“People say that life is the thing,” said Logan Pearsall Smith, “but I prefer reading.” According to a recent biography, Cary Grant felt much the same. That witty sophisticate looked forward to an old age spent reading in bed.
Neither man was a mere couch potato. Reading is a way of getting around the world–and through time. If we only live, we know one life; if we read, we know innumerable lives in our own times and in several past periods. So get up and read.
To help you do so, here are some “Books of the Year.” Not all of them were published last year, but they all address issues, from gay marriage to global warming, that were in the headlines in 2004. They will enable you to spend your free time profitably unemployed.
Presidential Greatness. Surely 2004’s main historical event was the death of Ronald Reagan. It compelled even his liberal critics to acknowledge him as one of the greatest of American presidents. There are several good Reagan biographies. And my colleagues at National Review have just published an excellent collection of speeches, articles, reviews, and essays–Tear Down This Wall (Continuum)–in which the Reagan presidency is subjected to friendly but serious conservative criticism from, among others, Bill Buckley and Margaret Thatcher.
But the best works on Reagan–and a major factor in the favorable reinterpretations of his record–are by the man himself. His collected radio broadcasts, Reagan In His Own Hand (Free Press); his love letters to Nancy, I Love You, Ronnie (Random House); and his letters to ordinary Americans who wrote to him, Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press), show not just a sharp mind but also a loving heart. They destroy the myth, much cherished by the media and the Washington establishments, that he was an amiable dunce manipulated by clever aides. And they are very moving to read. Reagan was a better man than even we knew.
History. In the century just gone, tens of millions of innocent people died in Soviet prison and labor camps. Anne Applebaum won a deserved Pulitzer for her moving history of this gigantic crime, Gulag (Doubleday). It is impossible to read it without weeping at the horrors it recounts.
It is also a book that needed to be written. Though Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror–both monumental achievements–had established the truth about these mass murders, many on the Western left had succeeded in dropping them down the memory hole. Indeed, the Pulitzer committee recently refused to withdraw the prize it gave in the 1930s to Walter Duranty of the New York Times for suppressing some of the very crimes that Ms. Applebaum describes. But then, being left-wing means never having to say you’re sorry.
American Nationalism. Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We? (Simon and Schuster) deals with forbidden topics. It defends America’s traditional “Anglo-Protestant” national identity now threatened by multiculturalism, bilingualism, uncontrolled immigration, and globalization. It is full of supporting evidence from polls, social science, and the census. And it reads like a thriller.
Naturally, it has been denounced (“nativist,” “racist,” etc.). Some critics argued that it should be withdrawn lest it offend immigrant and minority groups–the multicultural equivalent of “Banned in Boston.” Both major parties would prefer to sweep Huntington’s issues under the carpet. Thus, only one question about immigration was asked in the three presidential debates even though it had elicited the single largest batch of mail.
According to polls, however, most Americans agree with Huntington. If the debate on the “national question” grows in the coming years–and Mr. Bush’s plan to legalize several million illegal aliens is likely to feed it–then Huntington’s book will be the bible of a new American nationalism.
Should non-Americans be worried about this? Professor Huntington thinks not. He believes the traditional American nationalism he favors would be much less inclined to military adventures abroad than the neo-conservative internationalism now shaping policy. A somewhat gloomier view can be found in Anatol Lieven’s America: Right or Wrong (Oxford University Press). Dr. Lieven plainly thinks that neo-conservatism has replaced the older nationalism with a crusading imperialism.
Moral Issues. Until Election Day it was received media wisdom that the “gay marriage” issue would hurt President Bush and the GOP. If they endorsed a constitutional amendment banning it, they would look intolerant and lose votes. In the event, they won votes on the issue and eleven states passed referenda against gay marriage.
National debate gets badly skewed because the media elites think that all opposition to their views is mere redneck bigotry. They have no idea that there is a sophisticated case against the liberal orthodoxy on gay rights, abortion, and other moral questions. So they are regularly astonished when they lose both the argument and the vote.
Liberals should read A Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Press) by the Princeton philosopher Robert P. George, who lucidly dissects this liberal bigotry–if only to sharpen their wits in dealing with clever conservatives like him.
Conservatives in the meantime should read The Strange Death of Moral Britain (Transaction) by Christie Davies. This is the cautionary tale of how a deeply Christian, well-ordered society, inhabited by self-reliant people and marked by falling crime rates–sound familiar?–could in the space of 50 years decline into a violent and disorderly slum with rising crime and a growing underclass of people living off the state.
That is not the whole story, of course. The British economy has been booming for most of the last 20 years. But social decay can go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity when people lose their religious faith and moral bearings. Christie Davies–who is that rare bird, a witty sociologist–draws a moral that will make Wall Street Journal conservatives uncomfortable: Economics is not enough.
Foreign Affairs. With the French’s opposing U.S. policy in Iraq and at the U.N., the Cold War structure of alliances is beginning to crumble at the edges. Its collapse is not inevitable and the U.S. should be more energetic in cultivating the pro-American forces in Europe such as Britain and Poland. But we should also examine what other options are available.
In the most original foreign-policy book of the year, The Anglosphere Challenge (Rowman and Littlefield), James C. Bennett has sketched how the international order might be reshaped by the Internet and communications revolution–and what allies the U.S. would have in that new world.
