What We're Reading Over the Holidays

We once again asked some of our friends about their reading recommendations for Christmastime. We hope they help make our readers’ holiday season merry and bright.

Helen Dale

After congratulating myself on my good fortune in avoiding coronavirus, last week I was felled by what the British press has taken to calling “the super cold.” It’s not flu, or as bad as flu (no aches and pains, no fever) but it’s a near thing indeed. I’ve been disturbing my partner with seal-like barks and groans, even resorting to pseudoephedrine to get necessary copy finished before Christmas.

That means this year’s planned digital detox reading list is shorter than usual, and one of my recommendations a bit cheeky.

Andrew Doyle (Titania McGrath’s creator) is known as a peerless funny-man, but I’ll be turning to him in serious mien when I read Free Speech and Why it Matters, his rebuttal of the now widespread claim that language can be a form of violence. The book comes out in the US in January, so it’s quite possible I’ll have cause to discuss it again.

I started out as a novelist, so when it comes to non-fiction, I have a grave appreciation of the storyteller’s art. For that reason, my next cab off the rank is Neil Oliver’s The Story of the World in 100 Moments. Oliver is an archaeologist and documentarian, not an historian. But precisely because it’s harder to make the mute stones and bones of the preliterate past seem real and alive in the present, his narrative gift for recounting history in possession of written records is unrivalled.

And because you can’t keep novelists in a box, I’ve got a fictional treat lined up next. A. J. West came to public notice thanks to an appearance on reality television show Big Brother, which occluded his distinguished earlier career at BBC Belfast (probably the best bit of the BBC these days, given its fearlessness). The Spirit Engineer is his first novel, based on the true story of William Jackson Crawford and a spiritualist craze that swept the country after the sinking of the Titanic, where people attended séances in the hope of reaching departed loved ones.

Which brings me to my bit of cheek. I’ve got a story in volume II of Edward Willett’s Shapers of Worlds anthology, a short fiction collection. A noted writer himself, Willett’s two anthologies feature authors who’ve won or been shortlisted for major science fiction awards, and who’ve also appeared on his Worldshapers podcast. It’s quite odd to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of S.M. Stirling, Garth Nix, and Kelley Armstrong; changing genre can be a liberating experience. I’ll be reading everyone else’s stories, of course, but for those interested, my contribution comes from the Kingdom of the Wicked universe.

Samuel Gregg

Over Christmas and New Year, I typically read books that have little to nothing to do with my work. One such book that I enjoyed in past years is Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life (1995). Written for the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth, Solomon takes readers inside the history and culture which shaped Mozart’s mind and music. For me at least, great pieces like the “Marriage of Figaro” and “Coronation Mass” acquired new meaning after reading Solomon’s masterpiece.

On the fiction side, I highly recommend Jean Lartéguy’s Les Centurions (1960). It’s a splendid account of post-1945 France and the colonial wars fought in Indochina and French Algeria, and how these affected an entire generation of soldiers. Many of them had fought in the French Resistance and then considered themselves betrayed by their political masters in Paris as they fought Communist and nationalist insurgencies between 1945 and 1962.

Also related to this colonial theme is Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (1990). Its subject matter is the 150-year struggle between Britain and Tsarist Russia for mastery of central Asia. Those who love Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim will soon discover that the truth about this period of history is even more interesting as Russian and British (mostly Scottish, I’m happy to say) officers waged proxy wars against each other in locations ranging from Afghanistan to Bokhara in Uzbekistan.

Lastly, for something completely different, I recently re-read Martin Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (2008). I was reminded of how Goodman pushes beyond the stereotypes of “militaristic ruthless Romans” and “severe insular Jews” to illustrate that the former were more impressed by the latter than they let on. He also shows just how much influence the Jewish people and their civilizational achievements exercised through the Roman Empire, often in quite subliminal but nonetheless powerful ways.

Rachel Lu

A new year means new books, and I for one am hoping that the developments of 2021 will give rise to a less-despairing crop of conservative books. First though, we should enjoy a Christmas break. Reasonable people allow themselves a few pleasure reads at this time of year, so here are a few of my favorites. These are the books I pick up to reward myself at the end of a busy week (or year).

Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea is narrative history at its absolute best. It tells the story of 16th century Christians battling Ottoman Turks for control of the Mediterranean. We start with the fight for Rhodes and end with the Battle of Lepanto. This book has all of the fun things: pirates, knights, naval battles, holy warriors, harems, galleys, and Venetian explosives experts. It’s a true clash-of-civilizations epic. This year marked the 450th anniversary of Lepanto, which is the perfect excuse for putting this at the top of your nightstand pile.

Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion: A Life is hagiography, pure and simple. It is a special treat, though, to see an incredible man memorialized by such an incredible writer. Brilliant, brave, and eloquent, Campion can easily seem larger than life. Waugh fully grants his superlative traits, but somehow makes him human at the same time. Like Crowley, he is telling a story, not offering political commentary. It is fascinating nonetheless to set these volumes side by side, considering what they might tell us about the challenges of religious pluralism. In one case, two very different civilizations smash into one another with violent force. In the other, newly-sown disagreements lead fellow countrymen to inflict horrific violence on one another. The juxtaposition might help us to think about the significance of culture, religion, politics, shared history, and shared future interests for bringing people together or tearing them apart.

A friend recently talked me into rereading That Hideous Strength, after I admitted I harbored a bit of a grudge against the book. It is in fact the third volume in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. But it is also the best, and the books stand well on their own, so it’s perfectly fine to start here. My grudge stemmed from the early years of my marriage, when a few people advised me to read That Hideous Strength, obviously hoping that I would identify with the character of Jane Studdock (an unhappy housewife who uses a thin pretense at scholarly ambition as a means of hiding from her true, deep yearning for the domestic life). I grasped the point readily, and did not appreciate it. However, my friend suggested that I would now find Lewis’ views on marriage and gender more congenial to my way of thinking. Actually, I did not! But the book is so wonderful in other ways that I hardly minded. It is wickedly funny, offering a biting caricature of the diabolical machinations of corrupt institutions. All the wit and wisdom of The Screwtape Letters goes into Lewis’ portrait of the fiendish N.I.C.E. Philosophically, the book gives narrative form to the argument from The Abolition of Man, about the grave consequences of humanity’s war against nature. Perhaps my favorite part, though, is the nuanced exploration of paganism and Christianity, and the extent to which these are compatible.

Altogether, this is a stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable book, and I shouldn’t have let it collect dust for so long.

Daniel J. Mahoney

For those looking for thoughtful, high-minded reflections on political things by men and women who can write, one can’t do better than Writing Politics: An Anthology, edited by Yale professor and man of letters David Bromwich and published by New York Review of Books Classics. One can spend fruitful time with Swift, Burke, Thoreau, Lincoln, George Eliot, W. E. B. Du Bois, Churchill, Michael Oakeshott, and Hannah Arendt, among others. The selections are genuinely diverse (even conservatives are included) and not always or usually predictable. And each piece is introduced in a helpful way.

We live in an age when the art of interpretation is corrupted beyond recognition. Angry ideological critique—and selective quotation—substitute for careful and respectful explication de texte. Not so with Diana Schaub’s His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation, just out from St. Martin’s Press. Her readings of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, most prominently the Lyceum Address of 1838, the Gettysburg Address of 1863, and the incomparable Second Inaugural (1865), reveal Lincoln’s profound commitment to liberty, human dignity, and equality rightly understood, as well as his efforts, at once principled and prudent, to fight chattel slavery and preserve the Union.  Lincoln’s great and good soul knew how to acknowledge the truth that binds the sordid reality of 1619 with the noble principles of 1776 and the sublime sacrifices of 1863. A book at once timely and timeless.

My old friend David Lowenthal, a retired political philosophy professor from Boston College, approaches the age of 100 with a lucid, intelligent, and sometimes profound engagement with the wisdom of George Orwell. Slave State: Rereading Orwell’s 1984, just out from the indispensable St. Augustine’s Press, shows how Orwell came to transcend his sometimes doctrinaire (democratic) socialism by coming to terms with the terrible threat that totalitarianism posed to liberty, human decency, and the integrity of the human soul. This unbeliever remained faithful to Christian ethics and unwittingly recovered some of the most humane insights of classical political philosophy about the limits (and possibilities) inherent in the human condition.

