Helen Dale, Rachel Lu, Daniel Mahoney, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and other Law & Liberty writers offer some recommendations.
We asked some of our authors and friends to share their reading plans and recommendations for the holiday season. We hope you find a few new books and ideas for gifts.
Most of you have encountered quite a few book reviews from me, both in Law & Liberty and elsewhere. For that reason, I’m going to presage two bits of reading I plan to do during my Christmas-New Year social media detox.
If the UK’s Conservative government is desperately keen to copy Australia’s immigration policies, in its turn Joe Biden’s incoming administration in the US wants to do something similar with Australia’s gun laws. To that end, one of my reading projects is David Leyonhjelm’s Gun Control: What Australia Did, How Other Countries Do It, and Is Any of It Sensible? Leyonhjelm served in Australia’s Senate for five years and fought an often-lonely battle against former PM John Howard’s post-Port Arthur massacre gun laws. He learnt, however, that while Australians are very different from Americans, Americans are also not always what they claim to be when it comes to law-abiding firearms owners. I suspect his book will be a rigorous, necessary, but disquieting read for most people.
Because too much policy-wonkery makes Helen a dull girl, the other book at the top of my “to-read” list is Llewelyn Morgan’s Ovid: A Very Short Introduction. An eminent Oxford classicist, Morgan has been tasked with explaining the one Roman writer who still has purchase in both high and popular culture. In everything from opera to Marvel Comics, Ovid’s racy and readable versions of classical myths remain part of Western Civilisation’s mental furniture. This is something many of the consumers of that output do not appreciate, and which Morgan wants to change in 110 concise pages.
—Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford and Edinburgh. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, has been shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.
Most of my holiday reading is centered on my spring semester teaching, lecturing, and podcasting. I will be teaching an upper level philosophy course on law and religion, so I’m happily diving into Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom and James Gregory Chappel’s Catholic Modern. Wilken came to Chicago several times as a speaker for the Lumen Christi Institute and James was a colleague of mine in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, so I’m pleased to be able to sit down and read their works together. I’m also going to pore over Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, by John Witte Jr. and Joel A. Nichols. In a related vein, I at least want to start to read Edward Hadas’s latest, Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking Through Catholic Social Teaching.
To prepare for some new episodes of my philosophy and literature podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, I’m reading Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. These books were chosen by my upcoming guest, Tara Isabella Burton, who is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (a book I heartily recommend for those who believe, as I do, that man is a religious animal). I’m also re-reading Jon Baskin’s Ordinary Unhappiness: The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace, a fantastic book that puts forward Wittgenstein’s concept of philosophical therapy as the interpretive lens through which to understand Foster Wallace’s fiction. I also want to dive into The Opening of the American Mind: Ten Years of the Point, which is a collection of the most highly acclaimed essays from the first ten years of The Point, a favorite subscription of mine.
Finally, I plan to read Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, which I purchased when it was released but never had time to pick up. I’ve also started to read Job by Joseph Roth, because a friend with impeccable literary taste insists that I must.
—Jennifer Frey is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and is host of the Sacred and Profane Love podcast.
W. Somerset Maugham was once asked how he kept up with the latest novels. He answered that his strategy was to wait a year after they had been published; after a year, there would be many fewer he needed to read. The last several years have yielded a bumper crop of books on how political theory has been shaped, often unwittingly, by theology. But Eric Nelson’s The Theology of Liberalism, reviewed here for Law & Liberty, is certainly one book built to outlast the moment. It will be read as long as Rawlsian liberalism remains a political philosophy to be reckoned with. By tracing the theological antecedents of liberalism back to Pelagian writers of the early modern period, and contrasting them with Rawls’ own suppressed anti-Pelagianism, Nelson exposes how inconsistent commitments on questions of theodicy reveal fundamental incoherencies in Rawls’ project and in the liberalism of the modern left. Nelson goes on to dismantle some of the monstrous spawn of Rawls such as luck egalitarianism. There are few books that combine precise and original historical scholarship with theoretical depth and sophistication. This is one of them.
—James Hankins is a professor of History at Harvard University.
