THE POST-ELECTION HOLIDAYS are a good time for conservatives to lick our wounds, reflect on the recent past, and contemplate new beginnings. My three recommendations describe the complicated realities of ethnic politics in America in the 21st century. Conservatives and Republicans have to grasp that the America of Ronald Reagan no longer exists.
First, there’s Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. Fans of Wolfe’s prose and sociological insight will not be disappointed as the master turns his gimlet eye to Miami.
Second, there’s Joel Kotkin’s The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Kotkin argues against American decline. He says immigration from Asia and Latin America will be a force for dynamism, innovation, and prosperity. The challenge will be promoting social mobility and economic prosperity for aspirational Americans.
Third, there’s Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America, which was first published in 1981. Sowell’s history of American ethnic groups, from Germans and Irish to blacks and Mexicans, is one of the most unlikely page-turners I’ve read. He traces ethnic groups from their first appearance in America to the beginning of the Reagan presidency. What he finds for all groups is improvement in material and social conditions over time. The rate of improvement varies between groups, and often can be interrupted by setbacks, but the United States of America still has been the greatest engine of upward mobility in human history. Someone needs to update Sowell’s book to account for all the ethnic groups that have been added to the mix.
The near future of American politics is likely to be characterized by conflict within and between ethnic groups. “In Miami, everybody hates everybody,” says a character in Back to Blood. In an age of austerity, the melting pot is likely to turn into a boiling pot. These books can serve as an education in ethnic politics. And they’ll go well with a post-election serving of humble pie.
Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.
JONATHAN MAHLER’S Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning is an undeservedly obscure pleasure. It describes, with a novelist’s acumen for detail, the passion play that was New York City in 1977, when a power blackout and the Son of Sam killing spree brought the city to the edge of a breakdown. Mahler adds to that canvas an epic, brutal mayoral election; the melodrama that was the New York Yankees chasing a title amidst the distraction of Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson blood feuding; and the decadence of the city’s counter-culture in the dawn before AIDS. There are a handful of writers who can seamlessly shift from the burlesque comedy of the Yankee locker room to Mario Cuomo on the cusp of political fame to a blow-by-blow of the dark hell of an urban blackout. This is an ambitious book that can double as a primer on how to transform the journalistic essay into book form. It is stunningly good.
Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln is the coffee table tome that actually deserves to be read. It is massive, just under a thousand pages, too big to lug through an airport, but indispensable if one wants to relive the contours of American civic life from the founding of our constitutional democracy to its unraveling under the weight of slavery. This is not the Wilentz, by the way, whom conservatives learned to loathe during the Clinton impeachment saga and who penned an essay dubbing George Bush the “worst president”: it is instead the too-intoxicating-to-browse narrative of a judicious observer who conveys the interplay between ideas, personalities, and blind chance that always drives politics. And any conservatives who can’t get Wilentz’s past polemics out of their system should read the unblinking dissections in the New Republic and Newsweek he made of Barack Obama during the primaries in 2008: if Democrats had listened, the president would have spent the last four years as a chastened senator who aimed too high too soon.
Craig Shirley’s Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America is proof that a 30-year campaign can unfold like a suspense novel if it has the right storyteller. This history of the 1980 campaign cycle is a gorgeous reminder that there was nothing inevitable about Reagan’s ascension: the country in the late ’70s was barely a quarter Republican, Edward Kennedy seemed an inevitable president, and the Republican establishment wagered its bets on Howard Baker, John Connally, and George H.W. Bush. How Reagan overcame those odds and refashioned conservatism for the modern era is an account that Shirley nails, and it is one that conservatives ought to read until it is hardwired into their brains. This is the single best book on an American election since Teddy White laid down his notepad.
