POPE BENEDICT XVI described his books as his “counselors.” That’s quite right. When we recommend or pass along a book, we’re offering counsel, or at least congenial companionship, which is why the well-chosen page makes such a fine gift.
I’ve given away many copies of The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods to young people on their way to graduate study. Written by the early 20th century Dominican A.G. Sertillanges, it’s at once inspiring and practical, full of memorable turns of phrase. On wide reading: “You must cross your crops in order to not ruin the soil.” On superficial knowledge: “The half-informed man is not the man who knows only half of things, but the man who only half knows things.” On writing: “One finds one’s way by taking it.” On the goal of it all: “It is not what a writer says that is of first importance to us; the most important thing is what is.”
If you have a friend who anguishes over the difficulties of faith, give him a copy of John Henry Newman’s University Sermons. Newman was one of the great stylists of the English language, and these meditations on faith and reason are especially fine and helpful.
Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is a must for anyone who wants to think clearly about the future of American society. The Great Recession has made economic policy very important in our current political debates. However, Murray helps us see that the middle-class myth that transcended and guided party politics since World War II is becoming less and less plausible. Going forward, we’ll be saying, “It’s the culture, stupid.”
I try to follow Fr. Sertillanges’ advice, crossing my crops by reading novels. The best one I read in 2012 was The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a mid-20th century classic. My favorite contemporary novel was by Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot, a smart, engaging story of Ivy League graduates in search of faith, love, and a margin of bourgeois happiness. It’s not Jane Austen, but then again it’s also not Hunter S. Thompson, reminding us of how ambivalent some of our secular elites now are about the culture they superintend.
And finally, if you have a friend who is Christian and who, like me, tends toward dry, ironical, and overly intellectual outlooks on pretty much everything, give him a copy of Story of a Soul, the spiritual autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It’s the perfect antidote.
R.R. Reno is the editor of First Things.
DESPITE ITS MOUTHFUL of a title, It was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, David Satter has written a classic of its kind, investigating the psychological reactions that modern Russians feel towards the crimes of their Communist forebears.
That these vicious, hateful crimes against humanity still continue daily under the name of Marxism-Leninism is proven in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s extraordinary bookEscape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, which documents the horrors of living in that country and what people will risk to get away from it. Although it might seem the most depressing book for this season of good cheer, in fact it is also tremendously uplifting, and bears witness to the nobility of the human soul under even the most crushing circumstances.
Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a tremendously moving memoir about growing up in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) with a father whom he discovered only as he was dying had been a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.
That the Nazis were ultimately defeated was in part due to the wisdom shown by the Allies’ combined chiefs of staff in the Second World War, the subject of David Rigby’s superb history book Allied Master Strategists, which chronicles the triumphs (and occasional disasters) of the men who had to come up with the answers of when, where, and how to counterattack against the Axis powers. Both as straight narrative history and an object lesson in ultimate decision-making, this book is masterful.
Andrew Roberts is the author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (HarperCollins).
I AM SO BEHIND with my reading that I have still not read the complete Dante, let alone the works of Shakespeare. Rarely, therefore, do I take time off from the unending task of catching up with the classics in order to read the things that are being talked about.
However, in recent years, I have come across some remarkable books that don’t have the recommendation that they have stood the test of time. Here are the books that I would certainly give for Christmas, if I approved of Christmas and were not incurably curmudgeonly: J. Kennedy Toole’s wonderful comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces, describing a New Orleans that is now, alas, gone forever; Alex Ross’s story of modern music, The Rest Is Noise; and—recently reread for the fifth time, and ever fresh and surprising—Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, the last word about South America.
Roger Scruton’s latest book is How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (Oxford University Press).
WHILE I’M VERY PUBLIC about my patriotism, I’m normally pretty private about my personal life. Nevertheless, when The American Spectator asked me to put together a great Christmas reads list, I decided to share something I have not made public before.
As you might expect, I love a roaring fire and a terrific thriller, or a rainy day and an in-depth work of articulate nonfiction, but there’s another genre of book that I enjoy just as much and can often be found spending hours poring over. I love powerful, evocative images that depict the greatness of America. Yes, I’m talking about coffee table books.
Not only do I own all of the books listed below and have them proudly displayed in my own home and office, but I also give them often as gifts. Trust me when I tell you that you can’t go wrong with giving any of these this Christmas, or at any time during the year.
