From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue
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.
Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (Vintage), by Saul D. Alinsky. The title of this book, at a time when we are ruled by a radical community organizer, says it all.
Bob Barr represented the 7th District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, and was the 2008 Libertarian Party nominee for president of the United States. He practices law with the Law Offices of Edwin Marger, and runs a consulting firm, Liberty Strategies, Inc., headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.
I spent most of the past year researching and writing my own book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Penguin Sentinel), so much of my reading in 2009 had to do with salmon fisheries and the correct way to field-dress a moose. But, whenever I wanted to procrastinate — and that happened a lot — I read for pleasure. Which means there’s a tall pile of books on my nightstand that have nothing to do with snow machines or the incorrigible media elite.
Scanning over the titles on my personal “Good Books in 2009” list, I’m reminded just how organic the writing process is, just how much writing depends on reading. The perspective, insight, voice, and intensity of each of the authors I read this year influenced my own work in various (and perhaps intangible) ways. Here are my five favorites.
Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (Penguin) is an accessible and entertaining narrative history of Western finance. Ferguson may be the only writer alive who can make bond markets seem exciting. The Ascent of Money won’t make you rich, but it will teach you that financial crises have been around for as long as capitalism has. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s all part of the creative destruction of the marketplace that’s brought us to where we are today. History encourages us to take the long view, and the lesson of Ferguson’s history is that we’ll survive the current economic troubles. And eventually, we’ll end up more prosperous than we were before. Assuming Obama doesn’t mess things up, of course.
The newspapers are full of scary headlines, but they have nothing on Stephen King. Years ago I decided to read every novel my favorite contemporary American author has written, in the order he wrote them. One of the King titles I read in 2009 was Desperation (Signet), and it’s among his best. A friend recently asked me which of King’s post-addiction novels deserves a place alongside The Shining, The Stand, The Talisman, and It. No question, the answer is Desperation. If you have a high tolerance for literary gore, you’ll love it.
Meanwhile, I finally got around to reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (W. W. Norton), which I heartily recommend to NFL fans looking for something to do in between Sunday afternoons. The fantastically talented Lewis tells the story of the fantastically talented Michael Oher, an offensive tackle who goes from a life on the street to playing football at a preppy Nashville high school and then at Ole Miss. Lewis juxtaposes Oher’s story with a history of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense (and Lewis’s retelling of a key San Francisco 49ers game from the 1980s is the best part). The Blind Side came out years ago, but one of the satisfactions of reading it now is that you can finish the book and then watch Oher play for the Baltimore Ravens.
Richard Brookhiser’s Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement (Basic) is a gripping memoir of his years at National Review. Most critics focused on Brookhiser’s occasionally strained relationship with William F. Buckley Jr., but I was most struck by his descriptions of life as a junior editor at the great man’s magazine. Brookhiser imparts the excitement that a young person feels as he begins life as an opinion journalist. He conveys the thrill of watching conservatism’s political ascent from within conservatism’s flagship publication. It’s a fantastic entry in the catalogue of National Review books — of which there are almost as many as there are books about the New Yorker.
Finally, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (Doubleday) will be on many best-of lists this winter, and deservedly so. Reflections is a big, deep, magisterial (there really isn’t any other word) exploration of immigration, Islam, and the European welfare state. But it’s also more: Caldwell takes on globalization, modernity, political correctness, and technology, too. He teases out paradoxes and contradictions in practically every sentence. His takedown of Tariq Ramadan is worth the price of admission alone. This is one of those books you finish and say, “Wow.” Then you drop it in the lap of the next person who tries to convince you that “intellectual conservatism” is “dead.”
Matthew Continetti is the associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Penguin Sentinel).
Is it cheating if i recommend books by people I know — not only know but like, and not only like but envy? I have an excuse. Each of the books was published this year, and each is a landmark in its own way; what I mean is, I’m pretty sure that each of them will be read and talked about and profited from a generation hence.
Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press) is the first multi-volume biography of Lincoln published in 50 years, and its appearance is the signal cultural legacy of the hapless Lincoln bicentennial that is now limping to a close. Burlingame very likely knows more about Lincoln than anyone who’s ever lived, including Mary Todd, and his biography, 20 years in the writing, has a revelation on every page, dug out during the biographer’s tireless research into musty libraries and forgotten attics that no one has ever thought to look in before. If there’s anything knowable that you want to know about Lincoln, this is the place to find it.
Joe Queenan is known by readers of this publication and numberless others as a funny writer, and Closing Time: A Memoir (Viking Adult) is a funny book. It’s also something more, though — I was going to say, something unexpected. But Queenanians have always sensed the depth that lurked beneath his jokes; the reservoir of knowledge, thoughtfulness, and sympathy (really) is what makes the jokes so good. Here the deeps are opened up. I think it’s the best memoir I’ve read since Growing Up (Signet) by Russell Baker, though it’s funnier and tougher, and like Baker’s book it will take its place as an American classic — extravagant praise that should embarrass Queenan but probably won’t.
Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (Doubleday) has mussed the hair and raised the hackles — assuming you can do both at once — of Europe’s decaying intellectual class, which has underwritten and apologized for the campaign of unilateral cultural disarmament that Caldwell describes with clinical precision. The book’s tone is cool and even detached, but it seethes too, unmistakably. You can read it for its grand thesis but also for the obiter dicta. Line for line it has more surprising, inventive, and true observations than almost any book I can think of. (Democracy in America is the only one that comes readily to mind — and I know what I’m saying when I say that.) Another classic. That makes three this year!
