My six-year-old Nora said to me recently that she feels so good going to Barnes & Noble “because there are books everywhere.” That’s my girl! Books are my favorite present to give and to get. Here are a few that I have in mind this year:
Dante’s Divine Comedy, by, ahem, Dante. Somehow, I made it to middle age without having read this masterpiece. This year, staggering around the dark wood midway through the journey of my own life, I picked up the Divine Comedy and and began reading. It has been transformative and redemptive. Beauty, sex, passion, love, tragedy, God—all of life is in that blessed thing. If I had encountered this poem earlier in life, I might not have been capable of appreciating its beauty and taking its wisdom into my battered heart. Don’t buy the new Clive James translation. You need a version with excellent footnotes to decode many of the symbols and allusions. The Hollander translation is the academic standard and my favorite, but John Ciardi’s time-tested version is also quite good and has the best notes.
The Earl Of Louisiana, by A.J. Liebling. As a fan of Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a collection of his essays on dining in the world’s best city, I had long wondered about his legendary take on Louisiana’s craziest governor, Earl K. Long. This past summer, at my cousin’s fishing camp on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, I found The Earl Of Louisiana on a coffee table and started to read. It is an extraordinary portrait of American politics and a mad, bad, all-too-human world gone by. I was born and raised in Louisiana, and returned here to live two years ago, but reading about those vivid characters and those breathtaking events of the late 1950s and early 1960s made me realize that my home state really is another country. God knows what Dante would have done with the cast of real-life characters Liebling meets on his tour through the Gret Stet. Liebling’s appetite for life comes through on every page. Americans In Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik. This is a collection of essays and remembrances by Americans over three centuries who have lived and loved in Paris. There are riveting historical documents, including entries from Gouverneur Morris’s diary of the French Revolution, during which time he served as U.S. Ambassador to France, and James Baldwin’s brutal discovery that the French can be just as racist as his fellow countrymen. There are also delightful macarons such as S.J. Perelman’s short story “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” and, yes, a Liebling digression on how to eat like a Parisian. Give this one to your Francophile friend, one who can relate to Gopnik’s statement that Americans who love Paris do so because it gives them a “sense of serious happiness,” of “absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.”
The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. You will, I hope, forgive me for pitching my own memoir, which came out this year. It’s about my late sister Ruthie, a small-town Louisiana schoolteacher who died of cancer at the age of 42. Though her journalist brother gallivanted all over in search of good stories and good times, Ruthie stayed home, married her high school sweetheart, raised kids, and taught school. The luminous courage with which she met her death, and the way the people of my hometown walked with her until the very end, caused me to rethink the value of the life I left behind—and to return to raise my own children. Little Way is not a sentimental paean to Mayberry; I make it clear that the virtues and the vices in both my sister and our town are hard to disentangle. Still, the book I wrote about my sister’s life—and how she changed my own—is, I like to think, one for those who stayed behind, those who went away, and for all of us rootless Americans who long for a place to call home.
Rod Dreher is a senior contributor to the American Conservative.
Just as conservatives ought never lose sight of the urgency of today’s battle to save civilization from Obama Leftism, so should we also put that sense of urgency into perspective. Specifically, we must recognize that this is far from the first time that Washington has been “broken,” and far from the only era is which poisonous politics reigned. The most stirring—and entertaining—reminder that we can survive what The American Spectator each month calls “the continuing crisis,” and that steadiness of purpose sometimes serves better than bombast and ultimatums, comes not from history but from a work of fiction with insights that are all too true. It was more than a half century ago that Allen Drury wrote Advise and Consent about a world-shaking Washington crisis, and it is well worth finding a quality copy and putting it at the head of one’s holiday reading list this year.
As a companion piece, explaining why American government is meant not just to be limited but actually to move—and retreat—slowly, conservatives would do well to re-read as much of The Federalist as possible.
Bob Tyrrell has spent the past 46 years teaching conservatives that politics need not always be grim. Ronald Reagan taught us the same thing, yet conservatives too often forget it. For the beginnings of a cure for our amnesia on that score, I recommend Reagan’s letters collected by his secretary Helene von Damm, sold in book form as Sincerely, Ronald Reagan. The Gipper’s wit and graciousness, not to mention his great common sense, shine through on every page.
Finally, if I can make a repeat recommendation of a book I praised several Christmases ago, I think it still behooves conservatives to insist on the truth that Judeo-Christian faith not only is not the enemy of liberty, but actually the predicate for liberty, both historically and philosophically. To all the lefties who insist that our faith has no place in the public square, we must counter that faith created the public square as we know it—and to best do that, we should re-read M. Stanton Evans’ magisterial The Theme is Freedom.
Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior editor of The American Spectator.
’Tis the season to be readin’—but what? I am happy to help you beguile an idle hour by suggesting a few improving titles for your delectation, illumination, edification, and delight. So many books, and so little time? What should I suggest first? I’ve got it! The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, the latest literary trove by none other than yours truly. What can I say? It’s the first (and doubtless the last) of my books to be reviewed by a sitting head of state. The great Václav Klaus, writing when he was still president of the Czech Republic, thought it a “revelation,” and who am I to disagree? Snag a copy at a pleasing discount on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com. You won’t be disappointed.
What else? One of the great intellectual discoveries of my adulthood was the work of the late Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994). “He writes the way Fred Astaire dances,” said one appreciative critic. And Stove does write supremely well, but that’s only half the story. He was also possessed of an incandescent intelligence: sharp, penetrating, and laser-like in its clarity. Among his special subjects was irrationalism in the philosophy of science—you know, all that baloney you hear from academics about how science is really just one more “narrative” and “truth” must always be surrounded by a watercress of scare quotes. His great book about this subject (which puts irrationalists from Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend to Karl Popper—yes, Popper—in their place) is Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. Let me also mention Against the Idols of the Age, an anthology of Stove’s work that I edited and that samples the full range of Stove’s intelligent but deeply politically incorrect writing. (Suffice it to say that one essay is titled “The Intellectual Capacity of Women”…)
So much for illumination and edification: What about delight? If you are of a certain age, you have probably seen the delightful film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. Splendid and funny though it is, the film is but a pale shadow compared to the side-splittingly funny novel by Eric Hodgins. Anyone who has ever contemplated building or rebuilding a house in the country should read as a cautionary tale; anyone who has actually embarked on that fearsome endeavor will, in between the deep but hollow laughter, recognize the sad and expensive truth attending that folly.
Roger Kimball is the editor-in-chief of the New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.
Nicholas D. Kristof
The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. A reassuring look at moral progress over the centuries. We may have plenty of failings, but war, murder, and torture are affecting a diminishing share of humanity, and empathy is expanding. Civilization, in short, makes a difference.
Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild. Historical writing at its best. This is an examination of the British anti-slavery movement that emerged in the 1780s and changed the world. The human rights movement started here.
Crooked Timber of Humanity, by Sir Isaiah Berlin. A brilliant book of philosophy and intellectual history. Berlin explores his ideas of the pluralism of values and the challenge of living in a world in which there is no single value we want to maximize, but a struggle of tradeoffs between things we care about a great deal. If you have never read Berlin, this is a good book to browse and learn more about him.
Nicholas D. Kristof, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, is a columnist for the New York Times. His most recent book, co-written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf).