2019: A Year in Reading

Winston Churchill (Library of Congress)
Mostly about politics — ancient and modern

As the decade comes to a close, I would like to thank National Review for giving me the opportunity to put forward this annual list of books that you should read. This is my seventh list since 2013. For this one, I have put a lot more emphasis on political books because, like most thinking Americans, I am striving to understand our dynamic and unpredictable landscape. Incredibly useful in this regard were two books by authors well-known to NR readers: Alienated America, by Tim Carney, and The Smallest Minority, by Kevin D. Williamson.

In Alienated America, Carney captures the enormous differences in 21st-century American between tight-knit communities and alienated communities, and the political implications of those differences. He sees religion as a stabilizing force, noting that “popular culture likes to paint the dark picture of religion in America, but the actual data point the other way.” Carney observes, however, that religion’s ability to stabilize social institutions and create community is increasingly limited as younger generations turn away from any faith at all. He notes rather grimly that “if you have to choose between plentiful worry-free sex and church, then church is fighting an uphill fight.”

Williamson’s The Smallest Minority also looks at today’s America and finds a country where too many citizens are unwilling to tolerate differing opinions. The chief pleasure of Williamson’s book is the way his critique is presented in strong and evocative writing. Williamson is like a jazz master with English. He may not follow all the traditional rules, but you’re impressed with what he can do with language and metaphor to drive an argument home. His riffs off the main melody includes syncopating, laugh-out-loud humor. His description of his brief ordeal with The Atlantic magazine is Williamson at his best and a reminder that NR is fortunate to have him back.

Another writer familiar to NR readers is Michael Brendan Dougherty. His moving memoir, My Father Left Me Ireland, tells the story of his growing up with an absent father, in the form of letters he wrote to his father as an adult. Along the way, he has moments of great insight into family, fatherhood, and Irishness, including this one, about the Irish language: “When the Irish compare the language revivals of Hebrew and Irish, they are tempted simply to despair of Irish ability. The similarities are hard to miss. Each language movement talked about itself as an attempt to recover their respective nation’s manhood. . . . And each of the language revivals was meant to foreshadow and undergird the building of a viable nation state.”

The year 2019 was a good one for biographies, and some of the best were Matriarch, by Susan Page; Our Man, by George Packer; Touched with Fire, by David Lowe; and of course Churchill, by Andrew Roberts.

Matriarch, about Barbara Bush, tells the story of one of the most important and unsung women of the 20th century. Wife of one president and mother of another, she was a quick-witted and wise adviser who was often underestimated by those who couldn’t get past the white hair and the string of pearls. One of the “misunderestimaters” was Nancy Reagan, who was chronically rude to Barbara when Nancy was the first lady, but she got her comeuppance in later years. When Nancy falsely claimed that Barbara snubbed ex-president Reagan, Barbara did not hold back, telling Nancy, “And we did have your wonderful husband to the White House, and don’t you ever call me again!” That was the last non-perfunctory conversation the two women ever had.

Our Man, referring to the Democratic foreign-policy adviser Richard Holbrooke, explains why a man who never had any of the top jobs in American foreign policy was still influential enough to merit a substantial biography. He may never have made it to his lifelong goals of being secretary of state or national-security adviser, but he sure acted as if he belonged. As an assistant secretary of state under Clinton, Packer reports, “At meetings in the situation room, [Holbrooke] would start out seated against the wall with the other plus-ones, but soon his chair began to slide forward until it was wedged at the table between the cabinet officers, to their intense annoyance.” This behavior understandably created some enemies. Packer tells of a young Susan Rice flipping the bird to an arrogant and condescending Holbrooke, and later getting congratulated for doing so by Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

