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CRB Christmas Reading List 2012


January 11, 2016

Frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree. Santa’s on his way, and his filled his sleigh—with some good book recommendations from friends and colleagues of the Claremont Institute...

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First up, let us recommend three books released this year (one of which will show up a few more times in this list).

Celebrate the first decade of the Claremont Review of Books with Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Ten Years of the Claremont Review of Books, which gathers together some of our journal’s most distinctive essays, books reviews, and illustrations.  Together, they diagnose a century of liberal excess and call for a renewed American conservatism, one that takes its bearings from the principles of the American Founding.  Contributors include Hadley Arkes, Larry Arnn, Martha Bayles, William F. Buckley, Jr., Paul Cantor, James Ceaser, Angelo Codevilla, Joseph Epstein, Christopher Flannery, Mark Helprin, Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield, Wilfred McClay, Cheryl Miller, Jaroslav Pelikan, Joseph Tartakovsky, Peter Schramm, Michael Uhlmann, William Voegeli, and James Q. Wilson.

CRB editor Charles R. Kesler's spirited analysis in I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism shows that the president represents either a new birth of liberalism—or its demise.  Reflecting a sophisticated mix of philosophy, psychology, and history, and complemented by a scathing wit, I Am the Change tries to understand Obama as he understands himself, based largely on his own writings, speeches, and interviews. Kesler views him as a gifted and highly intelligent progressive who is attempting to become the greatest president in the history of modern liberalism. Intent on reinvigorating the liberal faith, Obama nonetheless fails to understand its fatal contradictions—a shortsightedness that may prove to be liberalism's undoing.

Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West  begins with an extensive unpublished autobiographical essay entitled “Straussian Geography: A Memoir and Commentary,” which alone is worth the cover price.  The book as a whole brings together a collection of Jaffa’s published arguments on Leo Strauss, written during the 40 years since Strauss’s death. The volume includes arguments of those who have disagreed with Jaffa about Strauss's teaching and about the nature of political philosophy. These wide ranging exchanges explore many of the great themes of political philosophy and, in particular, the implications of Strauss's thinking for America and modern civilization.

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Hadley Arkes

Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions, Amherst College

 

I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler

At the top of the list this Christmas, the book everyone should be reading—especially after the election. The writing moves easily and gracefully, and almost every page delivers passages to be marked.  Kesler notes Obama playing the theme of “hope,” a passion with a special appeal to the young, who have not reflected overly much on the things for which an instructed man would rightfully hope.  As for young people,

their inexperience of life and of their own shortcomings disposes them to be full of hope and heedless of dangers, noted Aristotle, just as drunks are.  Obama, like most liberals, looks to the young for confirmation of his hopes and dreams and urges the old to adopt the inexperienced and immoderate as their guide.

The Upside Down Constitution, by Michael Greve

In the review in the CRB Michael Uhlmann was rhapsodic in his praise, though he neglected to quote from the quotable lines that run through the book, with this savvy and sardonic writer. This is a sober assessment of the state of our jurisprudence by one of its most intense students.  Greve is not diverted by the usual clichés about the Constitution, and even the clichés of federalism that have lured conservatives from their sobriety.

Redeeming Democracy in America, by Wilson Carey McWilliams, edited and with an introduction by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams

A collection of essays from one of our most gifted teachers of political philosophy, who rarely bothered to assemble his essays in the form of a book.  The work here was lovingly done for our late friend by one of his leading students, Patrick Deneen, now at Notre Dame, and by his daughter, Susan, one of my own star students at Amherst and Princeton, and now an accomplished professor of political theory herself at Pomona College.  The book contains, for example, Carey McWilliams on “The Bible in the American Political Tradition.”  One of the joys here is that one cannot read these essay without hearing Carey’s voice.

The Modern Age, by James V. Schall

Fr. Schall, retiring now at Georgetown, delivered a Farewell Lecture to a packed Gaston Hall at Georgetown on December 7.   It was remarkable to see the throngs of young people who had formed their souls in such as a way as to receive the teaching of James Schall on the classics of political philosophy.   I used to have long walks with Fr. Schall in Georgetown, mulling over the mysteries of my late professor Leo Strauss.  Fr. Schall, in his own way, preserved the concerns of Strauss in his teaching.  The concern for “reason and revelation” threads through several of Schall’s books as it does in this recent book.  And it gives us the occasion to call back the other books and read anew.

How is Nature Possible?:  Kant’s Project in the First Critique, by Daniel N. Robinson

Daniel Robinson is one of those rare professors of psychology, fluent in Latin and Greek, and for the past 20 years he has been lecturing at Oxford in philosophy.  His lectures there on Kant have produced something rare among the English with their style of understatement and reserve:  each of his lectures on Kant last term ended with applause from the students.   This analysis of Kant’s First Critique will never produce a Cliff Notes version or reading at the beach.  Nor is it Kant-for-Dummies.  But for those who wish to get past the caricatures and venture into the serious depths on what can be “known,” this book will find its place.

Stillborn Crusade:  The Tragic Failure of Western Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1918-20, by Ilya Somin

Most of the “established” historians who have written on the intervention of the Allies in the Russian Civil War had assumed that the venture was destined to fail, and they began also with the premise that the intervention was slightly illegitimate. Ilya Somin sought to show that the project was not at all impracticable, that it was indeed quite workable;  and if it had succeeded, the world would have been spared vast evils, including the deaths of millions. This book belongs on the shelf of every conservative, and especially everyone in the Claremont circle, for the writer shows that Churchill, with his remarkable acuity, saw at once the evil of Bolshevism as he saw the evil of Nazism, while others around him were willing to concoct clever theories to discount the evil and the dangers.   The other remarkable thing is that the book was written by the 22-year Ilya Somin as his senior thesis at Amherst and published a year later in 1996.  (Ilya’s family came from Russia when he was 6 years old, before the Soviet Union fell.)  I’ve been rereading the book and trying to make up now for a commendation I should have entered long ago.  Ilya went on to take his law degree at Yale while completing also a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard.  He is a professor now at George Mason University Law School.  We should keep an eye out for his new book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, due out from Stanford University Press this coming summer.

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg

I finally got around to reading Jonah’s book, which was too long neglected on my part.  I must have assumed that it was journalistic commentary, but it is far more than that. This is a work of genuine scholarship and insight.  I thought I knew quite a lot about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, but even I could learn some things new here.  The only point of concern is that Jonah seemed surprisingly nonchalant in expressing a certain willingness to settle in with same-sex marriage.   The implications unfolding from that novelty in our law could one day make a story as startling as the one he recovers in this book on fascism as a happy liberal scheme.

Over Here: The First World War and American Society, by David M. Kennedy

Jonah’s book in turn led me to read this thoroughly remarkable account of America during the First World War:  the character of Woodrow Wilson and his administration, its attitude on black people, the sweeping suppression of civil liberties by liberals filled with liberal conviction, the emergence of war-time controls, the international political economy, and even the management of the war itself.  The book fills in a curious vacuum of what people no longer recall of those years.

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Larry P. Arnn

President, Hillsdale College

 

In Sunlight and in Shadow; Winter's Tale; A Soldier of the Great War; The Pacific and Other Stories; Memoir from an Ant Proof Case; Freddy and Fredricka; Digital Barbarism, by Mark Helprin

By his own account, Mark Helprin is a Luddite when it comes to digital publishing. His book Digital Barbarism makes the case that the digital world is leading us to that state. When he publishes something in an Internet publication, he likes to call the column "Written on Water"; Mark does not want his writing lost in eddies and swirls.

It is therefore a wonderful fact, in all senses of that term, that  Mark's books are now available in e-book format. All of them are lovely, but they take time to read. If you are cursed with too much travel, having a digital copy of them is a blessing. Never mind what the author thinks. Buy them all, have them with you on your tablet, and give yourself a treat.

Mark's newest book, In Sunlight and in Shadow, begins with beauty and power. Early on a young man back from the war spies a girl and is felled. He loses her before they can speak.  Then he finds her again on a crowded ferry where he first saw her. They talk, and she is receptive.  This is a life-changing fact to the young man, and you feel the same way. She is not merely a stunning woman: she is the idea of that walking. He falls in love with the stitching on her blouse, and you do too.  They get very close, but they are just a half step out of time, and you twitch for them to fall into rhythm. You are seized in suspense over nothing but two people meeting whom you do not know very well. Then the book turns into a sort of crime novel, but lovely and deep.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Joe Sachs

In 2011 Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins published a translation of Aristotle's Ethics. It is a tremendous work of scholarship, its footnotes constructive and instructive alike, its introduction interesting to say the least. I confess I am still partial to the great translation by Joe Sachs, to his footnotes, and to his introduction. One could set up a quarrel between these two books. My suggestion is that one read them both, and then read them both again, and then regard that as a start.

