Politics & Policy

Christmas Books: The Final Chapter

More gift-giving advice from NRO & friends.

Today National Review Online wraps up our series of suggestions for Christmas books. Perhaps you’ll find a volume or two to wrap up for someone!


This parish priest was once a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Being around the military reminded me of the generosity of dedicated men and women who love our country and its freedom. Reflecting on the missions for which they they trained reminded me of the need to oppose vigorously evil men who would kill us and our allies. Reading histories of the Second World War has similar good effects.

Military histories always make for instructive reading. The lessons learned can guide us in facing stark present realities, both individually and as a nation. This is especially true for war histories that go beyond the descriptions of battles and relate the effects of war on the men fighting and the civilians caught up in the conflict. I recommend for your consideration two books, one new and the other an out-of-print gem.

First, I could not recommend more highly Hitler’s Empire — How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Columbia professor Mark Mazower. The book examines how the Nazis organized the political and legal regimes they imposed on the nations they conquered. It is an extremely well researched and even better told story of the evil perpetrated by the murderous racialist regime. Mazower spans all the countries conquered by the Nazis and demonstrates the horrors and crimes committed in the cause of absurd master-race theories. This sobering story makes clear the scale of evil practiced by the Nazis and the tragic results for Jews and other victims of the German war machine. Read this to remind yourself that dictators with lots of weapons and fanatical followers are a true threat to life and liberty.

Second, I would urge you to find and buy an out-of-print memoir by an RAF pilot shot down and imprisoned by the Germans: Free as a Running Fox, by Wing Commander T. D. Calnan. This delightful book will entertain and inspire. The heroics of the POWs described demonstrate that a fighting spirit can propel ordinary men to do great things. Calnan was an intrepid man, and his book should be read by every teenage boy in America who wants to know what it means to be a man. All readers will learn why life has to be about something greater than self-interest. In the face of evil, good men like Calnan and his fellow POWs taught us the way to victory and peace.

– Fr. Gerald E. Murray is Pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in New York City.



One of the most uplifting books you can give anyone is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis — a book beloved of Christians of all denominations, and for good reason. Just looking through it again today, I was thinking, My life would be better if I remembered to read a couple of pages of this every day. It’s a distillation of pure wisdom, from the very first page onward: “What doth it avail thee to discourse profoundly of the Trinity if thou be void of humility, and consequently, displeasing to the Trinity? . . . If thou didst know the whole Bible by heart, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what would it all profit thee without the love of God and His grace?” About halfway through, there’s some great advice for people in politics and journalism: “Let not thy peace be in the tongues of men, for whether they put a good or bad construction on what thou dost thou art not for all that other than thou art.” This is “sticks and stones” — in a religious phrasing. I’m quoting from my own favorite version, an old translation called My Imitation of Christ, published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood — it goes for $8.95 and fits in the pocket easily. There are also a number of modern-language translations available on Amazon, including one by Msgr. Ronald Knox 


We’re also fortunate to be living in a golden age of study Bibles; if you have friends who are interested in exploring Scripture, they might appreciate a gift of some of these great resources. The ESV Study Bible is conservative-Evangelical in orientation; The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version also uses the recent word-for-word ESV translation; The NLT Study Bible uses a freer, thought-for-thought translation and has great notes. (Those looking for a good Catholic study Bible are not quite as well served as their Protestant brethren. The Catholic Study Bible from Oxford is nicely produced and has a lot of notes and explanatory material, but many conservative Catholics will find its approach too liberal. The Navarre Bible series is conservative in its scholarship but contains many volumes, and is expensive; the delightful Catholic apologist Scott Hahn has a study Bible coming out next year, but it will cover only the New Testament.) 


– Michael Potemra is National Review’s literary editor. 




I haven’t read anything published this year, unless NR counts. But I would suggest the classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, LL.D. Originally published in 1841, it is a timeless collection of historic investment bubbles and manias of all kinds. It’s sure to help anyone understand the market meltdown and last year’s presidential election. 