G. Patrick Lynch
As everybody knows, a turkey and some mistletoe—along with Nat King Cole’s iconic version of The Christmas Song—help to make the season bright. Fortunately there was a new biography written about Cole this year by Will Friedwald entitled Straighten Up and Fly Right. The book focuses on the different phases and seeming contradictions in the great musician’s career. On the one hand Cole is revered as a master of the Great American Songbook, and yet he experimented with various other popular music forms, including country and R&B. Friedwald argues that there is a duality to much of Cole’s life and career, and the author makes it work. He also doesn’t shy away from discussing Cole’s importance as a pioneering crossover artist during segregation and acting behind the scenes as an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a whole lot more to Nat King Cole than just The Christmas Song.
Elisabeth Clemens has written a very timely book for many of us concerned with the state of civil society during the Covid pandemic. Civic Gifts is a history of how voluntary associations were critical to the development of the American nation state. Clemens examines the history of how philanthropy and civic associations grew in conjunction with the American state from the days of the early republic to the Second World War. She not only highlights the importance of the non-profit sector in supporting society and the nation, but also how this sector helped to mute opposition to the growth of government in a liberal political structure. Reciprocity, charity, and various organizations that brought people together for good causes helped support those in need without unnecessarily expanding the government’s scope and reach—thus maintaining popular support for our government.
Finally, after I was forced to read a rather poor book by the late Winston Groom on Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, I had to cleanse my palate and read some more serious history. I turned to Robert Service’s classic Stalin: A Biography, which remains one of the best examples of complex biography and serious history I have ever read. Service manages to put human contours on one of the most horrific, murderous individuals in human history. I think my attraction to this book this year was to try to understand how evil can emerge and reign for so long despite the obvious costs to so many throughout the Soviet Union and the world. I don’t know that Service provides us with simple answers about the larger questions raised by tyranny, but he gives us the foundation for understanding it, and that is the first step towards protecting our own liberal democracy, or whatever is currently left of it.
—G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.
Daniel J. Mahoney
For those interested in exploring the very meaning of human community and the “symbolizations” that inform it, there is no more astute and challenging book than Barry Cooper’s Paleolithic Politics: The Human Community in Early Art. Where others saw only the pedestrian and incomprehensible, Cooper sees spiritual and political self-awareness in the portable and cave art of the Upper Paleolithic. Drawing on and displaying philosophical anthropology and political science of the first order, Cooper shows that the “metaphysical gap” between animal and human perception is already fully apparent in the art of our distant forbears.
In a book displaying much learning and written with admirable literary grace, the intellectual historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn calls for a renewal of what the great Cicero called “the arts of living.” In Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, Lasch-Quinn carefully distinguishes true interiority from a therapeutic preoccupation with the ‘self’ and its undisciplined and chaotic felt needs. In a chapter on “The New Epicureanism,” she wisely observes that “we are born into a world that we did not create. The art of return must take seriously the notion of transcendent good, perhaps the only enduring answer to the question of how to live.” A most learned and inviting antidote to feel-good spirituality, and an example of outstanding scholarship at the service of true self-understanding.
I recently stumbled across a copy of a splendid collection of essays, Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas, by the distinguished intellectual historian and Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo. Published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2009, and released in paperback in 2017, the book’s elegant and compact essays explore diverse aspects of Lincoln’s life, and especially his thought. Three essays, in particular, caught my attention: one dealing with Lincoln’s life-long dalliance with the “doctrine of necessity,” a kind of secularized version of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, another showing the central role of natural law in providing an ontological ground for Lincoln’s opposition to chattel slavery and its spread throughout the Union, and a magisterial essay on the role that high moral and political prudence played in Lincoln’s approach to the Emancipation Proclamation. A valuable book for all those interested in Lincoln, the politics of prudence, and the moral foundations of republican self-government.
In Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher provocatively shows how a “soft totalitarianism” is in the process of colonizing civil society with the help of Big Government, Big Tech, Woke capitalism, and utterly ideologized universities. In light of this alarming new situation, Dreher compellingly argues that we must all follow Solzhenitsyn’s example in self-consciously refusing “to live by Lies.” In addition to making this case, and making it well, Dreher draws on the experience of Christian dissidents who remained faithful to the truth and the imperatives of conscience while living under much harder variants of totalitarian despotism. The book serves one other valuable purpose: it provides a trustworthy account of what “really existing socialism” looked like in the twentieth century. At a time when the young are invincibly ignorant of the criminality, terror, and the assault of the integrity of the soul that marked Communism in all its forms, Dreher’s book promises to open many eyes to the salient realities of our time.
