It’s been a long year. But in the darkness spread by the many challenges our country faces, this Christmas season shines more brightly by contrast.
We at The American Spectator consider ourselves blessed to share great writing that sheds light on this darkness. In gratitude to our readers, our staff and contributors offer below the books that meant most to them this year. They would make great gifts for family and friends. And check out our children’s book list for the young readers in your life, as well.
Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading The American Spectator.
Jeffrey Lord: Christmas has arrived.
And for the readers amongst us that means recommending a book as a gift to family, friends — or, yes, yourself.
My suggestion? For the fans and friends of Rush Limbaugh, what better way to celebrate Rush at Christmas than to gift the bestselling remembrance by Rush’s wife, Kathryn Adams Limbaugh, and his brother David Limbaugh?
The book, Radio’s Greatest of All Time: Rush Limbaugh, was reviewed here in The American Spectator when the book was released in October. As I said at the time, the book features ample contributions from his broadcasts, plus great color photographs from different stages of his life.
But most of all, as the rest of us go through the current political turmoil without him, it is a collection of his endless wisdom that serves well as a guide to both our current politics and America’s future. That wisdom was spread out over his 30 years on air as “America’s Anchorman” and is attested to here by his many friends, including President Donald Trump, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and, yes, President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, in the wake of the 2022 election results, it is worth rereading his words, which played such a role in electing the first Republican Congress in 40 years in 1994.
This is decidedly a great Christmas gift book — words of wisdom from the Greatest of All Time that will last for a lifetime.
Jeffrey Lord is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: Beverly Gage, a historian who has a tortured and mysterious relationship with Yale University, has written a very interesting book about the life of J. Edgar Hoover, America’s first and if he had anything to say about it, only, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The book is titled G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. Hoover in his decades at the Bureau took on every possible practitioner of vice and incivism, and so no one will be surprised to read that he is suspected by the bien pensant of abusing power, homophobia, misogyny, racism, voyeurism, homosexuality, cross dressing, occasionally dating pretty women, and other felonies plus misdemeanors. Ms. Gage despite her professed “progressivism” sets out to set the record straight, even on the charge of occasionally dating pretty women. You can decide for yourself if she succeeds, but you will have to bring along a magnifying glass when you open the book. It is that difficult to read!
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.
Paul Kengor: TAN Books in 2022 reissued a collection of classic books by the late, great Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. For the current print edition of The American Spectator, I reviewed one of them — Sheen’s terrific 1948 work, Communism and the Conscience of the West. Here, in the spirit of the Christmas season (and a happy Hannukah to my Jewish friends), I recommend TAN’s reissue of Sheen’s Preface to Religion.
Sheen wrote the book amidst the backdrop of World War II, when many people lost their faith or were asking hard questions like, “Where was God?” Preface to Religion was Sheen’s first book published after the war ended, and he there dealt with timeless questions like “What is God like?” and “Are you happy?” and matters like hope and charity, heaven and hell. His chapter on hope opened, “It is not so much what happens in life that matters; it is rather how we react to it.” Indeed, it is. He added: “You can always tell the character of a person by the size of the things that make him mad.” Indeed, you can.
Sheen also dealt with questions of heaven and hell (and for Catholics, the Purgatory in between). He asked in his chapter on hell, “Have you ever noticed that saints fear hell but never deny it; and that great sinners deny hell but never fear it?” Our own life experiences and the experiences of history vindicate that claim.
Sheen was the most popular pastor of his day, and no doubt the most famous Catholic American ever. Books like this help explain why.
Paul Kengor is editor of The American Spectator.
Daniel J. Flynn: Guido Tonelli’s Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began reads as a book for the layman heretofore skeptical that leptons, quarks, and gluons refer to real phenomenon rather than figments of the active imaginations of proto-incels overdosing on Arthur C. Clarke.
The Italian physicist differs from such socially, and more importantly for this brief review, intellectually inaccessible nerds. He writes well in a style minimizing jargon, utilizes the creation stories of various cultures to propel the narrative, pays deference to other disciplines, and, contrary to the commandments of the Church of Science, thanks two priests and a rabbi in the acknowledgements and credits Father Georges Lemaître with discovering that our universe expands.