As for non-books, I’d suggest giving any Monty Python fan The Goon Show audio CD set entitled “Moriarty, Where Are You? from the BBC radio collection. This 1950s radio show is where Peter Sellers got his start and Monty Python got its inspiration. 


Invention: The Waring Pro WMK300 Waffle Maker. No Saturday morning is complete without it. 


– Paul Shanklin is a political satirist, impressionist, comedian, and conservative speaker. 



Best new book: The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, out just in time for the centennial of Mercer’s birth, is a handsomely designed coffee-table volume that collects the life’s work of the man who wrote the lyrics (and, in some cases, the music) to such classic songs as “Ac-cent-chu-ate the Positive,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Early Autumn,” “Emily,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “I Remember You,” “I Thought About You,” “I Wonder What Became of Me,” “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Laura,” “Moon River,” “One for My Baby,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Skylark,” and “That Old Black Magic.” The narrator of “One for My Baby” calls himself “a kind of poet,” and that’s exactly what Mercer was — one of the most gifted poets that the 20th country produced. Needless to say, the best way to experience his songs is to hear them, but their exquisitely turned lyrics are no less rewarding in a different way when read on the page. 


Best old book: I recently wrote for NRODT about Guard of Honor, James Gould Cozzens’s Pulitzer-winning 1948 novel about the stateside Army Air Force in World War II, and what I said there still goes: It’s one of the great American novels, as well as the only English-language novel of World War II that can withstand comparison with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Definitely not for the kids — it’s as clean as a whistle, but I doubt there’s been a more profoundly adult American novel. 


Best non-book: The Golden Age of Television, a three-DVD boxed set just out from the Criterion Collection, contains rarely kinescopes of the original telecasts of seven of the very best live TV dramas of the Fifties, including Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Rod Serling’s “Patterns,” and J. P. Miller’s “Days of Wine and Roses.” None has been previously released on DVD. All are as good as their reputations, and all are fascinating and enthralling to behold. 


– Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 



Just about everyone who cares about politics — from Glenn Beck populists to hope-and-change liberals — can use a copy of Timothy P. Carney’s new book, Obamanomics. (Be sure not to buy John R. Talbott’s pro-Obama Obamanomics by accident.) Carney, the lobbying reporter for the Washington Examiner, explains how, when Big Government gets bigger, Big Business reaps the profits.  


The book takes Obama at his word: The president doesn’t like lobbyists and genuinely thinks we’d be better off with greater government involvement in the economy. Problem is, the latter requires policies — ranging from the stimulus to the proposed health-care mandate — that fork over money to businesses. When that happens, the biggest and most connected businesses profit most.  


Carney is an intrepid reporter and, in what must have been an extensive and exhausting search, was able to unearth lots of damning evidence to support his case — starting with the sausage (for example, big health-care companies’ support for Obama’s “reform”) and ending with the obscure documents showing how it was made. Lest anyone think Carney is a conservative activist picking on Obama on ideological grounds, he’s also the author of The Big Rip-Off, a similar tome released during the George W. Bush administration.  


As for a classic, I always find myself returning to Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 as a sobering reminder that even the best-intended policies can have disastrous results. It explains complicated material in an easy-to-understand way, maintains a rational tone, and employs rigorous logic, which makes it also a great gift for aspiring writers.  


Other ideas? I’m a big fan of eliminating the deadweight loss of Christmas: Just ask them what they want! They’ll probably know better than you.  


– Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor at National Review.


If you can give but one book this Christmas, make it Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, if only for this review from Publisher’s Weekly, once the bible of the book business and now just another tired, irrelevant, revanchist, sneering leftist propaganda organ: “Author and conservative talk radio host Levin (Rescuing Sprite, Men in Black) takes on the Statist, a liberal straw man, in this collection of polemics against left-wing tenets (like “economic and social justice”), touchstones (like the New Deal), and institutions (strongholds of liberal thought like academia and the mainstream media).”

