Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Books That Shaped Our Minds

The reading of good books is an essential component of soulcraft. They don’t just build the intellect and provide ammunition for arguments; they help shape our hearts and form our worldview. We asked some prominent conservative thinkers which books influenced them most.

 

William Kristol

The Republic of Plato, translated with notes and an interpretive essay by Allan Bloom (Basic, 512 pp., $22)

In the fall of 1970, a freshman at Harvard with “sophomore standing” (easy to get in those days), I showed up for the first meeting of my sophomore tutorial in the government department. The teacher was a first-year assistant professor, Mark Blitz, and the six of us in the group were to spend the entire term reading Plato’s Republic. Blitz told us to buy the Bloom translation and start reading Book One.

I remember opening the book in my dorm room the night before the next class, beginning to read Plato, making nothing much of it, and then turning to Bloom’s interpretive essay — and seeing, really for the first time, what it was to read a text carefully. I went through the first few pages of Bloom’s essay with an excitement and amazement I can still recall. One could say that it was the opening of an American mind.

In retrospect, I see that the unobtrusive education of my parents had prepared me for that moment. What’s more, Blitz was a terrific teacher, so it may be that I would have begun to learn to read Plato without the benefit of Bloom’s essay. And the next year I took Harvey Mansfield’s lecture course on the history of political philosophy; Mansfield dazzled and challenged from the podium in an incomparable way. But of the books I have encountered, I may well owe the most to what we students came to call Bloom’s Republic.

— Mr. Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard.

 

Heather Mac Donald

How to Do Things with Words, by J. L. Austin (Harvard, 192 pp., $24.50)

I arrived at Cambridge University in 1978 with my head full of exceedingly odd propositions. There was no such thing as the human subject, for example — the self was just a rhetorical fiction, a mere linguistic construct. Any attempt at communicating meaning through words inevitably breaks down. Literature is only about itself. And the story that every poem or novel tells is of its own failure of signification.

These easily falsifiable propositions represented not the misfiring of my college education, but rather its complete triumph over my credulous self. I had just graduated from Yale, where I had been a passionate acolyte of “deconstruction,” the French-derived literary theory then at its zenith.

After Cambridge, I intended to return to my alma mater to start a Ph.D. in comparative literature, ultimately hoping to join that empyrean realm of deconstructionist professors whom I had so revered as an undergraduate. As part of a Cambridge course in linguistics, I picked up a slender volume that opened thus:

What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts. . . . It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a “statement” can only be to “describe” some state of affairs, or to “state some fact,” which it must do either truly or falsely.

Here was a completely different voice — lucid, ironic, conversational — from those I had encountered in my uncritical travails hacking through layers of deconstructive jargon. It belonged to the British analytic philosopher J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words (1962). Austin was writing against positivistic philosophy, which held that language was primarily a means of making true or false statements about the world. Austin noticed that there are utterances to which the criteria of truth and falsity simply do not apply. If someone says “I take this woman to be my lawfully wedded wife” during a marriage ceremony, or “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” while smashing a bottle against its prow, he is not describing the world, he is changing it. His utterance, which Austin would label “performative,” has actually brought about a new social reality — he has become married, or he has christened a ship.

Austin developed a nuanced typology of the things we can do with words. His understanding of language as a dynamic part of human reality was light years away from the hothouse wallowing in failure, meaninglessness, and muteness that deconstruction promoted. As important, Austin’s linguistic investigations, which came to be known as speech-act theory, were carefully empirical, unlike the ravings of deconstruction.

I did return to Yale’s comparative-literature department after Cambridge. But now, when I listened to Paul de Man “deconstructing” the same passage of Proust for the 100th time, I heard only madness and ignorance about the actual power and complexity of language. I left the Ph.D. program after just one semester, shaken, my idols and my plans for the future overturned. But I had been liberated from what would have probably been a lifetime of delusion, for which I thank J. L. Austin.

– Heather Mac Donald is a Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

 

Arthur C. Brooks

The American Search for Economic Justice, by Peter McClelland

In the mid 1990s, I arrived at Cornell University to begin a Ph.D. in economics. At 31, having only recently resumed my atypical education after a “gap decade,” I lacked the liberal-arts background that many of my classmates possessed. I knew my technical economics but craved some understanding of the philosophical debates that I could detect lurking beneath the math.

That’s where Peter McClelland came in. The veteran professor of economic history was unusually generous with his time and happy to meet with curious students. It didn’t take long for a one-off meeting to turn into a regular breakfast. He fielded all my queries about how scholars defined concepts such as “freedom” and “fairness,” and introduced me to his book The American Search for Economic Justice, which I devoured.

