SAINT NICK MUST BE GRATEFUL for the Kindle, which surely lightens his burden this time of year, as well as poor Rudolph’s. But some books really are worth owning in the pulp. Like Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression, a riveting cultural-political history of the free-market revival that began even as depression and world war threatened to quench the last embers of laissez-faire. Burgin—an insightful scholar rather than an apologist—pays special attention to the role of the Mt. Pelerin Society in the postwar conservative and classical-liberal story.
Another top-flight work of scholarship—but readable scholarship—and an appropriate gift for Christmas is Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on the Hill, an investigation into the origins of the metaphor famously employed by Ronald Reagan and much aped since. The tale begins with John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” but the twist comes as this religious image gets subsumed into the politics of American exceptionalism—and stripped of its Christian character.
Then there is Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years, compiling scintillating essays from the man who was, in terms of pure style, NR’s MVP throughout the late ’70s and 1980s. “The Republic of Baseball” or “What Is This Thing Called Sex?” by themselves would make this book worth owning, but that’s hardly all—and remarkably, the elegance of this volume’s design matches the work within. Or comes close.
For the military buff in your family—or anyone who enjoys history written well by a talented journalist—there is Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, a commanding account of the past decade of war by a foreign correspondent who has logged years on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Muslim hot spots. Burke shows that far from being a clash of civilizations, these conflicts have a distinctly local character, despite the efforts of al Qaeda (and certain misguided Americans) to globalize them.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
AMONG THE MANY BOOKS PUBLISHED in 2012 on geopolitics, perhaps the most provocative is Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Kaplan’s thesis is that geography remains today, as it has been throughout history, one of the most powerful drivers of world events. To make his point, he resurrects the memory and work of some of the great geographical intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notably Nicholas J. Spykman and Sir Halford Mackinder, who studied how the contours of the globe influenced mass migrations, invasion patterns, and the foreign policy thinking of nations. Russia, for example, has been forever mindful of its vulnerability to invasion, with its unremitting grassy steppes extending from Europe all the way to the Far East and hardly a mountain range or seashore or major forest to hinder encroaching armies or hordes. Americans, never threatened in this way, find it difficult to comprehend how this affects Russia’s attitudes toward other nations. But it does—and also affects the country’s attitude toward its own governance, since it encourages a strong central government prepared to meet the external threats that have materialized on the Russian periphery with inevitable frequency through history. Britain, on the other hand, enjoyed a certain protection from invasion, given its island location, and hence could more easily develop the democratic structures the British—and their American offspring—continue to cherish. No recent thinker has explored the role of geography with the kind of depth, range, acuity, and vibrancy that Kaplan brings to this consequential topic. This is one of those rare books that can change how one reads and understands history.
Of the many books on President Obama’s foreign policy that emerged in 2012, one particularly noteworthy entry is David E. Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. Sanger, a New York Times reporter, broke some significant news in the book when he revealed that America, in concert with Israel, was responsible for the so-called Stuxnet computer virus that laid havoc to Iran’s nuclear development program. As an insider account, the book offers penetrating insights into how Obama’s foreign policy was developed over the course of his first three years in office. Sanger describes what he calls (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) the Obama doctrine, which seems to be based on an untroubled willingness to use America’s high-tech killing machine to thwart international terrorism while remaining wary of military actions that could get America bogged down in foreign wars. Of particular note, however, is Sanger’s promiscuous use of what is obviously classified information to tell his story. He has argued, in response to pointed queries on the matter, that he pieced his narrative together from snippets of information gleaned from multiple sources. I don’t believe it. As a former White House correspondent for a major national newspaper, I feel I have a pretty good sense of what kind of narrative is possible through that kind of painstaking collection and collation of informational tidbits. Sanger’s narrative, on the other hand, provides the kind of story line, complete with remarkable inside detail, that is possible only through extensive and revealing interviews with highly placed sources. His depth of reporting is impressive, but questions remains over how the government allowed some of its most sensitive national secrets to be so freely tossed around.
Australian novelist Colleen McCullough is known primarily for her best-selling The Thorn Birds. But her magnum opus is something far more ambitious, rich, expansive, and historically significant. I refer to her six historical novels, each based on prodigious research and attention to detail, recounting the tragic but inexorable decline of the Roman Republic, from about A.D. 112 to the death of Julius Caesar and the emergence of his nephew, soon to become the emperor Augustus, around B.C. 40. The Roman republic, one of the great civic achievements of world history, lasted nearly 500 years, with some 400 years of that time span encompassing a remarkable degree of stability and civic repose. But then the Republic entered into a crisis of the regime that lasted nearly 100 years. Good men became frustrated, and bad men somehow emerged with far more power than such Romans of the past had ever accumulated. Nobody quite understood what was eating away at the civic foundations of old, but everyone knew they were in progressive erosion. Against this backdrop, McCullough spins her multi-volume tale, taking great pains to portray all the players in this long drama as close to their real selves as possible. Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the elder Julius Caesar and his astute wife, Aurelia, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), Crassus, the younger Julius Caesar and his many wives and lovers, Octavius—all spring to life in these pages, which run to nearly 4,000 in number. The books are: The First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown, Fortune’s Favorites, Caesar’s Women, Caesar, and The October Horse. The first appeared in 1990, the last in 2002. As historical fiction, it is about as good as it gets. As history—and McCullough proves her bona fides with extensive glossaries and explanatory essays at the end of each volume—these works offer poignant object lessons for anyone interested in how a colossus of civic genius can go astray and fall apart despite the carefully crafted and highly balanced structures of governance that have been beautifully maintained for centuries on end.