Portrait of the Monster as a Young Man, by Alan Bullock

The first English biography of Hitler was published in 1952 by Alan Bullock, former research assistant to Winston Churchill, though later a supporter of the Labour and Social Democratic parties. Hitler: a Study in Tyranny is still one of the best studies of the archetypal modern tyrant.  Written only shortly after the war, it shows Hitler as a party hack, a brawling political conniver, who descended before his suicide into isolation and neurosis. This is not exhaustive, but it is true, and the book conveys a vivid picture in fine language. The early chapters about the young Hitler have been republished this year as Portrait of the Monster As a Young Man. Read this. Or better, read the whole thing, still in print.

Writing a decent book about Winston Churchill is not easy. He is a big subject, and he wrote so many wonderful books about his own life. Generally, it is better to read Churchill himself. Several recent books about Churchill are nonetheless worth a look.

Churchill's Empire: the World That Made Him and the World He Made, by Richard Toye

Richard Toye has written a thorough, competent, and interesting book about Winston Churchill and empire. It provides a good summary of the many ways the British Empire, dear to Churchill, was involved in all that he did.  In war and in peace, in domestic turmoil and relative tranquility, it was never far from his thoughts.  His hopes for it and the pressures it brought were ever influential with him. Toye helps us to understand this. 

Churchill’s purposes as an imperialist have long been misunderstood and long misrepresented. I do not think Prof. Toye corrects this problem. What is needed is to relate Churchill's views on empire, especially the controversial and important subject of India, to his larger understanding of politics. First one must uncover that understanding, which is embedded in the vast evidence of a long career of doing, thinking, and writing. The key would be to take seriously what Churchill said, understand it, and test it against the evidence. 

Toye makes a poor beginning with his title: if the world made Churchill, what is the standing of his thoughts, or especially of his principles? If he made the world, what reality is there in it upon which Churchill might have based his actions?  If Churchill and empire are understood as opposing or intertwined acts of creation, a struggle for mastery or a common act of production, what room is there for service, for justice, for Right?  Churchill speaks in this very language of service, of justice, of Right; is he speaking of things that are empty of meaning, or is he simply using them as tools in his attempt to master and to avoid being mastered?  About these questions, Toye makes assumptions more than he demonstrates or explains.

Toye tells a story of interests and pressures, of romantic attachments and controversies that stem from them and shape them.  Lots of people testify about what Churchill is doing and also about what he is thinking, but there is too little careful reading of the things Churchill prepared so carefully to say and to publish.  Churchill is one witness among many even on the subject of his own mental processes. 

Churchill says that as he struggled for and against the many pressures he faced, he was trying to bring the power of human choice into command. Choice requires rational alternatives and a standard by which to rank them.  Was Churchill successful in this effort?  Did he find that standard?  Did he rank the alternatives justly?   We will need another book to discover.

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid

Paul Reid, a journalist from Florida, took over the three volume biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester. Manchester, failing in health and now deceased, picked him to write the third volume, which covers the great life from the fateful month of May 1940 to Churchill's death. Like Manchester, Reid writes at a fine pace. This helps to capture the sense of excitement one ought to have when he understands what Churchill was and did. It is not I think a great book, but worth the time.

The Power of Words, by Sir Martin Gilbert

Last April the greatest of all the Churchill writers suffered an arrhythmia and lost consciousness. His wife Esther kept him alive for several minutes. He was in a coma for a time, and now awake, still he may not recover to the place of resuming his work. This would be a loss to the study of history, and to some the loss of a friend and teacher, that is irreplaceable. One  prays that he will be restored.

The author of more than 85 books, of course Sir Martin produced another shortly before he fell ill. It is entitled The Power of Words, a book of speeches and writings by Churchill.  The preface by Sir Martin was written on January 10, 2012, four months before he was stricken. The readings are well chosen by the man who knows the most; the many photographs are superb. There are of course maps, at which Sir Martin excels, having dominated their use in history books for a generation.

On the dust jacket of the book Sir Martin places one of the finest Churchill quotes:

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very  imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.

If these are the last words that Sir Martin writes about Churchill, they are well chosen to fit both author and subject.

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Mark Blitz

Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College

 

t is always useful to reacquaint ourselves with thoughtful discussions of liberal democracy, and especially timely when presidential elections have unfortunate results. Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism, Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, and the collection of Ronald Reagan’s writings, Ronald Reagan in his Own Hand, are good places to begin.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 discuss some of our current challenges.

James Muller’s excellent new edition of Churchill’s essays in Great Contemporaries enables us to benefit from the range of Churchill’s judgment.

After refreshing one’s mind by listening to Bach and Mozart, say The Well-Tempered Clavier and the two piano quartets, one should continue the study of Plato that I recommended in my earlier entries. The Gorgias and Phaedrus, in James Nichols’s translations, would be a good next step.

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Denis Boyles

Director of the Brouzils Seminars

Co-editor of The Fortnightly Review’s New Series

 

s I get older, my anxiety increases. I keep finding books I ought to have read years ago but didn’t. How could I have managed to not read David Jones’s In Parenthesis until this year, a mere 75 years after it was first published? It’s a war book (first world), but his style is that of an accidental soldier, a poet forced to do daywork as a documentarian. Even the shortest of passages makes you stop and look at a thing closer than you intended, as when a “carrying party” passes along his trench, carrying a body through a black night: “Metalled eyelet hole in waterproof pall hanging glides cold across your upward tilted cheek with that carrying party’s unseen passing––the smell of iodine hangs about when it’s used so freely.” Doesn’t it just, and it stays with you.

David Jones’s book sent me back to John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy where over the course of three extraordinary novels, the story of pre-war America threads between passages from newsreels with their wry caption cards: “MANY SEE COOLIDGE BUT FEW HEAR HIM.”

Thanks to one of my daughters, I also read Hillel Levine’s In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust, from 1996. The subtitle spills the idea. He did it from his little desk in the Japanese consulate in a Lithuanian provincial capital—in violation of orders, and without any clear motive, other than to try to help the crowd of terrified Jews who lined up to beg him for a visa that would excuse them from Europe. He smiled and handed them out to one and all, even tossing them out the train window on his way out of town.

Also, this year I finally got acquainted with John Scottus Eriugena, a man I had only known before as a very odd but eventually familiar face: he was the little troll-like character on the Irish £5 note in the late ’70s when I was teaching in Dublin for an American college. I can’t imagine the convincing that took: “Sure, why him and not another hard-drinking poet named Paddy or Seamus?” It was a lucky move, since Eriugena’s beliefs are now echoing brightly through theological debates and his Celtic-Hellenic vision is once again attracting attention. Deirdre Carabine’s brilliant John Scottus Eriugena is the introduction I needed.

Now for three timely, post-election suggestions: Harry Stein’s No Matter What...They’ll Call This Book Racist is a measured, at times witty, look at the central hypocrisy informing American politics in the 21st century: we all know that racists in America are generally not white, middle-class citizens who sell insurance and save up for boats. They’re not factory workers and they’re not farmers. They’re all those other people out there—like the voters in nearly 100 urban precincts in Chicago and Philadelphia who voted unanimously for Obama—who claim to be victims of racism. So racism is an issue, all right, but, as Stein’s subtitle explains, “our fear of talking honestly about race hurts us all.” Since crossing over from the Left to the Right, Stein has written the kinds of books that make many conservative editors and pundits nervous. Making wry about Muslims in Holland or crazy congressmen in Washington or, as in my case, the wretched French ruling class doesn’t take courage—just lots of credit card debt. But writing insightful books like No Matter What...They’ll Call This Book Racist does.

Another fearless conservative, Greg Gutfeld, takes in-your-face polemic to a new level altogether in The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage. Specifically, the level he takes it to is one of unprecedented smartness. The conservative point-of-view has been muddied and muffled by a polite preoccupation with perceived unfairness: “See? The New York Times is biased!” Gutfeld got over that long ago. He’s made his enemies into his stooges. He ignores their hambone outrage, picks up a board in the form of a well-made paragraph, and just whacks them with it. Twice—once coming in, once on his way out. That’s how you triumph over a whiner. He’s like Moe, with brains.

Finally, Kevin Clark’s The Great Economic Train Wreck is an inspired idea executed brilliantly: Clark, a financial expert, conducts a radio broadcast in the upper Midwest covering the week’s business and market moves. As the economy began collapsing first under Bush in 2008, then under Obama in 2009-10, Clark focused only on the week-by-week for his listeners—here are the numbers, here is the news. To make this book, he went back, gathered all the stats and the radio transcripts, and threaded them along a hindsight narrative of the nation’s economic disaster. It’s quite compelling—as slo-mo train wrecks always are. You can’t take your eyes off it. That special effect is extraordinary—and more expensive than we’ll ever know.