This book may not be familiar to many readers today. But after two decades in academia and the policy world, I have yet to find a better primer on the moral and philosophical debates that underlie the study of economics. It’s a tremendous book, treating arguments from all sides fairly. It served as a fine introduction to many important thinkers — including a handful of American Enterprise Institute all-stars. And it served as my diving board into the world of big ideas: positive freedom versus negative liberty; the Lockean roots of the American experiment; and the difference between equity and equality as moral priorities.

Most broadly, McClelland’s book highlights the importance of the competition of ideas. It shows how equally high-quality thinkers can think they are directly disagreeing, when they are actually moving in orthogonal planes and misunderstanding one another. Brilliant men and women can bring different moral presuppositions to a discussion and come away with conclusions that are opposite to each other but that are equally consistent with their premises.

Peter McClelland taught me one other invaluable lesson: humility. Years after I’d left Cornell to finish my Ph.D. elsewhere and had established myself as a professor, I found myself in Ithaca and wanted to thank him in person. I was publishing frequently in the academic journals and writing fairly regularly for the Wall Street Journal, and I presumptuously expected to find him happy to see me. I navigated familiar hallways and knocked on Professor McClelland’s door. He answered and looked at me — zero recognition. I introduced myself and reminded him of our breakfasts. No memory whatsoever of me or these meetings. To be clear, there was nothing wrong with him; it was just that I hadn’t made much of an impression.

He was delighted to hear that his book had been useful to me, however, and gave me another copy. I gave it to one of my own students. I don’t remember which one.

– Mr. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.

 

Christopher Buckley

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, by Tom Wolfe (Picador, 144 pp., $15)

Book that most influenced me? Nice as it would be to say “The Bible,” that would be stretching it. And tempted as I am to say, “Up from Liberalism” or “The Unmaking of a Mayor” — both splendid books — that, too, would be a stretcher.

My dear old late dad, founder of NR, used to despair over my refusal, as a child, to read books. (As opposed to comic books, which I inhaled.) He actually bribed me to read The Wizard of Oz when I was, like, ten. He may have paid as much as five bucks, a fair chunk of change in 1962.

But to answer the question: Radical Chic, by Tom Wolfe.

It’s probably unnecessary to remind you that this was Wolfe’s dazzling and hilarious takedown of Leonard Bernstein and the party he gave at his 13-room Manhattan apartment to raise money for the Black Panthers Defense Fund. That was January 4, 1970, a date that will live forever in Liberal infamy. All the beautiful people and bien-pensants and soi-disants were present. When Wolfe’s account of the event hit the newsstands (it was first serialized in Chicago Today in early 1971), they looked a whole lot less beautiful and were surely pensanting less bien of themselves.

Just recently, Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, etc.) wrote a marvelous appreciation of Wolfe in Vanity Fair. Wolfe has called Lewis “probably the best current writer in this country,” so author and subject were perfectly matched. Lewis reminds us that it was Wolfe who made so many of my generation want to be writers in the first place. His brilliance was matched by the sheer zest with which he went after his prey. And into the bargain, he was one of us — a conservative. Who’d a thunk it?

– Mr. Buckley is the author of many books, including the forthcoming novel The Relic Master.

 

Steven F. Hayward

The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (HarperOne, 128 pp., $12.99)

It is hard to single out just one book that decisively shaped my conservative outlook, especially since I was seemingly born “conservative by cell structure,” to borrow Whittaker Chambers’s phrase. National Review itself deserves much credit; I started reading NR in the eighth grade and kept it tucked in my back pocket as I passed out John Ashbrook “No Left Turns” buttons during the 1972 GOP primaries.

But I can point to one book that, at an early moment, deepened my philosophical conservatism: C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Still in high school, I became curious about Lewis’s short preface to his anti-utopian novel That Hideous Strength, in which he said that the background teaching of the novel was explained in Abolition. In that book, published in 1943, Lewis deduced from some faint clues of contemporary literature what would become our descent into what we know today as postmodern nihilism. Lewis warned that the “fatal serialism of the modern imagination,” its relentless moral reductionism that ends in total nihilism, would generate “men without chests.” Our conquest of nature, he warned, would culminate in the conquest of human nature, which meant in practice the conquest of some men by other men. In other words, he foresaw the ideology of despotism, which could never remain soft or benevolent.

The Abolition of Man, barely 100 pages long, culminates in a simple but elegant argument on behalf of natural law — nay, of human nature itself. Human nature is the most controversial and overarching political question of our time. (And perhaps we should start calling leftists “human-nature deniers”?) Lewis reminds us, finally, that “a dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not a tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

Mr. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

 

Virginia Postrel

Knowledge and Decisions, by Thomas Sowell (Basic, 422 pp., $26)

Asking me to name a book that has influenced my worldview is like asking Georges Seurat to name a color that was important to A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The problem is not just that there are so many. It’s that the view emerges as much through their interactions as through their individual contributions.

