Reading in the New Year
Books for 2008.


John O’Sullivan

I’m told by the experts — and didn’t NRO mention this recently? — that the best time for selling books is not in the run-up to Christmas but in the period after the New Year. Why? I have no idea. It can’t be completely explained by people cashing in their book vouchers. Maybe we rush out to buy the books we were hoping that someone would buy us for Christmas but didn’t. So in the selfish spirit of New Year book-buying, let me recommend a few.

The list has to begin with Jonah Goldberg’s magnum opus: Liberal Fascism. I can’t say a great deal about this because (a) I am still reading it, and (b) I am hoping to review the book and don’t want any interested editors to think I have already spent my ammunition. (Just kidding!) But I will venture two points: first, it is an absolutely terrific read on an important topic, and second that I am astonished by the low intellectual quality of the attacks on it by the internet Left. “Low” doesn’t quite do justice to them — they are positively subterranean. Let me lend Jonah an old crack borrowed from Ferenc Molnar responding to reviews of his collected plays (adapted for local use): “Apparently leftists who can write outnumber those who can read.”

Next on the list is John Silber’s wonderfully unexpected Architecture of the Absurd. Most Americans know John Silber as one of the nation’s most able educators who headed Boston University for several years and made it distinguished in the most competitive region for higher education in America. What they — or at any rate I — didn’t know is that he is also the son of an architect and learned as his father’s occasional assistant “to read blueprints and specifications and . . . to relate elevations and cross sections to floor plans.” Thus Professor Silber brings to contemporary architectural styles not only the aesthetic judgments of a civilized mind, but also the practical insights of someone who knows how buildings can — and cannot — be built.

Since he never pulls a punch, the results are devastating to the reputations of the architects he criticize — including some who designed for his own university:

Thinking perhaps of balmy Spain, [Josep Lluis] Sert designed a large, unprotected entrance to the Mugar Library facing northeast toward the Charles River. The brutal nor’easters of Boston made this entrance unusable. To avoid flooding the ground floor with rain and snow, the entrance was permanently sealed and a temporary entrance was provided etc., etc.

But Dr. Silber’s aim is not to destroy reputations but to persuade the clients — which for a public art such as architecture means everyone — that they should follow their own tastes (and practical comforts) rather than the latest dogmatic fashion in the architectural journals. That will probably push them in the direction of buildings that are beautiful as well as useful as in, for instance, the “Beaux Arts” tradition favored by his father. But it will certainly save them from uninhabitable objets d’art.

This book — beautifully illustrated as well as useful, by the way — must have caused ructions in Boston. Was it banned there? I found it hugely entertaining as well as instructive.

My third choice is Marc F. Plattner’s Democracy Without Borders. This book is the most lucid and readable introduction imaginable to the debate over “the democracy project.” Paleo-conservative critics who believe the project to be nothing but an a-historical Jacobin crusade have a particular duty to read it. They will find themselves enjoying it more than they expect. Marc Plattner, who edits the Journal of Democracy for the National Endowment for Democracy, is a scrupulous critic of democracy as well as a well-informed supporter of it. In the ten essays that comprise this book, he records the roller-coaster progress of democracy around the world, from the heady enthusiasm immediately after the 1989 and 1991 revolutions to the more sober mood following Iraq. At every stage he identifies the crucial arguments — contra Fareed Zakaria, for instance, that [classical] liberalism leads almost inevitably to the democracy that it half-fears — and he invariably reaches fair and reasonable conclusions. Almost alone on his side of the barricades, Plattner realizes that there are anti-democratic devils lurking in the details of “multilateralism” and bodies such as the European Union. His penultimate essay on “Two Kinds of Internationalism” is alone worth the price of admission. And since he roots his arguments in the same Lockean premises as the Founding Fathers, many Americans who dispute his conclusions will nonetheless appreciate how he arrives at them. Did I mention that it’s very easy to read?

