Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
BRIAN C. ANDERSON
Alain de botton is one of the most charming, intelligent writers around today, able to shed new light on topics ranging from architecture to travel to the practical and life-improving uses of philosophy. His latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Pantheon), may be his best. De Botton looks at 10 different industries, including such diverse occupations as engineering, logistics, and cookie-making, and intimately captures what he calls “the beauty and occasional horror of the working world,” where much of our lives are spent and where so many hopes and frustrations play out. You won’t think about your job the same way after reading it.
This year’s Newbury Medal winner for best-children’s title, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins), reimagines Kipling’s Jungle Book in a dark and sometimes frightening setting. It’s a perfect stocking-stuffer for a curious pre-teen (though adults will enjoy it as well). The hero, Nobody Owens, orphaned by the evil “man Jack” as a toddler, winds up adopted by the quarrelsome ghosts of a neighborhood graveyard, who protect him from the killer. As he grows up, navigating between the living world and the dead, Nobody learns about responsibility, family, and bravery. The book abounds with memorable characters and proves, once again, that Gaiman is our greatest fantasist.
Two books by City Journal colleagues illumine our understanding of contemporary economic life. Nicole Gelinas warned about the financial meltdown in our pages long before it happened. Her first book, After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street — and Washington (Encounter), provides the most lucid explanation I’ve yet come across of what caused the crisis and a road map for how to get out of it. Drawing on extensive interviews with the world’s leading economic thinkers and policymakers, Guy Sorman’s Economics Does Not Lie: A Defense of the Free Market in a Time of Crisis (Encounter) reminds us that, despite our current woes, capitalism works better than any known alternative in generating prosperity.
Brian C. Anderson is editor of City Journal and author, most recently, of A Manifesto for Media Freedom (with Adam Thierer).
Recommending christmas books to conservatives is a labor of love because we love the written word and all the history, politics, and American culture it explains to us and preserves for future generations. It’s especially important this year because our rock-star president has — by overuse — turned the bully pulpit into, well, just bull. The five I have chosen — some old, some new — are important because they are tools with which we can fight next year.
Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor (Crown), by Matt Latimer, is probably the most important political book of the year because it breaks the media narrative that conservatism is defined — comprehensively and inextricably — by George W. Bush. Whatever our opinion of George W. Bush, we must all agree that he was, and is, not one of us. Latimer’s book provides all the proofs in one place, ranging from Bush’s disrespect for the conservative movement to his bizarre rejection of Captive Nations Week, which Reagan used as a beacon of light to shine through the Iron Curtain. In September 2007, Newt Gingrich warned that unless Republicans made a “clean break” from President Bush, they would lose in 2008. Gingrich said, “If you don’t represent real change, you just gave away the 2008 election….Now that may or may not make the White House happy. But I think that’s the whole point about making a clean break.” Latimer’s book shatters the media narrative and propels the break we need to revive conservatism as the principal political force in America.
Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security (Threshold Editions), by General Richard B. Myers (USAF, Ret.). In 2007, while Republicans were searching for a presidential nominee, a friend asked who I thought would be the best candidate and I unhesitatingly answered Dick Myers. Myers — Kansas native, fighter pilot, and leader in the only correct meaning of the term — proves my case in this autobiography. In many military autobiographies, the author spends most of the time speaking of personal sacrifice, bravery by comrades, and battles won and lost. There is much of that in Myers’s book, but it is balanced by his intellectual grasp and penetrating analysis of the war in which we are engaged. He says, flatly, that the threat of Islamic extremists is the greatest our nation has faced since the Civil War. And he says that we have failed to either define our adversary correctly or chart a path to victory. Myers writes, most importantly, that we cannot win unless the nations that sponsor terrorism are forced out of that business. This book should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the war we’re in and what it will take to win.
The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War (Holt), by Sir Martin Gilbert. After World War I, Europe was shattered. Virtually a whole generation of its young men — British, French, and German — had been killed in the “war to end all wars.” The Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, and continued until November 21, was a cacophony of death and bad generalship. In the first day alone, more than 20,000 Tommies were killed. About 310,000 died before the battle ended. In well-written detail, historian Martin Gilbert gives us the horrors, the generals’ mistakes, and the battle’s conclusive effect on the psyches of the nations involved. Reading this history is essential to understanding Old Europe today, its pacifism and its vulnerability to cultural and physical assault.
Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger), by David Galula. On May 7, 1954, Vietminh forces overran the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, forcibly terminating French power in Southeast Asia. Seven years before that, a young French officer, David Galula, was held in Hsinkiang Province by Chinese Communist forces. Galula turned his captivity to advantage, questioning his captors and learning how the Communists grew from a scattered ideological movement in 1921 to conquering their homeland. Galula studied insurgencies — before and after Vietnam — and crafted this classic of counterinsurgency warfare. It is reportedly the bible of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. Because our rock-star president is ignorant of it, every American who wants to understand what our forces are fighting in Afghanistan and how they are trying to defeat perhaps the most terrible insurgent enemy in the most ideal place for an insurgency to operate should read this slim, intense book.
The Writer’s Art (Andrews McMeel), by James Jackson Kilpatrick. All of us who communicate political thought for a living — actually, everyone who wants to write and speak well — can benefit from reading Kilpo’s classic, probably the best book on writing ever written. Just reading it is a joy because Kilpatrick is our greatest living wordsmith. You can revel in chapters titled “Faith, Hope and Clarity” and “My Crotchets and Your Crotchets” and learn every step of the way. His only failure is in not declaring a policy of unconditional surrender in our war against words ending in “ize,” which is a great struggle of our time. Perfectly innocent nouns are converted into unmanageable verbs, debasing both. But this is a small complaint about a book that I read for the first time more than two decades ago, and reread every year. Any writer — amateur or professional — can benefit from reading this book. And anyone who speaks publicly can benefit as well. If you write well, you will speak well. That’s the Gospel According to St. Kilpo, and we must embrace it as tightly as our abilities permit.
Jed Babbin is editor of Human Events.
The Federalist Papers (1787-1788), by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Want to know how government should work? Read The Federalist Papers. Want to be reminded how our government was supposed to work? Read The Federalist Papers. Want to learn where we’ve gone wrong as a nation? Read The Federalist Papers. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and one of America’s true Founding Fathers, recommended The Federalist Papers as “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.” Nearly two centuries later, Clinton Rossiter, one of the 20th century’s most accomplished political scientists, described this collection of 85 essays as “the one product of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory.” They were right then, and they would be right today in their analysis of these magnificently written treatises on government, individual liberty, and constitutional policy.
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (Penguin), by James M. McPherson. The controversy over the memos penned by Department of Justice lawyers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, used to justify the extraordinary measures taken by the administration of George W. Bush in the months and years thereafter, continues to rage today, some eight years later. For citizens concerned about the erosion of civil liberties as a result of the prior administration’s exercise of such powers — or for those who supported such moves and are worried they might be curtailed by the current administration or by future Supreme Court decisions — James McPherson’s fascinating account of how President Abraham Lincoln employed his powers as commander in chief during the War Between the States is a must-read. In it one finds the seeds of the steps taken 140 years later by the Bush administration. From suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to the issuance of far-reaching executive orders to accomplish legislative ends — Lincoln did it long before George W. Bush or Dick Cheney did. These lessons, so vividly and entertainingly presented by McPherson, remind us that to understand the present, study the past.
George Washington on Leadership (Basic), by Richard Brookhiser. As a general, he won far fewer battles than many of his contemporaries. As a public speaker, he was far less eloquent than others of his time. In terms of sheer IQ, he was bested by many of those with whom he surrounded himself. Yet George Washington is considered one of the greatest generals of all time, and one of the best, if not the best, American president of all who have served in that office. For those searching for the answers to the question of how a man so human and thus so imperfect could reach such heights of justified praise, one must read Richard Brookhiser’s book, in which he explains in lucid and relevant terms Washington’s true leadership characteristics. From his famous tenacity to his willingness to recognize and use the skills exhibited by those around him, George Washington accomplished more than others who bested him in eloquence, military skill, or base intelligence. Yes, he made mistakes — many — but unlike so many other political or military leaders of his time or ours, Washington did not forget them, and he learned from them. In this age, when our leaders employ grand eloquence and repeated sound bites to hide mistakes and agendas, learning how a truly great leader comported himself, and in so doing saved our nation, is worth far more than the price of this book.
Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (Encounter), by Harvey A. Silverglate. With a federal criminal code that exceeds 4,000 offenses, and state and local statute books adding many thousands more, it truly can be said we are living in an over-criminalized society. Indeed, when the federal government concocts regulatory schemes reaching into such minutiae as how much water is permitted to flow through the commodes in our homes, or what kind of lightbulbs we may be permitted to use to illuminate the books we read at night, clearly something is wrong. When zealous federal prosecutors play “gotcha” with a doctor trying to relieve the pain of an elderly patient suffering from advanced cancer, because the physician prescribed doses of pain medicine a federal drug agent determined was excessive, clearly we have reached an age when criminal law has become not the servant but the master of all professions. While frightening for what it reveals about legislators, prosecutors, and judges far too willing to permit laws that never should have been passed to be used without restraint, Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day should be bought and read by lawyers and laypersons alike. It is a real eye-opener.