I read Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions when I was a college student, shortly after its paperback publication in 1980. Sowell acknowledges on the first page his debt to F. A. Hayek’s article “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” but his exploration of dispersed knowledge and its implications for decision-making goes beyond Hayek’s, bringing the analysis to bear on a wide array of economic and social puzzles: Why are small businesses typically financed by friends and family rather than by banks? Why did big-city political machines attract loyalty from immigrant voters who knew them to be corrupt?

And consider this Sowell observation, made all the more apt in the age of selfies: “Science and technology lead to far more complexity in producing cameras and film today, but that growing complexity among a handful of technicians permits far more simplicity (and ignorance) in the actual use of modern photographic equipment and materials by a mass of people.”

Although Knowledge and Decisions is gracefully written and full of vivid examples, I originally found Sowell’s careful parsing of abstract categories dense and difficult. When I reread the book in the mid 1990s, however, it seemed easy — because so many of its arguments had become integral to my own thinking.

Although the editors ask that I paint my thought in a single color, let me mention an essential complement: Culture and Consumption (1990), by anthropologist Grant McCracken. Economists take tastes as given, and the more they appreciate free markets, the more loath they are to consider where “subjective value” comes from. With so many social planners eager to substitute their own preferences for those of the diverse public, why raise the question? But McCracken insightfully and sympathetically explores how goods embody meanings that consumers value. His work influenced my own investigations of culture and consumption and bolstered my conviction that, as David Hume and Adam Smith knew long ago, examining why people buy the things they buy is essential to understanding life in a free, commercial society.

– Virginia Postrel is a columnist for Bloomberg View and the author, most recently, of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion.

 

Daniel Hannan

Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke (a number of editions in print)

I still remember the shock I felt when I was about halfway through Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was 1991, and I was spending an undergraduate summer meandering slowly from Chicago to New Orleans when, in the middle of a passage about something else, I came across a glancing reference to France’s “captive king.”

Stunned, I put the paperback down and stared round-eyed at my fellow Greyhound passengers. Until that moment, it had not properly hit me that the entire book, the most penetrating denunciation of revolutionary excess ever composed, had been written before the Terror started. As a piece of political prophecy, it stands unsurpassed.

Burke predicted the chaos, the repression, the arbitrary confiscations, the wanton executions, and even, with uncanny foresight, the Bonapartist dénouement:

In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. . . . The moment in which that event shall happen, the person who commands the army is . . . the master of your whole republic.

There are never any prizes in politics for being right too early. Burke stood apart, an ascetic soothsayer, a lonely Irish prophet descrying a future invisible to his contemporaries. He was right about America, right about Ireland, right about India, and, outstandingly, right about France. As usually happens, his peers never properly forgave him.

Only in retrospect do we glimpse the magnitude of his achievement. Burke remains the most eloquent critic of the rationalist modernism that has dominated political thinking from his time to ours. He saw the limits of planning; or, rather, he saw the necessity of the unplanned, the unreasoned, the organic.

Our age holds prejudice to be perhaps the most abominable of all sins. But the great Dubliner shows that life would become impossible if we tried to think through every new situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the inherited wisdom of our people.

Burke wrote the manual for English-speaking rightists. Anglosphere conservatism — cool, quizzical, empirical, ironic, restrained, an attitude rather than an ideology — has been a lot more benign than most foreign rightist doctrines. Such is his legacy; such our patrimony.

– Mr. Hannan, the author of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and CapX.

 

Charles R. Kesler

Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by William F. Buckley Jr.

I read this book in high school, or rather I read as much of it as my young mind could absorb. Actually, I read quite a bit more than I could absorb, which drove me to return to it again and again.

For Bill Buckley, it was an unusual project that must have cost him a lot of labor: a volume containing “quintessential samplings of conservative thought,” or as he put it more modestly, “an honest effort to transcribe one American conservative’s understanding of some of the recent sources of the illumination he lives by.”

Published in 1970 by Bobbs-Merrill as part of its American Heritage Series — an array of more than 70 anthologies meant for college use and covering all of American history (alas, I never got around to Senator George McGovern’s Agricultural Thought in the Twentieth Century) — the book carried different titles in hardcover and paperback. The latter appeared in academic livery, titled “American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century.” The former sported “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” at the top of the cover, with the sober, descriptive title second, and an odd picture of WFB gesticulating in the lower-right corner. I deduce that “Dream Walking” was Bill’s choice, and “American Conservative Thought” the favorite title of the series editor, the formidable Leonard W. Levy. I never suspected that “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” was a popular song of the 1930s until, one sunny day at their house in Stamford, Pat started singing it and Bill joined in!

