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Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions, Amherst College
How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman
David Goldman has made his living on Wall Street as a strategist for banks and investment houses. But the same training in math went along with training and teaching in "music theory." He has also drawn a wide audience writing on geopolitics under the telling name of "Spengler" for the Asia Times Online. His dark, Spenglerian view comes along with his usual cascade of facts and numbers—vast, precise, portentous. His new book brings everything together in a mesmerizing way. But one of the ironies here is that there is something persistently enlivening and engaging in David Goldman even as he tells a grim story. It's a story of civilizations that have so lost conviction that their people are not bringing forth the next generations. Goldman could make the End of the World into a musical, though it would be a grand opera. Here one can have the libretto without the need for subtitles.
Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley
An account of the Peter Principle applying with the most destructive effects. It is also an account of the misjudgment of acclaimed military intellectuals, such as Maxwell Taylor, who did not recognize their own, impaired judgments in elevating Westmoreland for this critical assignment and preserving him in his place. This recent book may point people to the paperback edition of Sorley's earlier book, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. His account there offers the striking contrast to Westmoreland: the remarkable success of General Creighton Abrams in making the focus of his strategy in Vietnam not "search and destroy" but securing the population. Sorley offers testimonials and points of evidence to suggest that the war in Vietnam was essentially won by 1970. The story leads one to ponder the deep inversion of a Democratic Party, so invested in a conviction about the wrongness of the war—a war begun by a liberal Democratic administration—that it was willing to pull the plug in Congress. The Democrats were remarkably willing, that is, to let a non-Communist government collapse for want of ammunition and American logistical support. How could the party that waged the Second World War have treated with such contempt the sacrifice made by young Americans who died in Vietnam, in a project that summoned their loyalty and conviction?
Vicksburg 1863, by Winston Groom
Grant's Vicksburg campaign is regarded as one of the leading examples of his art as a commander of generals. The taking of Vicksburg is regarded by many savvy commentators as an event of such strategic significance that it should have been taken as the end of the war. But if the Vicksburg campaign were high art, it was a bloody accomplishment with a vast wastage of men. Winston Groom offers a rich account of the story from every angle, from the movements of the troops to life within the communities—homes ransacked, animals confiscated, houses stripped of their wooden sidings for the sake of contriving bridges. The war was literally "brought home" with force, and the story is told here in all of its dimensions.
The Thomas Sowell Reader, by Thomas Sowell
A compilation of Sowell's pieces of varying length, every one with a point and Tom's fine touch for the core of things. There is also appended here a selection from his autobiography, telling his remarkable story, and yet a story of life among black people in the 1930s and '40s. Tom Sowell goes from one hit to another; he has become a treasure, and all of his essays can be savored.
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Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College
My first suggestion is to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with one of Leo Strauss's books. Thoughts on Machiavelli is especially rewarding, although also especially daunting and humbling. It contains discussions of how to read Machiavelli and authors of his rank. Does this rank include Strauss himself?
If you followed the suggestion I made two years ago and studied Plato's shorter dialogues, it is now time to consider again the Republic. Having read it, you might then turn to Strauss's chapter on it in The City and Man, and to books and chapters on the Republic that are guided or influenced by his thinking: Seth Benardete's Socrates' Second Sailing, Eva Brann's The Music of the Republic, Leon Craig's The War Lover, Stanley Rosen's Plato's Republic, and the chapters on the Republic in my Plato's Political Philosophy and Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers, among others. Why are these so different? Or are they?
Reflection on Plato and Machiavelli could lead you to wish to examine the limits and possibilities of combining the ancient and modern politically. Hegel's Philosophy of Right is one central text to read or reread, and Tocqueville's Democracy in America is another. Here one should be guided by Harvey Mansfield's recently published Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction, whose 124 small pages are my leading recommendation for your holiday reading. If you would like to consider this question through a contemporary lens you should read recent books by CRB friends and contributors: Peter Lawler's Modern and American Dignity, Ralph Hancock's The Responsibility of Reason, Daniel Mahoney's The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, Scott Yenor's Family Politics, and my own Conserving Liberty. If all this lead you to wish again to commune with the classics, Robert Bartlett's and Susan Collins' excellent new translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics should be your destination.
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Director of the Brouzils Seminars
Co-editor of The Fortnightly Review's New Series
I found in making this list that the books most remarkable to me were those I had read once, but forgotten until they were recalled to me, usually by friends alarmed at what I didn't seem to know. Which is what friends are for, after all.
The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell
Fussell, who served in the Second World War, writes about the First with the wisdom of a soldier, the caution of an historian,and the exhilarating recklessness of a literary man who finds in the machinery of war the softer stuff of humanity.
