The gift of books

In a recent column Thomas Sowell urged his readers to “Give the gift of books!” I second that emotion (as well as the books to which he draws attention). I think the following five books are among the most important books for conservative readers published this year. I can say this with absolute certainty: they are the most important new books for conservatives that I read this year:

Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? I reviewed the book for National Review in “A new old regime.”

William Voegeli, The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion. We published Bill’s column summarizing the argument of the book here. We interviewed Bill about the book in the podcast posted here.

Bret Stephens, America In Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. We interviewed Bret about the book in the podcast posted here.

Sharyl Attkisson, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington. Attkisson was interviewed by the Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson about the book here. Attkisson provides powerful testimony to the abiding problem of media bias.

Joshua Muravchick, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel. Muravchick brings a patient historian’s eye to a question whose answer is, as they say, overdetermined.

Last year a friend asked me to recommend a book about Whittaker Chambers as a Christmas gift for her smartly conservative daughter. I noted on Power Line that Chambers stands at the center of an incredible drama and four fantastic books that I know of about him. There is still much to be learned from him and his case. It occurred to me that these books might be worth a mention in the spirit of the season.

Whittaker Chambers, Witness. This is Chambers’s autobiography. It has been in print continuously since it was published in 1952. The linked edition is the fiftieth anniversary paperback edition with new forewords by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Robert Novak. Several conservatives including a friend or two of mine have mentioned the impact this book had on them. The book figures prominently, for example, in Andrew Ferguson’s 2011 Weekly Standard cover story on David Mamet. Paul Mirengoff singled out Witness from this group as a must-read classic.

Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. As a liberal historian who was given access to the files of Hiss’s lawyers, Weinstein sought to write the definitive account of the case. He did all that and more in this meticulous work of reconstruction, now kept in print by the Hoover Institution Press in an updated edition published last year. Weinstein takes the reader inside the Communist espionage ring that infiltrated the Roosevelt administration. In the introduction to the updated 1997 edition of the book, Weinstein writes: “With the new evidence blended into the ‘old,’ most of the troubling questions about the Hiss-Chambers case can be answered.” I thought he had done that in 1978, when George Will hailed the original publication of the book as a historic event. I couldn’t put it down.

Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. Theodore Draper wrote of this book in the New York Review of Books: “Tanenhaus had the ingenious idea of filling out what Chambers wrote by going to the memoirs, letters, papers, FBI interrogations, and testimony of all the others in the story. As a result, he rounds out Chambers’s account from different angles, drawing on the accounts of many people who knew Chambers.”

John V. Fleming, The Anti-Communist Manifestos. The author is a retired English professor who spent his career at Princeton teaching Chaucer. Pursuing his bookbinding avocation in retirement, he came upon a book that sent him on a voyage of discovery to the other three books that he takes up here along with the one he was about to pulp. Witness is the fourth; Professor Fleming writes that “by any just canon of literary history [it] should claim its place within the great tradition of American autobiography.” Professor Fleming’s aptly named blog is Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, derived from Chaucer’s description of the Oxford philosophy student in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. “Gladly lerne, gladly teche” is the spirit that suffuses Fleming’s — in my opinion, great — book.

The following books changed the way I looked at the world when I was a college student. Leo Strauss opened my eyes to the great tradition of political philosophy; two of the books are by him. The third is by his student Harry V. Jaffa. The fourth is by C.S. Lewis; it thinks through the problem of relativism, also addressed by Strauss and Jaffa, with the common sense of the matter. These books have a special place in my heart. I have returned to them many times over the years.

Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History.

Leo Strauss, On Tyranny.

Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. This is a book that could open the hearts and minds of high school and college students subjected to indoctrination in the patent absurdities of multiculturalism.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss rediscovered the guarded manner in which the classic writers about politics had conveyed their teachings. Political philosophers wrote in this manner up through the Enlightenment, though it essentially remains “a forgotten kind of writing” (as Strauss referred to it in the title of one of his essays). This year’s most important book following in Strauss’s footsteps belongs on this list:

Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Peter Lawler took a penetrating look at Melzer’s book in “Uncovering the meaning of covering meanings.” Professor Lawler declares it “[t]he most important book published in political philosophy in years[.]”

Two more books, one new and one new to me this year:

Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. Gordon Wood holds: “Apart from Ralph Louis Ketcham’s 1971 life, this is probably the best single-volume biography of Madison that we now have.”

Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World. Karski was a man of almost unbelievable courage and honor who brought news of the Holocaust to the Allies during World War II, yet I hadn’t even heard of this book (originally published in 1944) before reading his student Joshua Muravchick’s tribute “A tree grows in Lublin.” Muravchick writes: “Once I opened [the book], I was unable to put it down. From it, rather than from anything Karski revealed in his lectures, I gathered the stature of the man.” The beautiful paperback edition published by Georgetown University Press includes this encomium by historian Andrew Roberts: “It might read like the screenplay for an incredibly exciting war movie, but it is all true.”

Finally, borrowing Jimmy Carter’s famous formulation, I had a discussion with my daughter Eliana. I asked her for her picks. Eliana recommends the following two books on journalism and presidential politics:

Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

Michael Isikoff, Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story.

Responses