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Michael Burlingame

Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, University of Illinois, Springfield

 

Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer

Though Singer has in recent decades become a crank and an embarrassment to his employer (my alma mater, Princeton), his early appeal for vegitarianism powerfully combines a brief, philosophical analysis of "specisim" with a devestating description of conditions which sheep, cattle, and pigs endure on factory farms. I have not eaten meat since finishing the book 40 years ago.
 

The Seasons of a Man’s Life, by Daniel J. Levinson

This pioneering study of male adult psychological development, based on a rigorous study of 40 men over many years, helped me to understand my own life and the life of historical figures—most notably Abraham Lincoln—much better. Levinson and his Yale colleagues offer strong empirical evidence supporting the psychological insights of Carl Jung about the changes men undergo as they pass from the first half of life to the second half.

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Christopher Caldwell

Senior Editor, Weekly Standard

 

The English Bible, King James Version: The Old Testament, edited by Herbert Marks

The English Bible, King James Version: The New Testament and The Apocrypha, edited by Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch

Anyone who, lacking Hebrew and Greek, wants to deepen his acquaintance with the Bible has until recently faced an unpleasant choice. To read the 400-year-old King James Version is to enter Western culture through the main door, but it exposes the reader to occasional archaisms and mistranslations. This bothers some people more than it should. The other option is to get an annotated Bible bearing the wealth of modern Biblical scholarship but built on some dull, dumbed-down translation from the 1960s or ’70s. I remember being introduced as a child to the 23rd Psalm, or what was left of it after the makers of the New American Bible got through with it. It was a combination of Latinate pomposity (“in verdant pastures he gives me repose”) and doggerel reminiscent of a small-town newspaper limerick-writing contest:

You spread the table before me
      in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
      my cup overflows.

Now Norton has published a magnificent annotated King James Bible as part of its Norton Critical Editions series. Why did no one think of doing that before? As editor Herbert Marks asserts in his excellent Old Testament preface, “The KJV deserves its privileged place, not only on historical and stylistic grounds, as a venerable relic and model of English prose, but as a faithful translation, a window onto the ancient texts, which, though it colors the original, distorts it less than do most modern versions.”

This would, in short, be the greatest Christmas gift ever dreamed up, except for one almost unbelievable mistake: who at Norton decided to publish this book only in paperback?

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Matthew Continetti

Editor in chief, Washington Free Beacon

 

nly rarely are the books one recommends published in the year one recommends them. The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism by Jeffrey Bell is an exception. A former aide to Ronald Reagan and a founder of supply-side thinking, Bell is a remarkable political analyst who argues that American politics are distinct from those of the European social democracies because of our foundational belief in natural rights given by God.

The Republican Party has held the advantage, Bell says, when it has taken unapologetic and divisive stands on issues such as flag-burning, prayer in schools, the right to life, incarceration, the Pledge of Allegiance, and same-sex marriage. Picking fights on combustible social and cultural matters may be explosive. The media may screech. But it is how Republicans have solidified their connection to the conservatives of the heart at the base of the party.

Bell and his frequent writing partner Frank Cannon were among the few analysts to warn that Mitt Romney’s strategy of pressing Barack Obama on the dismal economy alone would not be enough to win. Ceding the social issues to questionable spokesmen such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock hurt the Republican ticket. Avoiding any substantive distinction between the Republicans and Obama on foreign policy hurt as well. A GOP that does not defend social conservatism and natural rights is the midwife of empty churches and an immense and tutelary state. Read Bell now.

Then try Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I went on a Waugh binge at the beginning of the year, rampaging through Scoop, Vile Bodies, The Loved One, Robbery Under Law, and this classic recension of three World War II novels. Waugh perfectly fuses the comic and tragic in the story of Guy Crouchback, who after the announcement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact joins the British Army to fight “the Modern Age at arms.” Waugh’s ability to draw characters through dialogue, action, and the most economic of prose is uncanny. I read this book in awe. You will too.

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John J. DiIulio, Jr.

Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania

 

he Catholic Church claims a worldwide flock that exceeds one billion souls.  Catholics constitute about a quarter of the U.S. population, and Latino Catholics are the nation’s fastest-growing subpopulation.  In the 2012 presidential election, the Catholic vote once again mirrored the national popular vote (51% Democratic, 48% Republican), and two Catholics, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan, squared off in the race for vice president.  Most sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholic, too.  Thus, serious-minded people of all faiths and of no faith should know more about Catholicism, including what the Church of Rome actually professes regarding social and political life.  The time is ripe. October 11, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II.  December 8, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II.  So, with Christmas blessings to one and all, I offer a batch of must-read books concerning Catholicism to which (God and CRB willing) I will add entries in each of the next several years.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.)

This book summarizes what the Church proclaims about everything from the divinity of Jesus Christ to the nature of human community and matters such as abortion, the death penalty, marriage, poverty, war, and more.  Read it slowly from start to finish and experience what a 2,000-year-old institution can offer by way of intellectual rigor and coherence.  Be on the lookout for some surprises.  For instance, the Catechism is clear about not letting the state substitute itself for civil society, but it is equally clear about the moral duty to call upon government when human needs might otherwise go unmet.  In effect, the Church’s “subsidiarity” doctrine forbids being addicted to government, but it also forbids being allergic to it.  And its “solidarity” doctrine requires not only a preferential love for the poor and efforts to overcome “sinful inequalities,” but also profound respect for the dignity and rights of wage workers.  On abortion, the book is as unambiguous as it can be in condemning the practice as a grave evil.  But on homosexuality, the book instructs that while same-sex relations are “intrinsically disordered,” sexual orientation is a condition, not a choice, and “no sign of unjust discrimination” may be shown to any person because of his or her sexual orientation.  All people are children of God and all are brothers and sisters beloved by Jesus Christ.  All persons have both individual rights and corresponding duties, not least the duty to seek and support “the common good,” defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment fully and more easily.”

Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (Volumes I and II)

Most Catholics—including most Catholics who argue about what “Vatican II” decided, meant, and has wrought—have never read the 16 documents (9 “decrees,” 4 “constitutions,” and 3 “declarations”) that were approved by the bishops during their 1962-1965 meetings.  Until a few years ago, I was one.  I confess that some of the documents are less than scintillating (maybe they read better in Latin), but then there are passages that are poetical, profound, and even eye-popping.  For instance, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium), proclaims that not only the Catholic faithful but other Christians and, indeed, all other people can go to heaven if they are good and loving and Christ-like.  The same document corrects the notion that “papal infallibility” means the pope is never wrong; rather, it means that the “whole body of the faithful who have received an anointing which comes from” the Holy Spirit (the “Third Person” of the Blessed Trinity) have beliefs and practices that, when solemnly reflected upon by themselves, and when reflected upon by their bishops (not least, but not solely, the Bishop of Rome) in the light of all Catholic tradition, “cannot be mistaken in belief.”  Similarly, the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) endorses an “ecumenism” that seeks unity between Catholics and other Christians, and that acknowledges how God works to bring non-Catholic Christians to Himself through their own non-Catholic churches.  And the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) repudiates the centuries-old anti-Semitic canard that blamed Jews who lived during the time of Christ, or all Jews then and since, for the death of Jesus under Pontius Pilate and by Roman hands. 

Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI

This trilogy chronicles the sitting pope’s “personal search” for “the face of the Lord.”  It is written with an intellectual openness, logic, verve, and honesty that I wish the Church’s harshest critics, not least those who reject all “religion” because they mistakenly understand “faith” as somehow necessarily antithetical to “reason” and “science,” would muster.  “God,” writes the pope, “is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves?  The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us right down at the crossroads of human existence.”  Surprise!  The pope answers the God question in the affirmative.  You will, however, be surprised (or at least I sure was) by the almost tentative way that he frames certain of his key conclusions.  Like, for example, the passage in which he explicates the “methodology” that governs his “interpretation of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament,” and states that the “main implication of my portrayal of Jesus is that I trust the Gospels.” (Whew!  I was glad to read that you do, Holy Father.)

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Edward Feser

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Pasadena City College

 

hilosophy is difficult to make accessible to the general reader.  This is especially true of the philosophical ideas of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and other classical and Scholastic thinkers.  More’s the pity, because few subjects are as important as philosophy in general and classical and Scholastic philosophy in particular.  (Or so we Neo-Scholastics would argue.)

Fortunately, 2012 has seen the release of several books tailor-made to help the non-specialist ease his way into these forbidding traditions of thought.  Those with a special interest in ethics and politics will welcome Peter Karl Koritansky’s Thomas Aquinas and the Philosophy of Punishment, which provides a lucid exposition of Aquinas’s conception of retributive justice and contrasts it with both Kantian retributivist theories and the utilitarianism of thinkers like Bentham.  Anyone who thinks retributivism in general or Aquinas’s version in particular are no longer defensible or relevant ought to read Koritansky’s fine book.

