Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions, Amherst College
Some books to be commended:
Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, by Clare Asquith
Clare Asquith finds reason to think that Shakespeare was a serious Catholic, who had to move into the shadows as part of the repression of Catholics beginning with Henry VIII. Still, the Catholic character of the country held in a tenacious way in many places. Asquith sees Shakespeare writing between the lines, or writing in a code that would have been recognized by the discerning readers and views of his plays. And with that hypothesis she carries us through an analysis of virtually all of the plays, as she connects them with the political crises of the moment.
Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, by Andrew C. McCarthy
Andy McCarthy was the lead prosecutor of the blind Sheikh after the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993. In his work on the case he made himself an expert on Islam and the current of jihadism in the Arab world. This book sounds the alarm, to bring us to a sober recognition of the enemy before us; but it also makes the most compelling case against that inclination, born of moral distraction, to transfer the cases of detainees and combatants into the civilian courts. The book contains lessons that would be urgent for the likes of Eric Holder or Barack Obama, but we grasp the depth of the problem when we realize that something is at work, making these men incapable of understanding the truth so plainly before them. At the same time, we see why these crises have formed the moment for Andy McCarthy. With his precision of focus and clarity of prose, he has become one of our foremost writers on the law.
Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, by James Piereson
One would think that, by this time, just about everything that can be said about John F. Kennedy has been said, most of it of course as a fable. But Jim Peireson makes an arresting case that connects the assassination of Kennedy to the transformation of the Democratic Party in our own day. Barack Obama surely reflects the soul of the party when he goes about the world apologizing for the record of America in foreign affairs. He and his party seem to begin with the premise that there is something tainted, and perhaps even presumptively illegitimate about American interests. And something deeply wrong with just about any willingness to use military force abroad. The main exception for the Left comes in those cases in which we are safely detached from any strategic interests, and so freer to intervene in Haiti and Kosovo. All of this represents an inversion of the politics of John Kennedy. Piereson traces the turn in the character of the party from the way in which the assassination came to be understood in the legends of the Democrats. The murder was done by a young man with connections with the Soviet Union. But instead of tracing the motivation for the murder to that source, liberal writers found it far more persuasive to see the killing arising from a culture of violence and intolerance in America and the political Right. For the Left it became the launching point for a cultural critique of the country. That critique would express itself, in foreign policy, in a suspicion of American motives and a presumption against the active use of force in defending American lives or interests. In domestic policy, that critique would beget the politics of sexual liberation, with contraception, abortion, gay rights. There may not be so much dissonance between this new politics and the life that Kennedy actually lived. But in its public stances and public teaching the liberal party has indeed undergone a transformation, and Piereson makes a plausible case in connecting the threads back to the assassination and the legends that were woven from it.
The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning
I've just been reading through the three volumes that Olivia Manning began publishing in 1960, dealing with a young English couple living in Bucharest at the beginning of World War II and then fleeing with the British legation to Athens. The books are: The Great Fortune, Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. We may find here a confirmation of a point Jacques Barzun once made about Lincoln: that a fine writer shows his skill, quite apart from the subject he is compelled to treat. In this instance, we have a young teacher of English literature, too credulous of the Left and its politics, but the bearer of something life-giving. His wife is more anchored in the world; she sees politics and people more clearly; and she becomes more and more isolated with a husband who seems inclined to accord primacy to every other interest in world except for hers. But how could this subject engage the reader through three volumes? It just does, because of the gift of Olivia Manning as a writer—and because of the precise portrait she can paint of life in these cities in the midst of the war. Novels were thought to bring the news; and these novels tell us things about politics we are not likely to find in books of history.
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart
America is the most religious country now in the West, and it stood to reason that this inconvenient fact would draw the ire of writers who find that state of things insufferable. They have responded with a literature suitably insufferable. They reveal a want of philosophic competence in understanding the properties of the propositions they are offering, and of course they often reveal the most shallow or vulgar understanding of the theology they are purporting to judge. David Hart skewers them here in every dimension. He mixes a deep learning with an invective rightly aimed.
Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President, by Thomas L. Krannawitter
It is one of those unaccountable things in this world, but a cottage industry persists in books debunking Lincoln or seeking to prove, yet again, that he established a war-time dictatorship, suppressed civil liberties, and violated the Constitution at every turn. These claims have been amply refuted, and yet the market in credulity seems bottomless. It is never out of season, then, to offer a defense of Lincoln, and the defense does not require new facts as much as the marshaling of an argument that can explain the standards of judgment and prudence. Tom Krannawitter takes on the task in dealing with familiar complaints—that there was a right of secession, that economics would have ended slavery without a war, that Lincoln's judgment hinged on sentiments he simply thought true at the time and not, as Lincoln said, "an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times." Krannawitter shows that these fallacies have a remarkable endurance, and the defense of Lincoln will provide us steady work. On the other hand, the redeeming point is that it is the work of the republic: to get literate people clear on these things is to make them more clear-headed about politics and the ground of their own rights.
