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Ryan P. Williams
Director of Special Projects, the Claremont Institute
The Red and The Black, by Stendhal
This is a lively portrait of French society in the middle of the 19th century under the restored Bourbon monarchy. Julien Sorel, a young and highly intelligent nobody from the provinces, embarks on an ambitious quest for glory and distinction inspired by his hero, Napoleon. Along the way, he encounters (and often conquers) provincial notables, severe clergymen, and both the vacuous and spirited of the upper crust of Parisian society. Unlike many of his "betters" in Paris, Julien is an intensely passionate and genuinely serious young man. This proves to be true to a fault, with dire consequences for Julien and the ones he loves. The greatest accomplishment of Stendhal's work is to sketch, through the rise and undoing of Julien Sorel, a corrupt society and its attendant pathologies, and thereby to enrich our understanding of human nature.
A Little History of the World, by E.B. Gombrich
Gombrich's work, written originally in 1935 for a schoolboy-audience in his native Germany, and to make ends meet, has transcended its original purpose. Now available in 18 languages, it is a quick 300-page romp through, well, the history of the world. Easily digested over a weekend or a long plane-ride, the book's great virtue is to give its reader, in a delightful and accessible style and prose, that refresher course in the run of human history that is the necessary possession of all serious people and citizens. Its defects are slight—he is a bit too sanguine when treating the rise of Marxism and gives the founding of America very short shrift—but are more than compensated for by the sheer fun of the tale and the energy of the telling.
Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Considered Dick's most enduring, significant work, Man in the High Castle is a tale of what might have been had the Axis won World War II. Most of the plot takes place in a San Francisco under a fascistic Japanese regime (the Nazis run the eastern United States), where American citizens are treated as second-class and the ruling class conducts its business with an odd combination of nihilistic mysticism and ruthlessly inefficient but totally controlled political corporatism. Dick's imagination is boundless and his writing style unique. Science fiction fans who haven't already read it will be delighted—this is the same author that gave us Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was later made into the early-'80s Ridley Scott sci-fi movie, Blade Runner—and many others will marvel at his detailed, often frightening portrait of what might have been had not the Greatest Generation risen to the occasion.
Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley School of Law
Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, by Abraham Lincoln
I've spent the last two years working on a book about presidential powers during crisis, due out this January. One of the most rewarding parts of the research was returning to Lincoln's writings. One never tires of the greatest American political speech, the Second Inaugural, nor of its close competitor, the Gettysburg Address. This volume shows Lincoln not just at his most stirring, but at his funniest, cleverest, and most insightful. His homespun analogies and folksy stories are still fresh more than a century and a half later, as is the rawness of his struggle to restore the Republic. As the United States struggles in war today, Lincoln's example should provide more than just rhetorical allusions to our elected leaders. A contribution by the Library of America places this collection of Lincoln's major writings from the election of 1860 through the end of the Civil War within the reach of every reader.
Personal Memoirs , by Ulysses S. Grant
With all of the scholarship on the Civil War, it is refreshing to turn to the original sources. Grant's memoirs, which only cover the Civil War and not Reconstruction or his presidency, are fascinating for their account of the eventual Northern victory on the battlefield. But they are more than that. They are an outstanding example, perhaps the first of their kind, of the uniquely spare style of American writing. Grant's direct,honest retelling of battles and campaigns reminds one more of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars than of 19th-century American and English writing. An affordable and compact Library of America edition makes this outstanding work easy to carry around and read on planes and trains.
Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
Another classic worth re-reading because of the times. As our representatives in Washington struggle to nationalize health care, Friedman's popular work reminds us again of the inability of the government—despite the best of intentions—to replace the market in allocating goods and services efficiently. Friedman's work can be a depressing reminder of how little has changed since he wrote—government still expands the scope of regulation and places more of the economy under central control. But it is ultimately an optimistic book, badly needed inthese days, because it places such faith in the creativity and innovation of the individual human spirit.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and Dream, by H.G. Bissinger
One need not read about history, politics, law, and economics all the time, just nine-tenths of the time. This book is a good time out. It tells the story of a single season of high school football in Odessa, Texas, with all of the exaggeration of its importance that could only occur in Texas. The pressures on the student athletes and the effect of the games on the community are vivid. The book is artfully written and more compelling than the critically-acclaimed movie and television versions.
Michael P. Zuckert
Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame
Justice Kennedy's Jurisprudence: the Full and Necessary Meaning of Liberty, by Frank J. Colucci
A very fine first book that makes the best sense yet of Justice Kennedy, who is surely the most influential member of the Supreme Court at the moment. Colucci makes the case that Kennedy is not a confused or a results oriented or a thoughtless justice. He presents the case for seeing Kennedy as pursuing a principled jurisprudence of liberty and human dignity.
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
Dickens at this best—need I say more? A story of moral growth, of obsession, of depravity, of true goodness—you name it. Dickens is capacious enough to give us the full range of the human phenomena.
The Constitution Besieged: the Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence, by Howard Gillman
Still the best book on liberty of contract and related constitutional doctrines. Among its virtues it puts to rest the claims of critics like Holmes and the legal realists that the judges were merely writing their own preferences and economic theories into law.
James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government, by Colleen Sheehan
A rereading of Madison in terms of his later (post-1787) political thought. Unlike many who pay attention to the later Madison Sheehan does not think he changed views drastically or gave his mind into the custody of Thomas Jefferson. Rather she sees a basic continuity between the Madison of the 1780s and the later Madison and indeed sees the later Madison as a guide to the earlier. Puts Madison in a new perspective.
The Madisonian Constitution, by George Thomas
Thomas argues for "taking the Constitution seriously"—reconceiving the Constitution as a political and not primarily a legal document, and constitutionalism as depending on all branches, not just the Court. Armed with his idea of a "Madisonian Constitution" he gives a new reading of American Constitutional history.
Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, by Catherine H. Zuckert
Having lived with this book (or rather its author) through its long period of gestation I can testify first hand about the effort and thought that went into making this magisterial study of the entire Platonic corpus. It breaks with the dominant ways of reading the corpus and provides a new principle for ordering the whole. Among its other contributions is a close examination of the meaning and import of Plato's use of a variety of different philosophic spokesmen in the dialogues.
And from all of us at the Claremont Institute:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!