What We’re Reading (Summer 2013)
Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House Books, 2012). Even though this book tells of a young woman’s conversion to Catholicism, a subject of natural interest to a convert, it is not a book I would have read, because everything about it (the publisher, the blurbers, the other reviews) signals “modern, hip, and young, i.e. earnest and navel-gazing.” But apparently it isn’t like that at all. A young Catholic friend whose judgment I trust commended it. “It does capture very well some of the prevailing sentiments of this generation,” he wrote. “And examines them seriously, ultimately contrasting them with a life of faith. A faith it describes as something to believe in because it’s true, though sometimes this truth is an epic burden. One doesn’t really get anything out of it in the contemporary American sense.”
Also I hope to finish reading G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories to our fifteen-year-old. As we’ve finished the first few stories I’ve been reminded at how much wisdom and insight he could put into a story that would be very good simply as a mystery story.
David Mills is the executive editor of First Things.
Many books by and about John Witherspoon, a relatively unsung Founding Father, since I am writing a biography of the great man.
Another thing is The Congress of Vienna, by Harold Nicolson. I’ve just started this brilliant book, which published just after the war in 1946. Nicolson looks at Napoleon’s fortunes from 1812, when what was left of the Grande Armée straggled back from its ignominious slaughter in Russia, through the Battle of Waterloo and the deliberations of the newly-formed alliance of European states that assembled to defeat Napoleon. It is a wise and insightful study, as pertinent, like all the best historical writing, to our concerns today as it is illuminating about the actions and motivations of the personages whose story it tells. Nicolson notes both the parallels between the Napoleonic Age and his own, and the limitations of those parallels.
On the one hand, Great Britain had in the 1940s, as it had in the early 1800s, allied with other nations to defeat a totalitarian power. “Then as now,” Nicolson noted, “the common purpose which had united the Nations in the hour of danger, ceased, once victory had been achieved, to compel solidarity. Some members of the Alliance sought to exploit their power by extending their former frontiers or by establishing fresh and alarming zones of influence; the realism of their methods was at first obscured by the idealism of their professions.” Again, “Then as now there were those among the older generation who were saddened by the fear lest, having made their sacrifice to preserve against an external enemy the world they knew and loved they had allowed an internal enemy, an inner illness, to sap the vigour of the State. Then as now there were those who felt that in destroying one menace to the peace and independence of nations they had succeeded only in erecting another and graver menace in its place.”
At the same time, Nicolson warns against being too quick to see in one age the repetition of another. “We can learn little from history,” he observes, “unless we first realise that she does not, in fact, repeat herself. Events are not affected by analogies; they are determined by the combinations of circumstance.”
Here is Nicolson on a common liability of genius:
It is the misfortune of men of genius that they tend to underestimate, and therefore to ignore, the influence which people of lesser intelligence are able to exercise upon their fellows. The penalty of the cynic, who believes that human beings are actuated only by the motives of greed or fear, is that by his very cynicism he arouses passions of humiliation and resentment which in the end prove more potent than any logical conclusion. The man of unflagging cerebral energy, the man of undeviating ambition, forgets moreover that glory also is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and that those who profit most by his success come in time to lose their sense of adventure, their desire for personal aggrandizement, and long only for the enjoyments of repose. And the person who has trained himself to take a purely mechanistic, or mathematical, view of life, fails to understand that what he so impatiently dismisses as “ideologies” are in fact ideas; and that what he discards as “sentiment” is the expression of deep and powerful feeling. There thus arrives a moment when “reasonable expectation” becomes too reasonable to be true. The assumptions which guided Napoleon’s planning in 1812 were mathematically correct assumptions; but mankind, in the last resort, is not moved by mathematics but by something else.
One more observation: “Some seemingly vast event may drop into the pool of time and arouse no more than a sudden momentary splash; a pebble may fall into the pool and create a ripple which, as it widens and extends, can stir the depths.”
Good stuff, and I am looking forward to the rest of the book.
What else? Well, summer involves at least some leisure and leisure is incomplete in the Kimball household with an abundance of P. G. Wodehouse. Years ago, I subscribed to the Everyman edition of Wodehouse, which has been grinding out several volumes per annum ever since. I count 76 volumes so far, and I assume there are another 15 or 20 to go. I plan to be dipping liberally into that font of wisdom.
Next up: The Memoirs of Walter Bagehot. “I didn’t know,” you say to yourself, “that Bagehot wrote a memoir.” He didn’t. Which is why you’ll want to keep an eye out for my review of it in a forthcoming issue of Literary Review.
Roger Kimball, author, publisher, and editor, blogs at Roger’s Rules.
