Editor’s Note: Summer is traditionally when we devote more time to books we’ve been meaning to read (or reread). Below, NR friends and family offer their recommendations.
Things are pretty lousy, no? So why not read biographies of two men who faced worse: Alexander Hamilton, who saw a disunionist plot and gave his life to avert it, and Abraham Lincoln, who saw actual disunion and lost his life after quashing it. I have written a book each on these complicated, inspiring men. If you want good longer biographies, try Ron Chernow and Benjamin Thomas.
Then read what the founders read: Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. The translation supposedly by John Dryden is classic; Arthur Hugh Clough tweaked it in the nineteenth century, and that is what the Modern Library reprints. The noble lives Plutarch tells were by no means all well-lived, but they are all exemplary — what to do, what to avoid. Until we live in Rationalia, this will be worth knowing.
— Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.
To be honest, William R. Forstchen’s One Second After scared me. The book begins with a foreign country detonating Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) devices high over our soil, destroying almost all electronic devices within the detonation’s line of sight.
“Millions would die in the first week alone,” Newt Gingrich wrote in the foreword about what would happen if this plausible scenario actually occurred. But death and damage would continue for decades. The Heritage Foundation reports that airplanes would fall from the sky; almost all cars would stop working; water, sewer, and electrical networks would fail simultaneously; and “banking, energy, transportation, food production and delivery, water, emergency services, and even cyberspace would collapse.” (See Gingrich talking about the threat — and Forstchen’s book — in an interview with Greta Van Susteren here.)
Though some doubt the particulars of the effects or the likelihood of an attack, the resulting destruction and devastation are inarguable. In the foreword, this scenario was described not as a matter of if but when.
On that cheery note, I should say that One Second After is a page-turning thriller. Far from being a dry but anxiety-producing recitation of facts, this novel takes you through the experience through the character of John Matherson in a small North Carolina town. The setting is important. I live in a rural Tennessee town — in the “Mule Capital of the World” — with streams, livestock, and ammunition aplenty. Wouldn’t we fare better than people crammed together in places like Manhattan?
Forstchen’s book doesn’t give anyone much assurance.
By tracing the story of a retired army colonel turned college professor, he takes the reader through all of the possible consequences of being at war without knowing that the nation is, in fact, at war. (Or, with whom.) Without electricity or means of transportation, what’s left of the federal government is unable to communicate with the rest of the nation. FEMA isn’t going to show up with emergency supplies. How would your community react? How would it deal with looters? How would it allocate the remaining insulin to the town’s few diabetics? How would hospitals and nursing homes fare without generators? What would it do with the people who are suddenly stranded on the interstate and are walking to your town to consume some of the last resources? What happens when individual supplies of heart medications run out, or — gasp! —Prozac?
When I was telling someone about this book at a recent conference, he said to me, “So, this is basically apocalypse porn, right?” However, this is not just scaring-for-the-sake-of-titillation. We live in uncertain times. When a tragedy occurs, part of survival is being able to adjust to the new reality quickly. For example, imagine you run out into the garage to grab ice cream from the freezer when a lurking attacker grabs you. The faster you can change your frame of reference from “Chocolate mousse tracks or vanilla?” to “I’m fighting for my life,” the better off you’ll be.
Forstchen’s novel is the first step to accepting the new reality of what could happen in this unpredictable world by providing a much-needed shift in our perception of America. We used to be a collection of rugged individualists who could forge their own paths if tragedy occurred. (For those of us who grew up reading Little House in the Big Woods, this romantic ideal of American toughness is ingrained.) Since pioneer days, however, modern technology and transportation have turned America into an artificially sustained microcosm completely dependent on a very vulnerable infrastructure.
One Second After is a scary, yet somehow addictive, description of what exactly might happen when the lights go off and never come back on.
— Nancy French is a three-time New York Times best-selling author.
Kathyrn Jean Lopez
Every American citizen and anyone who is concerned about the future of America should be reading two books this summer: Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe and Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic. Both are accessible reads that should be welcomed by people of good will of all ideological stripes.
Mother Angelica and Her Grand Silence focuses on the final years of the nun who started the international Catholic media network EWTN. Written by Mother Angelica’s biographer and spiritual son Raymond Arroyo, the book is an honest reflection on life, liberty, and suffering. It may just make you a better person shed light on some of our debates about what is merciful at the end of life. This woman’s life didn’t end with a paralyzing stroke, nor did the lessons the world might continue to learn from her and her witness.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of NRO. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.