Gratitude and good taste require that I also recommend, as a stocking stuffer, the latest book from the man who gave me my first real job in the magazine business. For years people have been wondering when Bob Tyrrell would put together a collection of his great magazine column, The Continuing Crisis. Louis Hatchett, admirer and Hoosier, finally did it for him — modesty having prevented Tyrrell from doing the job himself — and I don’t need to tell you, Mr. and Mrs. Spectator Reader, how good it is. Seeing it all piled up between covers only confirms my opinion that the 40 years of Crisis constitute one of the most sublime performances in the history of American journalism. Only the oeuvre of James “Scotty” Reston comes close. (Joke!) Seriously, though: pick it up and read, say, the entry for November 1987 (page 136) if you want to see the antic heights that our language, in the hands of an inspired master, can sometimes reach.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
In A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster), Robert W. Merry accomplishes for President Polk what David McCullough achieved for John Adams: a revived interest and insight into an underrated one-term president whose courage, ambition, pride, difficult personality, and political guile made an impact on American history both profound and prophetic. Adams was a founding father and Polk completed the story of America’s Manifest Destiny. Merry, former editor in chief of Congressional Quarterly, captures the clashing debates of an earlier epoch with a practiced eye for their impact today.
If you like this book you’ll want to get his Taking on the World (Penguin), still available in used book stores, about the brothers Joseph and Stewart Alsop, whose robust journalism from the end of World War II to the end of the Vietnam War reminds us that the oft-tasteless and factless “columny” of today has a noble ancestry.
For those who want a break from the bells, whistles, and beeps of their cell phones, emails, and Twitters, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon) by Richard Holmes offers intellectual respite as it recounts how science, technology, and the imagination joined forces at the end of the 18th century offering poetic wonder inside the latest technological advances. Think Keats looking through the latest telescope at a new planet and comparing the experience to his first reading of Homer.
If you know a young reader victimized by political correctness, whose school or college places Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad on the endangered species list for being “racist,” this wonderful novel written by a man whose first language was Polish is a pearl beyond price.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist with the Washington Times.
I’ll restrict my list this year to books either released within the past year or that became newly and particularly relevant in the past year. And they must be books that conservatives especially will want or need to read. That said, I heartily recommend the following:
Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (Intercollegiate Studies Institute), by Craig Shirley. I was honored to have a front-row seat as a copy editor for Shirley’s masterful, exhaustingly and lovingly researched, absolutely definitive account of how Reagan went from defeat in 1976 to a stunning victory in 1980. What people forget today is how stunning, and hard-fought, Reagan’s landslide was. Of particular note are Shirley’s lively accounts of the full backstories behind the famous Nashua “I paid for the microphone” debate, the flirtation with the Reagan-Ford “dream ticket” that probably would have been a nightmare, and the debate briefing book purloined from Jimmy Carter’s campaign. Conservatives and historians will owe Shirley a debt of gratitude for decades for this book.
Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto (Threshold Editions), by Mark Levin. As a million-seller already, Levin’s book hardly needs a boost from me, but it is such an accessible and well-explained exposition of fundamental American political philosophy that everybody who loves this country should thank Levin for his efforts.
Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law (W.W. Norton), by Philip K. Howard. On the heels of his best-selling The Death of Common Sense, reformer Howard makes an important case for reining in lawsuit abuse, cutting way back on bureaucracy, and restoring both authority and personal responsibility to teachers, principals, trial judges, and other people in what should be decision-making positions. In short, it’s more good old-fashioned common sense in a world too short on that virtue.
Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (Vintage), by Saul Alinsky. Sorry to need to prescribe castor oil, but this evil tome has become essential reading for conservatives in order to understand what we’re up against. It’s uncanny, and not a little frightening, to recognize in this text the exact tactics — and, more eerily, often the exact same — language-used again and again by President Barack Obama and his minions. Conservatives should not adopt most of the tactics, because they are too underhanded for honorable people — but we can figure out how to overcome them. We also can and should learn from some of Alinsky’s acute insights into motivational psychology, which are no less applicable or acceptable for use for conservatives than for the radical left. In short, conservatives should not emulate Alinsky, but we must learn how to effectively do political battle against his disciples in the White House.
Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II — new revised edition (University of Louisiana at Lafayette), by Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and the late Tad Jones. My friend Jason, anything but a conservative, might be appalled to be in the company of the books above — but his greatly expanded edition of this classic book of cultural musicology is a fascinating read from beginning to end and a great reminder of what a treasure my beleaguered hometown is, and why all Americans should care about this most personality-filled of American cities no matter how many political shortcomings it possesses. Jason Berry’s new, lengthy foreword is absolutely lyrical, and two new chapters at the end tell how the city’s musicians have done more than its politicians to bring the city back. As Jason writes: “Politics failed, culture prevailed.” That’s a good lesson for all of us, conservative and liberal alike.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer at the Washington Times and senior editor of The American Spectator.
Book publishing is such an odd business. Industry officials claim 90 percent of books never recoup their production costs. That is why it is so puzzling when publishers rush to sign authors who have a track record of writing books that fail to sell. Consider that former president Jimmy Carter has delivered more bombs than the Israeli Air Force, yet publishers continue sending book contracts his way.
I read biographies and nonfiction books that deliver new information in a thoughtful and sometimes innovative manner. But I do have standards regarding what I read. I have no interest in tomes written by a bitter, aging spinster working as a New York Times columnist; by a bimbo whose second-most infamous act was the failure to properly launder a protein-stained dress; or by a morbidly obese filmmaker who is only one all-you-can-eat buffet plate away from going “code blue” but has the gall to lecture others on optimal health practices.
After careful thought, I offer an eclectic selection of books I have found to be informative, entertaining, and well worth the suggested retail price.
Nearly every aspect of polling can be manipulated in order to achieve certain results or to influence specific outcomes, according to Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy (Prima) by Matthew Robinson. This excellent work analyzes the news media’s obsession with and misuse of polling. For example, Robinson highlights the use of artfully worded poll questions that misrepresent the public’s actual views. In early 2001, Newsweek asked:
“Do you think Congress should approve Bush’s choice of John Ashcroft for Attorney General, or reject Ashcroft as too far to the right on issues like abortion, drugs, and gun control to be an effective Attorney General?”
