Holiday Reading Picks

’Tis the season for pleasure reading. We asked some friends of Law & Liberty what books are on their Christmastime ambition list and thought we’d share with you their responses.

James Bruce

A Vietnam veteran—wounded as a young Marine in the Tet Offensive 50 years ago—told me to read We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (1992) by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. And so I am. In reading the opening chapters, I have found that the book highlights the humanity of the men involved, as well as the utter confusion of war.

I have discovered I enjoy learning about a time period through the lens of a prominent actor. I did so with Roger Sherman and the American Founding, and I hope to do the same with David Potter’s 2012 biography of Constantine the Emperor and the Roman world. The book, given to me by a business executive who has a passion for ancient history, promises to teach me almost everything I’ll ever know about the Emperor Constantine.

From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, a 2013 book edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, explores the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, specifically the question of whether Christ died to make redemption possible for all people or whether he died to achieve redemption for a set of people. Since I’m writing a book on the relationship between Christianity, justice, and equality, this work is apropos, considering as it does the theological question of whether God, to be just, must provide fair equality of opportunity for salvation to all people.

Finally, I have disciplined myself against reading Henry Howarth Bashford’s Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man (1924). Why? I have the strong sense that, if I begin it in earnest, I will forsake almost all others, given Philip Ardagh’s praise of it in the Guardian and my own peek at its opening pages. The satire begins with the author explaining the reason for the work: When the world is as bad as it is, shining examples of humanity must put themselves forward as moral exemplars.

—James E. Bruce is associate professor of philosophy at John Brown University.

Graham McAleer

A friend has warmly encouraged me to read Jan Swafford’s Johannes Brahms: A Biography (1999). I prefer slightly earlier classical music to Brahms, but my friend recommends the book for its description of the final years of a high European culture as yet untroubled by catastrophic war and social disintegration. A musical chronicle of the end of the Enlightenment salon.

I studied philosophy at university, but I had contemplated history. As a teenager, I read loads of monographs about Napoleon. Right up my street is The Military Enlightenment: War and Culture in the French Empire from Louis XIV to Napoleon by Christy Pichichero (2017). The onslaught of postmodern criticism notwithstanding, the Enlightenment remains the touchstone for our urban elites. This book is packed with interesting details of how the Enlightenment humanized war, but also expanded its economic and political use.

The Edge of Surrealism (2003) is a collection of essays by an excellent, but strange, French theorist, Roger Caillois. Though he died in 1978, Caillois wrote leanly (unlike many late 20th century French thinkers) and the short essays in the volume are easy to dip into. He was especially interested in sacred anthropology, myth, and the place of games in civilization. Famously probing the connections between humans and insects, his is a very unusual mind.

I teach philosophy at a Jesuit university, so I always try to keep up with important work in theology. Emmanuel Falque is one of France’s leading philosopher theologians and this Christmas it seems right to give his The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, Body, and the Eucharist (2016) a go. A sophisticated blend of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and biblical Christianity requiring the use of a lot of brain cells, it will be paired with a lovely bottle of Scotch. Just the thing for the Christmas season.

My last choice is influenced by the Met Gala, a.k.a. the Fashion Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has established itself as one of those great gatherings of leftist progressivism and celebrity culture. It’s the red-carpet ball to kick off the annual fashion installation at the Met. Last year, the theme was Catholicism and fashion; this year, it is camp. The guiding text for the 2019 show is Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, her brilliant essay from 1964 that is jam-packed with insights into art and culture. In the run-up to the May extravaganza, co-hosted by Lady Gaga and Serena Williams, expect loads of headlines linking camp and progressive politics. Might as well get up to speed during Yuletide.

—Graham McAleer is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Maryland.

Mike Rappaport

This past semester has been extremely busy, so I am looking forward to having some additional time over the holiday break to do some reading. These are three of the books I plan to tackle, each from one of my areas of interest.

One is The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era,  written by the young Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp. Gienapp argues that there was no consensus of how the Constitution should be interpreted at the time of its adoption and that it took a decade for many aspects of the Constitution that we now take for granted to become generally accepted.