Under either title, the book was a terrific introduction to conservatism, not exactly a greatest-hits package or a best-of assortment but a stimulating collection of writers and thinkers who — whether agreeing or disagreeing — had influenced Bill. Since he practically was American conservatism at that point, the connection was vivid, exciting. Here were the great who happened to be his friends (e.g., Milton Friedman), his friends who happened to be great (e.g., James Burnham), early influences (e.g., Albert Jay Nock), later influences (e.g., Harry V. Jaffa), high-minded choices (e.g., John Courtney Murray, Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott), surprises (Jane Jacobs), and, of course, incipient apostates (Garry Wills). Only two contributors appeared twice: Nock and Whittaker Chambers.

Almost two decades later, I told Bill how much the book had meant to me and urged him to do a second edition, which led eventually to our sequel, Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought (1988). No song titles for us.

But the song had answered its own question, and anyone who knew Bill Buckley or his 1970 anthology would want to join in. “Did you ever see a dream walking? Well, I did.”

– Mr. Kesler, a professor of government and political science at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University, is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

 

Roger Kimball

Against the Idols of the Age, by David Stove, edited and with an introduction by Roger Kimball (Transaction, 347 pp., $35.95)

Anyone interested in ideas will fondly recall the intellectual excitement that comes with discovering a writer who opens up new avenues of insight. For most of us, such discoveries taper off with the end of college or graduate school. We continue to read, stumble occasionally on excellent authors who had been hitherto unknown to us, but that frisson of discovery becomes rarer and rarer. It was with immense gratitude, then, that I first encountered the work of the Australian philosopher David Stove (1927–94) in 1996, when I had already achieved the venerable age of 40.

Among other things, Stove supplied some unanswerable arguments to bolster my longstanding prejudice against the work of Thomas “Mr. Paradigm Change” Kuhn. I had always suspected that there was something fishy about Kuhn’s account of the way scientific theories develop. Stove showed that I didn’t know the half of it. Kuhn had always denied that he was an irrationalist. But Stove showed that Kuhn’s celebrated notion of “paradigm change” provided not an account but a repudiation of scientific development. Kuhn covertly substituted sociology and history for logic, thus winding up with a picture of science in which progress is illusory and no scientific theory can be said to be better or worse than another. Stove traced Kuhn’s irrationalism back through Karl Popper’s philosophy of science (another fishy specimen) and ultimately to Hume’s skepticism about the cogency of inductive arguments.

Popper long ago became part of the intellectual atmosphere, his assumptions taken for granted even by those who hadn’t read him. (The idea that a proposition isn’t really scientific unless it is falsifiable is an especially popular bit of Popperism.) But Stove shows that Popper’s philosophy of science is actually an efficient engine for generating irrational beliefs about what counts as scientific knowledge. At the center of Popper’s thinking about the philosophy of science is a profound skepticism about the rationality of inductive reasoning. Popper was a deductivist: He dreamt of constructing a philosophy of science based solely on the resources of logic. He was also an empiricist: He admitted no source of knowledge beyond experience. As Stove shows, the combination of empiricism and deductivism is a prescription for irrationalism and cognitive impotence. An empiricist says that no propositions other than propositions about the observed can be a reason to believe a contingent proposition about the unobserved; an empiricist who is also a deductivist is forced to conclude that there can be no reasons at all to believe any contingent proposition about the unobserved.

Quite apart from being a devastatingly astute philosophical critic, Stove was one of the best and funniest philosophical writers in the history of the discipline. I know, I know: That is a large claim. But please, read a dozen pages of his work before suggesting that I exaggerate. I have made it easy for you by putting together a plump anthology of Stove’s work called “Against the Idols of the Age.” It includes a generous helping of Stove’s work on irrationalism in the philosophy of science as well as key bits of his landmark attack on certain aspects of Darwinian theory (the work of the preposterous Richard Dawkins is a prominent target) and a generous sampling of his occasional essays.

Among educated persons today, any suggestion that aspects of Darwinian theory are suspect is instantly met with contempt, pity, derision — anything but a mind open to rational persuasion. Crackpot creationists are anti-Darwinian, ergo anyone who challenges Darwinian dogma must be a creationist, a crackpot, or both. This is not the place to rehearse Stove’s arguments; let me just plead that you reserve judgment until you read what Stove has to say.

When I tell you that one of Stove’s essays is titled “The Intellectual Capacity of Women,” and that its first sentence reads “I believe that the intellectual capacity of women is on the whole inferior to that of men,” you will understand that David Stove was not a man who shied away from controversy. His work probably requires a trigger warning on today’s campuses, but that is just one more reason it is worth reading.

– Mr. Kimball is the publisher of Encounter Books and the editor of The New Criterion.