In July I shall be speaking at “Doxacon” in Washington DC, a literary conference exploring a favorite topic of mine—the religious thematics of science fiction. In preparation for my talk I will be revisiting two major texts by Olaf Stapledon, his Last and First Men (1930) and his Star Maker (1937). Using the term loosely, the two titles are science fiction novels, but in many ways they lie closer to hard-to-classify works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. Star Maker, which I taught in the just-concluded semester as part of the curriculum in my science fiction course, is a mythopoeic narrative, on the largest scale, having to do with the development of Mind in the cosmos in relation to the titular “Star Maker.” The urge to come into communion with the “Star Maker” defines the teleology of existence, as Stapledon’s narrative alleges. The book is a challenge, but it is one those challenges that enormously rewards perseverance.
I look forward also to re-reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) and his Bouvard and Pécuchet (1882, unfinished). Among the many virtues of this personally quite peculiar author is his early grasp of the relation between the growth of what we now call ideology and the decline of effective or honest thinking.
Roberto Calasso’s Folie Baudelaire (2008) sits on my coffee table; having found his Ruin of Kasch (1983) edifying, I look forward to reading La Folie Baudelaire. Some time ago, I began Roger Scruton’s book on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, his Death Devoted Heart (2003). I shall be finishing what I began.
For pure entertainment, I have acquired Fantasy House’s reprints of select issues of Planet Stories, a “pulp” magazine in publication from 1939 to 1955, with short stories by Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Nelson Bond, and numerous others.
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego's English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.
R. J. Stove
For us Australians, of course, it’s not summer reading at all but winter reading. Still, most of the books I describe below deserve study in any season.
I seem to have taken particular pleasure of late in examining once-acclaimed historians now sadly unfashionable. When recently writing a profile for The American Conservative about one such historian, A. J. P. Taylor, I regretted that space limits prevented me from giving proper—or any—consideration to one of Taylor’s supreme achievements, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848–1918 (1954). Taylor belongs with that rare crew who could, as it were, walk at once both sides of the historiographical street: the layman will be captivated by Taylor’s epigrammatic pungency, and the scholar will be impressed by Taylor’s prodigious research.
Hannah Arendt would probably have rejected (for no obvious motive) the title of “historian,” just as she indisputably rejected (for rather better motives) the title of “philosopher.” Perhaps “sage” is the most serviceable description of her. In any event, her sagacity emerges anew in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949–1975 (1996), admirably edited and annotated by Carol Brightman. Although intellectually this is not as one-sided an epistolary relationship as The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Sarah Jessica Parker would have been, the contrast between Arendt’s deep thinking and McCarthy’s brittle schoolgirlish cleverness (her travelogues are brilliant, her political comments largely puerile) will impress itself upon any reader. Equally contrasted: Arendt the loving wife and Hausfrau, versus McCarthy perpetually enthusing about her latest useless boyfriend, usually a drunkard and invariably married to someone else. Arendt, faced with calumnies over her Eichmann book, responded more often than not with a dignified silence that McCarthy found incomprehensible; but then the word “dignified” had been fairly thoroughly purged from McCarthy’s whole lexicon. The latter’s hypersensitivity to being on the receiving end, as opposed to the administering end, of criticism evokes the ancient New Yorker cartoon where a bellicose applicant is told at a job interview: “Sorry, but we were looking more for guys who can take it. We’re already well supplied with guys who can dish it out.”
Musically this has been, for me, Prokofiev Year. I found Lina and Serge, the new chronicle of the composer’s widow by Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, consistently excellent. The simultaneously released final volume of the composer’s pre-Soviet diaries—a volume almost universally lauded in the London and New York newspapers—struck me as almost unreadable, though in the interests of scholarly rigor I refused to admit defeat at plowing through its 1,125 predominantly rancorous, narcissistic pages. A compatriot of mine, Peter Bassett, has made what looks a most promising contribution to the dual Verdi-Wagner bicentennial: 1813: Wagner and Verdi. Given Mr. Bassett’s well-attested skill and charm as a public lecturer, I want to seek out this book before 2013 is done.
R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).
Right now I’m re-reading Brideshead Revisited, and I’ll probably get on a long kick of reading and re-reading Waugh the way I did last year with Dostoevsky. I also want to read A Confederacy of Dunces, which I’ve somehow never read before. Depending on how fancy takes me, I may also pick up Two Murders in My Double Life; Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire; and The Opposite House.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos.
This summer I plan to read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I have read excerpts from the book before, but I never had a chance to read Smith’s entire argument. I am particularly interested in the work, as I had finished Smith’s Wealth of Nations this past semester and wanted to see how the two books relate to each other.
