Editor’s Note: Your plans may look different this year, but whether you’re vacationing or holed up at home, good books are equally necessary. We asked some well-read colleagues and contributors for their recommendations.
In my rural Elba I find it easiest to read old novels online. Stimulated by memories of the 1968 movie starring Julie Christie, I read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. It does not disappoint. The four main characters — Bathsheba Everdene and her three lovers, shepherd Gabriel Oak, farmer William Boldwood, and Sergeant Francis Troy — are sharply drawn, time and place lyrically evoked. Maugham complained of Hardy’s rustics. They do run on, but that’s what people in small worlds do. Rare for Hardy, there is only one character, Fanny Robin, mother of Troy’s child, who is an authorial punching bag; and there is even a happy ending.
The new book I ordered was The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, by Barry Gewen. Gewen aims to explain how Kissinger sees the world, and how he came to do so. The rise of Hitler by democratic means was the defining event for this German Jew, making him suspicious of happy endings, and determined to maneuver in a hostile world. Fans of Ronald Reagan will find much of interest, and to argue with. Bonus: interesting, and surprisingly pertinent chapters on Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt.
— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.
In Sunlight and in Shadow, by Mark Helprin
I picked up this novel last month after remembering how much I loved Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, and it did not disappoint. I read the entire thing—about 700 pages—in just under two weeks, and there were stretches where I could hardly put it down. The plot is fast-paced enough, and the characters fleshed out enough, to keep you engaged the whole way through, and the prose is beautiful, often bordering on poetic. It’s a novel for those who appreciate fiction that grapples with weighty, powerful themes, and a book especially for anyone with a nostalgic love for New York City.
Grant, by Ron Chernow
A confession: I have yet to finish this mammoth 2017 biography of the Union general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, but I think I’ve read enough to confidently recommend it as a worthwhile read over the course of a month or two of your summer. I tend to prefer fiction and rarely make it through an entire biography, but Chernow brings Grant to life from the very first pages, weaving historical details together with a literary style. Especially during a time of social unrest and historical unawareness, this biography is a chance to reflect on an admirable leader from a decisive period in our country’s history.
The Essential American: A Patriot’s Resource, edited by Jackie Gingrich Cushman
This compilation is an excellent resource for anyone looking to refresh his memory on American history or brush up on his knowledge of key primary sources. Cushman gathers 25 documents and speeches and arranges them chronologically with historical context at the start of each selection, beginning with Patrick Henry’s address at the Second Virginia Convention and closing with George W. Bush’s address to Congress and the American people after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Along the way, there are some fairly obvious inclusions — several of Lincoln’s speeches, for instance — and some less expected choices, such as Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the Declaration of Independence and Daniel Webster’s lengthy discourse delivered on the 200th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth Rock.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Michael Brendan Dougherty
2020 is an odd year to be a conservative. A Republican is president, but the streets are ruled by left-wing mobs, and in many places it’s illegal to go to church or run a business normally. A Supreme Court mostly appointed by Republicans has radically expanded the Civil Rights Act. You could be forgiven for feeling a bit displaced in times like these.
And that’s why it’s an immense comfort to read Ed West’s book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism. West is a Brit, and his book moves seamlessly between humorous memoir, philosophizing, and social science. He chronicles the ways in which being on the right is both a comfort and an obvious handicap as the universities, pop culture, and all the other social powers march to the left. West bounds between Andrew Breitbart and Percy Bysshe Shelley on the power of art and culture, as a lead up to discussing how Harry Potter books have replaced Scripture and everything else written before 1995 in the Western mind. Sample chapter title: “Are We the Baddies?”
This September I have it in mind to renovate the lawn and create gardens, so I’m taking Jan Johnsen’s Gardentopia and Michelle Slatalla’s Gardenista on vacation. They’re beautiful coffee-table-style books. And it seems necessary these days to put nature into order, thereby making a place of shade and refreshment.
And for those looking for something more dense than a Pyracantha bush but even more reassuring than Small Men, there is the late Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, which takes on the leading thinkers of the New Left. What’s reassuring is his conclusion that the Left can destroy but never truly build. “A blind faith drags radical leftists from ‘struggle’ to ‘struggle,’ reassuring them that everything done in the name of equality is well done and that all destruction of existing power will lead towards the goal,” he writes. “They desire to leap from the tainted world that surrounds them into the pure but unknowable realm of total emancipation. This leap into the Kingdom of Ends is a leap of thought, which can never be mirrored in reality. ‘Revolutionary praxis’ therefore confines itself to the work of destruction, having neither the power nor the desire to imagine, in concrete terms, the end towards which it labours.”