He predicts that nations will tend to ally with each other less on the basis of geography and more on linguistic, legal, and cultural similarity to form what he calls “network commonwealths.” Thus, the U.S. will form military alliances and trade agreements with Britain, Australia, and India rather than with Latin America; the Spanish will woo their former colonies in Latin America and the Philippines; the French will cultivate French-speaking countries, and so on.
Some of Bennett’s predictions have already come true. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mainly “Anglosphere” affairs, and India has entered into an informal military alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror. So his larger predictions are worth pondering–namely, that the U.S. and the English-speaking nations will remain the cutting edge of technical and political progress.
The Arts. Anyone who wishes to gain a greater appreciation of the visual arts soon finds an enormous obstacle blocking his path: art history and criticism. These days this is usually written in one of two willfully obscure forms. It is either unreadably abstract mystagoguery that conveys no clear meaning (except the “sophistication” of the critic) or it is politicized claptrap that reduces the painting under examination to the expression of some hidden sexual perversion. Sometimes it is both.
Roger Kimball–himself no mean critic–has written a witty and devastating expose of both forms in The Rape of the Masters (Encounter Books). Not only does he mockingly undermine the pretensions of the critics, however; having cleared away their nonsense, he enables the reader to see clearly the beauty they were obscuring.
Fortunately, not all art critics need Kimball’s help. Historian, journalist, and amateur painter Paul Johnson has written a superbly accessible introduction to painting from Paleolithic times to the present in Art: A New History (Harper Collins). Even those who disagree with some of Johnson’s forceful aesthetic judgments will be carried along by his effortlessly readable prose and passionate love of his subject.
A good supplement to both books is the BBC series Civilization by Lord Clark, now out in full on video and, after 35 years, still the best introduction to the wonderful worlds of painting, music, sculpture, architecture and the best of Western civilization.
The Environment. Two weeks ago in Buenos Aires, the world environmental movement suffered a reverse when the Kyoto Treaty was scaled back in a compromise. Many on both sides concluded that “Kyoto is dead.” But they are now facing an even more serious defeat: namely, State of Fear (Harper Collins), the latest thriller from the pen of Michael Crichton (author of “Jurassic Park,” “Rising Sun,” etc.).
In this fast-paced thriller, Big Green organizations and enviro-radicals like the violent Earth Liberation Front turn out to be the bad guys in one of those gripping plots that begin with mysterious murders in Paris and Vancouver and end up with . . . ah, but I must not give away the plot.
There have been previous thrillers in which environmentalists were the villains–for instance, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. But Clancy is known to be a political conservative; he could be written off. Environmentalists thought until now that Crichton was one of their own. Villains in his earlier books have tended to be corporate businessmen.
What will grieve the radical environmentalists still more–apart from the unfamiliar experience of not being treated as saintly heroes–is that Crichton’s thriller is seriously skeptical about global warming. His characters debate it vigorously throughout the book–and there are scholarly footnotes giving the sources of the arguments they advance.
Does this dilute the excitement of the thriller? Not at all. It adds excitement of a different and deeper kind. And by the climax the reader has imbibed the beginnings of a scientific education along with the thrills.
Education. America’s education system is an expensive failure. Every few years a reform bill is proposed; the reforms in it are gradually removed during the legislative process; more money is substituted for them; and the result is a more expensive mess. The latest such exercise is the No Child Left Behind education bill–which leaves no child behind in the sense that a stationary train leaves no passengers behind.
Peter Brimelow exposes the reason for this persistent failure in his witty investigation of the teachers’ union–The Worm in the Apple (Harper Collins Perennial). His thesis, illustrated by innumerable entertaining examples, goes as follows:
The teachers’ union has a monopoly of the supply of teachers. The public schools which employ them have a virtual monopoly of school places. The education produced by these two monopolies is very often horribly substandard. But the parents have nowhere else to send their children unless they are rich enough to pay for a private education in addition to their school taxes.
America fails its children both rich and poor. Unless it reduces or removes the teacher union monopoly, that is not likely to change. So President Bush is proposing instead a Saudi education policy: import low-paid Mexicans to do the menial work and clever Asians to win science doctorates. That way America will do well even if Americans don’t.
Maybe Brimelow should write a book on immigration. Hang on–he did. His last book was Alien Nation (Harper Collins Perennial), originally derived from an NR article. But it’s still in print and, with President Bush acting as its salesman, it might have a successful second life.
Cheating. Some of the works and authors cited here can be found in Chilton Williamson’s delightfully readable book The Conservative Bookshelf (Citadel Press).
Here Williamson–a former literary editor at NR and a talented literary and philosophical critic–summarizes the arguments of the 50 conservative books that he considers essential reading and explains why they are so significant. The books range from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to Robert Conquest’s history of Stalin’s genocidal famine in Ukraine to the Bible.
It is a wonderful trailer for conservative readers–it whet my appetite for those books I hadn’t read. And it is a wonderful way for liberals to learn about their enemy. (But liberals beware: It may convert you into friends of these authors and their ideas.)
And it is a wonderful way to cheat–for those unadventurous types who prefer life to reading.