Robert W. Merry is the editor of The National Interest. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster).
I HARDLY EVER READ for pleasure any more. I do listen for pleasure, though, to recordings of books downloaded to my iPod from audible.com. You cannot imagine how much more you will enjoy your daily commute or your time on the treadmill, and how much lower your blood pressure will be, if you’re listening to a beautifully read book instead of the news. Here are some that I’ve enjoyed, all of them unabridged:
Anything by Anthony Trollope read by Timothy West. Over the course of two years, I went through all of the Barchester and the Palliser novels plus half a dozen others. West is a brilliant narrator, and Trollope’s leisurely stories quickly become addictive. West also narrates Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, a wonderful three-volume account that starts before Stonehenge and ends with Tony Blair.
Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels read by Patrick Tull. Even if you’re not as fond by the Nelsonian Navy as I am, this 20-novel series about Jack Aubrey, a Nelson-like captain, and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s surgeon and an amateur naturalist, is captivating. Evidence: My wife, completely uninterested in things military, devoured all of them and is more than a little in love with Patrick Tull.
Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. The narration is excellent (including a section read by Richards himself), but the book’s the thing. Not a ghost-written confection, Life conveys a three-dimensional portrait of what it’s like to be the archetypal rock star.
Charles Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose latest book is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (Crown Forum).
When promoting a book, we authors used to say that our work was “available in all good bookshops.” But soon the bookshops became crummy and now most of them have closed. Nevertheless, those bookshops—largely private—that remain are often excellent and should be cherished. They remain among the only places left that truly serve literature, offer new discoveries, and provide author and publisher with a fair profit-margin.
A good bookshop helps you to reach backward and not just chase some wretched zeitgeist. Countless people sweat through the latest heavy-yet-thin ‘must-read’ without ever having read Dickens. When I am given a new book I usually read an old one, so perhaps I am a poor person to suggest new books of the year. My favourite read this last year was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I much recommend it. A sustaining shot of stoicism is exactly what we need in these silly times.
There have been some good books about politics, but I must have missed any particularly good examples of that most flatulent genre, the political memoir, this year. Daniel Hannan’s admirable, and admirably short, A Doomed Marriage: Britain and Europe was bracing but perhaps only of local interest. Other books, including Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book, Geert Wilders’ Marked for Death and Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword should certainly satisfy anyone’s epochal concerns, even when you find cause for disagreement.
Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton was—not unusually for the author—on the long side. But it was also more rewarding than any other long book I read this year. Since we appear fated to replay this freedom of expression vs. groundhog jihad for years to come, it could prove vital. Before the YouTube film, the cartoons, the teddy-bear, and much else, the Rushdie affair was the test of how much our societies actually believed in freedom of expression. It is well to recall those who passed that test as well as those who failed it. Rushdie explains, and settles, his accounts with admirable, and enjoyable, thoroughness.
Among pleasanter books, Roger Scruton’s Our Church is not only as superbly knowledgeable and beautifully written as readers would expect, but also deeply moving. If an upsurge in conversions to Common Prayer Anglicanism is ever possible it would be on account of this book.
The monumental work on Benjamin Britten’s Letters has reached its sixth and final volume in time for the composer’s 2013 centenary. What politics Britten held may not be up this magazine’s—nor my—street. But this, and the often absurdly extensive footnotes, aside, it is worth reading for better acquaintance with an artistic genius of the first rank.
The year 2012 saw the death of one of our best historians. If readers have encountered nothing by Gitta Sereny, it would be the finest tribute to her, and to history, to take the opportunity to read Into That Darkness. It is the best book I know on history’s darkest moment.
Among humorous books, no book I read this year—including James Thurber for the first time—made me laugh as much as Poetry of the Taliban. I understand the editors of this volume hoped that these poems would reveal the real and surprising souls behind the Taliban. Personally I found the volume to contain exactly the poetry I would expect from a bunch of homicidal, homo-erotically confused, not-quite-medieval-yet maniacs.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Christmas book selection without selecting something completely un-Christmassy and self-regarding. Happily, my latest book, Bloody Sunday, has been praised across the political spectrum for being not only truthful and devastating, but a page-turner to boot. Of course it should be bought by everybody, but even I would not recommend starting it until Boxing Day.
Douglas Murray is an author, contributing editor at the Spectator UK and associate director of the Henry Jackson Society.
(Part I of this year’s Christmas Book recommendations ran yesterday.)