 

John J. Miller

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, by George H. Nash (ISI, 660 pp., $25)

Meeting Russell Kirk was one of the great thrills of my early life as a conservative. I’d signed up for a weekend for college students at Kirk’s home in Mecosta, Mich., sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. We heard lectures on Edmund Burke, walked in the woods, and listened to ghost stories by candlelight. Kirk signed my copy of The Conservative Mind.

The most important moment for me took place when Kirk held up a book with a blue jacket. “All of you must read this,” he said. It was The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. The author, George H. Nash, was sitting next to me. When I got back to the University of Michigan, I checked out a copy from the library and read it cover to cover.

Up to then, I had not really understood why conservatives argued with one another so much. Wasn’t it enough to fight the schemes of the Left? Couldn’t the traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives just get along? Nash explained it all: the origins of their ideas, the major personalities behind them, and why they so often seemed to clash. And when I started to hear conservatives make their in-group references to immanentizing the eschaton, I actually knew what they meant.

I also discovered that I was an instinctive fusionist: a disciple of Frank S. Meyer and his school of ecumenical conservatism. It recognizes divisions on the right but seeks to make common cause as we struggle against the progressives who insist that it’s possible to create heaven on earth — i.e., the utopians who strive to immanentize the eschaton.

Today, Nash is a friend. A quarter century ago, his book was a revelation.

 

Elliott Abrams

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 288 pp., $16)

It was in 1970 that, as a graduate student in London, I read Darkness at Noon. Of course I’d heard of the book and knew it had something to do with Russia and Stalin. But I was unprepared for the brilliance and depth of its understanding of human nature and political change.

College had left me with the knowledge that categories such as “good” and “bad” governments were far more complex than they seemed and often ambiguous. In developing societies, was corruption plain bad — or a sign of movement away from tribal loyalties toward a market economy? When was it defensible and in fact essential for a democracy to violate constitutional rights to crush a new movement, such as Nazism, that seemed likely to end democracy entirely?

There were many answers to these questions. But the Stalinist period and the Soviet system seemed so purely evil as to be incomprehensible: How could sane men commit such vast crimes, decade after decade? How could a Party that proclaimed its responsibilities to History and the improvement of Man maintain the loyalties even of those whom it was crushing mercilessly?

And then I read Koestler. Darkness at Noon explained how it was possible for loyalties to deepen precisely as the crimes expanded — for only the deepest commitment to the Party’s promise of Tomorrow could possibly justify the evil it was committing. And of course as years and decades went by, to have confronted any part of the truth would have meant that the official’s life in the Party was monstrous and evil itself; so the requirements of sanity and the desire to avoid suicide led back to believing in the Party again.

For mere Party members (including those in the West), not up to their necks in blood, it was still the case that any crime could be excused or denied to keep the faith intact and to give meaning to their lives.

Sixty years after Koestler wrote his masterpiece, Natan Sharansky (once a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag himself) described in his book The Case for Democracy how in “fear societies” (as opposed to free ones) the mass of people engage in “doublethink” to survive: They know what they have been taught and must say publicly, but what they actually think is very different. Over time and in the face of reality, the number of doublethinkers will increase while the number of true believers diminishes, a phenomenon we saw in the Soviet Union and see now in China. This gives hope for change.

But there are always true believers, ready to commit and to justify any act of barbarism in the name of the movement, the Party, or the Leader. What Koestler explained was not only that they existed and would always exist, but that reality would lead them to deepen their commitments because in no other way could they justify their lives. The ends justified the means because nothing else possibly could.

The lesson was clear enough: The evil and inhumanity embodied by Communism had to be fought; it would not collapse of its own weight, nor would it lack for new generations of acolytes with thumbscrews.

And it was clear that only the United States had the resources to lead a military and political battle such as this successfully. Two years later, I was volunteering for the presidential campaign of Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, and then joining his staff, and then Pat Moynihan’s, and then Ronald Reagan’s. No single volume pointed me that way, and by the mid 1970s Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had also appeared, but Koestler’s insights into the Stalinist system have never been surpassed.

– Mr. Abrams is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.

 

Garry Kasparov

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (a number of editions in print)

I might hurt my reputation by saying I don’t recall exactly when I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, but I remember the impact it had on me very well. I am sure it was at the end of the 1980s, because I read it in Russian and such books had been banned in the USSR before perestroika. This was the moment in which Mikhail Gorbachev was desperately trying to save the Soviet Union by promising “socialism with a human face.” My reply at the time was that Frankenstein’s monster also had a human face, and Orwell’s book did much to clarify this for me. The book also has many memorable lines, such as “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”

I was raised in a family of skeptics in Baku, so I had few illusions about the Soviet leadership. But the “good Lenin, bad Stalin” mindset was still pervasive, with its fairy tale that Communism could, with the right adjustments, be cleaned up and made to work for the people. Homage to Catalonia detailed how the USSR sabotaged its supposed socialist allies before and during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The viciousness of the betrayal — fighting harder against the Catalan Left than against Franco and thereby guaranteeing the Fascist victory — made it clear that Soviet socialism was about power alone. Orwell, fighting for the doomed Republican volunteers and nearly dying for the cause, showed keen intuition in analyzing the brutally cynical reality of the USSR — intuition that was confirmed when some of the Soviet archives were opened in the 1990s.