The technical terminology used by Aristotelian and Scholastic writers is a necessity, for it makes possible the conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor that is characteristic of their work.  But it can also make things difficult for the non-specialist.   A ready-to-hand lexicon is a must, and yet none has been in print for decades.  With his welcome new book Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition, John W. Carlson has at last filled this gap.  (And as it happens, Bernard Wuellner’s 1956 Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy has just this year come back into print as well.)

For an accessible introduction to the key ideas of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, you cannot do better than Peter Kreeft’s lucid and enjoyable Summa Philosophica.  From free will and final causality to sex and time travel, there’s something in it for everyone, and the book is neatly organized by topic and sub-topic in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into.  Now absolutely no one has any excuse for not learning some philosophy.

Finally, for those looking for a relatively painless guide to the state of the art in academic work on the classical and Scholastic traditions—and also, frankly, those with some spare cash (these books ain’t cheap)—there are three new entries in Oxford’s Handbook series: The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, edited by Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump; The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon; and The Oxford Handbook of Aristotle, edited by Christopher Shields.

* * *

Matthew J. Franck

Director, the Witherspoon Institute’s William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution

 

n many ways the most impressive book I read in the past year was Michael Burleigh’s Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II.  Avoiding the rigid categories of the lawyer or philosopher, Burleigh says, he “tried to make this book as detached as possible; it is not a work of moralising enthusiasm.”  Perfect detachment, of course, was not possible, and Burleigh’s own judgments come through—judicious, balanced, but no less pointed when they need to be.  No moral equivalence between Allies and Axis is to be found here.  Still, so complete is his mastery of his sources, so comprehensive is his field of view, that he invariably gives readers all the information necessary to draw their own conclusions.  It is hard to imagine a better guide through the treacherous moral swamps of the last century’s greatest war.

Two superb guides toward clearer thinking at the intersection of philosophy and science appeared in 2012.  The first is Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, a short book with a long title that delivers a short, sharp, devastating blow to the view that materialist scientific thinking can adequately account for the origins of life, the emergence of mind and consciousness, and reasons we have for our moral norms.  A professed atheist who says he simply lacks the sensus divinitatis, Nagel embraces teleology as an explanatory framework, but seems to resist going where this inexorably points.  The second book is Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who patiently explains that the dispensations of modern science provide no defeaters for religious conviction.  Conflicts between science and faith are imaginary; conflicts between faith and anti-religious metaphysical commitments masquerading as science are very real.

Eva Brann’s latest collection of essays, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, is a meal for the “slow food” set in intellectual life.  Brann’s extended discussions of such subjects as James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and the conquest of Mexico by Cortés are worth digesting at leisure.  And James W. Ceaser’s Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice proves once again that he is our country’s best political scientist, equally able in the study of political philosophy, in the analysis of institutions and political processes, and in understanding how Americans understand themselves.  From The Federalist to Tocqueville to Leo Strauss; from presidential politics and the separation of powers to the meaning of both modern American conservatism and modern anti-Americanism, Ceaser is unfailingly instructive, witty, and wise.

I was really hoping that I would not have to read Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism—that the recent election would obviate the necessity.  Alas, it was not to be, and this is now the indispensable book on a presidency that will fail the country the more it succeeds in its aims.  The other indispensable book for our times is What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.  Whatever it is that the advocates of same-sex “marriage” want, it is decidedly not marriage.  To understand why, and to understand what trouble we will be in if this battle is lost, just read this brief and compelling book.

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Alonzo Hamby

Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University

 

The War for Korea: They Came from the North, 1950-51, by Allan Millett

This second volume of what will be the definitive history of the Korean war takes us through the North Korean invasion of the South in June, 1950, to the relief of General Douglas MacArthur in April, 1951.

From Roosevelt to Truman : Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War; The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson Miscamble 

The first book, masterly and intensively researched, is the best one-volume study of the origins of the Cold War.  The second, examines the perennial controversy over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan with the thoroughness and balance one expects of a premier historian while exhibiting the sensibility of a theologian attuned to the tragic in human history.

The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 , by Jim Baggott

A fine narrative, this account begins with the early stirrings of awareness about the destructive power of nuclear energy and takes us through the competition—first between the United States and the Third Reich, then between America and the Soviet Union—to develop the ultimate weapon.  The strength of this book is less its contribution to knowledge than its accessibility to a wide readership.

Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances:  How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, by Frank Costigliola

One need not buy into the author’s Cold War revisionism to appreciate the deft and thorough way in which he handles the web of relationships that  enabled his wartime leadership. 

The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, by David Roll

A useful and very well constructed updating of Robert E. Sherwood’s classic Roosevelt and Hopkins (1948), Role’s account sheds new light on Hopkins’ personal life and his key role as FDR’s indispensible partner in the shaping of American diplomacy during World War II.

* * *

Steven F. Hayward

Thomas Smith Distinguished Fellow, John M. Ashbrook Center, Ashland University

 

mity Shlaes’s book on the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, is perhaps the best book ever written puncturing the pretentions of FDR and the New Deal (said me in National Review), and one sign of its strength is that the Left went to DefCon 1 to attack it.  I expect her next book, a new biography of Coolidge, will be equally fine, and although it isn’t coming out until February, you can and should give yourself an early Christmas present by pre-ordering a copy.

Jean Yarbrough’s Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition is simply the best scholarly study of the bully on the “bully pulpit.”  Her unequaled depth is matched with an accessible writing style that non-scholars will find engaging.

Let’s do two “crisis” books.  The first is the 25th anniversary edition of Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. This book laid out the “ratchet effect,” whereby government enlarges to deal with a crisis (depression, war, and so forth), but somehow never shrinks back to pre-crisis size or scope after the crisis is over.  We’re going through another such ratchet right now with Obama’s post-stimulus lunge to make government permanently larger.

The second crisis title is Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West.  It is impossible to give a one-sentence summary or description, beyond saying that anyone who wishes to grasp the essence of the most important issues of modern political philosophy needs to get this book.  Plus, some essays offer an inside, personal look at one of the greatest minds of our time.

The virtues and defects of William Manchester’s first two volumes of his Churchill biography, The Last Lion, were reviewed in the old “vintage” CRB, but the third volume, completed by Paul Reid, is a solid narrative: The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.  In an odd way Reid was a great choice, as he came to Churchill with fresh eyes.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union are fast receding into the rear-view mirror of history, but it’s such a remarkable event that we shouldn’t have moved on so quickly.  Leon Aron’s Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 walks through the dramatic story, with important lessons for today for understanding events beyond the borders of Russia.

C.S. Lewis used to say that for every two new books you read, you should read one old one.  So why not one of his?  I suggest his great novel That Hideous Strength, which holds up the best of all the mid-century anti-utopian novels with which it is usually grouped chiefly because, unlike Orwell’s 1984, it isn’t about Communism.  It holds up because it’s about the bureaucratic-therapeutic state that looks a lot like what we have today.

* * *

John B. Kienker

Managing Editor, Claremont Review of Books

 

I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler

Unlike those on the Right who pegged the president as a hapless amateur in over his head or, worse, an anti-colonialist bogeyman, Kesler deftly reveals Barack Obama’s high-stakes bid to be the savior of American liberalism. The book traces 100 years of ascendant Progressivism’s hostile takeover of constitutional government, from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and the New Left. With his ruthless victory on Obamacare, the president may have won a spot in liberalism’s pantheon of immortals, but Kesler asks if contemporary liberalism itself has become exhausted by its own unsustainable contradictions.  The indispensable guide to Obama’s—sigh—second term.

After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, by Mark Steyn

Recommending Mark Steyn’s America Alone in a previous end-of-the-year round-up, I wrote that his jaunty take on the West’s demographic decline was “the most fun I’ve had being depressed.”  His follow-up, After America, warns that European-style collapse awaits our country, too—perhaps sooner than we think.  Thanks to the ravages of modern liberalism, “A statist America,” writes Steyn, “won’t be a large Sweden—unimportant but prosperous—but something closer to the Third World.”  Zipping along the way to this dystopian future, the book exhibits the same rapid-fire mordant wit, but the tone is more despairing.  It’s a little harder to laugh at one’s own suicide note.