I took Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday on National Review’s Danube cruise this May. I had forgotten what a marvelous book it is. Born in 1881, he was just in time before the sun set on European civilization. As the ship went past peoples and places doing their best to recover from every modern disaster, I found myself swept away by this evocation of a past that would and could and should have led to a present without regrets. Just that there is someone with his perception is — funnily enough — grounds for hope of a fresh start.
Ataturk, by Andrew Mango, at 600 or so pages, is a bit awkward to read in a deckchair, but it is the definitive biography of someone who has influenced the course of history, and still does. He held that Islam was responsible for the backwardness of Muslims. He is on record literally kicking an imam down a stairway. Putting Turkey to rights, he turned it into a secular democratic state, with the military as guardians. This book sets out the background to today’s tragic regression.
A friend, an English writer living in California, advises me to read The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I assumed it to be about Sylvia Beach and the bookshop frequented by her pals, James Joyce, Hemingway etc., and my heart sank a bit. However, it is not so. My friend thinks this may well be the finest novel he has ever read. A passage of ten pages troubled him, however, and I will read this book to find out what that is about.
Finally, others may refrain but I’d like to recommend the recently published Fault Lines by David Pryce-Jones (full disclosure, that’s me).
— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review.
Summer is a great time for reading, but then again, so is the rest of the year. One of my recent favorite recent books was Karl Rove’s Triumph of William McKinley, which closes with a compelling analysis of how the 19th-century president’s experience in politics is relevant even today. Also relevant for recent events is Operation Thunderbolt, by Saul David, which tells the story of Israel’s 1976 raid on the hijackers holed up at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. The book includes all sorts of good information that I did not get from late 1970s TV movies such as Raid on Entebbe: Yoni Netanyahu, the raid’s leader and only Israeli soldier to die on the raid, was a fan of the Mission Impossible TV show; U.N. Secretary General — and former Wermacht solder — Kurt Waldheim condemned the raid as “a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state”; and the hijacked Air France plane lingered on the tarmac at Entebbe, deteriorating, for decades after the raid.
Another good read was Herman Wouk’s Sailor and Fiddler, about his eventful writing career. It is a short book — 160 pages — but packs in many fascinating stories. Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right looks at five lefties who migrated right-ward, all of whom will be familiar to regular readers of these pages: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, and Christopher Hitchens. Oppenheimer only looks at their careers while they were on the left, and has little to say about their lives as conservatives. This somewhat odd biographical choice illuminates the oft neglected pre-conservative parts of their lives, and ends up highlighting the weaknesses of the left that drove each of them away.
Kristen Soltis Anderson’s The Selfie Vote has these nice words about NR contributor Yuval Levin: “editor of the thoughtful, must-read center-right journal National Affairs.” One book that I have not yet read but intend to is Yuval’s The Fractured Republic. Watch for my thoughts on it in my annual NRO end-of-year-reading roundup.
This being summer, I do like to read some fiction. On this front I recommend Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, about the crash of a private jet transporting a Roger Ailes–like figure. Finally, I am looking forward to the publication of my new book, Shall We Wake the President: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office, coming from Lyons in September, just under the wire to be included as a summer read.
— Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. He is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: Two Hundred Years of Popular Culture in the White House.
A work of nonfiction, of fiction, and of poetry — in that order.
There many histories of the 20th century, most of which harbor Gibbon-esque aspirations — and which reflect those aspirations in length and weight. By contrast, in 2013 the inimitable historian John Lukacs published A Short History of the Twentieth Century. It is in some sense a distillation of a lifetime’s work, and its virtues are less in the laying out of particular facts than in Lukacs’s learned, provocative judgments, on fascism and Communism, on nationalism and patriotism, and on democratic government and its future. “The twentieth century,” says Lukacs, not a little ominously, “was transitional between two great ages: between the so-called Modern Age and what is coming after it.”
Gene Wolfe is surely among the finest living American novelists, but he writes science-fiction, which is not allowed to be haute-couture unless your surname is Asimov. His masterpiece is arguably the Book of the New Sun, a tetralogy, set on an Earth a million years in the future, about a torturer who is exiled from his guild after showing mercy to a victim. It’s a richly imagined tale, and quietly imbued with Wolfe’s Catholicism. However, Wolfe also wrote a too-little-known non-sci-fi novel, in 1975: Peace, “the melancholy memoir of Alden Dennis Weer,” who tells the story of his quiet life in a small Midwestern town sometime in the middle of the last century. It is one of the subtlest, most exquisitely crafted novels I know of — and the sneakiest. Who exactly Dennis Weer is and what this story is really about turn on a few sentences woven into a fabric of stories within stories. Give it a read. Then give it a re-read.