I suppose what I’m learning is that while the cities burn for the cause of an unachievable and in fact largely unimagined future, we must tend to our gardens.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer for National Review.
Given the decades-long rush to the left on the part of the American publishing industry, it is hard to believe, in retrospect, that the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to a work of naked cultural appropriation whose (white male) author explicitly defends the existence of objective truth. Yet that is exactly what happened when Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son secured what is arguably the nation’s highest literary award.
Set in North Korea during the rule of Kim Jong-il, The Orphan Master’s Son tells the story of Pak Jun Do, a servant of the regime whose astonishing career includes state-sponsored kidnappings, overseas diplomacy, and a stint in an underground prison so horrific it could only exist in the Hermit Kingdom. Desperate to secure his freedom, Pak devises an audacious plan: He will impersonate a national hero, Commander Ga, and the plot will succeed because North Koreans have “been trained to accept any reality presented to them.”
Though Johnson’s portrait of Pyongyang and its surroundings is utterly convincing, The Orphan Master’s Son is primarily a work of moral imagination. Its author has “a grand and terrible truth” to tell about the nature of reality, and he does so thrillingly.
Similarly evocative is Ian McEwan’s portrayal of 1970s England in his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, which I’ve come to conclude is the finest book in that author’s remarkable oeuvre. Following its young heroine, Serena Frome, from the Cambridge maths department to a desk at MI5, Sweet Tooth is a conservative masterpiece as well as a spy story with a postmodern sting in its tail.
“We suffered from faulty governance,” Serena tells herself while pondering Western civilization, “but in this part of the world our rulers no longer had absolute power, [and] savagery was mostly a private affair.” Her conclusion? “We had raised ourselves above the filth. The cathedrals, the parliaments, the paintings, the courts of law, the libraries and the labs [were] far too precious to pull down.”
On behalf of all readers who wish to save our cultural and political inheritance from the mob: “Amen, and amen.”
— Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.
This spring was crisis-ridden and disorienting. So the three summer books I’d recommend all offer a bit of clarity on some of the complicated problems our country faces. And each in its way forces us to see how our strengths and our weaknesses are inexorably bound together.
The first is Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Douthat is of course a brilliant conservative New York Times columnist (and my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute), and he may have a better grasp of this moment than any writer around. The book suggests that our society is in the grip of drift and repetition—not a decline, exactly, but a stall. The case is tightly argued, persuasive, and eye-opening. And there is hope there too, if only a little.
The second is Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. Caldwell is a keen observer of the many faults of the West’s elites, and this book argues that over the past 60 years we have seen the emergence of an alternative political and social order in our society, which takes the concept of non-discrimination as its core ideal and tries to reconstruct our culture and our constitutional system accordingly. The book presents itself as a history, though I don’t think it works as one. But as a key to the internal logic of our cultural politics—a guide to the Left’s deformed ambitions and the Right’s deforming resentments—it is unmatched. In recent weeks in particular, whether in watching the streets or the Supreme Court, I found myself returning to Caldwell’s insights again and again.
Finally, an old classic that seems never to lose its timeliness. Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America was published in 1962. It’s a study of the bizarre unreality of so much of our culture. Decades before social media, reality television, and the rise of “influencers,” Boorstin could see where the logic of American self-deception was pointing, and why that should worry us. He was prophetic regarding some problems that we still now struggle to understand and to address.
Douthat’s subtitle, “how we became the victims of our own success,” could in different ways apply to all three of these books, and to this moment more generally. Maybe that should make us feel better. But not much better.
— Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.
All That Man Is, by David Szalay
Although his profile in the United States is still relatively low, the 47-year-old Hungarian-British novelist David Szalay is one of the funniest and most intelligent voices in contemporary English-language fiction. All That Man Is, which was short-listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, is his best work: a set of interlinked short stories about variously aged European men suffering existential disquiet, from a listless French stoner trying to score in a low-budget beach resort to a suicidal Russian oligarch contemplating his life’s work. Think Houellebecq, if Houellebecq weren’t a misanthrope.
The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
Another British novel published in the last decade, The Wake, by the “recovering environmentalist” Paul Kingsnorth, is like nothing you’ve ever read, unless you’ve read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon. Written in what Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue”—a form of Old English modified to make it intelligible, if just barely, to modern English speakers—The Wake is a beautiful, eerie, and frequently terrifying account of the Norman Conquest of England, told from the perspective of a mad Saxon smallholder for whom the invasion is, quite literally, the end of the world. The book’s language takes some getting used to, but it’s more than worth the effort.
The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan
First published in 1979 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2004, The Year of the French is a masterpiece of American historical fiction. Flanagan, a longtime professor of English and Irish literature, tells the story of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, in which a handful of middle-class nationalists collaborated with a small French expeditionary force to lead a doomed peasant revolt against British rule. The result is an immersive and deeply humane epic.