The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry P. Arnn

This elegant essay corrects a century of liberal scholarship that has portrayed the U.S. Constitution as a reactionary counter-revolution against a supposedly radical Declaration of Independence.  Concentrating on the ideas and reasoning of our two foundational documents, Arnn shows that they are not at odds but drawn from the same deep well of republican principle.  A splendid introduction to understanding the purposes of American government.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat

Douthat’s refreshing argument is that what ails America is not too much religion (as the Left fears) or too little (as the Right insists), but bad religion: “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”  As he tells it, a combination of political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, rising incomes, and class snobbery in the second half of the 20th century undid the broad consensus of respect for Christianity’s role in shaping public opinion—and the more churches tried to accommodate the prevailing winds, the swifter they declined.  In their place rose the search for the “historical” Jesus (an all-too-human “Christ without a cross” popularized in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code), the prosperity gospel (of “name it and claim it” megachurch hucksters), feel-good spiritual self-affirmation (think Oprah Winfrey or Deepak Chopra), and—the one that hit closest to home for this reader—a messianic nationalism that treats politics with righteous zeal.  Douthat closes with some possible paths to renewal and a gentle call to a richer, more orthodox faith.

Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, by George Weigel

I was all set to recommend a few older books from Weigel, one our most gifted contemporary commentators on the Catholic faith, when I discovered—merry Christmas to me!—that he has a new book coming out in 2013.  His latest speaks of a Church that—having shaken off the siege mentality that defined it for the past few centuries after the shocks of the Protestant Reformation and French Revolution—is ready in the face of today’s aggressive secularization to engage the world and preach the good news with renewed missionary zeal.  The first half of the book traces a 20th-century “revitalization of Catholic biblical, liturgical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies” back to Pope Leo XIII and forward to the high-water mark of the Second Vatican Council.  Often taking as its model Pope John Paul II (of whom Weigel knows a thing or two), the book’s second half gives more concrete examples of what true evangelical reform would look like for the Church’s popes, bishops, priests, religious, and laity, as well as its liturgy, intellectual life, and public policy advocacy.  A beautiful call to living the faith joyfully.

* * *

Thomas D. Klingenstein

Chairman, Claremont Institute Board of Directors

 

harles R. Kesler’s I am the Change: Barak Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism provides a major contribution to the Claremont intellectual project, which began with Harry Jaffa recovering the possibility that the political philosophy of the American Founders is true, not just an historical artifact of a bygone age.  Jaffa also fingered the Progressives as the culprits who, largely unnoticed, overthrew the principles of the founding. Many Claremont scholars, including Kesler himself, have gone on to explain how Progressive theory constitutes the intellectual headwaters of modern day liberalism.

In I Am the Change, Kesler goes even further, tracing out the liberal policies that logically, even inevitably, followed from the Progressive revolution.  But his book is much more than a diagnosis. Like the doctor who diagnoses liver damage as being the result of too much alcohol, Dr. Kesler’s diagnosis implies a prescription.  Specifically, he implies that conservative policies must be defended on the grounds of justice, which, in turn, requires conservatives to again take seriously the natural law principles of the American Founding. The conservative challenge today is precisely that which confronted Abraham Lincoln: to apply founding principles to current circumstances.  Kesler points the way forward.

* * *

Carnes Lord

Professor, Naval and Military Strategy, U.S. Naval War College

 

erhaps because I am thoroughly tired of the American scene right now, let me suggest some recent and not so recent offerings from across the Pond.  George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his World War II experience in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here, is a minor classic of the genre; in a similar vein (with the hilarious dialogue this time in Scots rather than Cumbrian) is his The Complete McAuslan, based on Fraser’s military service in the postwar British army in North Africa and the Middle East.  Fraser is, for those not in the know, the author of the incomparable Flashman series, a riotously funny, R-rated defense of Victorian values and the British Empire.

Of more recent vintage, readers may want to take another look at Boris Johnson’s Have I Got Views for You (originally published 2003), considering that this eccentric master of political theater (and current mayor of London) may well become the next Conservative prime minister of Britain.

For an incisive exploration of the state of British politics today, there is no better place to go than Peter Oborne’s two jeremiads, The Rise of Political Lying (2005) and The Triumph of the Political Class (2007).  These gripping books should make Americans uncomfortable, because the story they tell is in many ways one of the ongoing Americanization of British politics.  More than that, though, they expose the ongoing—and deeply sad—decay of the politics and culture of Old Europe generally. 

* * *

Daniel J. Mahoney

Professor of Political Science, Assumption College

 

laremont readers will appreciate that political philosophy provides unparalleled access to the world as it is. The study of the great books of the Western tradition reveal not only permanent questions but answers—however provisional—that are among the most compelling available to human beings. It is in this spirit that Steven B. Smith approaches the study of Political Philosophy, a work based on a course that he taught for many years at Yale University. His finely crafted interpretations of ancient and modern political philosophers (as well as of the “politics of the Bible”) provide a perfect balance between attentiveness to the enduring questions, and a contextualism that is necessary to understand a thinker in his own time. The book concludes with a robust defense of patriotism and political judgment and thus embodies the model of morally serious and civically engaged political science that Smith highlights in this work.

The study of the art of writing and the art of governance are also at the heart of Philippe Bénéton’s splendid new book The Kingdom Suffereth Violence. This work, at once playful and serious, is the record of the “discovery” of a hitherto unknown three-way correspondence between Thomas More, Erasmus, and Machiavelli. Scholars like to speak about “humanism” in its different forms (they love to tame Machiavelli as a “civic humanist” of republican conviction) but Bénéton shows that humanism took profoundly different forms on the different sides of the Alps. More and Erasmus remained Christians and defended the unity of Christendom while Machiavelli defended a wisdom that was both pagan and quintessentially “modern.” This “correspondence,” and Bénéton’s accompanying commentary, allow us to better understand the place and limits of “necessity” in moral and political life. It is learning—and art—at a very high level.

Every student of Winston Churchill’s ought to welcome the new, augmented edition of Great Contemporaries made possible by the eminent Churchill scholar James W. Muller and ISI Books. Originally published in the late 1930s, this work reflects on the eclipse of greatness in a democratic age. It reminds us that the late Victorian age saw a melding of aristocratic greatness and democratic politics that we are unlikely to see again. And the treatments of Trotsky and Hitler, among others, reminds us of the totalitarian subversion of modernity and human greatness that was quite advanced as Churchill wrote. The new “portraits” of H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Kitchener of Khartoum, King Edward VIII, and Rudyard Kipling show just how variegated was Churchill’s art of portraiture. The introduction and annotation by Muller are superb and make this the authoritative edition of a classic work.

The reigning school of historiography in the field of Soviet studies pleads for us to see “beyond totalitarianism.” In her masterly Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Anne Applebaum issues a dissent. She allows us to see what exactly was entailed in the “totalitarian” destruction of civil society during the era of “High Stalinism.” Concentrating on the Polish, Hungarian, and East German cases, she shows that totalitarianism had revealed its bankruptcy by the time of the Hungarian Revolution in the fall of 1956. But the residues of that project remained in tact until the final implosion of European Communism in the fall of 1989. Applebaum’s book is enlivened and deepened by the interviews she conducted with numerous eyewitnesses, many of whom died in the course of her researching and writing the book.

For a model of a Christian who lives the life of reason, I recommend Fundamental Speeches From Five Decades by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Claremont readers will be particularly interested in his reflections on the Christian roots of Europe and his deep and discerning reflections on the “Pre-political Moral Foundations of a Free State,” a 2004 text that he presented as part of a debate and discussion with Jürgen Habermas.  

* * *

Harvey C. Mansfield

William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government, Harvard University

 

irst comes The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, with its 500th anniversary in 2013. If you care for politics, this is your book of books.  If you don’t care, Machiavelli shows you that you must.  It’s the same for modernity, for all of modern life: whether you care for it or not, this is for you.  Read it with the question always in mind, who is The Prince?  Choose any translation you like, but you won’t find a better one than mine.

Next is a new book by one of the sages at Claremont McKenna College, Mark Blitz’s Plato’s Political Philosophy.  It’s a difficult book because Plato raises the issues that remain difficult for us, but Blitz shows us the relevance of those issues.  They “orient and motivate all human beings from the start of our awareness.”  This means from our start as children, and Blitz begins his book, as he says Plato begins several of his dialogues, from parents’ worries over their children.  This is a book of philosophy that will help you outgrow any education you may have had in a department of philosophy.

Third, for a comedy mystery by Bill James from his series featuring two nicely-titled policemen, Detective Chief Superintendant Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles.  As a reader you will find yourself in a near-constant chuckle, interrupted by moments of thought and appreciation—for this writer has depth as well as wit and beautiful expression.  It is a long series you can join at any point, but I especially liked James’s recent title, I Am Gold, for its Platonic resonance.

* * *

Wilfred M. McClay

SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

 

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S. Gregory

This very important and impressive book provides a model for historical revisionism at its best. Not only does it challenge settled views of the past by invoking the insights of modernity and postmodernity, which is what we expect revisionists to do, but it also challenges us to consider whether some of our most settled views about the present day should be re-considered in light of the past. It is a remarkable book whose insights will require years, even decades, to be fully assimilated.