And for those who wish to engage with Solzhenitsyn himself, the publication of Between Two Millstones: Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994 allows us to see the great anti-totalitarian writer continuing his fight against the Soviet Dragon even as he confronted fierce opposition from relativistic and remarkably mendacious demi-intellectuals in the West. But the Russian Nobel Laureate found spiritual peace and freedom from oppression with his wife and family in rural Vermont. During his Vermont years, Solzhenitsyn completed The Red Wheel, his monumental, multi-volume account of Russia’s descent into brutal totalitarianism, aided and abetted by naive liberals and socialists who could see no enemies to the Left. The book, introduced by yours truly, includes moving accounts of Solzhenitsyn’s meetings with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II, but not Ronald Reagan, for reasons readers can discover on their own. Highly recommended.
—Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University. For the 2020-2021 academic year, he is the Garwood Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
John O. McGinnis
High on my reading list for this Christmas vacation is Ludwig von Mises’ The Anticapitalist Mentality (in the Liberty Fund edition, of course!) I am amazed at how socialism is enjoying a revival in the United States. It is occurring not only in politics with old leftists like Bernie Sanders and new ones like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, but only among the up-and-coming generation of law professors, many of whom for the first time in decades openly espouse an economic philosophy that I thought had been buried by its many failures. Capitalism has done more for the wretched of the world than any theory of social governance in history. I want to understand the roots of the first revolt against its successes so I can better grapple with the new era of discontents.
I will also be reading Frank Ramsey: An Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak. The polymath Ramsey did dazzling and foundational work in pure mathematics, philosophy, decision theory, and logic all before he died at age 26 in 1930. I enjoy books about the unfolding of genius, because they are standing refutations of the idea that brilliance arises from social planning rather than individual nature. It is this nature that propels social progress and illuminates our world.
Finally, I will reread Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, now better remembered as the author of A Clockwork Orange. When I first read it in law school, it captured my attention both as a picaresque tale about an amusing, popular writer in the early twentieth century and as a serious meditation on the tension between faith and reason—a matter that in my view requires constant rethinking. I hope to enjoy again a book I remember as one of the most propulsive in the English language from its very first sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.” Rereading a book after many years is not only an opportunity for reevaluation of the work but of better understanding one’s own intellectual journey.
The underlying project that ties all these books together is to better understand modernity. Virginia Woolf wrote: “On or around December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that, but a change there was, nevertheless.” I am not so sure that character changes but the world’s governing way of thought did shift as modernity was born. Another book that this year helped me understand the transformation was a marvelous biography of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert Richardson that showed how pragmatism arose from distinctively American soil.
—John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.
Richard M. Reinsch II
This Christmas season it seems incumbent upon us to reconnect with the sources of liberty and order as so many voices continue to swamp us with unending discord. To that end, nothing surpasses Robert Nisbet’s mid twentieth century classic The Quest for Community. I’m looking forward to finding ways in 2021 to focus attention on this book because it considers man in relational contexts of home, family, work, community, and religion. These contexts of liberty are the fundamental ingredients of a life that people love and honor because they can see themselves in it. These relational contexts for life offer something else that we always need: sane politics. If we lose these contexts, other ideological abstractions and impulses rush in to fill the void. Nisbet points toward a better understanding of ordered liberty precisely because he builds on a proper understanding of human persons and how we are made to flourish, one that both autonomy and collectivism fail to understand.
If you only know General George S. Patton from the film Patton, then you need to read Furman Daniel’s Patton: Battling with History. Daniel reveals that Patton competed in the 1912 Olympics pentathlon competition where he placed fourth, almost dying from exhaustion in both the swimming and running events and not from poor training, but from sheer force of exertion during the event. He competed like a warrior. More than this, Daniel details Patton’s commitment to studying military history. As a constant student of battles and campaigns from Caesar to Napoleon and more, Patton developed the acute sense of the tactics and forces that were needed to prevail in war. This, Daniel argues, is how Patton became one of the most celebrated and successful generals in American history. As Patton noted in “Obligations of Being an Officer,” a 1919 memo written at the conclusion of World War I, “There is always something to do. For example, read about war.”