— Park MacDougald is the life and arts editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.
John J. Miller
What’s the best spy novel ever written? I once asked this question of former CIA director Jim Woolsey. He gave two answers, both excellent.
The best spy novel as literature, he said, is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré (1963). Great choice: It’s a short and gripping classic of the Cold War that wonders about the role of deceit in the defense of Western ideals. Some have criticized Le Carré’s novels for their moral equivalence, and it’s a fair point, but this is an outstanding book, easy to follow yet full of complexity and insight. People will read it for a long time.
The best spy novel to provide a sense of what the CIA really does, Woolsey continued, is Agents of Innocence, by David Ignatius (1987). Another winner: I loved it when it still felt fresh, enjoying the observations of its author, a veteran correspondent of the Middle East. Because it takes place in the long-gone 1980s, today’s readers may see it as a period piece—but it’s a period worth knowing because our own era emerges from it.
Thankfully, Ignatius, who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, has kept on writing novels. I’ve read most of them, and his latest, The Paladin (2020), may be my favorite since that first one: a tale of espionage, cybersecurity, and WikiLeaks-style journalism. The main character espouses right-of-center political views that Ignatius probably does not share but nevertheless takes seriously. And just about every conservative will smile at this snatch of dialogue, which doubles as wisdom: “Don’t mess with journalists. It’s like having a pet rattlesnake.”
— John J. Miller is a national correspondent for National Review, as well as the host of The Great Books and The Bookmonger podcasts. He also serves as director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.
Historian and Oxford professor, wartime intelligence agent, elegant on paper, a fearless rider to hounds, Hugh Trevor-Roper was a grand public figure, and on top of it all he was a master of controversy. Recently published, The China Journals is Trevor-Roper at his best, a marvelously entertaining account of a journey in 1965 to the China of Mao Zedong, in its way a genuine period piece. The body sponsoring him was supposedly cultural but in fact a Chinese Communist front. Hoping to see Chinese monuments and art, Trevor-Roper was obliged to take part in the pre-arranged tour of Maoist propaganda, for example having to listen to an “excruciating” talk from the director of a cotton factory. He hardly knew which was worse, the Communist-indoctrinated guides for whom the great past meant nothing, or the fellow-travelers from the democracies for whom ghastly reality meant nothing. Back in London, he set about exposing the crypto-Communists who had sponsored him and still were powerful enough to stop publication of these journals in Trevor-Roper’s lifetime. Victory comes late in the day, but it is victory all the same.
Andrew Brown is the author of Stendhal, a scintillating biography of the French novelist whose real name was Henri Beyle. He was to adopt over a hundred pseudonyms. Confessing to fear of boredom and love of glory, he claimed to be tired of not being famous but “only eight or ten people think the way I do.” Writing in the 1830s, he said that by 1935 he would be famous. The very first sentence of The Charterhouse of Parma, one of his masterpieces, has the giveaway declaration that Napoleon Bonaparte is the successor of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. That novel’s description of the battle of Waterloo bears regular rereading. Stendhal cultivated everything Italian, and the final sentence of his book is a dedication in English, “To the Happy Few.” It’s worth registering with them.
Norman Stone, a free-thinking and prolific writer with insights all his own into the history of the whole of Europe, lived long enough to finish Hungary: A Short History. He was reputed to have been able to speak to everybody from the Atlantic to the Urals in their own language, Hungarian included. Some of the ways and means with which the small but determined Hungarian nation handled its German and its Slav neighbors were right and some were wrong, making an ideal subject for one last tour de force.
— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review. His most recent book is Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime.
During a lull in a summer job, I picked up Taylor Caldwell’s slightly daunting historical novel A Pillar of Iron and ended up unable to put it down. Caldwell transports her reader into the heart of Rome, Rome in its twilight, a city full of ugliness and debauchery. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the mighty orator, stands in the breach, determined to fight for and defend the mighty Roman Republic he once knew to exist. Caldwell’s portrait of Cicero is detailed and engaging, bringing to life this famous statesman.
From Rome, we travel in both time and place to Oxford, England, to hear how C. S. Lewis profoundly influenced two lives. Sheldon Vanauken’s autobiographical A Severe Mercy follows the author and his wife in their friendship with Lewis as they move from a paganistic view of life and love to the unrivaled joy of finding Christ. Written with a graceful lyricism, it is the last few chapters which are particularly heartrending, as they dig deeply into the soul of the author and ponder enduring themes of God, love, and time.