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

A distinguished professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, and biographer of Herman Melville, among many other subjects, Delbanco here offers a very thoughtful defense of the traditional liberal arts college, and of the high and humane mission to which it has always been dedicated. He is probably more sanguine than I am about the extent to which such institutions are doing a good job at present. But he sees very clearly the dangers that lie ahead, not the least of them being the danger that liberal education will become a luxury for the rich.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

This book is 17 years old, but I only just now discovered it, in the process of working on a book about guilt in modern life. It is a delightful, compulsively readable, and wonderfully concrete account of the orthodox (or neo-orthodox) Christian understanding of sin, a doctrine that has lost none of its relevance in our world, even if that world has convinced itself that it is better off without it—a view whose periodic emergence the doctrine itself predicts. 

Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, by Robert Hughes

One of the many sad losses of 2012 was that of Robert Hughes, a lavishly talented and inimitable art critic who was hardly infallible, but who was always insightful, always passionate, and always worth reading. He brought a welcome anti-theoretical groundedness and manly directness and energy to his work, and those qualities manifested themselves in the rich and imaginative way that he made use of history. It has been said that his best books were those on his two favorite cities, Barcelona and Rome. I don’t know about the first one, but his Rome is a feast, and a work that all who love the Eternal City will appreciate.

Why Capitalism?, by Allan H. Meltzer

This has become a very real question in our time, one that needs to be answered more forcefully than it has been. Fortunately, this strong and elegant (and thin) book from one of our most eminent students of monetary policy and history, the man who literally “wrote the book” on the history of the Federal Reserve, is an excellent place to begin.

Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? by John Fonte

Anyone who wants to understand the deep intellectual roots of the current drive among the global elites of this country and other countries to deep-six the nation-state, and what those elites have in mind for us in the future, will find everything they are looking for in this clear, forceful, and deeply researched account. This important book appeared last year, but has not yet gotten all of the attention it deserves.

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts

This book appeared in 1994, but just came to my attention as I was doing reading about the effects of the internet on our cognitive abilities. It is the best description I have yet read of the likely consequences of the slow loss of the printed word as an anchor in our social and individual lives. Amazingly, it was written well before that loss seemed even thinkable for most educated people.

Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, by Jean Yarbrough

In this case I cannot improve upon the blurb I wrote for the book: “This is a book of the first importance, and comes at an important moment. No one before Yarbrough has endeavoured, with such patience and ingenuity, to demonstrate that, contrary to his bluff and unreflective public image, Roosevelt was a man heavily driven by ideas. And no one before Yarbrough has had the temerity to point out that, for all Roosevelt’s sincere professions of devotion to the Founding Fathers, those ideas were a dagger aimed at the heart of the Founders’ Constitution. A hundred years after the passing of Progressivism’s high tide, it is long past time for a reevaluation of Theodore Roosevelt and his legacy. Here is the book to begin with.”

And now let me conclude with works by two California brothers, each of whom constitutes a kind of national treasure:

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, by Ted Gioia

Students of jazz will know Ted Gioia’s many fine books, particularly his study of West Coast jazz. But this newest tome is in a class by itself. It is a guide to the 250 most important jazz compositions, telling the story of the songs’ composition and providing a listening guide to several thousand recordings. This could be deadly, but in Gioia’s masterly hands the result is an endlessly readable and browsable book, which represents the distillation of a lifetime of reading about, listening to, writing about, and playing jazz. I don’t agree with every single selection or every single judgment, but who cares? What pulses through Gioia’s pages is the lifeblood of an art form that has always thrived on covers and commentaries and standards and re-interpretations, a kind of musical midrash, and one that will always be quintessentially American at its core. If you love jazz and want to spread the gospel, buy a bunch of copies of The Jazz Standards and give them to your friends at Christmas.

Pity the Beautiful, by Dana Gioia

Not only is Dana Gioia one of the finest poets of our time, he has been an incomparable defender of poetry, both in his writings and in his splendid work as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Pity the Beautiful is his first book of poems since leaving the Endowment, and it shows that, like all great artists, he has continued developing. The formal perfection and clean, untangled diction of his poems are there, as is a tender autobiographical undercurrent that is humane and affecting, rather than being self-indulgent or self-lacerating. There is, it seems to me, a profoundly incantatory quality to many of the works—the title poem itself appears in a chapter called “Words for Music”—and a growing depth to the poet’s engagement with the archetypal elements of his Catholic faith. Consider the following excerpt from the poem “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” words that will perhaps resonate for many of us, and for a variety of reasons, this winter:

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.

Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.

Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Blessed is the pain that humbles us.

Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

Blessed is this shortest day that makes long for light.

Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

* * *

Michael Nelson

Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College

Senior Fellow, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia

 

read about 100 books per year cover to cover—among CRB readers I don’t know if that constitutes bragging or confessing.  This past year our stood out. Andrew Busch’s Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America is the best book on the 1948 election ever written.  Note triumphs, not just triumph.  One of the book’s many virtues is that is treats the state and congressional elections as well as the presidential contest.  I confess an interest: Busch wrote this book for my American Presidential Elections series with the University Press of Kansas.  But I would describe this as a confluence rather than a conflict of interest.  I knew he’d write the best book ever on the subject, which is why I invited him to do it.

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics also stood out.  Douthat treats any subject he writes about intelligently and engagingly.  In this book he evenhandedly skewers all those who wish to remake Christianity in their own image: both the liberals who dilute the faith to make it academically respectable and the conservatives who treat the Bible as a get-rich-quick manual.

Richard Russo is a wonderful novelist: funny, profound, and insightful.  The great chronicler of the rural Northeast, he outs his fictional towns in Elsewhere: A Memoir.  It turns out that Mohawk, Empire Falls, and the rest are all Gloverville, New York, Russo’s home town.

I know this last choice puts me about 50th in the parade of end-of-year celebrants, but so be it.  Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is as superb as everyone says it is.  Among its less celebrated virtues: Boo’s grassroots portrayal of the entrepreneurial spirit in the least likely of places.

* * *

John J. Pitney, Jr.

Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College

 

If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, by David B. Frisk.

This biography of National Review publisher William Rusher drives home a point that many other studies have overlooked:  that the rise of the conservative movement not only hinged on ideas but on the leadership and political skills of its key figures.  National Review, for instance, would not have been born without William Buckley, but as Frisk explains eloquently, it would not have survived and prospered without William Rusher.  But as Frisk also points out, Rusher was much more than a manager:  he was a spirited advocate for conservative views in print and on the air.  Any serious student of American conservatism should read this important book.

Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason, by Amy E. Black

The subtitle says it all: in this wonderfully fair-minded book, Black urges her fellow Christians to remember that the Bible contains truth but is subject to interpretation by fallible humans. “Knowing these limitations,” she writes, “we must be careful to avoid the trap of assuming God is on our side simply because our human interpretation suggests it.”  Both liberals and conservatives have fallen into this trip and both would benefit from Black’s reflections.

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh

If all you know about religion is what you see on cable television, then you might think that faith is all about booming voices and outgoing personalities.  McHugh reminds us that there is also a place for introverts, those who draw their energy from solitude, who process information internally, and who prefer depth over breadth.  He draws on his own experience as a minister, but the lessons of this fine, subtle book extend beyond the church walls.  In exalting extroversion, he explains, our culture often neglects the contributions of the quiet people.  McHugh did his theological training at Princeton, and his analysis calls to mind another Princeton-educated introvert who did a lot for this country:  James Madison.

I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler

Before the 2012 election, a number of conservatives succumbed to wishful thinking, and they thought that Mitt Romney would win in spite of polls and political-science models pointing in the opposite direction.  Since the election, the wishful-thinking virus has passed to the other side. Many liberals think that the president’s modest reelection margin suggests that they will increasingly dominate American politics while their opponents go the way of the Whigs. Not so fast. Kesler’s book should serve as a caution to liberals that they must confront both philosophical exhaustion and the brutality of fiscal arithmetic. 

* * *

Robert R. Reilly

Senior Fellow, the American Foreign Policy Council

 

axos Records celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.  It has a lot to celebrate. This budget label, the invention of Klaus Heymann, revolutionized the world of classical music recordings. It began by duplicating the basic repertoire with inexpensive recordings of second-tier, but still quite respectable orchestras, ensembles and soloists.  Soon, it branched out into premiere recordings of older music and of new, contemporary compositions.  The quality of performances and the sound kept improving, and Naxos soon left its competitors in the dust—including the high-price major labels. While everyone was screaming that classical music was dying, Naxos kept growing.  Go to its website and you will see what I mean. The riches are staggering.