Even after using such a heavily biased question, it was surprising that only 41 percent of the public was measured as opposing Ashcroft’s nomination. Robinson did not report if Newsweek followed up with “Have you stopped beating your children?”
Robinson notes that the list of questions, suggested answers from which to choose, and the wording of poll questions often skew public responses. He also reports that the timing of a poll is critical. Numerous polls were conducted only days after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting when emotions ran high that reflected the public strongly favored stricter gun control measures. These results were out of whack with historical norms and with polling conducted immediately prior to the shooting and weeks afterward. It is inappropriate, Robinson points out, to conduct polls in the moments immediately after a highly emotional event that would likely deliver perverse results.
The partisan press began its hero-worshipping of Barack Obama just as the previously obscure community agonizer’s campaign for the presidency gained steam in early 2008. There was a time before the Nobel-laureate-to-be became the media’s latest false idol that only real heroes who performed real heroic acts were the centers of public adulation and admiration.
Gregory “Pappy” Boyington was a highly decorated World War II Marine Corps fighter pilot and ace. Before America’s entry into the war, he resigned his commission to serve with “The Flying Tigers” in China. He returned to the Marine Corps pilot ranks in 1942 and was credited with shooting down more than two dozen enemy aircraft — a heroic accomplishment by any standard and one that earned him the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. He was eventually shot down and held as a POW by the Japanese until their surrender.
Boyington’s autobiography Baa Baa Black Sheep (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) is an absolute treasure and an incredible read for anyone drawn to the heroics of an iconic figure from the Greatest Generation. As a member of the Flying Tigers that protected Southeast Asian targets from Imperial Japan, Boyington lived large in wartime China when daytime flight missions were preceded by heavy drinking and carousing the night before — a routine unfathomable in today’s military pilot corps.
For years, the seminal work on John Paul Jones was the one authored by Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison and published in 1959. Frankly, I found that book dull and uninteresting. Four decades later, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (Simon & Schuster) by Evan Thomas was published. Thomas’s work made history come alive. His John Paul Jones is every bit as exciting a read as any of today’s best-selling action novels.
The work is significant not only for highlighting the challenges in living in the era of wooden ships and iron men, but also because it underscores the impact the fledgling Continental Navy had in securing American independence. Thomas’s Jones captures the essence of the American spirit embodied in a larger-than-life figure who is widely credited with leading a navy that would one day become the global leader on the high seas.
At the risk of appearing sycophantic, I must confess my immense enjoyment of Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (Threshold), written by American Spectator publisher Alfred S. Regnery.
Regnery’s work not only provides an excellent history of the conservative movement, but also makes abundantly clear the road map the GOP ought to follow if Republicans desire to once again become and remain the majority political party in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
If my own experiences are any guide, then a fair percentage of books are purchased as gifts. One book that is still an outstanding gift nearly 80 years after it was first published is The Joy of Cooking (Scribner). I do not have to turn in my man card or claim to be a pantywaist MSNBC viewer in order to recognize that Joy is perhaps the best cookbook ever published.
I was given a copy for my bachelor bookcase after graduating from the Naval Academy three decades ago and still use it today. Even my children use it occasionally, although my wife is content with ordering takeout. While the value of other cookbooks lasts about as long as the latest installment of a thin Oprah, year in and year out The Joy of Cooking offers countless recipes that provide great meals for any American home.
I strongly recommend considering Joy when seeking the right gift for the next graduate or newlyweds on your shopping list.
Mark Hyman is the news commentator and all-around gunslinger for the television stations of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
If there is a “reading season,” it has to be winter in a comfortable chair before a roaring fire, losing oneself in newly published works or just as enjoyably in books that cry out for a second or third read. Some books should be read by almost everyone while others appeal to more specialized tastes, making sweeping recommendations difficult.
I begin by ruling out books that simply aggravate or authors that have little worthwhile to say, tempting all of us to toss their books into the fire. This year, I would avoid anything by David Brooks or David Frum. Neither seems to have much to say, though Brooks says little with more flair.
Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Broadway), along with almost anything he’s written, is a far more enjoyable read. A history both of liberalism and the tendency of well-intentioned do-gooders to seriously muck things up, it’s a book to read then keep in one’s library or share with one who doesn’t realize the slippery slope on which such people operate.
The same can be said of Bob Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (Simon & Schuster), the story of the little remembered but incredibly important presidency of James K. Polk, who went to war with Mexico, created the map of the United States we know today, and set the stage for “Manifest Destiny” and, perhaps, our current empire-building adventures abroad. Merry is best known as a reporter and publisher, but this book along with his previous Sands of Empire make him a must-read for those seriously interested in the origins, strengths, and weaknesses of our nation’s current foreign policy.
I’d also recommend Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs) by Brian Doherty, which first appeared in 2007, but is now out in paperback. It’s a whopper of a book, but a lively read that personalizes libertarian thinkers from the weird to the influential and tells a tale worth telling.
I’ve also just purchased Paul Rahe’s Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (Yale University Press). No one influenced the American founding more than Montesquieu, so this promises to be as important a book as was Rahe’s earlier and interesting Soft Despotism.
With Bill Buckley’s passing, interest in the man who did more to create the modern conservative movement than anyone has grown, and those who knew him or worked with him have responded. His own works, including his final books on Goldwater and Reagan, are, like everything else he wrote, worth reading, but so too is Richard Brookhiser’s Right Time, Right Place (Basic), which he accurately subtitles “Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.” I guess, Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir (Twelve) is worth reading as well, though in many ways I came away feeling that it was perhaps a book that needn’t have been written.