Gregory Collins has written a masterful treatment of Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy. Collins has unlocked for us a significant dimension of Burke as a thinker and statesman who understood well the value of markets, trade, and responsible government regulation. But Collins is keen to argue that Burke was never one-dimensional in his approach. He couldn’t be considered a free trader or a mercantilist on the question of international trade. Burke wants to protect the empire and its needs, but also comes to the conclusion that the best route to do this is to loosen and liberalize trade restrictions among the North American colonies, the West Indian colonies, and with certain French possessions. Burke also can’t be labelled a small government advocate, even while he makes arguments a classical liberal might sign onto with regard to regulation of internal markets. The difference is that Burke never made Lockean natural rights arguments cleanly separating civil society from government but saw government in a caretaker and relational mode with citizens and their actions and movements. However, that was a relationship between government and citizen that was designed to foster their flourishing and freedom, not one that dominates them or uses them for statist projects.
—Richard M. Reinsch II is the editor of Law & Liberty and the host of LibertyLawTalk.
James R. Rogers
Richard B. Hays, of Duke Divinity School, moved from high to high during his career. It began with his provocative dissertation, The Faith of Jesus Christ, an argument that, at critical points in Paul’s epistles, the Greek phrase, pistis tou christou, is better translated in the subjective genitive (“the faith of Jesus Christ”) rather than in the objective genitive (“faith in Jesus Christ”). It affects no confessional doctrine, but understanding the phrase this way opens several epistolary arguments in fresh ways. Hays continued, inter alia, with his influential mid-career book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and now ends his academic career with a book on the figural reading of the Gospels, Echoes of the Scriptures in the Gospels, which I am reading this holiday season. This extends the argument Hays developed earlier in Reading Backwards (which I discuss here and here.)
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays. Montaigne essentially created the essay. Despite exploring numerous philosophical issues in his essays, the subject of those essays, Montaigne writes, is himself. Perhaps this subject—oneself—has now gotten a bit out of hand. (As Henry James describes Isabel Archer, “Like the mass of American girls Isabel had been encouraged to express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected to have emotions and opinions.”)
I’m also reading Chris Beha’s new novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, at the recommendation of my friend, Rusty Reno. Rusty tells me, “It’s smart and has something to say.” That’s enough for me.
—James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
Brian A. Smith
Recently, my wife and I restarted a reading group with some dear friends. Given the strangeness of our times, it seemed appropriate for us to begin with an abridged version of Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Superbly edited down to a more manageable 795 pages by David Womersley, Gibbon’s beautifully written narrative offers us a way of assessing just how America’s present disasters match up with Rome’s. Readers might be surprised to find how good our own situation looks by comparison to Rome’s increasing descent into tyranny—but will also note some of the disturbing ways our society’s deep trends resemble theirs. Gibbon’s occasional philosophical reflections—reminiscent of Tocqueville’s in the first volume of Democracy in America—are sure to spark conversation.
My current bedside table reading is Makoto Fujimura’s Art and Faith: A Theology of Making. Americans often struggle with understanding how their work, their creativity, and their spiritual life might fit together. By offering a view of the spiritual aspects of “making” that can be carried over into any field, Fujimura helps reminds us that we need to see our work as meaningful, and that beauty offers us clues for how to restore an appreciation of truth and goodness in our everyday lives.
About once a year, my children ask me to reread their favorite book of poetry, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley. Midway through our third reading, I’m finding that the individual poems themselves are delightful, as are the oil paintings accompanying each one. The book’s journey through an alphabetical collection of mythical mammals offers both children and adults an opportunity to think together about what matters most in life.
Over the holiday vacation, I also plan to reread Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, the second installment in his series depicting the Culture, a highly-advanced society where humans and artificial intelligences work together in peace and seemingly effortless prosperity. The book centers on Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a brilliant player of every kind of game. Gurgeh is bored, and his unique talents bring him to the attention of the Culture’s intelligence and special operations group, who want him to enter a contest that will decide the fate of an empire.
—Brian A. Smith is managing editor of Law & Liberty.
America seems to have gone mad recently. Accordingly, many people have shifted from pretending that life is normal and there’s no real trouble in the American soul to pretending that we’re all living through a unique, unprecedented crisis that requires we blame somebody else than ourselves, in the hope that we can somehow avoid asking what’s wrong with us.