Tonelli writes of the wonder of that expanding universe, “Chaos has effectively disguised itself as order, wearing a mask of balance and harmony — and this great subterfuge keeps us calm, reassuring us for millennia.”
When he measures the universe’s temperature at more than 10,000 billion degrees in the moments after the big bang, the reader marvels at how much science knows. When he estimates the existence of 200 billion galaxies, including one — IC1101 — containing 100 trillion stars, the reader grasps the enormous amount of knowledge outside of our grasp.
Like God, science of this sort sparks humility, not conceit. Our knowledge of the universe, like the universe itself, expands, changes, and presents itself as far from static.
The universe may date back 13.8 billion years but the introduction of neither “black hole” nor “big bang” yet reaches the life expectancy of the average American. We know more when we admit we know little.
Daniel J. Flynn is a senior editor at The American Spectator.
Hannah Rowan: The first book I read this year was the best. Muriel Spark’s most popular novel, the schoolgirl satire The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I read too young; it hit too close to home. But in one of those masochistic moods that come on late January evenings, I picked up Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, sick of hearing from friends and acquaintances that I was missing out on comic genius and also morbidly pleased that this one was about murder.
It was. I laughed the whole time. In fact, The Driver’s Seat is one long, beautifully executed black joke on the crime fiction genre: a woman plans the perfect murder — but not of a lover, or friend, or enemy. She wants to be murdered herself. And she wants it done right.
Muriel did it right.
Spark, by the way, is experiencing a small renaissance: the Scottish novelist kept showing up in my reading all year. She appears in New York as a literary matchmaker in a new biography of the novelist Shirley Hazzard; she introduced Hazzard to the latter’s future husband, the biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller, in what Spark called her “best novel ever.” Hazzard stalled out on many a writing project during the years when the two were friends. Spark would call her every day, and they’d gossip for hours. It was how Muriel sparked her imagination, and it was wicked fun. Of course, to the reader familiar with Spark’s savage wit, it’s not surprising that their friendship died when some of her unflattering comments about Hazzard came back through the grapevine.
If that’s the sort of thing that you find amusing — darkly, of course — then Spark’s novels are for you. Try The Bachelors, The Girls of Slender Means, The Abbess of Crewe. This winter is supposed to be long: try them all.
Hannah Rowan is managing editor of The American Spectator.
Nic Rowan: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer,” Hans Gruber tells us in Die Hard, Gen X’s favorite Christmas movie. I felt the same way when, just a few weeks ago, I completed Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark’s second-to-last novel and the final entry in my year-long project of reading everything she wrote. It’s a wonderful little book — if you find yourself on an airplane or the Amtrak it’ll breeze right by — just as all of her novels are wonderful and little. Of her 22, I enjoyed The Driver’s Seat, The Girls of Slender Means, and Reality and Dreams the most and will probably read them again next year. But her most quotable (and, I think, seasonally appropriate) line comes from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “When Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.” Merry Christmas.
Leonora Cravotta: It is hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the journalist Tom Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe, who established his reputation as a writer of nonfiction, wanted to write a novel about New York in much the same way that Emile Zola had written about Paris. The Bonfire of the Vanities was celebrated as the quintessential satirical novel about the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s just as Wolfe’s 1968 Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was lauded as the “seminal book about the hippie culture.”
I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1990. It was a witty roast of everything that was wrong with the 1980s, including excessive spending, racial discord, and of course the snobbery of the elites. It was a New York story with Wolfe, who had a head for character development and an ear for dialogue, creating a gallery of believable New York characters across the economic and social spectrum. The story begins when the lead character Sherman McCoy and his mistress Maria Ruskin take a wrong turn from Manhattan into the Bronx, which results in Maria hitting a young black man with Sherman’s car and the couple leaving the scene. This wrong turn initiates the social downfall of Sherman McCoy from a “master of the universe” to a persona non grata.
