Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions, Amherst College
King and Congress: The Transfer of Political Legitimacy, 1774-1776, by Jerrilyn Greene Marston
One of the most remarkable books about the shaping of the American regime in the course of the revolution. With an eye on institutions (e.g., the forming of the Continental Congress, the organization of the army) Marston has a critical perspective on virtually all dimensions of experience in the country in this conflict that brought forth a nation. She is especially precise and even vivid on the constitutional questions—George III moving decisively to the side of making war on the colonies, or the implications in British law for declaring the colonies in rebellion and affecting, with the charge of treason, the British subjects defending the Americans. The irony—and lament—is that the writer of this book did not settle in the academy; she gravitated rather to the practice of law.
The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, by Andrew C. McCarthy
Andy McCarthy's book is of course a must. With his experience as a prosecutor and his gifts as a writer, he has become perhaps the leading writer now on law in our politics.
From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, by Wilson D. Miscamble
Fr. Miscamble, an Australian, has become a notable figure on the landscape as professor of history at Notre Dame. But he seemed willing to risk his high standing by giving quite a moving speech last May in opposition to the honoring of Barack Obama at Notre Dame. Those of us who have written on this period of American foreign policy tend to fancy that we know most of what there is to be known. But Fr. Miscamble, going painstakingly through archives with a knowing eye, has found many things that give us a slightly different, and firmer understanding of this period. Most notably he calls into question the picture of Truman, as a feisty character, seeing through Molotov and Stalin, striking off in a more realistic path than FDR. What Miscamble brings out is the depth of Truman's effort to adhere precisely to the substance of Roosevelt's policies, including the desire to preserve the connection with the Russians.
The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility, by Angelo M. Codevilla
Angelo's classic book is in print again, and it should never have gone out of print. This is the kind of book that Aristotle would have written, on regimes and political economy—if Aristotle, with his worldliness, had managed to see as much of the world as Codevilla has. Available in time to reorder for classes in the spring.
Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, by Francis J. Beckwith
Frank Beckwith, an accomplished philosopher, spent years as a leader among Evangelicals before returning to the Catholic Church. This book is a thoughtful commentary running to the most elementary but telling questions: what is the relation of a Christian to liberal democracy, or the grounds on which he may accept, for public office, a man whose diaries (as Evelyn Waugh said) may be much in need of editing.
Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, by Claire Asquith
The most searching, detailed exploration of Shakespeare's plays, trying to bring out the themes and passages that confirm the Catholicism of Shakespeare. (A Christmas gift from Michael Uhlmann.)
The Statesman's Science: History, Nature and Law in the Political Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Pamela Edwards
A comprehensive study of this notable 19th-century man of letters. Another story of an accomplished writer with enduring reservations about "natural rights" and yet persistently backing into the logic of natural rights, with blissful unawareness. This was one of those cases in which the writer sees more fully than the subject. In a world more rightly arranged, Coleridge would do a study of Edwards.
Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker (available in paper), by F.C. Copleston
Clear as ever—and still riveting. And still bears rereading.
Journey to the Hebrides, by James Boswell
My wife and I have immersed ourselves in the rereading of Boswell, and it is as absorbing, stimulating, elegant as ever. The Journey to the Hebrides has such a concentration of Johnson's wisdom—on theology, economics, as well as literature—that it's curious that this book has never been put in the list of things essential to a liberal education. Of course there is no sustained, systematic commentary on politics, theology, economics; but what is there are the flashes of intellect and yes, the wisdom, of this rare man.
* * *
Associate Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin has a strange and wonderful imagination, best displayed in his novels, which always show it off. He understands beauty in its lowest and highest forms, and he understands the gravity of life, which means that he looks for the noble everywhere and sees it in places others often miss.
Freddy and Fredericka mixes Helprin's wild, strange humor with a deep, ennobling seriousness. It is about the semi-fictional prince and princess of Wales learning how to be king and queen in an age hostile to royal virtue. It is about why nobility is important in an age of equality. Freddy, a man who ought to have been born hundreds of years ago, has an appreciation for the right things. He reads history, he knows his ancestry, and he understands deeply that he must measure up—and what will be lost if he doesn't. But Freddy doesn't understand himself, which means that he cannot measure himself against the standard he knows so well and holds so dear. The book is about Freddy learning how to be worthy of something he already knows is important.
Fredericka, his wife, has a different problem. She is stunning, charming, and unlike her husband, adored by all who meet her. Perpetual adoration has made her vapid, and she spends her days considering herself in the mirror and reading glossy magazines. She lacks Freddy's nobility, but she is incredibly self-aware, which makes her a better judge of her own strengths once she learns what she ought to be. The story is partly about the ennobling of her soul, which allows her to show Freddy to himself.
Helprin's work has been called "magical realism" by people who don't quite understand it. Helprin himself has said he detests the term, and considers the genre "exhibitionistic, forced, self-conscious, and almost devoid of emotional content." His departures from reality are by his own account the result of deep conviction and for the sake of the story itself. Helprin's stories couldn't happen, but does that make them untrue? In the end, no, because in his universe the truth of human nature stays the same even when the rules of physics, for example, don't. He doesn't create a separate world, he imagines our own as if the limits of the possible are extended.
