The Best Reads of 2020 - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Best Reads of 2020
Evgeny Atamanenko/

Our “best of” lists may be thin this year: best movie you watched in theaters? Best new restaurant? Best travel experience? Nope, nothing, nada. Thanks, COVID.

But we held on to at least one of our favorite hobbies this year — reading. The staff and contributors at The American Spectator offer you our annual holiday books special, and we hope it brings some holiday cheer and new titles to fill 2021 with joy and learning.


R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: Upon finishing Andrew Roberts’ magnificent Churchill: Walking with Destiny a year or so ago, I vowed to lay off my Churchill addiction for at least a decade. But as I am now engaged in a vast literary project and wanted something to refresh my taste I picked up Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile (Crown) for relaxation and hesto presto could not put it down. It chronicles the great man as he tries to hold the British empire together in the first year of World War I. He does an admirable job, but there is more to this book than Churchill. There is his youngest daughter, Mary Soames, and there are people on the streets of London all pulling together.

My wife and I met Mary before she died in 2014. She was a fine old lady when we met her, but to read her war diaries, as they are here produced, and to see her working her way into various roles during the war is to see why Winston had a special place in his heart for Mary. She had few of the gifts of her siblings, but in the end she was the best of the Churchill brood.

If you want to get away from a vast literary project if only for a half hour before you conk out at night, I recommend this fine work of history.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.


Paul Kengor: I recommend three books this Christmas. I commend a fascinating read on Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò by Robert Moynihan, longtime editor of Inside the Vatican. Titled Finding Viganò (TAN Books), the book describes how Moynihan found this enigmatic Italian bishop literally in hiding. Viganò, former papal nuncio to the United States, made sensational headlines in August 2018 when he denounced a “cover-up” of sex-abuse crimes by Catholic Church hierarchy and explicitly called on Pope Francis to resign from the papacy. Not long after, Viganò went into hiding. Some suggested he did so out of fear of a Vatican “indictment,” or worse. Since then, Viganò has spoken on everything from the Deep State to the “Great Reset” and has written a widely read open letter to President Trump. He has warned about the Democrats, the “world Left,” the World Economic Forum, and Joe Biden. “The blackmailable nature of Joe Biden will expose him to be used unscrupulously,” warned Viganò of certain international forces as well as domestic ones. “It is obvious that those who manipulate him already have someone worse than him ready, with whom they will replace him as soon as the opportunity arises.” Archbishop Viganò will remain a bold voice in coming years. To help find the man, read this book.

Professor Carl Trueman, a colleague of mine at Grove City College, has written an incisive work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Crossway). He opens with a statement that’s indeed perplexing: “The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ ” Trueman notes that if his late grandfather had heard such a statement he would have burst out laughing. And yet, notes Trueman, today such a statement not only is regarded by society as meaningful, but to deny or question it is to reveal oneself as “stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.” Trueman takes a deep dive into what in the world this is all about, or how it came about. How has modern man come to misunderstand the very nature of human selfhood? From Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse to Sigmund Freud and Judith Butler, from the New Left’s politicization of sex to the triumph of the erotic and the therapeutic, this is an important book for anyone confused by the modern sex-gender zeitgeist and struggling to figure out how to survive the new cultural revolution.

My third recommendation I’ll mention briefly because I published a full review earlier this week: Robert Orlando’s The Tragedy of Patton (Humanix Books), which follows his excellent film documentary, Silence Patton. Orlando explores the epic life of Gen. George Patton and his shocking death (due to a bizarre vehicle accident) just days before Christmas 1945.

Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College and a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.


Scott McKay: Kurt Schlichter’s novels have been routinely panned on both the left and the right, not because they aren’t action-packed and entertaining (they are), but because of the subject matter. Crisis, the fifth in the Kelly Turnbull action seriesis actually a prequel to the other four. And if the critics didn’t like People’s Republic, Indian CountryWildfire, and Collapse, they really won’t like Crisis.