When I travel, I favor lighter reading and have found mysteries, thrillers, and who-dunnits delightful traveling companions. My favorites include almost anything by John Lescroart, Michael Connelly, or Bill Tapply, who manages in his Brady Coyne series to combine mystery with fly fishing as Robert Traver did decades ago in Anatomy of a Murder. Tapply’s most recent is Dark Tiger (Minotaur Books) and his last Brady Coyne was Death at Charity’s Point (Poisoned Pen). It’s a mixture that may seem weird to some, but it makes him a favorite of mine and he’s a good writer to boot.
I heartily advise other fly fishing addicts to dip into the rich literature of the sport by grabbing anything by John Gierach or Ted Leeson, whose most recent, Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley (Skyhorse), is a must-read for anyone who has been to or dreams of spending time in the Big Sky country as I do.
One’s reading should be eclectic and enjoyable as well as enlightening. The late Robert Ruark, a Washingtonian who was known as the poor man’s Hemingway, wrote, in addition to a number of best-selling novels, a series of columns over a number of years that were ultimately put together as The Old Man and the Boy (Holt). It’s ostensibly about growing up and hunting in South Carolina, but it’s really about life. I once identified with the boy and today often give the book to the sons and grandsons of friends who I know will enjoy and benefit from the old man’s wisdom. If you haven’t read it, you should.
David Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union.
George Gilder’s The Israel Test (Richard Vigilante) is a remarkable book about people.
Norman Podhoretz’s Why Are Jews Liberals? (Doubleday) asks and answers the question so many have found perplexing.
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (Encounter) is an exceptional treatise on an unbeliever who adopts the cause of Judaism.
Together these three books exemplify the conditions associated with the Jewish people: brilliance and imagination, inspiration and devotion, and a baffling inability to embrace self-interest.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington) and America’s Secular Challenge (Encounter).
CLIFFORD D. MAY
Right now, I’m deep into the newly released Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West (Truman Talley Books), by Michael A. Ledeen. (Full disclosure: Dr. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the think tank I head.) His point is simply — well, maybe not so simply — this: In the 20th century we in the West flinched from confronting evil until evil became so powerful that our very survival was at stake. And we came closer to losing the Second World War than most people understand or recall. Today, we are, once again, flinching from evil-willfully refusing to recognize that an escalating war is being waged against us by the Khomeinist revolutionaries in Iran and by the other radical Islamist ideologies, movements, and regimes they have spawned over the past 30 years. We can resist evil. We can even defeat evil. But first we must look it squarely in the eye and call it by its name.
Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine (Anchor) looks at the insurrection that took place in Saudi Arabia at the same time as Iran was undergoing its revolution. More to the point, it reveals the extent to which this was a battle “for the soul of Islam” that continues to this day.
One Second After (Forge), by military historian William Forstchen, is both a novel and a warning. EMP — for electromagnetic pulse — is perhaps the greatest threat about which most Americans know nothing. Suppose that Iran’s ruling mullahs acquire a nuclear weapon — just one — and want to use it to further their often-stated goal of ushering in “a world without America.” They could put it on a missile, put that missile on a freighter near the U.S. coast, launch and detonate it at high altitude above the middle of the country. No one would be killed immediately — no one would feel a thing — but the resulting EMP would knock out electrical systems, computers, and cell phones. Cars would stop. Planes would fall from the skies. Before long, lawlessness, thirst, hunger, and disease would spread. The death toll would mount. There would be no quick fix — maybe no fix at all. This is the scenario — as unlikely as 19 men using passengers jets as guided missiles to attack the Pentagon and the World Trade Center — that Forstchen explores in the hope that people will not just be entertained — but that they will take heed and do what is necessary to shield this Achilles’ heel.
Yes, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Three Rivers) by Jack Weatherford is pop history but it’s a great read. He’s more sympathetic to the Mongol hordes than one probably should be. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating look at the Great Khan, his heirs, and their armies as they conquered — with astonishing skill and cunning — more lands than the Romans did and in much less time. I particularly like what amounts to a 13th-century debate over defense spending: Having conquered Baghdad, Hulegu piles up the city’s gold and treasure and then orders the captive caliph to eat it. Obviously, he cannot, at which point Huelgu scolds him “for so greedily accumulating wealth instead of building an army to defend himself.”
Roger L. Simon is a novelist and screenwriter, which should mean he’s a standard-issue liberal. He was — but that changed. He explains and explores his political evolution in Blacklisting Myself: Memoir of a Hollywood Apostate in the Age of Terror (Encounter). Over time, despite years spent soaking in the ideological hot tub that is Hollywood, he came to realize that “there is almost always a good and evil, a right and wrong — although often you have to look closely — and the relativist view of the world is at best lazy and at worst a stalking horse for fascism.”
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank focusing on terrorism.
Yep. it’s that time of year again, when predatory political celebrities (like Greg Gutfeld) pompously thrust their Yuletide lists of weighty tomes upon you, the American Spectator maven who’s too shrewd to be fooled by such transparent poseurs’ (like Greg Gutfeld) proffering their “bum fire of the inanities.”
So here’s what my staff is reading to me:
The Holy Bible, the Guttenberg edition, not the Gutfeld edition.
Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (University of Chicago) by Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, not Greg Gutfeld. This foundational work on counterinsurgency is required reading for anyone claiming to understand our nation’s challenges in winning the War for Freedom against Terrorism.
Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) by Russell Kirk, not Greg Gutfeld. Essential reading — or in my case, essential listening-for 21st-century conservatives who want to stop carping and start creating.
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (Anchor) edited by John Morthland, not Greg Gutfeld. One must understand both sides of the cultural coin, though it’s only rock-n-roll — and I like it, like it, yes I do.
A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) by Wilhelm Ropke, not Greg Gutfeld. A poignant reminder that economics is about souls, not statistics. A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age (Doubleday) by Richard Rayner, not Greg Gutfeld. A scintillating history and plausible explanation of why Los Angeles is Andrew Breitbart’s home.
Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (Da Capo) by Kenneth D. Ackerman, not Greg Gutfeld. A scintillating history and plausible explanation of why N.Y. is Greg Gutfeld’s home.
