bookman
I have been rereading the novels of Charles Williams, most recently Shadows of Ecstasy and The Place of the Lion. Although a noted member of the Inklings, Williams’s novels took a different path from Narnia or the Ring. Williams believes in, and makes real, the battle between good and evil with rich prose and strong imagery, and set in our contemporary world. These theologically profound supernatural thrillers are ready-made for movies, rather than those insipid books by Dan Brown, but it is possible that the seriousness with which Williams takes the ultimate questions scares the secular elites away.
David G. Bonagura. Jr., St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York
The best children’s fiction equally engages the young and the old in a manner respective of both. This year I read my sons The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I had not read since I was a boy. I was as enthralled with the Narnia wanderings as they were. Read this classic to your children and you will find that you are both giving and receiving.
David Mills, First Things
Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard). A fascinating and even in conservative Catholic circles un-p.c. reading of the Reformation as a generally if accidentally bad thing, this book is perhaps even more helpful in understanding and countering secularism today.
Gregory Wolfe, Image and Slant Books
This may be a conflict of interest, but the book I’ve been raving about is a book I’m publishing on January 6—Down in the River, by Ryan Blacketter (Slant). It’s a dark but also truly heartbreaking story of a troubled teen who is trying to grieve for his dead sister. Ryan Blacketter is like the love child of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy—Down in the River is a harrowing but haunting and ultimately moving novel.
Richard Reinsch, Online Library of Law and Liberty
I think the best books suitable for Christmas giving, and, for that matter, providing teaching opportunities for their recipients, include the following:
Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left is an incredibly wise look into these two founders of modern political debate within Anglo-American liberalism. Levin, in my judgment, makes a significant move in this book by rightfully arguing that a Burkean conservatism is a politics of practice and prudence in the service of a rightfully ordered polity. As many Burkean detactors would note, the notion of what a rightly ordered polity should be is never given a precise answer by the Irish statesman. But we can answer this question by looking closely into Burke’s arguments in the political episodes he engaged in or led. What principles did Burke stress within these political disputes? One example that stands out in Levin’s treatment is the Warren Hastings affair. This impeachment was instigated by Burke of Hastings, Great Britain’s first Governor-General of India, for his role in or failure to stop crimes against the native inhabitants of India. Burke’s standard of justice was that the British polity itself was being contradicted by Hastings’s rule. Great Britain was civilized, rule-bound, God-fearing, and could not abide by such atrocities. As such, Hastings had to stand under the judgment of law for flouting its basic standards. Burke made similar arguments in his condemnations of the British slave trade and British policy in Ireland. Levin also has a tremendous discussion of the distinctions between theory and practice within a regime, and on the role of prescription that maintains a polity, even as it accommodates new forces and energies within it.
Fr. James Schall’s Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism is noteworthy for its direct engagement of one of the most powerful claims of late-modern thinkers. Against the notion that revelation is without connection to reason or fact, Schall contends that revelation, while not provable by reason, is invited by its deepest inquiries. Thus revelation ennobles reason, leads it to places it could not otherwise go, but once these peaks are reached, reason, lest it be prideful, now acknowledges that its sufficiency is made perfect in its weakness. We also now understand that revelation is not so utterly transcendent as to not be part of the whole of our knowledge. Other chapters on the necessity of hell–yes, you read that right–religion and the state, and a theology of sport, among other subjects, indicate how rich and gratuitous creation is.
Christopher Lazarski of Warsaw University has put together a superb book on Lord Acton’s history of liberty in Power Tends To Corrupt: Lord Acton’s Study of Liberty. We are treated to a deep look into the conditions of liberty within Western civilization and its polities as these have thrived or decomposed under authoritarian weight. Most revealing is the comparison Lazarski makes early on in the book between Acton and his Victorian contemporary John Stuart Mill. Mill, you will recall, builds the case for political liberty on the emancipated man who must be free to live in his self-chosen ways apart from community, history, tradition. Acton goes in a different direction, Lazarski informs. He starts empirically, listing three conditions present for the growth of liberty. One is arbitrary rule or the acknowledgement that natural law or divine law must govern our wills, we are not the sole progenitors of authority; two is the notion of spontaneous order or the gradual emergence of the laws that govern a political community; third is that national tradition is the ordering space within which people understand their individual existence, shaping and guiding it as an inheritance that is larger than them personally. We might all return to Lazarski’s study of Acton in order to recall the history of liberty apart from our Millian accepted theories of it.
John M. Vella, Crisis
If I was going to recommend something, it would be these titles: The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic by Stephen M. Krason; Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It by James Kalb; and Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine by J. Brian Benestad.