The horrific details of The Gulag Archipelago, the ingenious allegories of Animal Farm and 1984, and the heroic storytelling of For Whom the Bell Tolls all deserve honorable mentions in my development. But it was Catalonia’s first-person nonfiction that confirmed to me that the Communist system was designed from the start not to bring liberation to the masses but to establish totalitarian domination. It couldn’t be reformed or humanized; it had to be destroyed.

– Mr. Kasparov, chairman of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation, is the author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.

 

Natan Sharansky

Reflections on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, an essay by Andrei Sakharov

There were many books that moved me during my years as a dissident and political prisoner in the Soviet Union. As a student I read Leon Uris’s Exodus, which connected me to the Jewish people and its thousands of years of history. In prison, waiting for my trial, I devoured the classics, from Antigone and Xenophon’s writings on Socrates to Hamlet and Don Quixote, which together gave me solace in the knowledge that men of all ages had faced the struggles I faced, and conquered their earthly fears in the name of higher principles.

Yet the work that most influenced my thinking and my life course was an essay, the first written and circulated by prized scientist Andrei Sakharov in his journey from loyal Soviet citizen to outspoken critic of the regime. When this essay began circulating in the underground of the Moscow intelligentsia during the summer of 1968, I was myself a student in Russia’s premier scientific academy, a rare accomplishment for a Jew. There we were encouraged to focus on the “eternal” — the laws of nature, the ideas of Newton — and not to worry about the changing world of ideology and politics. As I came increasingly to question the Communist regime, I found myself torn between pursuing a prestigious career in silence and openly following my conscience.

Sakharov, for his part, was by then the most highly esteemed scientist in the Soviet Union, and his essay, titled “Reflections on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom,” sent shock waves through our community. In it, he argued that there could be no scientific advancement without freedom of thought, and that the free world had in fact paved the way for everything Soviet scientists had accomplished — that we were merely skiers following in others’ tracks. It is hard to overstate how daring these words were at the time, and how electrifying their pronouncement. Here was someone at the pinnacle of our profession who could no longer hold his tongue about Soviet repression, and who was willing to risk everything to say what he believed.

Reading Sakharov’s words, I realized that there was no future for the Communist system or its science. Even more important, his example showed me — and thousands like me — the triumph of truth over worldly success and even survival. He reminded us that the real eternal value is inner freedom, and helped us feel the exhilaration and deep relief of someone who had at last become free.

– Mr. Sharansky is an Israeli author, politician, and human-rights activist who spent nine years in Soviet prisons.

 

William Voegeli

Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell (Vintage, 736 pp., $18)

When the oldest, most important conservative publication asks a conservative writer to name a book that has influenced him, the implied preference is for a book about politics. I’m impressed, though, by something anti-political that William F. Buckley Jr. said at the dinner celebrating National Review’s tenth anniversary: “I curse this century above all things for its having given all sentient beings very little alternative than to occupy themselves with politics.” This necessity frustrated “the homelier, and headier, pleasure of duty and restraint, of order and peace, of self-discipline and self-cultivation.” The idea that the space needed for a life well lived is made possible by politics, but that such a life is not necessarily devoted to politics, aligns with an observation Buckley sometimes quoted: Harold Nicolson, the English diplomat and writer, said that 99 people out of 100 are interesting . . . and the 100th, by virtue of being so unusual, is also kind of interesting.

A book that captures and conveys the sense that each of us has a walk-on role in many movies but is the star of our own smash hit is Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell. Published in 1992, four years before the author’s death at the age of 87, Hotel gathers Mitchell’s New Yorker articles from the 1930s through the 1960s. It portrays mid-century New York City from the bottom up and the middle out: street preachers, high-rise-construction workers, diner proprietors, and the man whose job title in the Bureau of Marine Fisheries of the New York State Conservation Department is Shellfish Protector.

With straightforward but beautifully measured language, Mitchell tells each one’s story, imparting no political or moral lesson other than that everyone has a story. But that’s a profound lesson. The people we meet in Up in the Old Hotel remind us that the crucial part of adhering to the ancient imperative to know thyself is to remember that we dwell among other selves, who live and see their lives from the inside out. We owe it, both to them and to the aspiration to be “people on whom nothing is lost,” in Henry James’s phrase, to try to understand others’ lives from the outside in.