(Because Freddy and Fredericka is also about travel, the audiobook version read by Robert Ian Mackenzie makes great road trip material. But it's best to read the book oneself: Mackenzie has a lovely voice, but misses several important jokes; and he makes Fredericka and the Queen sound like wilting flowers, which they couldn't possibly be.)
Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series
This groundbreaking BBC miniseries was released in the United States in 2007, but it bears re-watching each year. With a budget of $16 million, it's one of the most expensive nature documentaries ever made, allowing filmmakers to record in HD, film stunning sequences using slow motion cameras (including famous footage of a great white shark leaping out of the water to devour a sea lion), and follow herds from helicopters hundreds of feet away. Each of the 6 DVDs explores some part of the world's geography: shallow seas, the great plains, mountains, ice worlds, the jungle, the desert, and so on.
Planet Earth captures an array of nature's beauty. Birds of Paradise perform mating dances in the New Guinean rainforest, dromedaries slowly make their way across a desert ridge with the Sahara's endless sand in the background, and schools of glimmering fish swim between bright coral formations off the Australian coast. But nature's beauty masks its ruthlessness. The wild is a harsh place to live, and nature is never forgiving.
There are the predators, for example. The series is full of thrilling chase scenes. In one of the opening sequences a white Ethiopian wolf corners a young ibex. Seals go after penguins, a pack of African wild dogs pursues an impala (this scene is filmed from above, revealing the dogs' surprising coordination and strategy), and in a stunning sequence, Nile crocodiles snap at wildebeest and zebras drinking on the water's edge. The scene is reminiscent of a 17th-century war tapestry, the animals' crazed eyes gleaming, legs flailing, and manes flying as they are pulled into the river.
Land predators are often foiled when their prey finds a river or a cave to hide in. At the same time, it's urgent for, say, an antelope not to lose its footing or come up against a cliff. If it does, there is nowhere to go. Underwater, the rules of the chase are similar. Reefs and rock formations provide refuge for the pursued, and nothing is so dangerous as being forced to the surface. Trapped at the top, desperate fish have no choice but to jump, sometimes to the delight of hovering seabirds.
The series is worthwhile viewing for its beauty, but also for its ugliness, which serves as a reminder of what nature can really be like.
* * *
Columnist, Scripps-Howard News Service and the Sacramento Bee,
Fellow, Claremont Institute's Golden State Center for State and Local Government
So you've read everything there is to read about George Washington, have you? Your shelves groan under the weight of Weems, Marshall, Flexner, Brookhiser, Smith, Ellis, and other greater and lesser lights. Certainly everything that could be written about the Father of Our Country has already been put on the printed page. Then along comes Ron Chernow with his elegant, detailed portrait of the first president, Washington: A Life.
Chernow's biography relies on a surprising amount of recent scholarship, and he gives us the man in vivid and occasionally unsparing detail. (You will know more about Washington's dentures than may be appropriate.) Despite all that's come before, and a few false notes, it is impossible to read Chernow and not come away with a renewed admiration for one who was truly "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
We know Washington was a man of upright character for whom appearances and formality mattered a great deal. We also know Washington enjoyed a stiff drink. He might have found much to like in the company of Bernard DeVoto, noted historian of the American West, curator of Mark Twain's papers, and editor of Lewis and Clark's journals. DeVoto was also a columnist for the Saturday Evening Post, where he wrote about more leisurely pursuits. DeVoto's Post columns formed the basis for a book on drinking published in the mid-1950s called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto.
Long out of print and sought-after by collectors and aficionados, DeVoto's charming volume was republished earlier this year in a slim hardcover edition with a lively new introduction by novelist Daniel Handler. Like Washington before him, DeVoto had rules, first and foremost of which was: No rum. Ever. He's wrong about a few things, notably the Manhattan, but his "advice to the wayward and beguiled"—which includes his recipe for the classic martini—is a tour de force.
* * *
Editorial Assistant, Claremont Review of Books
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel is remembered for its criticism of government censorship, its insightful predictions of the rise of political correctness, and its rejection of an over-stimulated, media-centered culture. The book's overarching theme, however, which is occasionally made explicit, but more often left to the reader to discover, illuminates even more clearly Bradbury's conservativism, and exposes what may be an implicit advocacy for a Great Books education: the greatest danger presented by the replacement of mindless, media-centered entertainment for the engagement and critical thinking necessitated by great literature, is a public and personal inability to reflect on the serious questions that make up the human experience. As a result, the hedonists of Bradbury's dystopian future are slavish, unhappy, distracted, and—because all real knowledge or the ability to acquire it only existed on the burned pages of the great works of the past—devoid of the tools necessary for self-reflection and liberation from opinion. In such a light, Fahrenheit 451 is not only a novel about the fictional, futuristic dangers of "the government" (Michael Moore seems to have missed this point), censorship, and political correctness, but also Bradbury's probing into the essence of humanity, and his conclusion that the reflective life is necessary for human fulfillment.