Terrible Beauty (Roberts Rinehart) by U.S. Representative Peter King (N.Y.), not Greg Gutfeld. A novel about Belfast during the troubled 1980s. Someone has to read it. Volunteers?
The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday) by James Rosen, not Greg Gutfeld. Beatlemaniac Rosen changes his Johns and paints a brilliant portrait of Nixon’s collaborator rather than McCartney’s.
The Way to Paradise (Picador) by Mario Vargas Llosa, not Greg Gutfeld. This historical novel explores the chasm between political fantasy and personal reality into which descend the feminist/unionist Flora Tristan and her artist son Paul Gauguin.
Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon — The Case Against Celebrity (Wiley) by Mark Ebner and Andrew Breitbart, not Greg Gutfeld. An exposé of Tinseltown’s “amoral underbelly,” wherein nutty lefties wreak havoc on America’s traditional culture and harass conservative stars like Robert Davi, the actor/crooner who soon will be launching a musical extravaganza based upon the Great American Songbook. (Hey, when in Rome…)
Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government (Pan) by P. J. O’Rourke, not Greg Gutfeld. Remember when Republicans were — and must again be — the hip, happening party by rereading this classic from the man who explained “Why God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.”
The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits (Spence) by David Horowitz, not Greg Gutfeld. A seasonal read to know the enemy climbing down your chimney. (See above.)
On the Road With Bob Dylan (Three Rivers) by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, not Greg Gutfeld. A reporter’s eyewitness account of Dylan’s moveable musical feast and collaborative creative celebration that was the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour of New England college campuses. Oh, that the GOP could so roll….
Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Lynne Olson, not Greg Gutfeld. It would insult readers’ intelligence to draw the parallels between President Obama and Prime Minister Chamberlain — oops! I just did.
Lessons from the Land of Pork Scratchings: A Miserable Yank Finds Happiness in the UK (Pocket) by Greg Gutfeld, a troublesome young man and host of Fox News Channel’s 3 a.m. ratings titan Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld. I laughed. I cried. I died a little inside. I must get a life….
Now, off to buy ChapStick and Bono shades for my blue-lipped, bleary-eyed staff.
U.S. Representative Thaddeus G. McCotter (Mich.) is the Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee; the Acting Communications Director of the Robert Davi for National Animal Control Officer Campaign; the Assistant Hair and Makeup Consultant for Big Hollywood founder Andrew Breitbart; and the Life Coach (Emeritus) of the Greg Gutfeld Fan Club (Livonia, Michigan, Chapter).
Michael Crichton, who died of cancer in November of 2008, was a fountain of creativity. His fiction and nonfiction books sold 150 million copies. Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain were among his novels turned into big winners at movie house box offices. He created the popular TV series ER, drawing on emergency room lore he picked up in medical school. I could go on and on, and the full account of his remarkable career in Wikipedia does just that.
But late in his career, Crichton penned a book that stunned many of his admirers and created a sense of betrayal among the Hollywood moguls his thrillers had enriched. Despite the box office power of Crichton’s name, it was not snapped up for a new blockbuster film and most likely will never be. That’s because it was totally at odds with what filmdom holds dear, the belief that “environmentalism” is a noble endeavor that demands huge sacrifices if mankind is to escape a fiery doom. His rebuke is why I have been recommending Crichton’s book to my friends since it first appeared in 2004.
The book is State of Fear (Harper). Like the creatures in Jurassic Park, it is a rare creation, a novel with footnotes. The story is fiction; the footnotes are fact. The fiction is engrossing, a first-rate, rapid-fire Crichton adventure tale about the pursuit of a band of ruthless enviro-terrorists trying to engender a calamity that will win them worldwide attention and lots of cash contributions. But the importance of the book lies in the factual footnotes and the disturbing real-life theme they develop about our modern political culture.
In essence, Crichton examines the politics of fear, which has been expanded and refined by its growing number of practitioners ever since Ralph Nader in the 1960s became a media darling by shouting that GM’s Corvair was Unsafe at Any Speed. Crichton illuminates why the politics of fear has become such a popular tool with the chattering classes. Politicians invent threats that they will deal with if elected, however unlikely that might be if the threats were truly real. Al Gore and “global warming” is a notable example. Bureaucrats conjure up problems to get bigger budgets, forgoing solutions that might dictate smaller budgets or none at all. Journalists are suckers for scare stories because they sell newspapers. “Environmental” groups feed the frenzy to keep their fundraising machines well oiled. And a few corruptible scientists join the chorus in search of government and foundation grants that call for little serious research as long as it is politically correct.
What the public gets out of all this is a constant chorus of warnings about dangers that are mostly minimal and in many cases nonexistent. True science is corrupted. And most seriously, laws are passed requiring enormous outlays of tax money to deal with such pseudo-threats as carbon dioxide emissions, which are in fact a natural part of the respiration system of plants, animals, and oceans. If Mother Nature stopped breathing, Al Gore’s cataclysm would actually occur.
Crichton’s great outpouring of science-based entertainment made many millions for publishers, agents, film producers, and their hangers-on. But he deserves to be classified as a great writer for the book they didn’t like, the one that so deftly exposed how Americans have been exploited by the peddlers of scientific nonsense who have created the State of Fear. He says in his author’s message at the end that we know “astonishingly little” about every aspect of the environment. Remember that the next time you hear some politician claim that “global warming” is “settled science.”
Another book that intrigued me, also published in 2004, was Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China (Vintage) by Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal reporter in China at that time. It offers a close-up of the rigors of daily lifein a police state. A Chinese lawyer befriended by Johnson tries to buck the bureaucracy on behalfof villagers victimized by the high-handed Communist officials. It is an excellent warning to any people, including Americans, not to allow bureaucrats to get the upper hand.