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch
A refreshingly honest analysis of the kind of thinking that has brought us to so thoughtless an age. We all, Right and Left, believe in Progress, that bastard of the Enlightenment who gained respectability as the Spirit of the Age in the 19th century, "a time," Lasch writes, "when the progress of human ingenuity seemed to promise a decisive victory over fate", and made us all believe that the only way to measure happiness was with the yardsticks of science, technology, and other sources of rational faith. John Stuart Mill and others worried about the anxiety of transition in a kingdom leaping from feudalism to factories in a lifetime or two. But by the end of that century, Progress was our fate, never mind where it took us. The destination of the 19th century, of course, was the 20th, starting with that most progressive of all wars, the one so insightfully described by Paul Fussell in the book I mention above. If the next century is as progress-filled as the last, we'll all have progressed much closer to being goners. Lasch describes his premise simply enough: "that old political ideologies have exhausted their capacity either to explain events or inspire men and women to constructive action." The most fundamental of those ideologies is the ideology of progress, the modern faith. But how are we doing with the progress of charity or imagination or love? Who measures the particle of poetry that transforms the human brain?
For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, by Frederick Brown
The "culture war" described in Brown's magnificent book was the war that effectively defined all culture wars thereafter, since it is the story of the defeat of European social religiosity (if not belief). Half the French nation dressed itself in the impeccable uniform of religion's straw man and was deservedly bludgeoned by the irregulars of science. Frederick Brown knows France better than most of my French neighbors, and a weekend with this story of wrong-headed obsessiveness will make any American a better tourist, and, back home, maybe a smarter citizen.
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Senior Editor, Weekly Standard
At the turn of this century, there was a vogue for asking who the greatest man of the last one was. Had I read more Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn back then, I would have been less inclined to answer, lazily, with the name of some mere politician. The 20th century was often about trials not exploits, about undergoing rather than daring. One of the least surprising things in the world is that intelligent people should make their way back to religion as they reflect on this. Solzhenitsyn was the bravest and the most brilliant of the undergoers, not just a novelist but also an independent-minded religious thinker, a formidable historian, and a poet by temperament. Often he writes as if he hasn't a political bone in his body. Communism is to Solzhenitsyn what Johnson is to Boswell and melancholy is to Robert Burton—the occasion for writing about life in all its variety.
The unabridged Gulag Archipelago is a potentially life-changing Christmas present. Try to get the three-volume Harper Perennial paperback, with its magnificent cover design by Gregg Kulick.
For an introduction to the whole, multifaceted Solzhenitsyn achievement, from novels about World War I to lectures about God to fables about ducklings, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney's Solzhenitsyn Reader is unsurpassed.
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Opinion Editor, Weekly Standard
Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson
One of America's best writers tells the story of his (successful) attempt to get his son into "Big State University." Ferguson trains his gimlet eye on the absurd cost of a college education, the hallowed upper-middle-class rite of the "college tour," the SAT and standardized testing, and the dreaded admissions essay. The pages are filled with dry wit, good humor, and pathos. When you're done, you'll immediately want to read—or re-read—Ferguson's earlier book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.
Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, by Hadley Arkes
Do conservatives differ from liberals simply in how quickly we want to "win the future"? Do conservatives resist change just to protect the status quo? Or is there something deeper and more fundamental at stake? I hadn't thought rigorously about these questions before reading this book. What Hadley Arkes taught me is that there are moral principles of right and wrong ascertainable through common sense. Knowledge of these principles leads us to a theory of natural rights grounded in human equality. This is the foundation on which the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and the American political tradition rest. But the foundation has been obscured by bad jurisprudence and silly ideas. The substitution of positive rights for natural rights not only betrays the principles of the American Founding, but leaves citizens without any reasonable argument against arbitrary and despotic power. Next time you attend a Tea Party, please hand out copies of Natural Rights and the Right to Choose.
The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill, by Gertrude Himmelfarb
In this essay, the eminent historian recalls the English philosophers, authors, and statesmen who fought for the readmittance of Jews to England in the 17th century, for the right of Jews to sit in Parliament in the 19th, and for the establishment of the state of Israel in the 20th. The narrative shows us the Hebraic roots of English republicanism. Himmelfarb teaches how the concept of toleration between Christian sects necessarily implied tolerance of Jews and unbelievers. We discover that English support for a Jewish national homeland in Israel long preceded the Holocaust. It's hard to describe the learning, sophistication, and grace that Himmelfarb manages to pack within 183 pages. To read People of the Book is to witness a great intellect at the height of her powers.