In celebration, I offer some of Naxos’s 2012 releases of 20th-century and contemporary music that I enjoyed the most, with edited excerpts from my reviews in Crisis magazine.

Piano Trios Nos. 1-4 (Finisterra Piano Trio) , by Daron A. Hagen

Naxos 8.559657

Daron Hagen has a very heartfelt quality in his Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger.” It is very touching and directly affecting. Anyone who thinks that modern American composers do not write music that, without condescending to any sloppy emotions, goes straight to the heart should listen to this work. The equally attractive Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band,” has a strong Appalachian feel to it. It, too, is very moving and, at times, ecstatic. The Finsterra Trio delivers what sound like definitive performance.  There is a real joy of discovery here.

Year in the Catskills (A) / Gardens / Dream Dances / Diversions (Blair Woodwind Quintet, Felix Wang, M. Rose), by Peter Schickele
Naxos American Classics 8.559687
The new Naxos CD of Peter Schickele’s works for woodwind quintet is played beautifully by the Blair Woodwind Quintet. I have always enjoyed Schickele’s “serious” music [he doubles as P.D.Q. Bach], particularly his enticing chamber music. His string quartets and piano quintets are quite wonderful. The title piece here is A Year in the Catskills, accompanied by Dream Dances, Diversions, and other pieces. These are sweet, genial musical musings that percolate pleasantly along. Much of it is gentle and reflective, capturing a poignant nostalgia. These are works of sheer delight and attractive fancy. There is simply not a mean bone in the body of this music.

Venice of the North Concerti - Violin Concerto, "Lines in Motion" / Ania's Song / Saxophone Concerto (Wetherbee, T. Sullivan, Lande), by James Aikman
Naxos American Classics 8.559720
The highly lyrical and rhapsodic Violin Concerto contains a very stirring Quasi una Fantasia, which achieves a Samuel Barber-like beauty. It is followed up by an exquisite Pavane for String Orchestra, called Aina’s Song, and a Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra. Music like this is a nail in the heart of the avant-garde. This CD is another winner in Naxos’ “American Classics” series, and is done to perfection by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, under Vladimir Lande, with the excellent violinist Charles Weatherbee.

Choral Music (In the Heart of Things) (G. Davidson, Commotio, M. Berry), by Francis Pott
Naxos English Choral Music 8.572739

The music of Francis Pott (b. 1957) includes a Mass for 8 Parts, Ubi Caritas, A Hymn to the Virgin, and other choral works, performed exquisitely by Commotio, under Matthew Berry. Of Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century contrapuntal masterpiece, Spem in Alium, Pott writes, “the surface effect unashamedly seeks to capture and bottle eternity, mastering literal time to become spiritually timeless.” This is what he tries to do, and achieves in these precious pieces. Lament, a setting of a poem by Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), is dedicated to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, who lost his life in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Shortly before he was to return home, he was killed while trying to defuse a bomb. I go to Great Britain often and am well aware of the signs of decline there. However, so long as there are men such as Schmid and composers such as Pott to memorialize their sacrifices, all is not lost. If you are moved by the music of Morten Lauridsen, you should try this.

Symphony No. 6 / Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes (Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir, St. Petersburg State Symphony, Lande), by Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Naxos Regular CD 8.572779

Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) ran in the wrong direction from the Nazis and ended up spending most of his productive life in the Soviet Union, some of it under the sponsorship of Dmitri Shostakovich, by whom he was enormously influenced. He is one of the great unsung composers of the 20th century. (I also devoted a chapter to him in Surprised by Beauty). Naxos has issued a splendid new recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 6, with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, under Vladimir Lande. Shostakovich exclaimed, “I wish I signed my name to this [Weinberg] Symphony.” It begins with a hauntingly beautiful horn theme, which recurs and is developed throughout. Several of its movements include a children’s choir. Despite its gruesome subject matter, the murder of Jewish children, it is an ultimately affirmative work, suffused with faith and hope.

Atlantic Riband / American Rhapsody / Divinum Mysterium / Concerto Grosso (London Symphony, Falletta), by Kenneth Fuchs
Naxos American Classics 8.559723
I must bring to your attention the new Naxos CD of Kenneth Fuchs’s orchestral works (8.559723), brilliantly played by the London Symphony Orchestra, under American conductor JoAnn Falletta. Like Aaron Copland, Fuchs (b. 1956) has a way of capturing the stirrings of the human heart and the yearnings of the soul in highly spirited, soaring music. His works express an inimitably American sense of expectancy, of horizons glimpsed and striven for, and, finally, of boldly announced arrivals. He achieves all this within the conventional means of tonality. Orchestrally, he employs a sparkling kind of American Impressionism, though I heard a dash of Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes in Atlantic Riband. American Rhapsody is, according to Fuchs, a Romance for violin and orchestra. It has a Samuel Barber-like melodic appeal and orchestral lushness to it. This is unfailingly appealing and immediately accessible music.

* * *

Bruce C. Sanborn

Chairman Emeritus, Claremont Institute Board of Directors

 

hat The Federalist sets out to do for its readers' views of the U.S. Constitution:  to refine and enlarge them, Pierre Manent's Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy is able to do for readers' opinions of Tocqueville and democracy.

 

Out of the German lecture halls of Freiberg and Tubingen came two books, at least.  Delivered in 1935 and published in 1953, Martin Heidegger's mesmerizing Introduction to Metaphysics opens with a nod toward Shakespeare and human tragedy: "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?  That is the question."   My imagination puts Heidegger high up on the ramparts of Hamlet's Elsinore Castle locked in conversation with Joseph Ratzinger.   Ratzinger delivered his lectures at Tubingen in 1967 and they were published in 1968 as Introduction to Christianity.  From his title and text, my sense is Ratzinger was alert to, and in part responding to Heidegger.  Early on Ratzinger speaks of a saint anxious that she glimpses an "abyss lurking...under the firm structure of the supporting conventions," and Ratzinger understands "what is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing."  Both Heidegger and Ratzinger perceive doubt and questioning at the human core; just one of the two men, however, gives the nod to the divine comedy and chooses freely to believe God personally and truly gave us Christmas.

Xenophon reports Socrates was happy when reading with friends.  Readers of Aristotle have a friend in Joe Sachs, thanks to his generous, learned, and intelligent introductions and notes to, glossaries for, and chapter summaries and translations of the PhysicsMetaphysicsNicomachean EthicsPoetics, Rhetoric and On The Soul and On Memory and Recollection.  This year Sachs added the Politics, Aristotle's reflection on the different kinds of political rule, especially the kind that produces among different kinds of citizens fellow feeling for the good.

* * *

James R. Stoner, Jr.

Professor of Political Science, Louisiana State University



read too few novels to pretend to be an able critic, and too much political theory to know what will draw the attention of anyone who is not obliged professionally to do the same. Nevertheless, here are four choices:



Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and there is no doubt about his narrative skill.  At issue here, presented with a complexity for which there is no easy summary—the focus is on the characters, not the concepts—are Islamicism and secularism, Asia (specifically, Turkey) and the West, poetry and theater, militarism and fanaticism, politics and love.

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

A family of Lithuanian Jews escapes the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and stops in Italy on their way to whatever will be their new homes.  Religion and individualism alternately beckon the liberated characters, the most poignant figure among whom is the former Communist official paterfamilias to the clan.  A study of corruption and therefore a meditation on virtue.

Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, by Jean M. Yarbrough

An author well-known to readers of the CRB takes a fresh look at the radicalism of T.R., fully on view in his Bull Moose campaign but seeded in his education at Harvard and Columbia and foreshadowed during his presidency.  Interweaving biography with analysis of Roosevelt's writings and speeches, Professor Yarbough leaves us wondering whether he does not belong nestled on Mount Rushmore (pictured on the cover) after all.  There is nothing short of scandal in T.R.'s ignorance of the founding, or his racially-tinged Progressivism, but there is also no denying that in spirit and in idea he helped shape the century from which we struggle to emerge.

Science and the Founding Fathers, by I. Bernard Cohen

This decade-and-a-half-old monograph by a pre-eminent historian of science who probably never heard of the Claremont Review of Books was provoked by his stumbling upon Woodrow Wilson's remark about the Newtonianism of the Constitution and his recognition that Wilson (emphatically unlike Cohen himself) had no understanding of Newton and thus was uttering nonsense.  Cohen's analysis of what the founders understood as science and the different ways they thought it mattered for their political project is well worth attention, not least because it allows us to see Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison afresh.

* * *

Michael M. Uhlmann

Visiting Professor of Political Science, Claremont Graduate University

 

or Christian ladies and gentlemen and friendly fellow travelers, there is no better Christmas gift this year than Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the third of three commentaries on the life of Jesus.  As with the first two volumes, the text is concise, instructive, and profoundly moving.  You can doubly delight your recipients with James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium, an exceptionally good one-volume history of the Church from the pen of a well-respected historian at St. Louis University. 