This 2018 book is likely to be important in one of my core fields of interest—how to interpret the Constitution—but from the couple of chapters I have already read, I am confident that it is a book with which I will significantly disagree. Most importantly, my impression is that Gienapp is overstating the disagreements among the Founders. Yes, there were differences about how to interpret the Constitution, but I am skeptical that they are as significant as Gienapp appears to suggest they are. Still, I am expecting to learn a lot from the book, especially because it will challenge my beliefs.

Gienapp is clearly very well read in the area and knows more of the law professor literature than most constitutional historians. His previous writings show him to be a sophisticated reader of the interpretation debates. And he is a young scholar who is likely to have a fresh perspective on these matters. Thus, I am looking forward to finishing the book, while bracing for many disagreements.

I have just started to read Iain M. Banks’s science-fiction novel The Player of Games (1988), from his Culture series. A big part of the charm of science fiction for me is that it builds worlds—places filled with scientific advances from the future and different political and social players on different planets. The freedom that these worlds allow often permits  dramatic and powerful reflections on both politics and life in general. One can build a world that promotes libertarian or socialist ideas with a concreteness and power that nonfiction and ordinary fiction books do not permit. The other thing about science fiction is that readers often become attached to these worlds. Consequently, science fiction books are often part of a large series of books, all devoted to stories in a single world.

The Culture series is among the most praised of them. According to Wikipedia, the main theme of the series is “the dilemmas that an idealistic hyperpower faces in dealing with civilizations that do not share its ideals, and whose behavior it sometimes finds repulsive.” That part sounds good. But this seems less comforting: “The stories centre on the Culture, a utopian, post-scarcity space society of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligences living in socialist habitats spread across the Milky Way galaxy.” Post-scarcity and socialism—not to my tastes, but the reviews are so good, I am willing to give it a try, and the first chapters seem quite entertaining.

The same political battles that afflict our society exist in the science fiction world, and taking in the opposing views is part of the fun. I even read and enjoyed the three-book Ancillary Justice series, which uses female pronouns for all of the characters (boy, confusing and annoying). I haven’t gotten far in The Player of Games, but so far, it is quite enjoyable.

The third book I am planning to read over the holiday break is Joseph Postell’s  Bureaucracy in America (2017). In addition to originalism, another area of interest is administrative law. Recently, I have been exploring the history of administrative law in the United States. One important book in this area is Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (2014) and his short eBook version, The Administrative Threat. But another important book is Postell’s, which covers some different topics.

I met Postell at a recent conference, where we were the two non-leftwing people on a panel on administrative law and the Constitution. He is a political scientist, and so has a different perspective on some of these matters than me. But his book is a significant discussion of the history, and has already proved very helpful and informative.

—Mike Rappaport, a blogger at Law & Liberty, is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Studies of Constitutional Originalism.

Daniel Ritchie

My list of books for the New Year all touch a nerve in our current climate. The oldest work is Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886), which I read 40 years ago as an undergraduate. A student of mine (inspired, like so many, by Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel  The Awakening) is doing a senior paper on late 19th century feminism, and I’ve urged her to compare it to James’s novel—and to pay more attention to the novels’ character development than to social history. James’s satire of the Boston reformers is delicious. But I’m also hoping to experience again James’s ability to render the complexity of this time through the warring perspectives of the Southern reactionary, Basil Ransom, and the Boston feminist, Olive Chancellor—and to pass that experience along to my student.

The two radically different American sensibilities in James’s novel figure in my second choice, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). The Southerner represents the folkways of the American “Cavalier,” while the Bostonian represents the Puritan (think Elizabeth Warren). Fischer’s third group, the backcountry Scots-Irish, has been captured more recently by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy (2016), while the fourth—Quakers and others from the Mid-Atlantic states— seems the least distinct to me. The last presidential election has made us all wish to understand America on a deeper level, and I’m hoping Fischer’s analysis of our “folkways” will have even greater resonance, 20 years after publication.