Today, too many people, young and old alike, bow before the cult of revolution and condemn decent and free societies on the most spurious ideological grounds. The esteemed historian Donald T. Critchlow has written an important book, Revolutionary Monsters (Regnery, 2021) explaining how five men (Lenin, Mao, Castro, Khomeini, and Robert Mugabe) “turned liberation into tyranny.” His portraits of these five tyrants are lucid, reliable, and concise. Together, they reveal the false allure of “liberation” for exactly what it is. Critchlow also shows why the American Revolution avoided this path of self-destruction and negation through fidelity to constitutionalism, realism about imperfect human nature, and a more than residual Christian commitment to the dignity of the human person. A book to gift to friends and family as well as a welcome antidote to the ideological temptation.

The late Roger Scruton was a master essayist and man of letters, and a thinker of the first order. His combination of wit, literary eloquence, and sober conservative wisdom is richly displayed in the revised second edition of Confessions of a Heretic, with a lovely new introduction by Douglas Murray. Whether discussing those transcendent realities that are truly “ineffable,” how to love animals by not pretending they are human beings, “governing rightly” (without libertarian or despotic illusions), “dying in time,” “conserving nature” and “defending the West,” Scruton both informs and instructs. A delight for this or any other season.

John O. McGinnis

Steven Pinker is our greatest defender of the Whig tradition in intellectual thought. In Enlightenment Now he has argued that the world has become a much better place because of the freedoms that now undergird science and politics. This vacation I plan to read Rationality: What It is, Why it Seems Scarce and Why it Matters, because it was reason that empowered these advances. Certainly, rationality is in scarce supply on the campus and in politics these days. I look forward to Pinker’s explanation of why even smart people, perhaps particularly smart people, fail to apply the rational principles that benefit them in their private lives to the wider world.

We still live in a world that Napoleon shaped and I am going to read The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by Alexander Mikaberidze to find out more about the shadow he still casts. The volume is part of a trend toward recognizing that even before the globalization of the last century, the world was more interconnected than historians have previously noted. Besides being the first global war, this struggle also presaged the 20th century by its ideological conflict.  Britain was a far more democratic and freedom-respecting place than Napoleon’s France, and its victory struck a blow for liberty.

I will also read Gentleman Revolutionary: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution, a biography of Gouverneur Morris, a neglected but important Founder. It has the advantage of being written by Rick Brookhiser, one of America’s liveliest biographers who has a gimlet eye for spotting the detail that illuminates an era. Morris was the “pen man” of the Constitution, giving the draft its final form. His changes were consequential. For instance, he cast the powers of government into three separate articles, providing support for the central notion that the executive and the judiciary are co-equal with the legislature. He was also one of the few Founders along with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who was a great writer. Here he is on the difference between the American and French Revolutions: “The French have taken genius rather than reason for their guide, adopted experiment rather than experience, and wander in the dark because they prefer lightning to light.” I want to understand the life that enabled a man to write lines so perspicacious and elegant. 

Mark Pulliam

I have long been an admirer of the prolific scholar Thomas Sowell (dating back to his 1980 magnum opus, Knowledge and Decisions), and was disappointed that Jason Riley’s 2021 biography of Sowell, Maverick, while interesting, focused more on Sowell’s intellectual development than on the man himself. In fairness, Riley concedes in the Introduction that the book, although subtitled A Biography of Thomas Sowell, is “a treatment of Sowell’s ideas.” Fortunately, the fiercely-independent Sowell, now 91, wrote a characteristically lucid memoir back in 2000, called A Personal Odyssey, that tells his compelling life story in his own inimitable voice. I highly recommend it to Sowell fans. He is a national treasure.

I don’t read much fiction, but enjoy a good action-packed western or its equivalent: good guys vs. villains. Having worked my way through Kurt Schlichter’s Kelly Turnbull series (starting with the 2016 People’s Republic), I was on the lookout for another avenging warrior. I found it in Jack Carr’s The Terminal List (2018), which introduces the memorable character James Reece, featured in Carr’s subsequent bestselling installments. (Tucker Carlson interviewed Carr, a former Navy SEAL, on his Fox Nation show Tucker Carlson Today.) Carr is, in addition to being an engaging novelist, an impressive commentator on military strategy and foreign policy, which makes his fiction very realistic.

