A Midlife Reading List

A couple weeks ago I linked to my list of the top 12 environmental books over at my EnvironmentalTrends.org site, but then yesterday I noticed that our pal Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing over at the Corner, wondered what list of books a young conservative should read, and linked to Jonah Goldberg’s top ten book list from several years ago.

It’s been a while since anyone asked me for my top ten conservative book list, but it seems like something we ought to do every so often, in part to see how and whether changing circumstances or getting older changes our perspective on what books should be considered essential reading.  I know I used to keep a top ten list, but can’t seem to find it. Has the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism changed what ought to be considered essential reading for our time?  I think not, for reasons I hope to explain in a long magazine article I’m slowly working on right now.  All such lists are bound to be idiosyncratic or subjective, and no one can top G.K. Chesterton’s great answer to the query about what one book he’d take to a desert island (Hawkin’s Complete Guide to Shipbuilding).  Be that as it may, here’s what I’d recommend to any young conservative as essential reading to understand out time:

1.  C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.  This very short but elegant book exposes the problem with moral relativism by reference to trends in English literature, and it coolly anticipates what we recognize today as “post-modernism” decades before it became apparent where we were tending.  Lewis went on to illustrate the moral problems of moral relativism in his novel That Hideous Strength, the third of his celebrated “space trilogy” of novels that began with Out of the Silent Planet, and to my mind the best of the anti-utopian novels of the mid-20th century—way better that Orwell’s 1984.  (Indeed, Lewis suggested That Hideous Strength was a companion to The Abolition of Man.)  The Abolition of Man could also be read as a preface to Leo Strauss’s most famous book, Natural Right and History.  Jonah wimps out in his book list by saying “I avoid Strauss’s books like an all-you-can-eat buffet at an Indian-run Motel Six,” but he shouldn’t (I’ll have to take this up with him), and neither should you.  (And how clever of me: I’ve managed to get in three books in one entry here, which may be cheating.) [Amazon]

2.  Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided.  This is the book that Hadley Arkes (no slouch as an author himself) describes as his one indispensible desert island book.  It is one part history and one part Socratic dialogue, tracing its central issues all the way back to The Republic.  Of all the hundreds of books about Abraham Lincoln, Crisis plumbs the rich depths of Lincoln’s thought and political practice better than any of them, while also shining a light on the relevance of Lincoln’s insights for our own time.  This book will be read centuries from now, like Gibbon or John Locke. [Amazon]

3.  Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind.  I agree with this book’s many thoughtful critics (Whittaker Chambers’s famous remark to Bill Buckley comes to mind: “Would you storm the beach at Tarawa for that conservative position?  And neither would I!”), but it nonetheless contains the most comprehensive distillation of the Continental/Anglo roots of the American conservative tradition. [Amazon]

4.  Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind.  This is not the companion to Kirk’s Conservative Mind, but is rather a diagnosis of how modern liberals think and act.  Minogue is a much overlooked author (at least here in America)—his Oxford Press Very Short Introduction to Politics is extraordinarily well done, too. [Amazon]

5.  Paul Johnson, Modern Times.  Whoever said that “history is philosophy teaching by example” would have found this axiom fulfilled in this splendid “analytical narrative” (as I described it once to Johnson, to his approval) showing the results of the deadly combination of moral relativism and the will to power of the 20th century’s worst political figures. [Amazon]

6.  Whittaker Chambers, Witness.  My witness for the continuing relevance of Witness is David Mamet, who has described how reading the book not too long ago contributed (along with Hayek) to his conversion to conservatism.  Witness is about much more than just an account of the famous Hiss case.  (I’m currently re-reading the entire Chambers corpus for a sprawling essay that I just can’t get out of my head, completely on spec, which is something I almost never do any more.) [Amazon]

7.  Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon.  Any top ten list ought to have a novel on it, and I always thought Koestler’s fictional treatment of the purge trials was the best of the mid-century anti-Communist novels, even though Koestler would not be considered a conservative in any recognizable sense.  Again, this might seem a relic of the Cold War, but I still say it captures the perversions borne of the will to believe of modern utopian ideologies.  Some day someone will produce the equivalent piece of literature for the phenomenon of Islamic extremism. [Amazon]

8.  F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of LibertyThe Road to Serfdom is Hayek’s most famous book, but it has some flaws, which even Hayek came to recognize implicitly. The Constitution of Liberty, published 17 years after Road, is his best book and represents his more mature and complete thought. [Amazon]

9. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.  You don’t need to be an orthodox Christian—or even an unorthodox one—to profit from this short work, which conveys the conservative spirit of paradox with a writing style rich with wit that is the model for the best of modern conservative journalism. [Amazon]

10.  Winston Churchill, My Early Life.  This is a tough call, as I could just as easily recommend Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures, which he called his collection of money-making “pot boilers,” yet offering a number of profound reflections on the challenges facing modern statesmen (including one essay that bears on the difficulties of our new “supercommittee” that will try to work out the budget cuts of the debt ceiling deal; I’ll reflect on this in a separate post).  Pay special attention to Chapter 9, “Education at Bangalore,” where one can see the virtues of a self-education in politics, history, and philosophy.  It is in this famous chapter where Churchill tells one of his noble lies, “a man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action”—a noble lie in his case because his life combined thought and action at the highest level, thereby providing a model of human excellence as well as the model for statesmanship. [Amazon]

I could go on for another 25 or more essential books, or maybe even 100.  Maybe I’ll do some sequels on slightly more specialized but nevertheless truly important books (like Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue).  Everyone will have his or her own favorites; comments welcome of course.  Perhaps this list dates me. I read all of these books in my teens and 20s (I read The Abolition of Man in high school), when most people are forming their adult views.  If I were starting out today, would I still regard Witness or Darkness at Noon as indispensible books?  Maybe not, but I’m not sure any more recent books stack up to the same intellectual and moral height.

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