So, less surprisingly, is Patrick J. Buchanan’s Day of Reckoning Pat surely has to be America’s leading polemicist – “polemic” being a technical term meaning sharp, clever, entertainingly-written but ever-so-slightly-one-sided arguments. This book is a sustained polemic arguing that America is heading down the wrong road of overspending, over-borrowing, suicidal free trade, diplomatic arrogance, deconstruction through uncontrolled immigration and multiculturalism, and neo-imperialism (pun not intended, but not wholly unfair.) For the record, I disagree about free trade, think the Chinese threat is over-stated (and did before a recent re-calibration of statistics cut China’s GDP by 40- percent), and believe Pat’s overall argument to be vigorously overstated. But it is far from negligible — ask yourself why, with so much overspending, we have such an odd list of priorities that we have seriously underspent on our military in relation to the tasks we give them.

This is a question that Pat and Bill Kristol both ask, if from different directions. And even though the U.S. will not be overtaken by China any time soon, we have other enemies, other rivals, and other crises to consider; so we ought to be worried about the budgetary, economic, and domestic failures mercilessly detailed in this book. Day of Reckoning would make a perfect manifesto for the Democrats if they were not wedded so publicly to most of the mistaken policies listed — or a perfect manifesto for the Republicans if they had not been in power for most of the period covered. As the saying goes: a wake-up call on the morning you have a particularly acute hangover.

I have already reviewed James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution in the American Conservative — by happenstance, in the issue that bore the controversial cover depicting Rudy Giuliani as a, well, a liberal (See Jonah Goldberg passim.) The review will soon be available online; so I will merely add here that it’s a brilliant analysis of how the liberal’s own half-deliberate misinterpretation of the Kennedy assassination as the result of America’s own “extremism” led by degrees to the Sixties revolution that undermined them and the conservative counter-revolution that replaced them in power. Piereson’s book is one of those rare works that actually changes people’s minds.

I must also recommend another horse from the Encounter stable: Mugged By Reality by John Agresto. Professor Agresto is an American academic who joined the U.S. team in Iraq in the early days after the battle of Baghdad in order to help re-establish a strong educational system there. He wrote his book — a story of disillusionment with Iraq but admiration for many Iraqis — before the surge when all looked bleak. But it is in many respects a more instructive book now that the surge looks to be establishing something like civil order. For we have been given a second chance. Mr. Agresto’s sober conclusion — that establishing a stable government in a broken society is a task that requires intimate knowledge of the society-is thus a lesson that this time around we will have no excuse for getting wrong. Read Agresto — and either learn or lament.

Just a few more to go:

Ever since he retired, and even more so since he died, Ronald Reagan has been in the news almost incessantly. By some odd paradox the books that have proved most influential in restoring and elevating his reputation have been those written by the man himself and published posthumously — the letters, columns, radio talks, and most recently the diaries. All are excellent. Both the letters and the diaries illustrate the astounding diligence of the man who kept a full presidential schedule going while also managing to write considered and kindly letters to ordinary members of the public who had written to him. The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan is the latest book by his own hand to be published — and it fills an important void, namely the failure of Bartlett’s and the other quotation manuals to give the Gipper anything like his due in their selections. As the book documents, he was indeed both witty and wise.

Margaret Thatcher has fared almost as badly in this regard even though, both in private and public, she had a tart tongue when she needed it. Both these paragons are brought together in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage) by Nicholas Wapshott, a veteran British political correspondent now working on the New York Sun. Because I am even now reviewing this book, I am constrained here in what I can write about it — but, as with Jonah’s book, I can recommend a rattling good read with lots of new material on their previously private meetings and correspondence.

Modesty does not forbid me, however, from pointing out that The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (Regnery) is still in the bookstores and on Amazon, and available in Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, and Polish. It has been described as “superbly brilliant” by one friend and as “brilliantly superb” by my other friend. Ideal for your adolescent child trembling on the verge of college and communism, perfect for that romantic weekend, a snip at . . . no, no, Kathryn, no, not the Hook.

– John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review.