The elites and elite institutions that used to tell us they are creating the future and that we’ll all love it have turned to hysteria about the evils of the internet which made them powerful and wealthy. The Silicon Valley president himself—Obama—tells us the internet is the greatest threat to democracy. Needless to say, there’s been no reckoning about these elites’ failures.
Let me suggest that understanding ourselves requires instead that we connect our current crisis and our previous complacency. An exaggerated cheerfulness and an even more exaggerated hatred are the effects of the same cause: the restlessness of the American heart, the absence of anchors and grounding certainties. Americans tend to think that either the sky’s the limit or the floor itself is collapsing underneath our feet.
Restlessness is the price we pay for our freedom. It is also why freedom requires art, not merely spontaneity, to make it good. So if you suspect our elites are lying to us, that in a way we’re tempted to lie to ourselves, if you want to understand the American heart, read the best tract written in a long while in America: James Poulos, The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves.
—Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.
Jessica Hooten Wilson
“I recommend this book to all who are mortal,” Mary Pipher writes of L.S. Dugdale’s The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom. I cannot compose a stronger endorsement than that. Dugdale’s book brings to the forefront our mortality. As a physician, she often witnesses people’s last moments of life, and their lack of preparation for death compelled her to write this book. We all die, but in our contemporary culture, we can delay thinking about this fact until that fatal car accident, the stage 4 cancer diagnosis, or old age presses the reality upon us. During this season of plague, we have watched the death tally climb in America, but how many of us have considered our own approaching deaths? Dugdale draws together her experiences as well as research on plagues, practices of ars moriendi, ethical considerations around resuscitation, hospice, and even funeral rites.If we are to live a good life, we must prepare to die well.
Another book that seems apropos of our time during this epidemic is Scott Cairns’ The End of Suffering. I bought the book years ago at an Eighth Day Books table because I admire Cairns’ poetry, but I did not read it until this summer. In the middle of quarantine and frustrated by all the grief, protests, and worries that surrounded me, I picked up this tiny book and read it in one sitting. Cairns draws across the tradition for how people faced suffering and from where they drew their hope. The problem stems from our fractured identity: “We are compelled toward balance, but we are bent. We hope to be even, but we are at odds—at odds with ourselves, at odds with are constituent bits.” Cairns reconfigures for us a picture of wholeness that may provide hope and begin our participant healing. The book is a great gift idea during this season—lyrical sentences and ascendant images. Without platitudes or sugar-coating, Cairns uplifts us out of the darkness.
In his Substack newsletter, Rod Dreher recommended that people read more poetry this year—shine goodness into a season of darkness. That’s always my penchant. I try to memorize one poem a year, and I contributed to a book—30 Poems to Memorize (Before It’s Too Late)—that offers a smattering of the most meaningful poems to know by heart, including those of Auden, Shakespeare, Kenyon, Hughes, etc. The collection should be purchased for everyone you love because it provides a brief guide to making the best that’s been written and thought part of who you are, part of the songs you repeat in your head. “We grow accustomed to the Dark–/ When Light is put away—” Emily Dickinson laments. This book returns the light to us.
If you desire to go further than this collection of notable verse and buy a book of one poet’s work, my highest recommendation goes to James Matthew Wilson’s The Strangeness of the Good, the most admirable, inspiring book of poetry that I have read in a long time (Dreher cites a poem from the collection in the aforementioned newsletter). My husband (an engineer, not always predisposed to poetry) and I have been reading the “Quarantine Notebook,” a series of narrative poems that Wilson penned in spring 2020, aloud to one another in the evenings, tasting the language, laughing at our own memories of quarantine, savoring the insightful twists Wilson takes in each poem. I have been quoting lines in conversations with others over the past several weeks: “many darker things will pass/Before we hope of knowing why” or “I, older and unruly still/ Would have my will reordered by His will.” The pleasure of holding the final poem “When” in your hands is enough reason to buy the collection: “Will you stand as the Lord of All once stood,/ And somehow say that things are very good?” If you’re looking for light, Wilson’s collection emanates.
—Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence in the Humanities and Classical Education graduate program at the University of Dallas.