Summer Reading Picks

Summer is nearly upon us. We asked some friends of Law and Liberty what books will fill their leisure hours, and thought we’d share with you their responses.

Daniel J. Mahoney

For me, summer is a most welcome time for reading and writing and catching up with the best books that have come my way in recent months. Right now, I’m sitting down to review The Long Night of the Watchman (St. Augustine’s Press, 2018), the splendid collection of essays by the late Czech dissident Václav Benda written between 1977 and 1989 and very ably edited and introduced by F. Flagg Taylor, IV. Benda was a man of great moral courage who also theorized in a deep and serious way about the best way to upend the totalitarian state. This book is a most welcome contribution to reflection on what it meant to be a human being and citizen in the age of ideology.

Later this year, scholars will reflect together on the legacy of Russell Kirk in this, the centennial year of his birth. To prepare for a discussion under the auspices of the National Review Institute, I have been reading Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk (2018), which the University of Kentucky Press has just published under the editorship of Kirk biographer James E. Person, Jr. In these letters, one confronts a thoroughly learned and decent man, the premier cultural conservative of the 20th century. Kirk writes, as one has come to expect, with grace and clarity  and in a “Burkean” style (lovely but slightly archaic) all his own. His interlocutors include T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Jr., Ray Bradbury, Wendell Berry, Ronald Reagan, and Herbert Hoover. A leisurely encounter with this correspondence allows one to appreciate the multiple ways Kirk aimed to sustain and renew a “moral imagination” rooted in the spiritual and cultural patrimony of Western civilization.

My colleague Geoffrey M. Vaughan has put together a thought-provoking new collection of essays entitled Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers (Catholic University of America Press, 2018). These mostly Catholic thinkers and scholars reflect on Strauss’s impressive renewal of classical political philosophy in our time and his welcome and profound critiques of historicism and relativism. But it becomes most clear from this volume that a thoughtful and faithful Catholic cannot adhere, at least in any unqualified way, to Strauss’s radical and untenable divorce of faith and reason, his trans-moral conception of the “philosopher,” or his identification of God with inscrutable willfulness. The best essays here, by Marc. D. Guerra and Philippe Bénéton, brilliantly compare Strauss to Pope Benedict XVI on modernity and creation, and Strauss to Blaise Pascal on “the misery of man without God.” A book for anyone interested in the greatness of Strauss, the meeting place of faith and reason, and the renewal of serious political philosophy in our time.

A new volume in Palgrave MacMillan’s “Recovering Political Philosophy” series is just out, and I am presently making my way through it. It is Emily Katherine Ferkaluk’s new and remarkably faithful translation of Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1833 book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France. Francis Lieber (1800-1872), the first great American political scientist, nonetheless butchered the original English translation of this book, adding appendices of his own and openly disagreeing in the body of the text with the book he was commissioned to translate.

Ferkaluk gives us what is really our first access to the book in English. We see Beaumont and Tocqueville as incipient social scientists and moral philosophers who resist utopian claims by philanthropists of various schools for the permanent reformation of hardened criminals. Nonetheless, Beaumont and Tocqueville believed that firm and humane punishment, in conjunction with religious instruction, might lead some to reform. They were advocates of what Ferkaluk elsewhere calls “moderate penal reform.”

The late political theorist and prodigiously productive public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain was a friend of mine whom I very much liked and admired. A feminist who cherished the family, an admirer of Jane Addams and Vaclav Havel, a tough-minded democrat, an advocate of Augustine’s Christian realism and a critic of pacifist currents in the Churches, Elshtain brought humanity, realism, and a great breadth of learning to Christian political reflection. This summer I look forward to reading the wide-ranging essays and reflections on her life and work in Jean Bethke Elshtain: Politics, Ethics, and Society (2018), edited by Debra Erickson and Michael Le Chevallier and published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College.

