Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College
It 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, Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America,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: Churchill Reflects on FDR, Hitler, Kipling, Chaplin, Balfour, and Other Giants of His Age 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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Director of the Brouzils Seminars
Co-editor of The Fortnightly Review's New Series
As 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 U.S.A. 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: How Our Fear of Talking Honestly About Race Hurts Us All 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: When America Went Off the Rails 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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Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, University of Illinois, Springfield
Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement, 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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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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Editor in chief, Washington Free Beacon
Only 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 Honor 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
The 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: Second Edition (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 Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents
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 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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