Touched by Fire, about the Jewish civil-rights lawyer Morris Abram, was a total — and pleasant — surprise. I vaguely knew of Morris as a long-time Jewish organizational leader, but he had a fascinating life, serving, among many other things, as a formidable sparring partner for National Review founder William F. Buckley, who called him “one of the most ferocious advocates in my experience.” Abram also mentored future homeland-security secretary Jeh Johnson, who was amazed that Abram liked lowbrow snacks, just like anyone else. As Johnson recalled, “It was like yodels or Twinkies or Ring Dings. I’m addicted to those things. I was 27 years old at the time. It was a validation for me to see the great Morris Abram eating junk food.” Although Abram initially gained fame as a liberal, he drifted to the right in response to many of the excesses of the Left, and his taste in reading improved greatly over the years. Late in life, Lowe observes, Abram “wrote to his son Morris Junior that [Joseph] Epstein, whom he said had been forced from his position as editor of The American Scholar for reasons of political correctness, had become one of his favorite essayists. In Geneva, he would look forward to receiving the latest issue of the neoconservative magazine Commentary and proceed to read it from cover to cover the morning of its arrival, making notes in the margins of each article.”

NR readers do not need to be told to read a biography of Winston Churchill by Andrew Roberts, especially one as good as this one. It’s worth reading the 1,000 or so pages just to get to this observation about the elderly Churchill seeing some of his acquaintances pass on: “As a drinker, smoker and carnivore, outliving teetotalers and vegetarians never failed to give Churchill immense satisfaction.”

Barry Strauss’s 10 Caesars is not a biography, but a history of the ten most important Roman emperors, in his expert opinion. Strauss has a gift for making the ancients come alive, and he does not disappoint here. When describing Hadrian, for example, he notes that “Hadrian’s traveling entourage, complete with imperial secretaries, bureaucrats, hangers-on, servants, his wife and her staff, was the second Rome; the government on the move. It was the Air Force One of the ancient world.” I understood the key Roman emperors much better after reading Strauss’s book.

Ben Shapiro’s Right Side of History also starts in the ancient world and brings things up to the present in a breezy, whirlwind tour of western civilization. While he rightfully lauds the accomplishments of the West, he cautions that modern man may not exactly be making the most of what our ancestors have built. As Shapiro says, “We might not think of binge-watching Stranger Things as an iron yoke upon our neck, but if television is our best reason to live, we’re not really living. Rejoice in the purpose G-d gives you.”

David McCullough has written many excellent works of history, and The Pioneers, his look at the movers from the 13 colonies to what is now the Midwest, is no exception. What stood out most about this book, though, was the acknowledgements section, in which he explains what attracted him to the topic, the libraries and archives he needed to tell the story, and his multi-decade effort to pursue it. Another book that makes great use of a library is Dan Rabinowitz’s The Lost Library, which tells the Indiana Jones‒worthy tale of Eastern Europe’s greatest Jewish library, its conquest by the Nazis, and the post-war struggle over the library’s contents.

Finally, I recommend Jack Goldsmith’s In Hoffa’s Shadow. Goldsmith, a senior Justice Department official under George W. Bush, got that position only by renouncing his stepfather, Chuckie O’Brien, a longtime aide to Jimmy Hoffa suspected by the FBI of delivering Hoffa to his still mysterious demise. O’Brien achieved his own sort of infamy from the FBI’s attention. As Goldsmith writes of Chuckie, “It takes a special life and a special character to be portrayed by Robert Duvall, Paul Newman, and Danny DeVito in three quite different roles and three major motion pictures.” Goldsmith makes the case that he was wrong to renounce Chuckie, and the FBI was wrong to accuse him. He also gives a great portrayal of the fiery and charismatic Hoffa. Regarding Hoffa’s teamster rival Frank Fitzsimmons, Goldsmith informs us that “one sign of Hoffa’s visceral, almost childlike hatred was that he taped a picture of Fitzsimmons’ face under the downstairs toilet seat.” While Hoffa could be immature, he could also be wise. As Chuckie recalled, “I didn’t know what the Wall Street Journal was until Mr. Hoffa said, ‘You read this, you read Time, Newsweek, and find a book and read it and you’ll be able to handle yourself with anybody.’” Good advice to follow.

With the 2010s over, many people like to make pledges or resolutions regarding their plans for the next decade. My pledge to you, dear reader, is to keep reading, and I hope you do the same. Doing so will allow you “to handle yourself with anybody,” and somewhere, in some still undiscovered place, Jimmy Hoffa will appreciate it.

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