John O. McGinnis

George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (2011). This Pulitzer prize-winning biography tells the life story of the architect of containment—the idea that won Cold War without a world war. Containment is the last grand strategy of the United States that succeeded. Given the foreign policy failures of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and as yet lack of success of Donald Trump, it may be pleasurable as well as instructive to remember a design that led to victory.

The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything by Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna (2018). The Internet transformed the world by permitting people to exchange information immediately and seamlessly. Blockchain is likely the next great global information innovation, because it permits people to act together immediately and seamlessly without intermediaries. It is thus potentially a design for trust and decentralized governance that may advance liberty.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875). Trollope is my favorite 19th century British novelist because he captures the mixture of calculation, idealism, and self-deception that propel our lives. I try to read one of his novels every year and this book, which focuses on financial fraud and betrayal in a society giddy with the prospect of new wealth, is thought by many to be his masterpiece. It will have to be very fine indeed if it is to overtake in my estimation The Last Chronicle of Barset, where Trollope combines the psychological insight of Dostoevsky with the good sense of an English  gentleman.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University and a blogger at Law and Liberty.

Molly McGrath

Busyness is good for me. I always have a subliminal “Not doing what I’m supposed to be doing” angst. Having too much to do means I know exactly what it is that I’m not doing right. It’s reassuring. Channels my Catholic guilt productively. So while I won’t get most of this done, I have three reading projects for the summer.

First, Sloth: It’s an interesting sin involving a failure to attend to one’s proper ends. Not “laziness,” it can show up also in workaholism and distraction. As part of a larger project, I want to explore the hunch that corruption might be rooted in sloth: the substitution of ulterior purposes for one’s proper tasks. I’m going to read Acedia and Its Discontents by R.J. Snell (2015), A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen (1999), The Sin of Sloth (2012) by Siegfried Wenzel, The Noonday Devil (2015) by Jean-Charles Nault, and Deadly Vices by Gabriele Taylor (2006).

Second, the Western Crisis of Reason: I’m teaching a new class in the fall and need to fill in the syllabus. In modernity’s narrow version of reason, logos seems incapable of discerning proper ends, and some 20th century thinkers might help us think that (and its political import) through. I know the preamble will be Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies” and Weber’s “Science as a Vocation,” then on to Husserl’s Crisis (1936), Heidegger’s technology essay, Voegelin’s Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1968) and/or The New Science of Politics (1952), Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953), Jacob Klein’s “The Problem of Freedom,” and ending with Benedict’s Regensburg Address. The question is, What else I should be doing? So I’ve got to reread all that and explore a little. Suggestions appreciated!

Third, Leisure: Upon finishing Signals (2017), a collection of short stories by Tim Gautreaux, my mother sent four Amazonian couriers, each bearing a copy, in four directions to her four daughters. I think that means I should read it. I can’t say it’s work. That’s gonna be hard. But I can try . . . to try. All of a sudden, I have a terrible nagging feeling I should read more Machiavelli. Maybe, if I can’t properly attend to leisure, I’ll do that instead.

Molly McGrath is associate professor of philosophy at Assumption College.


Michael Munger

Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail by John Phillip Reid (1980). A densely written and documented history of the economics of mass migration. Many surprises, and many deep insights.

The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas (2011). There were some parts I knew, or thought I knew. But the economics of the business is fascinating, and worth your time.

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen (2017). A remarkably literate and insightful book. The best part, in my view, is the steadfast and informed refusal to elevate one think over the other.

You need to read them both.

Tomorrow 3.0: Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy by Michael Munger (2018). The book of the summer. I laughed, I cried, it was better than “C*A*T*S”!  Gives the economics behind the sharing economy, and makes some predictions about where it might take us.

Michael Munger is director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University.

Mark Pulliam

My summer reading goals—like perennial New Year’s resolutions to exercise more and lose weight—are partially aspirational. But I will definitely make a dent in my growing stack (actually, stacks) of unread books, beginning with the volumes I discuss here. Purely recreational reads are a welcome break from the weighty tomes my editor at Law & Liberty sometimes assigns me.