• Ronald Reagan and the American Ideal by Steve Penley. I own two books by American artist and patriot Steve Penley, and I highly recommend them both. The first is Penley’s art focusing on Ronald Reagan. This is a very special and unique gift for every Ronald Reagan fan in your life.
• The Reconstruction of America by Steve Penley. The second Penley book I own, it chronicles the story of America, how it came to be, and how we hold it together, through the author’s amazing and incredibly innovative artwork.
• America 24/7. Not only is this book a wonderful photographical history of America that I never tire of looking through, I received it as a gift from my agent, who customized it with a photo of my daughter as she crawled for the very first time in the living room of my agent’s apartment. This is not only an incredibly thoughtful gift, it is the perfect coffee table book that will add the ultimate personal touch to anyone’s home or office.
• American Writers at Home by J.D. McClatchy and Erica Lennard. Obviously, this book speaks to me and has personal significance in my life as a writer. But even for the non-writer on your list, this fascinating view inside the homes of literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville (among many others) will be treasured for years to come. I feel I have developed a deeper understanding of all of these authors by getting a peek at the surroundings in which they carried out their everyday lives.
• The Great American House by Gil Schafer. As a deep admirer of the Founders, I have always wanted to create a little bit of their era in my own. One of those ways is through architecture, and I love books that attempt to capture the essence of the true American home. To that end, this book is one of my favorite recent additions to my collection.
• These United States by Jake Rajs. Entertainment Weekly hailed this magnificent work as the “next best thing to a road trip” and with excellent reason. This is one of those books that everyone will pick up from your coffee table and not be able to put down. Dramatically capturing the beauty and coast-to-coast majesty of our amazing Republic, this is a patriotic ode to our beloved land of liberty and another can’t-miss gift.
Brad Thor is a bestselling author whose latest novel is Black List (Atria).
THE YEAR WAS 2009. The lamb being led to slaughter was Sam Tanenhaus, he of the New York Times. The proximate cause of the poor ingénue’s undoing was a book that Sam in his artlessness allowed some unknown publishing editor to goad him into perpetrating. The result was his 2009 opuscule, The Death of Conservatism, and even more humiliating the paperback edition, which came out one month before the 2010 electoral deluge. Still Liberals loved it, even if there has been very little talk of it since. For my part, I came out with an answer to Sam this spring, The Death of Liberalism. Sam is still ducking. Given all the hullabaloo out there in the aftermath of the late election, I think my book stands up rather well. I suggest reading both.
Or maybe you have had your fill of politics and want to read about a man who eschewed the presidency even while it was offered to him—after all, his name was Lincoln. I recommend Jason Emerson’s Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, which portrays Abe’s sole surviving son, a man who became a captain of industry, a public figure in his own way, and, alas, a witness to the assassination of two presidents and to the death of his great father. Robert was there at his bedside as he breathed his last. There are two additional reasons I read this marvelous book. It includes a chapter on my great-grandfather, Captain P.D. Tyrrell, United States Secret Service, who broke the plot to steal Lincoln’s body (that is the personal reason), and it details the values of an alternative conservative era to our own, to wit, the Victorian Era. The key to understanding our era and the earlier era is reticence; Robert Todd Lincoln and P.D. would not know what to make of social media.
Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, by Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., is a worthy gift for public policy readers. It deserves your vote. Also John Fund and Hans Von Spakovsky have written the invaluable Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk. The title is self-explanitory.
Finally, Tom Wolfe has a new book out, Back to Blood. It has all the pantywaist novelists and unimaginative critics of a commissar sensibility in grievous dudgeon over its political incorrectness, its hilarious scenes, its inability to find meaning where there is none. Its Karamazovian scenes with the modern-day Russians are worth the price of admission, but then there are WASPs, Cuban Americans, American blacks, Haitians, and all kinds of journalists, shrinks, and tycoons—all are stewing in contemporary Miami. Wolfe has outdone himself.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor of The American Spectator. His most recent book is The Death of Liberalism (Thomas Nelson).
Do Not Ask What Good We Do by Robert Draper. In 2010, the sometime biographer of George W. Bush—not sympatico, but sympathetic—decided to profile the incoming class of House Republicans. He picked a few characters and followed them closely, conducting hours of interviews in D.C. and in their districts, and on the planes back and forth. He delved deep into the forgotten history of the unglamorous back bench of the lower chamber.
The result is tough on the new class, but more compelling than a study of debt limit and continuing resolution votes has any right to be.
David Weigel is a political reporter for Slate.