The Sovereignty of Reason, by Frederick C. Beiser
This is a remarkable work in intellectual history, dealing with English Protestant writers, from the 16th through the 18th century, seeking to make the case for the place of reason in theology. It was reason that could help establish in the first place just what parts of religious experience deserved to be recognized in scripture or regarded as significant. Reason could also offer the guide in judging just which strands of revelation were plausible or implausible as divine revelation. But as writers insisted on the truth of what Christianity taught they began pointing to institutions that could preserve and protect the truth. For not everyone was equally reflective, equally plausible in his opinions on Christian teaching. And yet, when they began to point to a central authority, they began to point to Rome. But to the extent they wished to avoid that central authority, they could be lured into an insistence that there was no central truth to be preserved by a central authority. That was a short, but telling step to skepticism, or the uncertainty that there were truths to be known. And that in turn could lead to the unraveling of conviction. It is a tangled, fascinating story, and Professor Beiser offers a masterful treatment.
At the risk of being elliptical, or not offering praise enough, I'd simply like to flag certain books that promise to be on our list of "must read" before long. I've had the chance so far only to sample them though not yet read through, but they look so good that I'd alert our friends and readers to: The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory and Sign of Contradiction, by J. Budziszewski; Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity, by Brian Domitrovic; and The Discretionary President: The Promise and Peril of Executive Power, by Benjamin A. Kleinerman.
Speaking of things never out of season, it is never out of season to read again Harry V. Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided, now 50 years old. God bless us one and all.
Associate Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Stevens, the dignified English butler of Remains of the Day, has achieved the highest professional success, having served the great Lord Darlington with precision and loyalty for over 30 years. At the suggestion of his new American employer, he embarks on a driving tour of the English countryside, most of which he has never seen before. His professional obligations, we learn, have kept him confined to Darlington hall for the past three decades. The trip provides an occasion for Stevens to remember the events of his life and discover that travel is not the only thing he has failed to do.
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best novelists writing today. A beautiful prose stylist, an extremely careful writer, and a master storyteller, he writes characters who look back on life and discover that they have failed in some important ways. But rather than make amends or change their ways completely, these characters learn to live with themselves. Or rather, they continue to live with themselves as they have always done. Ishiguro is a keen observer of the human soul. He seems to think that one who learns the error of his ways late in life can only do so much, either because his failings have shaped him and he lacks the capacity, or because there is too little time left. In other words, Ishiguro seems to think that complete conversion is impossible. This novel and his others all point to the importance of living well and fully, and doing so early, to avoid the harmful, lasting effects of the alternative.
The Wire, created by David Simon
This isn't a book, but it's worth studying as a serious work of fiction. Critics have called it the best television series ever made.
The Wire throws no bones to its viewers. The first episode plunges you into the city of Baltimore and introduces you to its homicide and narcotics police, and the members of the powerful Barksdale drug organization they are pursuing. As the first season continues, the number of characters balloons to 30 or more, and this number increases in later seasons. The dialogue is quick and demanding, and significant events occur with so little fanfare that the show seems almost impenetrable. But those who stick with it through the first 3 or 4 episodes will find themselves hooked.
The series is about the American city in decline. Watching it gives you an education in the inner workings of each of Baltimore's major institutions. Season 1 shows you the police cracking down on Barksdale (largely through wiretapping-hence The Wire); Season 2 is about the ports; Season 3 introduces you to Baltimore politics by showing the early stages of a mayoral election; Season 4 explores the school system; and Season 5 covers the press. The good guys are sprinkled throughout the city (including within the Barksdale organization) and the bad guys are, too, but they are much more numerous. Every part of Baltimore is corrupt. There is perhaps one character in the whole series who abides by a strict moral code-everyone else gives in at one time or another. And there is one other character (or maybe two) who is not ruined by the system at least in some small way. The series shows you that in a ruined city like Baltimore, the good guys can't win. Institutions have a powerful effect on individuals and no matter who you are, you can't survive by doing the right thing when those institutions are corrupt. There are characters who try to save the city or some part of it, but they are almost always punished for their good intentions.
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, by William Shakespeare
Henry V is one of his most compelling characters in all of Shakespeare. Before reading Henry V, read Henry IV, Part 1, to see his childhood, spent in the streets and taverns misbehaving with thieves and drunks (including, of course, the unforgettable Falstaff, with whom he has a true friendship). Then read Part 2 to see young Hal feel the weight of the crown he will soon wear and reject Falstaff and his former ways. Is he a great man in the classical sense or merely a skilled Machiavellian? Read Hal's first soliloquy (the first of many beautiful speeches) in Act 1 of Henry IV, Part 1 for the beginnings of an answer.
Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss
One of Strauss's clearest and most absorbing books, Natural Right and History begins with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the question whether we still believe that there is a natural foundation for the rights of man. Strauss presents nature and history as alternative guides and shows the effect of the soft historicism, prevalent in our day, which rejects nature as a guide. There is a very helpful chapter on the distinction between facts and values, a product of historicism, which has come to dominate science. The book's central section takes up the origin of the idea of natural right, which, we learn, is an alternative to the ancestral view that what is old and "our own" is good. But what is nature, exactly, and how can it be a guide for us? And how does the study of nature relate to the study of the human things? One must know nature before one knows natural right, and the discovery of nature is the work of philosophy. This book is, in the end, a call to philosophy, which means moving from opinion to knowledge, or searching for the principles of all things. For those new to Strauss, this is the place to start. And I'm told that even seasoned readers of Strauss should pick this up once a year.
When a person has this type of early success, it's customary for him to burn out, to lose direction, to decline into drugs. But Crumb surprised his fans: he has continued, for decades, to turn out remarkable works, never repeating himself, always exploring new territory.
Bit by bit, Crumb has revealed himself as a sort of paleoconservative (although he espouses no orthodoxy). His latest creation, an illustrated version of Genesis, continues in this vein, and demonstrates his deep sense of the moral weight of human existence. But this book (despite its fidelity to the text) is not heavy or boring; it's fresh and entertaining, showing flashes of subtle humor that seem to reside in Crumb's DNA. I recommend it.
Robert Alter, the noted biblical scholar, wrote an extensive and judicious review of Crumb's Genesis for the New Republic, which you can read here.
Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College
For fiction, try the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. They will attract your taste for subtlety, indirection, and precision. His most recent novel, Never Let Me Go might be especially appealing to Claremont Institute friends. An Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day are equally worthwhile. His recent collection of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, is not quite as good as these, but good nonetheless. Following this foray into fiction, acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the poems of Philip Larkin, found most easily in Anthony Thwaite's edition of Larkin's Collected Poems.
Read or reread one of Plato's shorter dialogues. You will discover that you know both more and less than you thought. Read the Laches, if you are especially perplexed by courage, the Euthyphro, if piety confuses you (or, perhaps, especially, if it doesn't), the Lysis to learn about friendship, or the Alcibiades I , once thought to be a gateway to the other dialogues. Thomas West's Euthyphro, David Bolotin's Lysis, James Nichols's Laches, and Carnes Lord's Alcibiades (both in Thomas Pangle's collection The Roots of Political Philosophy) are the translations of choice.
If you have by now read all of Ishiguro and Plato, turn to Richard Evans's three volume history of the Nazis: The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War. You will not agree with everything he says in his lucid discussions, but you will learn much. Evans is not afraid to make the horror of the Holocaust the center of his account. For a one volume history, look at Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History.
I'm also happy to recommend four books, three published in the past year, by several of my younger colleagues at Claremont McKenna College. They will give you confidence that CMC will remain a place where sensible people can learn important things about politics. Kenneth P. Miller's Direct Democracy and the Courts deals with ballot measures and judicial review, Jon A. Shields's The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right studies democratic participation and deliberation among members of the Christian right, George Thomas's The Madisonian Constitution clarifies proper constitutional interpretation and the limits of judicial authority, and Christopher Nadon's Xenophon's Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia examines with care Xenophon's classic work. Each of these books will reward the reader.
Columnist, Scripps-Howard News Service
Fellow, Golden State Center for State and Local Government
Not since Oswald Spengler performed Vaudeville (What? You didn't know?) has a work about our civilization's slide into depression, doom, and dread been so...well, so funny. Yet John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism is about the cheeriest paean to pessimism you're likely to find. You don't have to share Derbyshire's outlook on politics, pop culture, or religion to appreciate his gleefully jaundiced take. But you may discover—as my co-columnist and collaborator Joel Mathis did when we interviewed Derb in November—that you laugh in spite of yourself.
In one of these symposia a few years ago, I recommended Dale DeGroff's The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender, with 500 Recipes. DeGroff, the former head mixologist at New York's Rainbow Room, has since put out an updated edition of that book called The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks. The "art" in the subtitle is intentional. The book is beautifully designed and features hundreds of photographs of impossibly gorgeous drinks. Your drinks might not look as pretty, but you'll enjoy testing the recipes.
My seven-year-old son Benjamin and I were on a Roald Dahl kick for a while around the beginning of the year. His favorites were Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Twits. Wes Anderson's very fine film adaptation of the Fantastic Mr. Fox bears only a superficial resemblance to Dahl's charming tale of a father fox who outwits the awful trio of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. If you've seen the movie, by all means read the book. And if you've read the book, see the movie...and read it again. You'll be doubly charmed.