Lee Trepanier teaches Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University
I’ve kicked off the summer with James Bovard’s memoir, Public-Policy Hooligan. The Iowa-born, Virginia-reared libertarian hellraiser recounts his youth in Front Royal and Blacksburg as he grows from “a protein pill-popping weightlifting champion into a library-addicted philosophy devotee.” Bovard hitchhikes across two continents before winding up in Washington, D.C. Along the way there are pipe bombs, a plan for a conscript Congress, more than one knife-wielding sex-crazed woman, and life lessons from the author’s stints “as a Santa Claus, peach picker, highway department flagman, Kelly Girl typist, lawn mower, demented Beatrix Potter rabbit, census taker, freight unloader, construction worker, and Harvard Business School-certified snow shoveler.” More practically, there are lessons on how to live as a freelance journalist, the daunting profession that has been Bovard’s lifelong calling.
Then there’s Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It wasn’t the birth of me—that was a year earlier—but ’79 was when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, John Paul II became pope, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, and Deng Xiaoping inaugurated his market reforms in China (described by one Cold War historian whom Caryl quotes as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen”). One theme is the political power of religion: Iran’s “Islamic Revolution” was an impossibility to those who thought that revolutions must proceed along the secular, progressive models of the French and Russian revolutions. Mujahideen vanquished the Soviet superpower in Asia’s graveyard of empires, while the new pope would help bring down Communism in Europe. In this and in the triumph of neoliberalism, writes Caryl, “we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.”
The publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, meanwhile, has done misanthropes and lovers of English literature the service of bringing back into print several novels of Kingley Amis, most recently The Green Man and The Alteration, at least one of which I hope to make time for before autumn. Anthony Gregory’s urgent and enlightening treatise The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror, published by Cambridge, is also on my must-read list, even if it’s not quite what you’d take to the beach. (But then again, Anthony is real writer as well as a scholar, so you could do worse.)
That’s not even to mention recent Burke books, such as Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. The first half of this year has seen a remarkable season for publishing—a final bloom before digital winter? But Bovard’s book is Kindle-only, and not much the worse for it, so there’s hope yet that works like these will still be around, in some form or another, six months or six years from now.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
David G. Bonagura, Jr.
Josef Pieper’s Faith, Hope, Love. As the world drifts further and further away from the three theological virtues that helped shape Western civilization, I will be seeking the wise counsel of this German philosopher whose clear and penetrating analyses of reality and culture never cease to captivate and fascinate. Surely Pieper, who so famously described leisure as the basis of culture, will offer insights worthy of what these lofty virtues signify.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
Scott P. Richert
This summer is “back to basics” for me with a return to three volumes that have had a tremendous effect on my own thinking and writing: John Lukacs’s Historical Consciousness, Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, and José Ortega y Gasset’s Historical Reason. For those who want to understand the inevitably historical nature of man, and what that means for philosophical thought, these three volumes are indispensable.
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the monthly magazine of The Rockford Institute.
I’m planning on re-reading a few things, including Chambers’s Witness, Weinstein’s Perjury, and Ellison’s Invisible Man. I don’t know that I’ll make it, but I’m going to try to read Warren Carroll’s volumes on the history of Christendom, which I have never read. The same goes for C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. For a whole lot more fun it will be a couple of new baseball books, one by Allen Barra on Mickey and Willie and the other by Robert Weintraub, The Victory Season. I’m trying to turn Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Heretics into lectures that I can give as Mr. Chesterton. Who knows if I’ll get everything done, but I will re-read Witness and read the baseball books for sure.
John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota and is a frequent reviewer.
My summer reading includes two books about global warfare and international politics. The first is Rick Atkinson’s third volume of his liberation trilogy, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945, which covers the Allied war effort in northwest Europe from D-Day to V-E Day. It is a worthy successor to An Army at Dawn (the North African campaign) and Day of Battle (the war in Sicily and Italy). Atkinson has a remarkable ability to write incisively about both the grand strategy of the war and the experiences of front-line infantrymen, sailors, and airmen.
The second book is Brenden Simms’s Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy From 1453 to the Present. Simms writes from a geopolitical perspective about the growth and evolution of the European state system which dominated world politics until the end of the Second World War. His approach to world history reminds one of A. J. P. Taylor, J. R. Seeley, Halford Mackinder, Arnold Toynbee, and other great British historians and writers. It is a sweeping narrative that attempts to discern fundamental insights into how and why nations and empires act on the world stage.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany, America’s Global Role, and Geopolitics. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.
I’m going to indulge my interest in language and theology with Vern Poythress’s In the Beginning Was the Word and catch up on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.
After hearing a recent interview with the poet Christian Wiman, I'm also intrigued by his new memoir My Bright Abyss. And speaking of evocative language, I think it’s time to return to the science fiction stories of Cordwainer Smith.
Peter L. Edman is associate editor of the Bookman.
Posted: June 8, 2013 in Symposia.
Old Roads and Montesquieu’s Library
James V. Schall, S.J.