Accordingly, I am anxious to devour Kurt Schlichter’s latest novel, Indian Country, a prequel to his highly-entertaining 2016 fictional debut, People’s Republic. Schlichter is a practicing litigator in California who also writes pungent political commentary for Townhall.com and other conservative sites. His novels depict a dystopian future in which the United States has split apart in a civil war, with the west coast and northeast/Great Lakes region forming a leftist police state called the People’s Republic, and the rest of the country continuing as the U.S.A. version 2.0, with the nation’s capital located in Dallas, Texas. Schlichter mines this premise with mordant humor, through the adventures of a military veteran protagonist named Kelly Turnbull, with a style more reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen than George Orwell or Robert Ludlum. As a California refugee who now lives in Texas, I find the plot line to be strangely captivating.

My friend and correspondent R. Richard Schweitzer, a long-time follower of—and occasional commenter on—this site, has encouraged me to explore the Liberty Fund’s extensive catalog of classic works, especially Carroll Quigley’s 1961 The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis. Quigley (1910-1977) taught at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service for over 30 years. Dick does not lightly recommend books, so I am sure that Quigley’s comparative history of civilizations will be edifying (if not as fun as Indian Country).  I will save one of Dick’s other suggestions—a “deep dive” into Michael Oakeshott—for next summer.

Like many television viewers, I have seen Canadian college professor Jordan Peterson on various news shows, where he consistently delivers cogent and refreshing commentary. Out of curiosity I ordered his latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), which I hope is as illuminating as his talking head tutorials. If so, I may send copies to young adults in my life who could benefit from greater direction.

I am embarrassed that I have owned for some time but still have not read (at least cover-to-cover) Columbia law school Professor Philip Hamburger’s dense 2014 treatise Is Administrative Law Unlawful? At a recent Federalist Society event in Austin, Georgetown’s John S. Baker cited a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the longer book, entitled The Administrative Threat (also written by Hamburger), published by Encounter Books. I look forward to digesting the 64-page precis as lighter fare, or perhaps an appetizer for the main course.

Finally, I was impressed enough by one of the books I reviewed this year—and various essays by the same author, academic historian Kevin Gutzman—that I ordered two of his “popular” books, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution (2007) and Who Killed the Constitution? (2008) (co-authored by Tom Woods), the former of which was a New York Times bestseller. At a time when constitutional theorists increasingly invoke history in aid of their various conceptions of originalism, the views of an actual historian regarding the Constitution provide a valuable reality check.

Mark Pulliam is a contributing editor of Law and Liberty.

Gerald Russello

My summer reading is generally too ambitious, but for this summer I hope to take on the following:

Love and Sleep by John Crowley (1994).  I remain bowled over by his Little, Big, which I read several years ago and should be on everyone’s list of great American novels. His books are on the edge between fantasy and reality, without being twee or unbelievable. He is also deeply learned, which gives his books a satisfying richness of detail.

Views of Rome: A Greek Reader by Adam Serfass (2018). I usually spend some time every summer brushing up on my classics, and this collection of visions of Rome by Greek writers is just the thing. Rome conquered Greece, but as the famous classical tag has it, in turn Greek culture conquered Rome; to understand both helps us understand ourselves.

Finance in America by Kevin Brine and Mary Poovey (2018). I participated in a conference with Mary and Kevin a few years ago on Enlightenment thought and modern finance, and saw this book in the making. It is an incredibly rich portrait of American finance and accounting, and how various economists and financiers created our modern financial and securities markets.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes (2017). Reading Jason Goodwin’s detective novels set in 19th century Istanbul increased my interest in learning more about the historical city, once known as Constantinople, the “New Rome” and later the home of the Sultan. This sprawling history (800-plus pages) covers the city up to the present, and its central place in European and world history.

Gerald Russello is author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (University of Missouri Press).