An acquaintance of mine, Steve Young, helped translate The Zenith (2012), a novel by Duong Thu Huong, and he affirms that it’s the best way to understand Vietnam. Like my other choices, this one approaches politics through various characters’ deep engagement with culture. It parallels the personal story of Ho Chi Minh, who suffered a permanent separation from his wife in 1958 through the machinations of party apparatchiks, with three other characters. All four major characters have endured significant losses. Duong’s novel takes it for granted that communist schemes such as “land reform” were merely an opportunity for party officials to exact revenge on enemies and then enrich themselves, but that’s hardly the main point: so far in my reading, the book’s appeal is in showing how revolutionary Vietnam undercut the cultural supports upon which individuals rely in moments of loss.

The reviews of Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) have earned that book a place on my list as well. Nearly every morning, the New York Times warns me of the vices of nationalism, so I figure it must be a pretty good thing. I hope so, because recently tribalism and cosmopolitanism have done little to make themselves appealing.

My great uncle, whose name my father and I share, died 100 years ago in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. A former student recommended Edward Lengel’s To Conquer Hell (2008), which depicts the campaign. I took students to the Somme battlefields a couple of years ago, and all of us emerged dazed by the stories those landscapes hold. Surely reading Lengel’s book would be a small act of filial piety.

— Daniel E. Ritchie is a professor of English and founder of the Humanities Program at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

James R. Rogers

I have about 50 hours of flying time scheduled over the break. So lots of el primo reading time, as well during those long winter nights. Here is what’s at the top of my holiday reading list:

Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005). I met Professor Brewer at a conference last month. She mentioned this, her first book, in passing at dinner, and my ears immediately perked up. I ordered it that night. How political and legal theories understand and accommodate children, let alone theology and ecclesiology (modern evangelical ecclesiology often seems little more than social contract theory writ in theological terms) are critical, wedge issues in all those domains.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1886). I last read this book perhaps 25 years ago. I’ve read, and reread, other James but never returned to this one. I don’t know why. I figure it’s high time to indulge a return to this classic.

Lee Child, Die Trying (Jack Reacher) (2006). I don’t really like watching movies on planes. While I’ll occasionally indulge if the flight has a current film I’ve missed, or a classic that I haven’t watched recently, I usually read when flying, or listen to music or to an audiobook. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor. But my wife tells me the series gets better. So I plan to give the second Jack Reacher novel a shot. But if it turns out no better than the first novel, marital difficulties might ensue . . . (Just joking, dear.)

John W. Kleinig, Leviticus (Concordia Commentary) (2003). The book of Leviticus continues the narrative started in Exodus. What’s most significant in Exodus is often skipped over, with emphasis on the events in Egypt and Israel’s escape. But it’s all the boring stuff regarding the tabernacle that’s central to the book’s purpose: “[I] brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them” (Exodus 29.46). While the tabernacle is constructed in Exodus, what happens in and with the tabernacle—YHWH dwelling in the very midst of a fallen humanity—is the topic of all that “rigmarole” in Leviticus.

Revelation and Genesis. It had been at least a decade since I read the Bible straight through. And I annoy myself because I camp out in some parts of the Bible (like Deuteronomy and the Gospels) while all but ignoring other parts (like Job). So a couple of years ago I thought I’d read through the entire Bible once per year for three years in a row. I’m finishing the second year in that sequence, wrapping up with Revelation this December and starting again with Genesis in January.

—James R. Rogers, a blogger at Law & Liberty, is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University and a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Paul Seaton

It’s been a tough year for the two great communities to which I attach myself most closely. America and the Catholic Church find themselves wracked by serious civic discord, with no prospects for peace or even a truce in sight. These sad facts determine my holiday reading. There is a need for light in the darkness; there is also a need for relief, if I can’t see my way to hope. For America, I am going to read a book that has been out a while and been praised for its information and insight: The Polarizers:  Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era (2017) by Sam Rosenfeld. I am going to be interested to see how human agency helped bring about our polarized present, so that I can think about how agency might bring about a different future. Hope springs eternal.