And then there is Intellectuals (Harper) by Paul
Johnson from 1988. It reminds us of how many
of those great intellectuals admired by the left — Rousseau, Marx, Bertrand Russell, etc. — were, in their personal lives, jerks.
George Melloan is deputy editor, international, of the Wall Street Journal, responsible for the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal Europe, headquartered in Brussels, and the Asian Wall Street Journal, based in Hong Kong. He also writes a weekly column, “Global View,” which appears all three papers.
Here are a number of books I recommend and why:
1) The Diaries of Marco Polo by Marco Polo. Not much political relevance, but a hell of a colorful read.
2) Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. Here you will find the ideas that inspired Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
3) The Federalist Papers. Three of our Founding Fathers — Hamilton, Madison, and Jay — explain the principles underlying our nation. These remain classics of political theory and opinion journalism.
4) The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Read the ideas that, to this day, compete with ours. You will be surprised at the extent to which Americans in general, and even some on the right in particular, have accepted some of Marx’s prescriptions (e.g., free, universal education).
5) On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. A classic explanation of libertarian principles.
6) Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Harper) by James L. Swanson. This riveting and very suspenseful book tells the tale of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 and traces the conspiracy behind that murder and several violent attacks on Lincoln’s top aides. It then follows the nearly two-week effort to track down Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth. This book is as educational as it is entertaining.
7) Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (Simon & Schuster) by Stephen Ambrose. The history of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads and how they united the continental U.S. in 1869. This fascinating front story is the setting for the backstories that include the Civil War, slavery, American Indians, Chinese and Irish immigrants, numerous scandals, etc. A wonderful piece of Americana.
8) Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Harper) by Paul Johnson. This is a very long book, but is an exciting history of the 20th century and how the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Einstein, Darwin, and Freud took the status quo and turned it upside down. You will learn plenty here that will help explain plenty more.
9) A Night to Remember (Holt) by Walter Lord. An excellent and page-turning account of 1912’s sinking of the Titanic.
10) Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (Harper Perennial) by Otto Friedrich. A very colorful book on Berlin between the night WWI ended and January 30, 1933, the evening Adolf Hitler came to power. Friedrich uses that locale to inform readers about politics, economics, the arts, science, psychology, disease, sex, debauchery, and much more in Germany and Europe.
11) The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (Vintage) by Nicholas Dawidoff. The true story of Moe Berg, a professional baseball player who also was an atomic spy for the U.S. during WWII. Berg was a fascinating character who seemed to have emerged from a movie script.
12) Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (Wiley) by E. Thomas Wood. This book tells the story of a former Georgetown University professor of mine who was a WWII Polish war hero. He was the first person to escape to the West from behind Nazi lines to alert Allied leaders to Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry. This is a true story and reads like spy fiction. It would make a fine motion picture. It also is an excellent tale of the good that just one individual can do.
13) Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (Simon & Schuster) by Stephen Ambrose. A totally engrossing true story of the most-decorated U.S. rifle company in WWII. You will absorb this work in about three days and wish that the war had continued until 1948 just so the book won’t end.
14) The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ (Harper) by Bill Zehme. A wonderful and quick read (with great photos) on Frank Sinatra and what a gentleman can learn today from his personal style.
15) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Vintage) by Hunter Thompson. Again, not much in the way of politics, but lots of fun and games involving recreational drug use in the late 1960s.
16) Holidays in Hell (Grove) by P. J. O’Rourke. This is a very funny book that shows how governments can screw up foreign countries. It’s a howl, but also makes plenty of points about the failures of the state.
17) The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (Warner) by Philip K. Howard. A civic-minded New York attorney shows how lawsuits and excessive regulation are crippling American life.
18) The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the
Sea (W.W. Norton) by Sebastian Junger.
A page-turner about a Massachusetts-based fishing ship’s efforts to survive a tremendous Atlantic storm. You’ll learn plenty about fishing, shipping, oceans, and meteorology from this book, which was the basis for the hit movie.
19) Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Signet) by Mark Bowden. The harrowing true story of a simple U.S. military mission in Somalia that goes totally askew. This is an excellent cautionary tale on how not to fight a war. See the movie starring Josh Hartnett.
These titles should keep you busy and give you plenty about which to think and talk.
New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.
In 2009, if you believe you know exactly how everyone else ought to live their lives, you run for state legislature or join Barney Frank’s committee staff.
Perfect people were not always so presumptuous. William Alfred Hinds wrote a book in 1878 entitled American Communities, which was a study of contemporary attempts at creating communist utopias in the United States. Hinds was himself a member of the Oneida colony and edited the Oneida newspaper, the Circular.
He tells the story of the Shakers — yes, the communities that were celibate and survived for 125 years adopting children and inspiring others to join them. Hinds also has chapters on the Harmonists, the Separatists of Zoar, and the Bethel, Aurora, Amanda, Icarian, and Oneida Communities.
Most of these communities were self-described religious communists who held property in common, some banned liquor and tobacco, had “interesting” rules on marriage and mating, and each was led by a commanding personality. All allowed members and children born into the communities to leave at will and take with them any property they brought into the community. No Berlin walls around these communist communities.
Hinds summarizes his study of these communities observing that American communists “ask none of us to believe as they do, nor do they urge any to adopt their customs.” He insisted that “This was the normal character of American Communism.It was free from every form of compulsion and conservative of property, order and morality.” He suggests American communism with its voluntary nature was as different from European communism as the American Revolution was from the French Revolution.
Imagine if today Barack Obama or the better-and-smarter-than-you liberals you met in college went off with their fellow enthusiasts and their own money to create perfect societies without involving or annoying the rest of us.
One can only imagine what Charles Mackay would make of Al Gore and the Global Warming cult. Mackay wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1852, documenting and trying to make some sense of mass hysterias such as the South Sea investment bubble that began in 1711 and the Tulipmania of 1634 and 1635 that saw the price of a tulip approach the price of a house, and tragic mass movements such as the witch mania that led to the torture and murder of thousands of witches not only by mobs but by governments and churches and not back in the Dark Ages but in the 1600s and 1700s and even into the 1800s.