Let’s stay in England to revisit a much-lauded author, Jane Austen, and a much-maligned novel of hers, Mansfield Park. This often-underrated story tells of meek Fanny Price, her dissatisfied cousins, insufferable aunt, and deceptive friends. Many readers consider this work a bore and find Fanny flat and scrupulous. Undoubtedly, Fanny lacks the wit of Elizabeth Bennet and the charm of Emma Woodhouse, but critics gloss over her sweet nature and nobleness of character. She is a work in progress, knows it, and tries to better herself, despite the cruelties of her odious Aunt Norris (one of the best Austen villains), the machinations of playboy suitor Henry Crawford, and the obliviousness of Edmund Bertram.
To round out, let’s cross the pond and join 15-year-old Mary Alice in Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder as she goes to live with her grandmother in a tiny Illinois town in 1937. Grandma Dowdel keeps herself to herself; is a dead shot with the twelve-gauge Winchester; and can outsmart any banker, sheriff, or DAR member in the whole county. Our God is a God of justice, but Grandma Dowdel must think He works too slowly. This slim volume is nearly unbeatable for its razor-sharp wit and side-splitting vignettes. A literary character of impossible proportions, Grandma Dowdel’s antics will leave you in stitches and maybe with a few tricks to tuck up your sleeve.
— Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine.
Early in the spring, my oldest son and I went on a bit of an Agatha Christie kick, listening to audio versions of And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express as we drove back and forth to our Texas ranch. From there, I jumped to Stuart Turton’s The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which has been described as a mashup of Agatha Christie, Groundhog Day, and the early-’90s television spectacular Quantum Leap. Fantastic! Don’t read this one when you’re sleepy—every detail matters, all the way to the improbable Christie-esque final twist. Delve deeper, and you might draw out various meditations surrounding the human soul, and for me, at least, hints at the themes found in C. S. Lewis’s classic The Great Divorce.
Speaking of meditation, like many Americans, I’ve had ample time for self-reflection over the past few months. With that in mind, I picked up the always-interesting Ryan Holiday’s Stillness Is the Key, a variation on Stoic and Buddhist philosophy that calls for quiet, centered calm in a mad, frenetic world. More recently, I delved into James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, which touches on the lessons of St. Augustine while challenging readers to acknowledge what really drives them and why. What do you really love? What do you worship, intentionally or not? It’s worth taking the time to find out.
Finally, no summer reading list would be complete without Lonesome Dove—a book long on my to-do list that I plowed through earlier this year. Next in the queue? I’m considering either Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of a president with no shortage of energy, or Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel. Mandel’s previous book centered on a ragtag group of survivors after a pandemic wipes out something like 99 percent of the population—yikes, to put it mildly—but her latest features “a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea.” Oh, and at this moment, a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sits on my desk, eyeballing me, silently judging, quietly demanding to know why I haven’t yet cracked it open. Ha! I know, I know. I’m procrastinating on that one. Imagine that, my friends. Imagine that.
— Heather Wilhelm is a columnist at National Review.
I knew very little about porcelain until I picked up Suzanne Marchand’s Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe, a companionable book (best kept by the bed to read at the end of the day), which, in the course of following its principal subject over several centuries, touches on a host of secondary topics, including the ways in which “eighteenth-century porcelain factories differed greatly from later routinized schedules of labor and leisure time.” The old ways were much more humane, more congenial; we’re told of one man that he, “perhaps typically, worked irregularly, interrupting his day for long meals, drinking bouts, walks in the garden, and the pursuit of private projects.”
The first-person narrator of Stanislaw Lem’s novel His Master’s Voice (published in Poland in 1967, in Michael Kandel’s English translation in 1983, and reissued this year by MIT Press) is a famous and monstrously arrogant mathematician. Some readers will find him unbearable (for which no blame), but those who persist will be rewarded with a deliciously twisty tale involving what might be a message from the depths of space, the first instance of “cosmic contact.” In a new foreword to the MIT edition, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., suggests that Lem’s scenario “could play out for real, and before mid-century.” Hmmm.
H. Fleming’s The Unforgettable Season: 1908—The Most Exciting and Calamitous Pennant Race of All Time was first published in 1981. If I were forced to get rid of all but five books from my baseball library, this would be one of the keepers. When it became apparent that the 2020 MLB season wouldn’t start on schedule, I mentioned Fleming’s book on Twitter, hoping others would join me in following the 1908 season day-by-day. (Deafening silence ensued.) It just happens, by the way, that June 24, 1908, for example, fell on a Wednesday, as in 2020. The book consists of extracts from various New York newspapers (there were a lot more back then) covering the entire season, with Fleming’s brief parenthetical updates on the standings and such. Pure gold.
— John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.