For those who worry about the Progressives and what they wrought, this year delivered a library of learning condensed into two wonderfully readable volumes: the CRB’s own Charles Kesler produced I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, which, I’m told, is a hot item among the crowned heads of Europe.  Meanwhile, Bowdoin College professor and CRB contributor Jean M. Yarbrough has given us Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, which will soon be widely hailed for what it is: the indispensable guide to T.R.

For the political junkies in your life, it would be hard to beat Jay Cost’s Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic and Sean Trende’s The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government is Up for Grabsand Who Will Take ItCost and Trende are young political gurus who shame their elders with the vigor and rigor of their analyses. They are sophisticated number-crunchers who know how to write for the statistically illiterate. They also love politics—and their country.

* * *

Algis Valiunas

Senior Fellow, Ethics & Public Policy Center

 

imon Gray was among the last Englishmen to comprehend his nation's decadence before the irreparable corruption set in.  Like the consummate decadent of the previous century, Gray wrote howlingly funny plays; but where Oscar Wilde was mostly just skylarking about the native preposterousness, Gray cut to the bitter malice and loneliness at the core of British upper-middle-class wit.  His portraits of literary intellectuals made his name, with Butley (1971), Otherwise Engaged (1975), and The Common Pursuit (1986).  Failed intellectual ambition—not to be confused with amassing renown or comfort enough—and moral degradation are of a piece in his work.  Self-loathing is the obverse of self-regard; to enjoy your worldly superiority to those are not sufficiently clever or polished or good-looking, yet to know yourself truly inferior to the very people you despise, rots the soul.  Gray examines what is left of life when you cease to be serious, as you might once have hoped to be.

Here is a characteristic turn from Otherwise Engaged.  Simon Hench is a well-heeled middle-aged London book editor who wants nothing more than an afternoon listening to Parsifal on his state-of-the-art hi-fi.  One unwanted visitor after another interrupts him.  His old friend Jeff stops in; then Jeff's latest girl, Davina, whom Simon has never met, pops by to inform her lover that his ex-wife, Gwendoline, whom Jeff is also sleeping with, has just had a failed suicide attempt.  When Davina sneers that this failed suicide could be considered successful, in that it has unhinged Gwendoline's current husband and sobered Jeff up, Jeff throws a drink at her and stalks off.  As it happens, Davina has made up the suicide story out of spite. Uncomfortable in her wet shirt, Davina strips to the waist, hoping thereby to seal a book deal for herself with Simon's publishing house, and she tells Simon what a flop Jeff, a well-known literary journalist and ladies' man, is in every respect.

DAVINA (sitting on the sofa):  To think I thought he might be of some use to me.  But of course he's out of the habit, if he was ever in it, of talking to women who like to think and therefore talk concisely, for whom intelligence does actually involve judgement, and for whom judgement concludes in discrimination.  Hence the appeal, I suppose, of a pair of tits from which he can dangle, with closed eyes and infantile gurglings.  Especially if he has to get them furtively, with a sense of not being allowed.  Yes, stupid, don't you agree?

SIMON:  Did you really go to Oxford?

DAVINA:  Came down two years ago, why?

SIMON:  From your style you sound more as if you went to Cambridge.

Simon Gray's plays don't get revival stagings any more, or yet.  There is a very fine film version of Butley, available on DVD and starring Alan Bates as the bisexual English professor having the worst day in his life; but reading will have to do for the rest.  Some playwrights are as good on the page as they are in performance, and Gray is one of them.

* * *

Ryan Williams

Director of Programs, Claremont Institute

 

The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk By Losing It, Larry P. Arnn.

This beautiful and noble little book, written by the president of Hillsdale College president (and former president of the Claremont Institute), should be assigned reading for all public-spirited citizens. It makes the case, succinctly and clearly, for the relationship between the structural framework of the Constitution and the philosophical and moral premises of the Declaration of Independence.  The Tea Party should read it for a proper appreciation of what limited government (rather than small government) meant then and what it might mean now under our changed circumstances. Libertarians should read it to get the full measure of America’s Founding, as opposed to the incomplete one they may have learned at the feet of Murray Rothbard and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Professors teaching introductory courses on political philosophy should use it as the finest compressed case for America as the best regime. Finally, politicians interested in the restoration of constitutional government ought to read it as a start to their study of the public arguments they must make to convince the American people not only of the utility of the principles of the American Founding, but of their justice.

The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self Government, by Will Morrisey

Will Morrisey is one of the most perceptive scholars of American political thought writing today. In this book, he presents three extended essays on the political thought of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, drawn meticulously from their writings and speeches, before concluding with a penetrating meditation on their similarities and differences.  Modern historiography has long maintained that the varieties of progressivism on offer at the turn of the 20th century, both philosophically and politically, make it impossible to talk coherently about “progressivism” as such. While it is certainly true that T.R., Taft, and Wilson are routinely misread, misrepresented, and misunderstood, all were serious men with coherent approaches to politics, each drawing on (or rejecting) the various philosophical, political, and moral strands of progressivism. If we would just take the time to try and understand them as they understood themselves, we might arrive at more considered judgments on this extraordinary time in our history and the long shadow it still casts on our politics today. Morrisey’s book achieves that rare (because difficult) feat.  His excellent and stimulating introduction—on what Progressivism, as a system of thought, was and was not—would shine even as a stand-alone piece.

The Birth of the Republic: 1763-89, by Edmund S. Morgan

This wonderful little volume on the history and politics of the American Revolution, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution remains essential reading for all students of America. In fact, it perhaps does its best work when taught to freshmen and sophomores in college. The abundance of dull entry-level college textbooks on offer and shocking historical illiteracy amongst graduating high-schoolers combine to make the introductory weeks of American government classes tough slogging. Edmund Morgan’s book, with its conversational style and learned non-stuffiness, is just the thing to spur the students to consider the possibility that the study of the origins of this regime, under whose protection they happily exist, may be more than just an academic exercise. Barring that, it will at least bring them up to speed painlessly—a fine and worthy achievement in modern academia.

* * *

Jean M. Yarbrough

Professor of Government, Bowdoin College

 

Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson

Another winner from a big picture historian. Ferguson is especially good on tracing the connection between religion and economic/social progress in the West.

The Age of Reagan, by Steven F. Hayward

After the dismal results of the election, it’s worth recalling what got the Republican ball rolling.  No one tells the story better than Hayward.

Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice, by James W. Ceaser

A wide-ranging collection of essays by our most astute analyst of American politics, from The Federalist and Tocqueville, to Leo Strauss, the Reagan legacy, and the shape of contemporary conservatism. And while I am at it, Ceaser’s Reconstructing America  remains one of my very favorite books about America. The discussions of Heidegger’s America and the Strauss-Kojeve correspondence on the end of history are wonderful.

The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Steven Smith

What makes this new collection so useful is the inclusion of thoughtful essays by Ralph Lerner, Ben Kleinerman, Danilo Petranovich, and Smith himself.

I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles R. Kesler

An indispensable guide to understanding the progressive challenge to the American constitutional order, told with wry wit and insight.

The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, by Elizabeth Kantor

A charming antidote to the “hook-up” culture that pervades the current college scene.

* * *

John Yoo

Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley School of Law

 

ve long been a fan of presidential biography, but the past few years may be reaching the saturation point. When writing my history of the presidency's constitutional powers, Crisis and CommandI was struck by how some of the most recent (and sometimes most popular) writing on important presidents borrows from standard scholarly sources without adding any new research.  There are two books that I have been working through, however, that stand out from this recent deluge.  

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

This is the fourth volume of Caro's ongoing biography.  About a third of the book focuses on Johnson's vice presidency, and tells the story of his apparent fall from power—as "master of the Senate," majority leader Johnson was the most powerful Democrat in Washington; as vice president, he was ignored and even mocked openly by the young members of the Kennedy Administration.  A third of the book is about the assassination of JFK and Johnson's leadership during the time of crisis.  A third is about his early presidency.  Even for close students of the Johnson Administration, there is much to learn here from Caro's painstaking first-hand research as well as his synthesis of existing secondary sources.

Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame

A much longer-term project, in which I am still in the middle.  Burlingame has contributed something new and exciting to Lincoln scholarship.  He has found reservoirs of new material, even after the hundreds if not thousands of books on Lincoln published over the years.  What I have found particularly impressive so far is that Burlingame found newspaper accounts of articles Lincoln had written, or interviews he had given, that had gone unnoticed by previous scholars and were not included in the standard collections of his works.  Some readers might be put off by the length and expense of this two-volume set, but so far it has proven rewarding and I expect that this will be the definitive biography of Lincoln for years to come.