It is easy to mock the ignorance and viciousness of those Mackay describes searching out and executing werewolves, sending thousands to kill and die in the Crusades, the murderous thugs, the alchemists and purveyors of “relics.” But in our own time we watched DDT banned with as much science as exists in alchemy and millions of Africans have died from the resulting malaria. To cheer or depress us Mackay writes that he learned from his studies that “men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
An Egyptian woman reporter watching Bush White House experts traipse through the Middle East noticed that these experts did not speak Arabic or know the region, but did have one thing in common — they were from Texas. Texas, she decided, ran the United States as Tikrit had until recently ruled Iraq.
Today, those looking to understand Obama’s government would do well to read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (Vintage), the story of how Chicago defeated New York and Washington to host the 1893 World’s Fair — the fair that had to follow and compete with the Paris Exhibition of 1889 that gave the world the Eiffel Tower. Chicago civic pride, fear of being thought a second city smelling of slaughterhouses, and drive to best Paris can be seen in the 2008 presidential campaign where Chicago took down first the ruling Clinton clan and then the Bush administration. The 1893 World’s Fair gave America and the world the Ferris Wheel, shredded wheat, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World and Jackson Park. Now that Chicago has the whole country in its grip, it will be interesting to see what the second city’s legacy will be this time around.
Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, the great Tory poet, essayist, and critic. Several good biographies have appeared in recent months to mark the occasion, the best of them by Jeffrey Meyers, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Basic) and Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Harvard University Press), both of which have received wide but somewhat mixed reviews. For my money, the best modern biography of Johnson remains W. Jackson Bate’s sympathetic study (Samuel Johnson) originally published in 1975 by Harcourt Publishers. Nothing written about Johnson can or ever will surpass Boswell’s enduring classic, Life of Johnson, first published in 1791, seven years after the death of the poet, which, by reproducing his memorable table talk, made Johnson more well known to posterity for his wit and conversation than for his writings. If one is as lazy a reader as I am, Boswell’s Life is one that can be dipped into and out again for amusement and insight.
My son recently asked me to recommend a good book or two on the two great world wars of the 20th century. Among more or less contemporary books, I recommended John Keegan’s The First World War (Vintage), a masterly survey by our greatest living military historian, and Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won (W.W. Norton), an elegant study which reminds us that the Allied victory in World War II was by no means a sure thing in the early years of the conflict. Andrew Roberts, the great British historian and friend to The American Spectator, has also published this year a superb history of World War II, titled The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (Penguin), which deserves to be in the library of any reader interested in the history of that conflict.
Among current titles, I highly recommend Norman Podhoretz’s Why Are Jews Liberals? (Doubleday), an intriguing study of a well-worn subject but to which the author brings his customary insight. His book does much more than answer the specific question to which his title refers, but sheds interesting light on the nature of liberalism itself in the modern era and the reasons for its less than rational appeal to both Jews and non-Jews alike.
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Barney Kilgore is a name unfamiliar to most of the lawyers, accountants, grinds, and other grubs presiding over the twilight of the American newspaper. Too bad. Kilgore, a man reared and educated in small-town Indiana, at age 29 took a small, obscure, near-bankrupt financial paper in New York City and built it into the Wall Street Journal, which late this year became the largest — and some would say best-newspaper in America. There’s an example here. Kilgore did not rely on focus groups, academics, consultants, and “advisory boards” to tell him what to print, but upon stubborn confidence in his own vision, demonstrating anew that great newspapers in pursuit of the news cannot be built by committee, only upon the ambition and vision of a determined man who knows what he’s doing. Richard J. Tofel describes in fascinating detail in his new book, Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism (St. Martin’s), just how Barney Kilgore did it, becoming, probably, the last of the great newspaper publishers. It ought to be read in the executive suites as well as in newsrooms, and the wit, charm, and wisdom of Barney Kilgore will remind every newspaperman and newspaper reader of what and how it could be. (Full disclosure: I spent the best 12 years of my life traveling the world in search of wars and revolutions for the old National Observer, known at Dow Jones & Co. as “Barney’s baby,” and which died in its youth.)
Winston Churchill is rightly regarded as a man of action, a giant whose grit and gumption inspired the prosecution of the war that saved the world. But there’s another Winston Churchill who lived in the shadow of the man of action, the man whose books established him as an author of uncommon insight and whose gifts of lyrical language are often to prose what Mozart was to music. His six volumes of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and his four-volume memoirs of The Second World War show how history and memoirs should be written. His frustration grew little short of despair as he watched Europe, as well as Britain, quail before the bully in the gathering storm of war. Here is Churchill’s description of the tone and tint of public opinion in 1937, as Hitler was busily organizing for conquest: “Poor England! Leading her free, careless life from day to day, amid endless good-tempered parliamentary babble, she followed, wondering, along the downward path which led to all that she wished to avoid. She was continually reassured by [the editorials] of the most influential newspapers, with some honorable exceptions, and behaved as if all the world were as easy, uncalculating, and well-meaning as herself.” (Sound familiar?)
Everyone has seen the movie. John Wayne won his only Oscar with his vivid portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the frontier deputy U.S. marshal who by hook and crook always got the bad man. But the movie, as delightful as it is, hardly plumbs the glory and riches of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, True Grit, a lively tale of, if not quite good and evil, at least of good enough and pretty bad. Portis writes with flair, precision, and comic genius, with wit, humor, and perceptions as un-flinching and straightforward as Arkansas hickory. Who could resist a book with this opening paragraph of a girlhood adventure on the post-Civil War frontier, as remembered by an elderly spinster: “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day….Here is what happened.” And here is storytelling as pure and seductive as anything Mark Twain ever wrote.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of the Washington Times.
Beatles fans rejoice — no, no, not for the remastered CDs or “Rock Band” game. The former was long overdue and sonically revelatory, but should have been accompanied by something more than scattered bits of previously unreleased studio chatter-like previously unreleased studio outtakes. The suits at EMI know exactly which ones still remain out of the reach of bootleggers, and bootleg collectors, and would have placed in jeopardy not a single sale had they included in the box sets Take 1 of “Girl,” say, or the 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter.” And the latter — the “Rock Band” game — is no cause for celebration, but is rather, like its predecessor, the Love album, an omen of dark times upon us in the brave new cyberworld: where the Beatle Canon is no more inviolate, no less susceptible to the digital manipulation of ones and zeroes, than any other “content” floating out there in bits and torrents.
No, the cause for rejoicing is that the act you’ve known for all these years now has a properly exhaustive reference volume worthy of it. This is John C. Winn’s That Magic Feeling: The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy, Volume Two, 1966-1970, published by Three Rivers Press as the sequel and companion to last year’s Way Beyond Compare: The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy, Volume One, 1957-1965. Together the two volumes, compiled over decades of insanely assiduous archival work by the author, catalogue and detail not only every live concert and studio recording made by the Fab Four from founding to breakup but every known recording made of them — by newsreel cameramen sent to airports and concert venues, by TV and radio interviewers, even by the Beatles themselves, in their homes, where they taped early “demo” versions of their songs, along with strange noises and a good bit of (fascinating) nonsense. Winn’s day-by-day entries include recordings officially released, recordings that have been bootlegged, and recordings so rare they only “circulate” among a handful of private collectors — Winn thankfully among them.
In all this, Winn moves us beyond the heretofore definitive books The Beatles Live! (1986) and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970 (1988) by Mark Lewisohn, the world’s foremost authority on the band. Maybe the next time Paul and Ringo (and Yoko and Olivia) do give us some previously unreleased material, as they did in the 1990s Anthology series, it will be Winn, not Lewisohn, they hire to write the liner notes.
James Rosen is a Fox News Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday). He is at work on a book about the Beatles.
Here are several books I enjoyed reading this past year:
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (Penguin) by Liaquat Ahamed.
The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperPerennial) by Amity Shlaes.
Constantine the Great and the Christian Revolution (Kessinger) by G. P. Baker.
The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy (Portfolio) by David M. Smick.
The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (University of Chicago) by F. A. Hayek (a good re-read).
Paul Ryan is a U.S. representative from Wisconsin.
R. EMMETT TYRRELL, JR.
If readers of my annual book recommendations have detected a propensity in me to recommend books on economics and history, I plead guilty. This year I shall remain true to my weakness for factual narrative and an economic prescription for getting the country out of its economic mess.
Begin with our own Brian Wesbury’s It’s Not as Bad as You Think: Why Capitalism Trumps Fear and the Economy Will Thrive (Wiley). In this easily read book Wesbury explains how we (or they) got the country into this economic mess, how we can get out of it, and why there is no alternative to capitalism — assuming you want prosperity, freedom, and a new amenity from technology and science on a regular basis.
Now let us proceed to history. Again the great Paul Johnson has penned a little masterpiece, Churchill (Viking), a 180-page biography of my favorite American British prime minister — his mother was a Yank, you know. The sprawling gigantic biographies of this gigantic figure are often superb. Think of Sir Martin Gilbert’s work. Yet to have Churchill’s abundant feats compressed into so brief a biography as Paul has created is to be hit on the head with just how great a life Churchill led, and Paul’s writing is masterful as is his judgment of Churchill’s blood, toil, tears, and…laughter. After all, Churchill could be very amusing.
Books about Ronald Reagan are in season, and for my money one of the best is Craig Shirley’s Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (ISI), chronicling the Old Cowboy’s 1980 campaign. In it you will discover how a delightful rogue, Paul Corbin, a longtime aide to Bob Kennedy, got President Jimmy Carter’s briefing books to the Reagan campaign and much more. Another superb Reagan book is Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster (Crown), by Martin and Annelise Anderson, two of the 40th president’s most knowledgeable contemporary biographers. Relying on previously classified documents that only the Andersons have used, it tells a hitherto un-told story of President Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War. Inexplicably, though it has been out five months at this writing, the book has yet to be reviewed in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or even National Review — more evidence that the economic recession is not the only recession afflicting us. There is an intellectual recession too.
I am running long, but I want to include AmSpec’s illustrious friend Andrew Roberts’s The Storm of War (Penguin), the best one-volume history of World War II, and David Reynolds’s superb history of the United States, America, Empire of Liberty (Basic Books). In it this great British historian confirms an insight into American history that I dilate on at length in a book I hope to have out next summer on American conservatism. American intelligence knew perfectly well that Alger Hiss and other accused Communists in government were in fact communicating with Moscow. So did many New Dealers. “So the new Red Scare [of the late 1940s] had a foundation in fact….” writes Reynolds. As I hope to explain, this idiotic episode in American history poisoned our politics up to the present.
Finally, there is the brilliant little book that our friend Seth Lipsky has given us to accompany our journey through the Prophet Obama’s assault on the Constitution, The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide (Basic Books). In it the founder and editor of the irreplaceable New York Sun presents the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers with witty and sapient annotations from himself that inform the reader of what this colossal document has come to mean in every citizen’s life. Bring this book to your next Tea Party and send copies to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where our president is working on his hook shot.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.
My “To think that I might have died without reading this!” book of 2009 is the 1993 novel Birdsong (Hutchinson) by Sebastian Faulks.
It is part of the strange but welcome flourishing of novels about World War One. Those who think, as I do, that the war — breaker of nations and of empires; transformer of sensibilities — was perhaps the most important thing that ever happened might go on to Pat Barker’s trilogy of World War One novels — Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road.
George Will is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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