I recently reread The Bonfire of the Vanities and found it to be evergreen in its relevance. We are still a society of haves and have-nots grappling with class warfare and racial divides. We continue to hero worship, coronating and dethroning new Sherman McCoys every day. Tom Wolfe understood this, and that is why The Bonfire of The Vanities still resonates.
Leonora Cravotta is Director of Operations at The American Spectator.
George Neumayr: I read again in 2022 Malcolm Muggeridge’s Chronicles of Wasted Time, a series of sharp and droll memoirs which I highly recommend. They remain one of the great autobiographies of a journalist ever. Muggeridge seemed to churn the book so easily, combining a nonchalant style with deep insight. The autobiography is immensely readable, witty, and enlightening to anyone curious about the perversity of modern times. For all of Muggeridge’s problems — he was given to intoxicated lunges at women and patronized brothels — he was astonishingly lucid about liberalism’s lies, particularly its catastrophic sexual revolution. Muggeridge deserves credit as one of the first prophets against wokeness.
George Neumayr is a senior editor at The American Spectator.
Ellie Gardey: When J.K. Rowling released her new detective novel, The Ink Black Heart, on Aug. 31, the media inevitably responded with a spurt of takes that discussed whether or not the book is transphobic.
The Ink Black Heart, which clocks in at 1,462 pages and is the sixth in the Cormoran Strike series, doesn’t directly take on transgenderism, but Rowling, who writes under the name “Robert Galbraith” for this series, does consider issues that are relevant to her saga of being branded a “TERF” for speaking out about how transgender ideology can hurt women.
The book considers leftist activists who freak out at every supposed injustice but who are rotten to their core. This is illustrated jarringly: a character who writes a social justice blog turns out to be a pedophile. The Ink Black Heart also examines the psychology behind people who are convinced they have an illness when nothing is wrong with them. This is a possible stand-in for contemplating the wide-reaching effects of denying reality. Also considered is the evilness of internet trolls — a common thread in Rowling’s life.
Mostly, this is an intricate whodunit. Rowling knows how to drive a plot with the need-to-know question, “Who is the murderer?” Numerous suspects are spun around the believable, immersive web of a toxic fandom obsessed with a dark cult classic.
Come for the will-they-or-won’t-they private detectives and engrossing murder mystery. Stay for the minutiae of Rowling’s world-building.
Ellie Gardey is reporter and associate editor at The American Spectator.
Matthew Omolesky: “Life is bristling with thorns,” wrote Voltaire, “and I know of no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden.” For most people, this means a manicured lawn, boxwood hedges, tidy rows of flowers, and the odd specimen tree, but in his lavishly produced English Garden Eccentrics, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, president of the London Gardens Trust and gardens adviser to Historic Royal Palaces, introduces us to a superior sort of gardener. Between the Stuart and Victorian eras, that great age of eccentrics, there were those such as the antiquarian William Stukeley, the proto-conservationist Charles Waterton, the ornithophile aristocrat Harriet, Lady Reade, and others who required the expansive medium of landscape architecture to express their singular characters. Lady Dorothy Nevill, the youngest child of Horace Walpole, collected thousands of orchids, stove ferns, camellias, and carnivorous plants, filling “no fewer than seventeen hothouses, including ranges of forcing pits, a peach case, vineries, a tank house (for aquatics), an orchid house, a tropical orchard house (orangery), a palm house, a fernery and a film fernery,” while the yeoman Thomas Bland laboriously transformed his Cumbrian farm into an Italian villa-garden picturesquely nestled in the English Apennines. Few of these horticultural wonders survived their owners, however, leading Longstaffe-Gowan to the melancholy conclusion that “after the originator of an intensely personal and idiosyncratic living work of art ceases to play a role in its development, it invariably loses something of its animated soul and immediacy.” What is worse, few these days are following in the august footsteps of Nevill, Bland, and their fellow eccentrics. John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 essay “Of Individuality,” rightly observed that “eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” The conformity that characterizes present-day landscape architecture confirms this as well as anything, but Longstaffe-Gowan’s horticultural Wunderkammer can serve as a salve for the indignities modernity has inflicted on us, while providing inspiration for some of the more adventurous gardeners out there.
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.