American history, well told, contains some tales and personalities beyond the realm of even the most imaginative novelist. So it is with Daniel Boone, the discovery of the Cumberland Gap, and the hard-fought settlement by colonial Americans of what is now Kentucky. Blood and Treasure (2021), by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, depicts Boone as perhaps the most accomplished and adventurous frontiersman in the colonial period. Readers will be spellbound—and grateful that they live in the comfort and safety of the 21st century.

Finally, Americans who are wondering what happened to the 2020 election, and who were leery of the bewildering and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories spun by Trump partisans such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and attorney Sidney “Kraken” Powell, will find some answers in Mollie Hemingway’s encyclopedic account, Rigged (2021).

Hemingway, co-author of the acclaimed Justice on Trial (2019), explores at length COVID-inspired changes to voting procedures; unprecedented—and, in many cases, indiscriminate—use of mail-in ballots; Democratic operative-cum-attorney Marc Elias’s extensive campaign of election litigation; Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg’s massive (in excess of $400 million) donations to the Center for Tech and Civic Life and other nonprofit groups to increase turnout of Democratic voters, especially in battleground states; ballot harvesting; glaring vote-counting anomalies and irregularities in key counties; rampant media bias; unprecedented social media censorship; and other elements of the 2020 debacle. 

Whether these factors explain Joe Biden’s 125,000 vote margin in four pivotal swing states is anyone’s guess, but there is plenty of fuel for speculation. In that regard, John Fund’s and Hans von Spakovsky’s detailed monograph, Our Broken Elections (2021), from Encounter Books, is a useful prescription for restoring integrity (and battered public trust) in future elections.

Merry Christmas!

Jessica Hooten Wilson

Following C.S. Lewis’s advice to read three old books for every new one you read, let me recommend some old books that I read this year and cannot stop sharing. While Lewis is referring to ancient and medieval texts, I’m merely asking we reach back into the last century. All of these titles I read this year.

The first book I read in 2021 was The Supper of the Lamb (1969) by Robert Farrar Capon, a lovely meditation on food that reads like a G.K. Chesterton “Tremendous Trifles” essay. The book made me get out an onion with my children and practice attending to its many layers. Its meditations are as sensuous as the recipes.

First published in 1922, Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows has been republished by Angelico Press with an introduction by James Matthew Wilson. This collection is full of lovely gems, such as “I Know My Soul” and “A Prayer.” McKay converted to Catholicism near the end of his life. He prays, “‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;/ I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.” In these poems, McKay wrestles with the injustice suffered in his earthly life and longs for a transcendental cosmos.

Not as old as the previous two, At the Existentialist Café (2016) by Sarah Bakewell compelled me to order the work of Gadamer, a biography of Simone Weil, and a documentary on Hannah Arendt. She explains phenomenology better than any of my undergraduate philosophy professors did, and she does so through the lives of its proponents. Through this engaging narrative, I became familiar with Heidegger and Husserl, Sartre, and de Beauvoir in ways that were both challenging and elucidating.

This past couple of years, a handful of books came out on Dorothy Sayers: Gina Dalfonzo’s Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Crystal Downing’s Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, and Colin Duriez’s Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography (which is in my Audible account awaiting my attention). In addition to these books, let me recommend Sayers’s Peter Wimsey series. I had only read Gaudy Night before this year, but I thoroughly enjoyed Whose Body? (1923), the first story in which she introduces the famed detective. I read it when I came down with Covid, and the novel made me forget my sickness and turn all my attention to the mystery.

Finally, I am looking forward to reading Michial Farmer’s new translation of Gabriel Marcel’s play Thirst (2021), originally performed in 1937. Jenn Frey featured the play on Sacred and Profane Love podcast. Although I read Homo Viator when I studied Walker Percy (Marcel influenced the novelist), this play will be my first venture into Marcel’s creative work. Written prior to World War II, the play is saturated with the fears of the time. I just hope it also exhibits some ways forward.