In a tight 256 pages (it feels shorter), Levin deftly limns the core principles of conservatism, never getting bogged down in transient policy positions and always keeping his eye on the prize: the restoration of the free country we were bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. After eight years of the New Tone — conservative allegiance to either of the Bush presidents remains one of the great mysteries of the modern era — the depressing fixed fight of the McCain campaign, and the dreadful Year One of the Manchurian Regency, dispirited wingnuts signaled their need for, and love of, Levin’s bracing analytical tonic by turning Liberty and Tyranny into one of the top-selling books of the year. So do yourself a favor and buy three. One to keep, one to give to the most wayward of your children, and one to hand to a liberal, just to watch his head explode.

As for classics, there are two evergreens I recommend to all and sundry. The first is the Great American Novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a book that operates on so many levels — ripping yarn, dark allegory, New England documentary, whaling how-to — that you can read it every decade of your life and always find something new, thrilling, and inspirational in it. And I do.

Another favorite: Thoreau’s Walden, published just three years after Melville’s masterpiece, in what turned out to be a heck of decade in American letters. When it’s that damp, drizzly November in your soul, hie thee not to sea but to the woods near Walden Pond, where Henry David explains the meaning of life to you in poetic chapters extolling Economy, Reading, Sounds, and Solitude, among other simple but radical pleasures. Where Ishmael had to circumnavigate the globe to be rescued by the Rachel, Thoreau found salvation in a simple cabin near Concord. Taken together, these men were founders of the American spirit just as surely as Washington and Jefferson were founders of the Republic. So make sure to include a copy of each along with Liberty and Tyranny. The cheers — and the jeers — will be worth it.

Michael Walsh is the former music critic of Time Magazine, the new editor-in-chief of Andrew Breitbart’s forthcoming website, Big Journalism, and the author of the current bestseller Hostile Intent. Watch for a sequel, Black Widow, coming next fall. 


There has been a raft of books about the financial crisis published this year, and one of the best I’ve read is In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic. It is the story of the “Four Musketeers” at the center of the government’s response to the mortgage meltdown. As I wrote in my review of the book, that quartet comprises “Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and his three-man brain trust: Kevin Warsh, the wunderkind investment banker who was the youngest Fed governor in history; Treasury veteran Tim Geithner, who ran the powerful New York Fed; and Don Kohn, Alan Greenspan’s understudy.” These are interesting figures, and the book will persuade you, I think, that we were very lucky in having had the right team in place to respond to the particular challenges of this episode — and also that even the best financial minds had, and have, only a partial idea of what they’re doing.  


On the other hand, probably the single most important popular policy book written this year is Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Getting it right in Africa — or at least ceasing to get it so spectacularly wrong — is a humanitarian imperative, and while Moyo’s argument may run counter to the prejudices of those who believe that government money is the salve for all seasons, her careful documentation of the corrupting and distorting influence of foreign aid on Africa’s most vulnerable governments and societies is bracing.  


Among books of a less recent vintage, I know that I am not alone in regarding John Derbyshire’s Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream as the best novel I have read by a National Review editor. (I put WFB’s Elvis in the Morning at No. 2.) While Derb’s fundamental humaneness may not be blindingly apparent to readers of his journalism (“Rubbles Makes No Trouble!”) his fondness for the joys of suburban life, and his insistence upon life’s limitations, is reading fit for actual adults. The politics in Derb’s fiction is handled the way one wishes it might have been handled in Ayn Rand’s or John Steinbeck’s: no rant, no homily, only a story that suggests its author has had reality grab him by the lapels once or twice, and not always gently. And this from a guy with such dodgy taste in poetry!  


Sometimes young right-wingers ask me for an abbreviated reading list, intuiting, with the accuracy of the young, that a lazy man such as myself is apt to have an interest in producing very short lists. I usually reply that Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, taken together provide a pretty solid foundation.  


Beyond books, the one toy I plan on bringing into the National Review editorial suite this season is the Executive Elite Marshmallow Blaster. The Sullivan Act and the powers that be will not let me carry my preferred sidearm here in New York, so a high-powered, pump-action carbine that can shoot marshmallows at high speeds, nailing targets at 40 feet, will have to do it. Plus, it comes with a snazzy briefcase.  


– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.

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