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American Studies

This season often brings reflections on the best books of the past year. And this was a pretty good year for bookworms.

My reading all year has been framed by Robert Alter’s magisterial new(ish) translation of (and commentary on) the entire Old Testament, which I’ve been crawling through between reading other books. It’s the product of decades of work, some of it published along the way, and it is just an amazing accomplishment. My favorite rabbi was a little less impressed with some of Alter’s rendering of crucial Hebrew terms than I’ve been, though I do agree with him that Alter’s take on King David in his commentary is at times bizarre and ultimately unpersuasive. But on the whole, I’ve been enormously impressed with Alter’s translation, and have found that he not only reliably renders beautiful Hebrew into beautiful English but also sheds light on the meaning of some (to me) quite bewildering Hebrew passages in lovely ways. His rendering of Job alone is worth the price of admission. This really belongs in your library.

But above all, and even more than usual, this has been for me a year of reading about America. It’s a perplexing time in our country, and a good time to look to thoughtful authors for guidance. The best books about America I read this year weren’t written this year, but some great books were, and I thought I’d call some of those to your attention while there’s still a little time for Christmas shopping.

I’ve already mentioned some of my favorite 2019 books about America around here during the year, including some NR books like Rich Lowry’s on nationalism, Rick Brookhiser’s on the story of American liberty, and Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland (which I recommend again over at the Wall Street Journal this week, and which is more about America than its title might suggest). Several others worth your while:

Stephen Knott’s The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a fantastic history of the second branch of our government. It is not an attack on Donald Trump (though to be sure, Knott has his criticisms) but a reflection on the office rooted in the premise that George Washington’s character offers the ideal to which presidents should aspire and toward which the presidency should form them. It is, in that sense, a story of decline, though by no means a simple one or a tale devoid of hope for reformation or improvement. Fascinating throughout, and a model of how to think about American history through an institutional lens.

Greg Weiner’s The Political Constitution is a warning against the siren’s song of judicial supremacy. You would think conservatives would not need such a warning, but Weiner worries, rightly, that a conservative form of that doctrine now threatens to deform the character of the right’s constitutional thinking from within—especially if great judges are more or less the only praiseworthy legacy of Trumpism, which seems likely.

Great books on the presidency and the courts call out for a great institutionalist book about Congress, and while I don’t think I found one among the past year’s offerings, I’d highly recommend a slightly older book—Josh Chafetz’s 2017 book Congress’s Constitution. Read those three together and you’re certain to deepen your constitutionalism.

But government isn’t everything, and among this year’s books on the culture I think I’d recommend two in particular. Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Screams is a fascinating study of the roots of identity politics. Eberstadt is no shallow critic: she’s in some important respects even sympathetic with some of the forces underlying identitarianism. But she argues that its roots lie in cultural transformations that were pursued in the name of liberation but have imprisoned us instead. And Anthony Kronman’s The Assault on American Excellence is a powerful defense of the purpose of the university—against those who would treat the academy as just another place to yell about oppression, but also against those who would argue that free speech is the ultimate academic ideal.

Among books on the economy, I think my favorite this past year was Tyler Cowen’s Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero. Characteristically contrarian, brilliant, broad-minded, and provocative, this book made me think on every page. I was not quite persuaded (I recoil from the “big” not from the “business”) but I was bound to be a tough customer for this one, and it shook my preconceptions good and hard.

And what about just plain great history? I really loved Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-77. It’s billed as the first in a trilogy, which is great news, and it does a wonderful job of laying out the confusing first three years of the Revolutionary War both clearly and compellingly. Sometimes the book is a little too compelling in ways that make you wonder how well rooted it is in the evidence (Atkinson seems to know how hard the wind was blowing at key moments, for instance), but this amateur’s impression is that it does remain rooted in the end. The book is really focused on the war as a war (which is not surprising given that Atkinson’s prior books were about World War II), and Atkinson’s attention to detail and keen sense of geography left me with a clearer understanding of why the struggle went as it did.

The year that’s about to begin is sure to overflow with books about our country too. I’ve got one of my own coming in January, which I hope you’ll look at. But Ross Douthat, Chris Caldwell, and Robert Putnam all have books coming next year that I’m particularly eager for. My colleague Michael Strain will have a book out making the case against despair about the state of our country, which I’m sure we all could use. And I hear it said that Helen Andrews has a book in the works on the baby boomers—I’m not sure if it’s to be a 2020 book, but I know in advance that it’s not to be missed whenever it comes.

So while there’s plenty to complain about these days, it’s actually a very good time to be a bookworm. Cheer up and turn the page.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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