Peter Haworth, Nomocracy in Politics
I found sanity in four authors this year: Cormac McCarthy, George Carey, Raoul Berger, and Michael Oakeshott. Cormac McCarthy’s storytelling in The Road magnified my awareness about the blessings of fatherhood and the worthiness of realizing its virtues, and (given that I have a three-year-old son) I will long be grateful to him. The recent passing of George W. Carey and a memorial review of his writings reinforced my sensitivity to Carey’s long-held nomocratic vision of the American political tradition. Raoul Berger’s fearless pursuit of originalist truth (e.g., Government by Judiciary) in the face of a hostile legal establishment that loathed his message will continue to remain an archetype example of academic strength and commitment. Michael Oakeshott’s case for the independent legitimacy of duly enacted positive law profoundly challenged my long-held Thomistic conception of natural law’s supremacy.
Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative
First and foremost, I’ve read as much as possible for the final chapters I’ve been writing for a Russell Kirk biography. As I’ve been writing about Kirk’s view on imagination and on his fiction writing, I re-read every short story he wrote. I was struck, as I never have been before, by how desolate, how depressing, and how dark many of his stories, scenarios, settings, and characters are. The violence that lingers over them, and the unspeakable atrocities that occur just slightly off stage shocked me. Indeed, I had to read these stories in the morning, and only on sunny mornings. I don’t consider myself delicate, but I certainly was shaken by a number of these. If I didn’t finish reading and analyzing the stories by noon, I put them aside for the following day.
And, not being familiar with the genre of horror following Kirk’s fiction in the 1960s, I delved into the works of Stephen King, generally regarded as the master. He and Kirk shared the same literary agent, and they often published together in anthologies, many of them prize winning. I read Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Firestarter, The Stand, It, Under the Dome, and Doctor Sleep. Of everything I read by King, I was most taken with his Salem’s Lot. Without too much hyperbole, I regard it as one of the single finest works of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a retelling of Dracula, but in a relatively (1975) modern setting. The story is top notch, and the writing is superb.
I also decided to read some science fiction (a genre I do know well). I turned to Jerry Pournelle, as he was a close friend of Kirk’s, having written his PhD dissertation, in part, about him. I read one of the many novels Pournelle co-authored with Larry Niven, Lucifer’s Hammer. Again, as with the King novels, I was quite taken with the Niven/Pournelle plot, a post-apocalyptic thriller that offered as much insight into the overwhelming desire to live as it did as to how different folks actually do live it.
For a conference, I read a mind-twisting take on history, Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson. I’ll probably stick with St. Augustine and Christopher Dawson as my guides, but I’m happy to know a Ferguson is out there.
I also read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson is a mediocre writer, at best, but Steve Jobs was a first-rate personality and genius. There remain many, many lessons to be learned from this man’s life.
The best poem of the year has to be Steve Babb, “The Lay of Lirazel.” And, make no mistake, this is a full-blown, unapologetic lay about kings, queens, and everything that matters in Faerie. Another touch of genius, to be sure.
Peter L. Edman, The University Bookman
While reading some Cordwainer Smith science fiction this summer, I came across some of Paul Linebarger’s other work. One book is now available on Kindle: Atomsk, a 1949 spy novel that he wrote under another pseudonym, Carmichael Smith. It has a Kirkean flavor, and is a good read, taking advantage of his groundbreaking work as the author of Psychological Warfare, itself now available online in the public domain.
Jeremy Beer, Philanthropy Daily
2013 was the year that I learned about Charles Portis—first of all, that he exists. This is a fact too infrequently acknowledged. Most people, going about their daily business, either do not know that Charles M. Portis lives among us or fail to reflect on this joyful truth.
Which is too bad, because Portis’s books are sources of pure delight. Like those of P. G. Wodehouse, they are redolent of happy summer days more real than any that were ever actually lived. This is true even when Portis’s books are sad or achingly poignant, which they sometimes are, because they are also very funny in that special way which reveals the comedy at the heart of human existence.
The entire Portis oeuvre can be read through in a month or so. True Grit is the one book everyone has heard of; Mattie, its protagonist, is the greatest orthodox Presbyterian heroine in American literature. Masters of Atlantis is the funniest of Portis’s works, which is saying something; you will not get through the first thirty pages without experiencing cough-inducing laughing fits. The Dog of the South is the most quotable Portis book, and the surprising violence of Gringos is very Coen Brothers-esque. Norwood, made into a film starring Glen Campbell, is Portis’s first book and perhaps the most restrained, and therefore moving.
Posted: December 19, 2013 in Symposia.
Look Under the Turnip