Mark Frost’s Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series is so good that it creates the right kind of reader’s remorse: the wish that the author would keep going and tackle Muhammad Ali’s survival of Joe Frazier in Manila, or John McEnroe’s clash with Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in 1980, or Jack Nicklaus’ last Masters win in 1986. Every sports epic in our youth deserves to be recreated with this level of skill. It is no small gift to breathe drama into the fine print of a game between largely forgotten men played out almost 40 years ago, but Frost does it. This is baseball at its peak, when 75 million Americans stayed up watching Carlton Fisk’s winning home run, when the World Series matched its pretentious title, and when the resolution of its championship was not a month-long bore.
Artur Davis is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
TWO BOOKS I read this year serve as companion pieces to one another: Coming Apart by Charles Murray and Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. Examining changes in the lives of American whites over the last 40 years or so, Murray finds that many elites have rediscovered the virtues of family, industry, and faith—and that these are what lift them above the increasingly endangered lower class. Douthat adds to these insights by questioning not whether we’ve become a more or less religious society, but whether our religion, in abandoning ancient orthodoxy, has become less fulfilling and uplifting than it should be. Both books are clear-eyed and honest, neither takes an apocalyptic tone—and indeed, I found hope for the future in both. If the country is going to turn around, it won’t be because government commandeers our wealth for its purposes, it will be because wise individuals rediscover how to live well and relearn, in Murray’s phrase, to “preach what they practice.”
And since there’s never enough fiction on these lists, let me recommend Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A bestselling thriller and a rip-roaring read, this is also a clever and lacerating satire of contemporary marriage. Flynn plays on our expectations at the same time she parodies the way the media manipulates our emotions. It’s well-written, gripping, and a lot of fun.
Andrew Klavan is the author of several internationally bestselling thriller novels. His latest adventure novel for young adults is If We Survive (Thomas Nelson).
• Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. One must never forget the Great Books, from which all our thinking derives, however creative we believe we are. This is one of them, and next year is its 500th anniversary. It is the most famous book on politics ever written and the best one if you want to suppose or be persuaded that the sole object of politics is to win. I won’t say which translation is the best except to admit that I am partial to my own.
• Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. This is another anniversary book, republished for its 25th. It is a brilliant, all-around indictment of American higher education, still as true as it was when it was the number-one best seller for almost a year in 1987. Bloom argues that our clumsy effort to open minds results paradoxically in just the contrary—the “closing of the American mind.” The error lies in believing that an open mind is not the most difficult of achievements but can be had with the mere declaration of a thoughtless relativism. In another paradox, this “easygoing nihilism” descends to us, and I do mean descends, from a great thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche.
• William Voegeli, Never Enough. A book about “America’s limitless welfare state,” to cite the subtitle. Why is it that the Progress of which progressives speak has no end, not even in imagination, at which point we might look back in satisfaction instead of always anxiously peering ahead? Perhaps it is because the end of equality is impossible; or worse, perhaps no end is possible and life is just a clueless searching for one damn thing after another. Voegeli shows that the progressives in our midst, impatient in the face of obstacles to equality, come to despise the forms of our self-government while taking for granted the ordered liberty they provide for us.
• Ross Douthat, Bad Religion. Douthat is a journalist who could have been a scholar and shows it in this book. But we like him where he is at the New York Times, a calm voice in the strident headquarters of today’s liberalism. Instead of calling for more religion, or broadcasting its useful social effects, Douthat examines what religion we have now and have had since World War II. His conclusion from careful study is that America doesn’t have either too much or too little religion, but bad religion. What is that? Isn’t religion true or false, not good or bad? Read Douthat’s book and find out.
• Michael Davis, The Soul of the Greeks. In the world we live in we observe two distinctions among beings: some are alive, some not; some are aware, some not. Science—our science—does not make these distinctions. But if they are a delusion, and all life, all thought can be explained scientifically as not distinct, what causes this delusion? The answer is, and has to be, soul. Davis considers soul as it appears in the Greeks, the inventors of psychology—in particular, Aristotle, Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato. Guided by them, he wonders what can justify, despite our science, our attachment to the soul.
Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard professor of government and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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’Brien’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
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 book Escape 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.