Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
(These recommendations appear in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of The American Spectator.)
My Christmas reading choices fall into three categories: power, money, and contemplative spirituality.
The best book on power that I have read for a long time is Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (Allen Lane) by the British historian Andrew Roberts. The Masters are Churchill and Roosevelt. The Commanders are Eisenhower, MacArthur, Montgomery, George Marshall, and Alan Brooke. All come alive in Roberts’s elegant prose as fascinating human beings on top of their military and political roles as giants of history. The interaction between them was packed with disagreements, yet unlike their opposite numbers they harnessed their strong wills to a common cause in collective teamwork. By contrast, concludes Roberts, “the lack of a collegiate Chiefs of Staff system was one of the major reasons why Germany lost the Second World War.” A riveting and beautifully written overview of how and why the Allies won it.
Collegiality was not one of Richard Nixon’s virtues, but his complexity is well explained and favorably (perhaps too favorably!) interpreted by Conrad Black in his magisterial biography Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs). The strength of this book is Black’s perceptive understanding of the good and bad sides of Nixon’s inner character together with a strong historical grasp of the outer political pressures with which he had to wrestle.
Turning to money, two new books I have enjoyed this year are The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea by Steve LeVine (Random House) and The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder (Bantam).
LeVine’s merry romp through the new oil Klondike of the 21st century is a page turner chronicling the exotic activities of oligarchs, oil majors, explorers, crooks, wheeler dealers, pipeline builders, and Caspian politicians. We will hear more about this colorful cast if Russia continues to flex its muscles on energy supplies in the region.
The Sage of Omaha has become almost everyone’s favorite guru in the new era of financial adversity. Buffett comes across in this poorly written official biography as a genuine man of principle who throughout his life has been critical of corporate greed, frugal in his lifestyle, generous in his philanthropy, and steadfast in his support for civil and human rights. But his public ethics are not matched by his “almost pathological lack of empathy” which drove his devoted wife away while he lived with a younger woman in Omaha.
It will be a relief at Christmas-time to turn away from war, politics, and greed to practice a little contemplative spirituality. Two gifted 20th-century guides to this search for peace and faith are Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill. This is the 50th anniversary of Merton’s untimely death and the 70th anniversary of the first publication of his classic The Seven Storey Mountain (Harvest), one of the greatest monastic autobiographies of all time. It was memorably described by Bishop Fulton Sheen as “a 20th-century form of the Confessions of St. Augustine.”
Evelyn Underhill’s The Ways of the Spirit (Crossroad) is another classic for contemplatives. It consists of her hitherto unpublished retreats which focus on such issues as God’s call, Inner Grace, and the Perfection of Love. Both Merton and Underhill drew much inspiration from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis which in its many editions remains the world’s best-selling Christian book of all time after the Bible. I shall try to reread all three masterpieces this Advent.
Jonathan Aitken is The American Spectator’s High Spirits columnist, is most recently author of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (CrosswayBooks). His biographies include Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed (Doubleday) and Nixon: A Life, now available in a new paperback edition (Regnery).
In these frenzied economic times, I can think of no better reading than two books which chronicle in lively fashion two long episodes in American history. One is Robert Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence (Random House), which explains how the abstract economic theories of Keynesian economists produced not the promised eternal economic growth but the longest sustained peacetime inflation in American history, rising to 14 percent in the times of Jimmy Carter. The other is David Smick’s The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy (Portfolio), which explains how the abstract mathematical models of financial wizards produced not the promised eternal self-sustaining economic growth but rather a non-transparent financial system which led to the coagulation of credit and, it seems at the time of this writing, a financial crash. Both show how abstract theories proved faulty in practice; both recommend similar common sense responses: intelligently regulated transparent markets.
For historically minded readers of this journal distraught with the seeming trends in our politics and government, I recommend two reminders that things could turn out worse. Two eminent historians have produced major treatments of antebellum America. One is Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton). Like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Wilentz tends to be a partisan of Andrew Jackson and to see Jackson and the early Democratic Party as the tribunes of the common man. But he is far from immune to the attractions of Abraham Lincoln. The other is Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press). Howe is an avowed admirer of Henry Clay and the Whigs, and Lincoln, always an admirer of Clay, is viewed in the prism of his opposition to the Jacksonian James K. Polk’s Mexican War. Wilentz sees the rise of popular politics as the chief trend of his longer era; Howe sees the rise of new forms of transportation and communication—the railroad, the telegraph—as the chief trend of his three decades. Both books are uncommonly well written and full of interesting stories that I had not come across before.
Finally, I recommend Andrew Roberts’s Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West (Allen Lane). You’ll have to go to Amazon’s United Kingdom site to buy it now — it won’t be released in the United States till early next year — but it’s well worth the minimal extra shipping expense. Roberts is the preeminent British historian of this generation, and in this book he draws on hitherto untapped sources to discover what Churchill and Roosevelt, Marshall and Brooke, were up to in World War II. They were giants in the land then, making momentous decisions that affected the lives of millions and shaped the future for many years to come. But as Roberts tells the story, the decisions did not come easily, the tensions between these four great men were enormous, events did not turn out quite as anyone planned, great blunders were committed, and great victories were obtained. Churchill was grandiose and given to absurd initiatives, Roosevelt was devious and played double games with everyone, Marshall was straightforward and a great judge of character but unimaginative, Brooke was scintillating but unduly dismissive of those who disagreed. Yet together they moved, unsurely at times, with great setbacks (aficionados of Bob Woodward books might like to think about this), going around each other on occasions, attentive always to the necessity of propitiating the great tyrant and indispensable ally Stalin—with all this they moved to a grand victory over the forces of evil. There is no greater story in 20th-century history, and no one has told it better than Andrew Roberts. The world could have descended into George Orwell’s 1984. This is the story of the four men who made sure that that did not happen.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?