Joseph Mitchell had a story of his own. He seems to have been more confident that his subjects’ tales were worth writing than that they would be considered worth reading. A recent biography makes clear that Mitchell was not bashful about polishing quotes and presenting composite characters. When the extravagantly eccentric Joe Gould, the subject of his final story, turned out to be a fraud, Mitchell developed one of history’s most famous cases of writer’s block, going to the New Yorker office every workday for 30 years, but never turning in another piece. If one moral of his story is that Mitchell turned out to be a better writer than reporter, a more important one is that getting at certain truths requires going around rather than through the facts.

– Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe against Liberal Compassion.

 

Armond White

Nashville, directed by Robert Altman

Coincident with my undergraduate introduction to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow, appeared. Both represented an idea of the Great American Novel — a work that encompassed true local experience and national self-awareness. But also coincidentally, Robert Altman’s Nashville premiered that same year, 1975. Thus, the Great American Movie laid waste to the notion of the Great American Novel.

I’d been prepared for Nashville by Altman’s California Split from the previous year. I was 21, discovering people from outside my native environment of various family and neighborhood events and college-life encounters (and pondering how I did or did not fit in). California Split’s roiling low-life atmosphere opened my eyes to e pluribus unum; its view of transient relationships confirmed my most sober existential suspicions. In Nashville, Altman expanded that awareness. Neither Dos Passos nor Doctorow had anything on Altman’s insight into America’s multiplicity — from humorous happenstance to devastating tragedy. The film’s 24 characters set a precedent, but it’s the singularity of each (Altman’s consistent theme of the individual within the community) that impressed. The film’s narrative clarity was amazing and insightful. As a moral and political way to look at the world, only D. W. Griffith’s four-part, global 1916 film Intolerance was comparable.

Nashville’s country-music setting provided a folkloric metric alongside the aesthetic breakthroughs of Altman’s wide-screen, all-encompassing imagery and his multitrack sound recording. (Every character has a distinct voice, updating the classic Greek chorus with an American chorus of autonomous members.) No other literary or audio-visual work is more vivifying. The film’s opening song, “(We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last) 200 Years,” wasn’t just a pre-bicentennial jape; it also anticipated post-9/11 doldrums — the same genuine cynicism as the film’s closing song, “It Don’t Worry Me.”

Keeping multifarious America balanced was Nashville’s primary lesson — a life lesson I find useful today. When the film’s central figure, singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), recovered from a nervous breakdown, was shown reading Faulkner’s Light in August, it was all a literary film-lover needed to confirm that Nashville was, indeed, the masterpiece that explained what the U.S., as social experiment and everyday Calvary, was all about.

– Mr. White, a film critic for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

 

Wilfred M. McClay

The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Pantheon, 336 pp., $16)

During my time as a graduate student in history at Johns Hopkins, I was fortunate enough to get to know the historian John Lukacs, whose splendid (and still underappreciated) book Historical Consciousness, among his many other writings, served as a powerful antidote to the regnant diseases of modern historiography. It would be entirely appropriate to single out that book here, both because of its influence on me and because I am confident that its value will endure. But the greatest of Lukacs’s gifts to me was his urgent recommendation that I read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s elegant novel, Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard. I took his advice and have been the better for it ever since. As my friends can attest, I evangelize for the book all the time — and for the beautiful and remarkably faithful Visconti-directed film based on the book — and I even keep a small stack of paperback copies in my office to hand out to interested students.

The Leopard tells the story of a Sicilian aristocrat living at the time of the Risorgimento who finds himself engulfed by the tides of history, and it records in vivid detail his shrewd responses to those tides, along with his pessimism and his honest distaste for much of what that history was forcing him to accommodate. It is a Tocquevillean novel, descriptive of a Tocquevillean moment, one of those great historical junctures at which one social order gives way to another and every man and woman must figure out an honorable way forward through the chaos and uncharted territory of a brave new world, with its new slogans, new possibilities, new terrors, and new hypocrisies. Lampedusa wrote nothing else of similar scope, and The Leopard was not published until a year after his death. Yet this single novel is perfectly realized, with exquisite description, penetrating social analysis, and refined, haunting meditations on the human condition. It is a book every conservative should read, and ponder.

– Mr. McClay holds the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

 

David Gelernter

Nemesis, by Philip Roth (Vintage, 304 pp., $15.95)

Philip Roth’s short novel Nemesis appeared in 2010 and was widely praised, in ways that mainly missed a central point.

Roth says it is his last novel. Its parts fit together more beautifully than do those in any previous Roth work. (Usually Roth gives the impression of starting with people and ambience and concocting a plot as he goes along.)

But the most compelling thing about Nemesis is how Roth, an aggressive atheist, has written a masterpiece of that most Jewish of all genres, the argument with God.