Shmuel Klatzkin: My choice is a book I read decades ago and I just recently picked it up for a reread after a long time: Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.
I love Whitehead for his seriously original thinking and his view of the grand flow of ideas through civilization. He affords the same careful and insightful treatment to the works of philosophers like George Berkeley and poets like Wordsworth and Shelley as he gives to crucial scientific figures such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. In doing this, he takes a position counter to the tendency of much of modern thought to take refuge in jargon and isolated specialties, intellectually unconcerned with how their insights affect other and the culture that guides us all.
He has his eye as well on the greatest failing of science and of scientific culture in his time — and, to a large degree, in our time as well. This failing he calls the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concretion.” By this he means that our science constructs models of the universe in its pursuit of knowledge but then forgets that those models are abstractions, taken from the larger reality of the concrete world they help us understand.
Here, artists and writers and some philosophers come to our rescue:
[They] bear witness that nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values; and that these values arise from the cumulation, in some sense, of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.
Whitehead revives the goal of great thinkers of the past to unite all aspects of our awareness in an integrated, whole worldview. He was a mathematician of the first order and was well acquainted with the revolutionary advances of early 20th-century physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. He takes the reader on a journey of wholeness, in which science, the arts, philosophy, and theology all add their contributions to the whole in which we participate. It is bracing, challenging, and inspiring, especially in this age of shattering isolation, division, and reciprocal incoherence.
Shmuel Klatzkin is a columnist at The American Spectator.
Stephan Kapustka: In A World After Liberalism: Five Thinkers Who Inspired the Radical Right, Matthew Rose examines the lives and ideas of five political thinkers on the right-most edge of political thought. In doing so, he has done not merely the impossible, but the unthinkable. To call the extreme Right beyond the pale in our political culture does not seem strong enough; mere engagement with their ideas, insofar as they are understood to have any outside of blind prejudice and hatred, is taboo. But as we have seen in more ways than one, what was once thought infeasible has a way of creeping into political reality. Rose observes that there is good reason to take their intellectual challenge seriously. The radical Right, he explains, “is not stupid; it is deep. Its ideas are not ridiculous; they are serious…. Behind its online tantrums and personal attacks are arguments of seductive power.”
The writers and ideas Rose profiles are of startling diversity, a certain irony given the subject matter. They span from the defensible to the irredeemable, from the utopian to the realist, and from the distant past to the immediately relevant. He renders them understandable and tries his best to write charitably, though in the case of the virulently anti-Semitic Francis Parker Yockey it is understandably difficult to keep composure. He helps elucidate how the ideas and arguments of these obscure men still influence our political dialogue today.
While they disagree on much and more, the radical’s Right’s root critique of their more centrist cousins — that they are glorified speed governors on an infinite liberal road of autonomy and alienation — rings dissonantly prescient. And as Rose warns, if we are afraid to acknowledge and address the real human needs they identify and speak to, there should be no surprise who fills the void.
Stephan Kapustka is a former intern at The American Spectator.
Hunter Oswald: What is Christmas all about? Is Christmas about material pleasure, or is it something far more important? Glenn Beck’s 2008 book The Christmas Sweater answers these questions and seeks to restore the true meaning of Christmas. I decided to read Glenn Beck’s book out of a desire for a new Christmas story that engages readers with Christian themes and traditions that are often abandoned in contemporary Christmas stories. The book is a tale of a young man’s journey from self-interest and resentment to forgiveness and hope during the Christmas season. Glenn Beck cleverly uses his skills as a storyteller to revitalize the Christian roots of the Christmas season by revealing the most beautiful and powerful gift ever given to us by God — the gift of forgiveness. This book does a great job at countering efforts at commercializing and secularizing Christmas that have arisen out of our culture’s selfishness and anti-Christian rhetoric. Readers will laugh, cry, and rejoice in the Christmas spirit as they read each page. This book is a great gift for any young adult or those seeking a new Christmas story that tells the glories of God’s mercy and love for us even in our darkest hours. The Christmas Sweater reveals what truly makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.
Hunter Oswald is a former intern at The American Spectator.