Why? Because all five of the books depict a future — Crisis is set in that future just two years from now — in which America splits into red states and blue states, with the United States of America’s capital in Dallas and the People’s Republic of North America’s rainbow flag flying over a greatly diminished Washington, D.C. Within those rather alarming circumstances — Schlichter says his novels are a warning, not a wish — come the exploits of a hardened special operator named Kelly Turnbull, who catches impossible missions aimed to keep things from getting even worse than they are. They’re desperate stories that perhaps hit too close to home, but Schlichter tells them with a ferocity and a classic Generation X sense of humor that wins precisely because it doesn’t fit in this stultifying and dysfunctional age.

Ken Follett’s work has been a mainstay of modern English-language literature, but the Kingsbridge series seems to be where he’s hit his greatest stride. The Evening and the Morning (Viking) is the fourth novel in that series, which tells the story of medieval England from the point of view of a burgeoning riverside town named Kingsbridge and the people who live in it. But it’s set before the other three novels in the series. In The Evening and the Morning, Follett describes the founding of the town and the adoption of its name.

Like all of the books in the Kingsbridge series, it’s a story of the fight for freedom in a repressive, dystopian age before England achieved the status of a real nation. Central government power and those who hold it are weak and venal, the Church is corrupt and riven with politics, local tyrants often profit from their misbehavior, and ordinary people simply scrape by as best they can. But Follett offers more than just a slice of medieval life in this book. It’s a story of heroic civilians, male and female, and the fight for love in an age when it’s all too often a dangerous luxury.

And I’d be remiss to give book recommendations without putting in a plug for my own, wouldn’t I? Perdition is my second novel, the sequel to Animus: A Tale of Ardenia, an  Industrial Age war epic set in a world similar, but not identical, to our own.

Perdition is the story of a new outbreak of an old conflict between the Western democratic industrial power Ardenia and its barbaric neighbors the Udar, who have virtually every societal bad habit in the catalog. The Udar have caught Ardenia largely unprepared in launching a major war by surprise attack and turn out to be a little less backward and unsophisticated than the Ardenians expect. Everything the good guys took for granted is now up for grabs, and it’ll take all the heroism Ardenia can muster to turn the tide.

Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics, and a columnist at The American Spectator.


Grover Norquist: Ralph Nader’s 733-page novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! (Seven Stories Press) was published in 2009, but was deliberately and prophetically written about the 2018 and 2020 election years. Nader’s novel tells the story of the how the Left gave up trying to win on the issues and decided to buy the election with the help of a handful of left-wing billionaires. The Democrats took his advice and came frighteningly close to creating one-party rule in 2018 and 2020.

Paul Matzko’s The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement (Oxford University Press) is the perfect gift for your left-of-center friends who saw in Trump the destruction of democracy and an unprecedented lurch to authoritarianism. It is the well-researched and documented story of how John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and LBJ used the IRS and FCC to destroy the structures and leaders of the emerging religious Right and conservative talk radio. Barack Obama and Lois Lerner’s use of the IRS to crush and disperse the “Tea Party” movement was a replay of an earlier abuse of power by the party of democracy. Over a three-year period, the Obama–Lerner IRS allowed the incorporation of only one single conservative nonprofit despite hundreds of applications from emerging groups around the country.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.


Matthew Omolesky: Chairman Mao’s infamous Notification of May 16, 1966, which set off the 10-year orgy of destruction and civilizational impoverishment that was Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, proved unfathomably catastrophic, but it was not without precedent. A dry run had been conducted in Tibet after the establishment of direct rule by the CCP in 1959, during which time former Tibetan government ministers, lamas, aristocrats, and dissidents were declared to be niugui sheshen, or “ox-demon-snake-spirits,” and subjected to endless struggle sessions (thamzing) and worse besides. Some 92,000 Tibetans died as a direct result of the thamzing campaign, while around twice that number would subsequently perish in hastily erected prisons and so-called “Reform Through Labor Camps.” In a span of only three years, some 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, along with untold treasures and precious religious texts. It is altogether appropriate that the Tibetan term for the Cultural Revolution, rigné sarjé, sounds to Chinese speakers very much like renlei shajie, or “the killing and looting of mankind,” Hence the title of the Tibetan poet and essayist Tsering Woeser’s magisterial 2006 account Shajie, published in 2020 as Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