To understand Pope Francis better, he of “Make a mess!” fame, I am finally getting around to Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014). The well-researched book by a papal apologist won’t fundamentally change my mind about the pontiff, but I hope to learn some tidbits and fill in some gaps. It may also give me further insight into the mindset of his defenders.

Both civil wars raise the issue of the nature of modernity. Liberals and progressives have one take on it (“More modernity is better!”), conservatives and orthodox believers another (“Whoa, nelly!”). I am going back to the origins and plan on reading a slim volume, published in 2018, on Niccolo Machiavelli that looks quite good, Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic, by Michelle T. Clarke. Apparently, the historical record of Florence supports Machiavelli’s characterization of the Grandi in the Prince, as desiring primarily to oppress the people, all the while pretending to superior virtue. There may be some lessons in this pertaining to our oligarchs as well.

Finally, thanks to a recent reminder by Titus Techera, I have loaded up on P.G. Wodehouse. Here is a writer who can take you away from your cares and make you chuckle and chortle and think to yourself time and again, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” I need a dose or two (or 10) of the wisdom of comedy. Wodehouse will deliver it in decanters and liters.

As for sure hope, Christmas Mass will be my time to rediscover it in the midst of a darkening world. There I will pray for both cities.

—Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

Luma Simms

Writing on the issue of immigration tends to be either wonkishly pragmatic or alarmist, oscillating between the emotive and the prejudicial. But in my research for the immigration book I’m writing, I came upon a treasure. Besides Tocqueville, no one reads my soul back to me the way some of the writers of the essays collected and edited by Marc Robinson in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile (1994) do. They are the greats, 20th century writers: Hannah Arendt,  Joseph Brodsky, Albert Camus, Czeslaw Milosz, and many more. Robinson includes those who have longer been dead as well, Seneca, Plutarch, Petrarch. I linger over words and thoughts, reflections on geographic and cultural uprootedness. I just started the book, and already I can tell it will be slow, so as to savor.

Dana Gioia called Elizabeth Jennings “the poet of quotidian spirituality,” but Every Changing Shape (1961) divinely acts upon my soul. I carry the vagabond’s dream that in my old age I can arrive at her clarity. And so I read, in the hope that I can feed. During idle moments—while water boils, the tea steeps, the cigarette smolders—I dip into a poem, maybe two, from New Collected Poems.

On the recommendation of my daughter, a junior in college, I am reading Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (1970). A mother-daughter discussion over coffee awaits us over the Christmas break.

And finally, Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution, the 2018 volume edited by Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah, which I will be reviewing for another publication soon after the New Year.

—Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Ilya Somin

Bas Van Der Vossen and Jason Brennan, In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2018). Free markets, property rights, free trade, and free migration are under increasing attack from nationalists and populists in many countries. Van Der Vossen and Brennan’s book is an excellent explanation of how freedom can promote development and help the poor and oppressed of the world. Includes compelling responses to a variety of counterarguments, both moral and practical.

Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press, 1995). Insightfully explores the profound consequences of situations where people have incentives to misrepresent their true views on political and social issues. An obviously important issue in repressive dictatorships, but significant even for liberal democracies. If anything, this book is even more relevant today than when it was first published.

Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound For Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad (Deckle, 2005). The inspiring and thought-provoking history of how black and white Americans worked together to help thousands escape slavery. Of relevance to contemporary debates about the limits of obligations we might have to obey unjust laws.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections do not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016). An insightful exploration of how political ignorance, partisan bias, and related forces often prevent the sort of effective “responsive” democracy envisioned by political theorists. I reviewed this important book (with which I have some disagreements) in more detail here.

Joe Abercrombie, Best Served Cold (Orbit, 2009). Abercrombie is, I think, the best new fantasy or science fiction writer of the last decade or so, and this is my favorite among his books. It combines exciting action, excellent characterization, and interesting treatment of a number of political themes.

—Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.