In June, Geoffrey Hill died. A strong case could be made that Hill, Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry from 2010 to 2015, was the greatest English-language poet of the second half of the 20th century. Already it seems clear that his poetry, as well as his criticism, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the work of Eliot, Auden, and Yeats. The knock on Hill was that he was “difficult.” It’s true. But so what? “Human beings are difficult,” he told the Paris Review. “I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. . . . I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.” At a moment when both language and politics — Hill’s central occupations — are being misused, abused, and debased, Hill is an antidote of extraordinary power. Start with a few standalone poems: “Genesis,” “On Reading Crowds and Power,” “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings.” Then start in on the longer sequences. Individual books are available, but the definitive collection is Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.
Hans A. von Spakovsky
I have four books to recommend, two serious ones and two fictional ones that are perfect for that trip to the beach. The fiction is based on an intriguing premise: how the course of history could have been changed if just a few key events had happened differently.
The two nonfiction books are The Intimidation Game by Kim Strassel and The War on Cops by Heather Mac Donald. Strassel does a masterful job of illustrating the assault on the First Amendment being carried out by the Progressive Left, with the help of their allies in government. She explains how they are using campaign-finance and disclosure laws to silence their opposition and chill the speech of everyone they consider the enemies of their utopian vision of America.
Heather Mac Donald systematically dismantles the biggest lie being pushed by the administration, the mainstream media, and Black Lives Matter: that black Americans are being targeted by racist police. She also explains why violent crime rates are going up after decades of decline. The “Ferguson Effect” has caused police departments all over the country to back off of proactive policing — the kind that cleaned up Times Square in New York in the 1980s and is now disfavored by the leftist elites. And, surprise surprise, the supposed “mass incarceration” of young black males is caused not by racism but because they commit crimes at far greater rates than other segments of our population.
The two alternative history books about World War II are both by Robert Conroy. 1942 tells the story of what might have happened if Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had actually completed his attack on Pearl Harbor as planned. The first waves of air attacks were intended to sink the U.S. fleet. But Nagumo flinched and did not launch the planned final attack on the oil storage facilities at the base. They contained the fuel supply for the entire Pacific fleet; without that fuel, the Navy might have been forced to abandon Hawaii and retreat to the West coast. In Conroy’s book, the final wave is successfully launched, the U.S. Navy leaves, and a second Japanese task force occupies the islands just as in the Philippines.
In 1945, Conroy talks about another little known incident. The Japanese military considered surrender a “mortal insult” that would destroy Japan and its culture — it wanted to continue fighting. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a handful “of rebellious officers led several hundred enlisted men on a rampage throughout the Imperial palace in search of [Emperor] Hirohito and the recording of a peace message he’d made to be broadcast to the world the next day.” The war minister, General Korechika Anami, refused to take any action, waiting for the outcome. After the rebels killed the commander of the Imperial guard, his infuriated guards fought the rebels and the coup didn’t succeed. But what if Anami had supported the rebels and the coup had succeeded? America would have been forced to invade Japan, which military planners expected to be the bloodiest military campaign in American history. In Conroy’s book, that is exactly what happens.
So enjoy your summer reading about heated battles before September rolls around and we move into what may be the hottest presidential election battle we have seen in a long time (just from the rhetoric alone).
— Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Along with John Fund, he is the co-author of Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk and Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.
Kevin D. Williamson
Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.
Frazer believed that humankind progressed from magical thinking to conventional religious thinking to scientific thinking. He was wrong about that. But there is some very fine science writing out there, including Thomas D. Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, which considers the question of how honeybee colonies make political decisions. They are not, contrary to myth, ruled by a powerful, pitiless queen. (Lucky honeybees.) Rather, they have an elegantly refined and weighted system of voting and highly developed rules aimed at establishing a wide general consensus, rather like the Swiss. When the bees must make a decision about where to locate a new hive, it is a life-and-death question: Get it wrong and the whole colony vanishes. The book is fascinating and charming.
A work to which I refer habitually is Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell of Portland State University and the Santa Fe Institute. Complexity is field of study with interesting mathematical and philosophical implications, but also political and economic ones, too, identifying real limits on what can be modeled, predicted, and managed. Think of the Austrians’ economic-calculation problem expanded on by physics biology. And then move on to the more ground-level research in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. It will confirm much that you may already have intuited — issues do not much matter — and it may make you want to jump out of a window, if you didn’t already.