The origins of Forbidden Memory lie in Woeser’s inheritance of a collection of negatives from her father, Tsering Dorje, who had served as an officer in the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution. In the 11 galleries of monochrome photographs taken by Tsering Dorje between 1964 and 1976, accompanied in Forbidden Memory by the haunting and exhaustive commentary of his daughter, we encounter the appalling reality of a period that had almost been completely erased from the historical record. Laid out before us are photographs of teeming “struggle rallies,” “struggle parades,” and “struggle targets” being dragged to and from “struggle sessions” and “humiliation parades.” Monks and merchants with cangues (portable pillories) placed around their necks groan beneath weights strapped to their backs, mucus dripping from their noses, their eyes staring blankly or wincing with pain. Just reading the book is a harrowing experience.

And speaking of harrowing, one image depicts a young female member of the Red Guard, harrow in hand, prizing away the gilt edging from the roof of the Jokhang Temple in Old Lhasa, prompting Woeser to wonder: “What drove that passion? Why were these places — the monasteries and temples saturated with religious energy, historical meaning, and artistic inspiration for the Tibetan nation — in her mind seemingly only a pile of rubbish composed of the Four Olds that therefore should be erased without hesitation? Why did she seemingly believe that turning the past to ruins would give birth to a bright new world?” We are obliged to keep asking these very questions today. Forbidden Memory is a heart-wrenching read, admittedly. The final chapter, based on the author’s interview with a defrocked monk who had joined a revolutionary militia and participated in the demolition of the Khanigoshi Stupa and the burning of his own teacher’s religious texts but who later in life volunteered to be a cleaner at the Jokhang Temple, is the most quietly devastating thing I read all year. The appearance of this book, particularly at a time of mounting religious and cultural repression in China, is welcome indeed.

Honorable mentions: László Földényi, Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears (Yale University Press); Benedetta Craveri, The Last Libertines (New York Review Books); Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World (Yale University Press).

Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer, a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology, a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and a contributor to The American Spectator.


Nic Rowan: It certainly wasn’t the best book I read this year, but it has the best title. One Billion Americans. Great concept. Let’s do it. Pity that the author only has one child. Do your part, Matty!

One Billion Americans cover,

Nic Rowan covers the Supreme Court at the Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @NicXTempore.


Larry Thornberry: One never needs an excuse to read Joseph Epstein, that amusing illuminator of the many precincts of the human comedy. But his parsing of matters ranging from life’s Big Question to more mundane matters might be even more therapeutic just now, in a year that I could dismiss as a drug-induced hallucination except that I don’t do drugs.

Epstein’s literary meat and potatoes are his essays, both literary and familiar. His latest collection, Gallimaufry (Axios Press), contains the same charming, witty, insightful, and often humorous treatment of subjects ranging from political correctness and its discontents, Jewish jokes, P. G. Wodehouse (this essay worth the price of admission alone), the joys of the bookish life, and how to lead a literary life while burdened, or perhaps blessed, with a short attention span. (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: “Gallimaufry” means a jumble or medley of things, which this collection is.)

Anne Hendershott’s columns appear in, among other worthy publications, The American Spectator. Her latest book, The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications), deconstructs the terribly destructive emotion, a sin in many religious traditions, of envy, and how it diminishes our lives.

Despite the title, Hendershott covers more than just envy in politics and how politicians egg it on, demagogue it, and exploit it for votes and power. She catalogues the Scripture stories on how envy can poison our lives and how theologians and the clergy have dealt with it. She also gives us a look at how every school of psychology, sociology, and anthropology (there only seem to be dozens) treats the subject. This last can be hard going, and reminds me of why after a couple of courses in the area I decided not to major in sociology. But at book’s end readers will be firmly grounded, from all perspectives, in a destructive emotion that has blighted lives, even wreaked havoc on societies, throughout the centuries and is the only one of the seven deadlies. As Epstein points out in his own book on envy, that’s no fun at all.

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.

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Hannah Rowan is managing editor of The American Spectator.
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