He has dedicated his career to insisting that he is a social Jew, a secular Zionist. He never claimed to know anything about Judaism except that it was ridiculous. In his early career, he published novels that offended practicing Jews of every stripe.

In this last novel, the hero is not terribly bright, not witty, trained as a phys-ed teacher; obsessed with doing what is good and right. For Roth in his old age, that obsession is Judaism. In the summer of 1944, there is a polio epidemic in Newark. The hero is torn between joining his fiancée in the healthy mountains or staying with the playground boys he supervises in “equatorial Newark,” where it is hot and dangerous — and the young boys in his charge are starting to catch polio and, in some cases, die. He joins his fiancée but hates himself, and imposes on himself an awful penance. He spends the rest of his life alone, struggling with God nearly hand to hand, a violent grudge match. To cripple innocent children? To kill innocent children? That is God’s justice? There is a related argument in the Talmud in which God’s response to these questions is “Silence! That has occurred to me.

Roth brought at last to the religious question, Roth unable to leave God alone no matter how many times he has insisted that there is no God, Roth confronting, in a movingly beautiful way, the same question that Jonah and Job and Abraham confronted, Philip “Portnoy” Roth, is an awe-striking moment in modern literary history.

– Mr. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard.

 

Brad Thor

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (a number of editions in print)

Choosing one book that has had the greatest impact on me is no easy task. I read all the time, and many books have profoundly shaped who I am. In fact, as I write this, I am halfway through Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, which is fantastic and has me looking at my own life in ways I never before imagined.

The book that has had the greatest impact on me, though, is Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. Simply put: I love this book and it has resonated with me for decades: the characters, the lessons about human nature, and — believe it or not — even the lessons about business.

Those business lessons, in fact, played into my decision to move my family from Chicago to Nashville. Capital, as Dickens so wisely wrote, is “portable property.” It also represents freedom; the freedom to choose what you want to do, where you want to do it, and how you want to live your life.

Great Expectations is a wonderful novel packed with insight, laughter, joy, deceit, and consequence, all wrapped up with amazing and, I dare say, timeless, wisdom — of which, two lines are worth sharing here. The first is a reminder about summoning courage to do the right thing: “In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.” The second is about avoiding deception: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

– Mr. Thor’s most recent novel is Code of Conduct.

 

P.J. O’Rourke

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (a number of editions in print)

I read Lord of the Flies in the early 1960s, when I was about 15. The story of marooned schoolboys did not, at the time, have a beneficial effect on my thinking. I was irked and bored by Ralph, the Eagle Scout–y exemplar of the political-leadership type. I felt the same contempt for Piggy, the symbolic intellectual, as his fellows did. I liked Jack and his Beast-propitiating tribe of colorful pig hunters.

Thus it’s no surprise that, later in the 1960s, I joined the chanting, dancing, face-painting, “Off the Capitalist Pig” primitivists of the counterculture.

But this turned out to be, in life as in literature, less fun and more scary than it was meant to be. The pig head on a stake began to smell, the way hippies did, and attract vermin, like Charles Manson. The Jacks of the counterculture — the Mark Rudds, the Bernardine Dohrns, the Bill Ayerses, even the Abbie Hoffmans — turned out to be not-very-nice people.

And then, on March 6, 1970, some of those not-very-nice people blew themselves up. They’d been trying to build a bomb in a townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. The bomb was packed with nails and was going to be detonated at a dance for enlisted personnel at Fort Dix, N.J.

I went to New York and stood outside the police tape around the rubble at 18 West 11th — realizing, a little late, what Lord of the Flies was about.

The structure of civilization is as fragile as was the structure of that beautiful Greek Revival townhouse built in 1845. Built, incidentally, not by a political-leader Ralph or an intellectual Piggy, much less by any Jack-red-in-tooth-and-claw. It was built by Charles E. Merrill, founder of Merrill Lynch.

– Mr. O’Rourke, a political satirist, is the H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute and a writer for The Weekly Standard.

In This Issue

Features

Politics & Policy

The Apology Policy

President Barack Obama strutted into the Oval Office utterly convinced of his moral rectitude. Unlike his predecessors, Obama would make policy based on an exquisitely calibrated conscience, sensitivity to constitutional ...
Politics & Policy

Climate Coercion

Predicting catastrophe is a lucrative business. By doing so, the big environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sierra Club, have grown ...
Politics & Policy

The Twitter Trap

Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A die-hard progressive living in a liberal enclave (usually when this story is told, it’s about the late New Yorker film critic Pauline ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Onward

Sixty years ago, WFB said of this brand-new journal that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” — in the spirit not of a bearded zealot carrying a hand-lettered sign, but ...

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Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
Elections

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More
Culture

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More