Hello, I’m Mark Hemingway. Perhaps you know me from my work elsewhere on the Internet, but I’m also the new books editor for The Federalist. (You may have noticed we have started regularly running reviews on the weekends.) This holiday season you will no doubt be deluged by year-end “best of” lists—and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lists are great! However, critical consensus is not.
So we asked Federalist staff and contributors to come up with their own list of books that, for whatever reason, they found notable in 2015. Maybe those books didn’t even come out in 2015. Maybe they weren’t huge bestsellers. Perhaps these books were overlooked because they ran afoul of The New York Times’ politics or Amazon’s publishing imperatives. And yes, there’s at least a few new books mentioned below that did manage to live up to the hype surrounding them. So here our recommendations in all their idiosyncratic glory.
John Davidson: H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald—Part memoir, part literary biography, part nature writing, Helen MacDonald’s genre-defying debut book chronicles her experiences training and living with a Goshawk in the wake of her beloved father’s unexpected death. A veteran falconer and a naturalist, MacDonald copes with her crippling loss by adopting and training a notoriously murderous and difficult animal, and in the process stumbles upon a rough, unexpected grace.
Ring of Steel, by Alexander Watson and The Deluge, by Adam Tooze—The First World War, now in its centenary, is the war no one seems to understand. All that most people know about it is that 25 years after it was over it had to be fought again. Ring of Steel and The Deluge, each a hefty tome, help make sense of this deeply misunderstood conflict.
Watson’s Ring of Steel, the first history to examine WWI entirely from the perspective of the German people, makes a compelling case that Germany and Austria-Hungary took the first step toward war not because of rampant militarism or imperial ambition but because they reasoned that given their strategic situation they had no choice — it was conquer or be conquered. Tooze’s The Deluge sets the global economic upheaval caused by the war in context, and argues that what such an upheaval required was American leadership of a kind that Woodrow Wilson was not prepared to give. The implications for our time are as profound as they are obvious. (Incidentally, I reviewed these two for LARB, here.)
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Philip and Carol Zaleski—For readers of C.S. Lewis and the Lord of the Rings who can’t seem to get enough detail about the lives of their favorite authors, this group biography of The Inklings, the literary club founded by Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford, delivers on most counts. What shines through the details, though, is the sense that these men were able to conjure such compelling stories because they saw our world as an enchanted place that pointed, always, to a world — and a life — beyond it. (I also reviewed this one, over at the Free Beacon.)
The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton—Why would a young man, talented and ambitious, leave the world behind to join a Trappist monastery? Merton’s simple, candid memoir betrays the depth of his spiritual insight, already present in this his first of many books. Both a modern man and a medieval monk, Merton’s story is at once exotic and familiar — a testament to the brokenness of human desire and the power of the One who alone can fulfill it. Once you begin reading, you’ll quickly see why this book is a modern classic.
David Marcus: Haruki Murakami’s first two novels from 1979 were given a new, lively translation. This is the beginning of a career that would change what we expect from novels.
Mollie Hemingway: The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree, by William Gairdner—The progressive push for an ever-expanding government is abetted by a libertarianism willing to comply so long as sexual liberty is expanded, argues William Gairdner in The Great Divide. He discusses how foundational concepts undergirding democracy have been redefined so drastically that the conservative and liberal have difficulty having any discussion at all, with civil discourse and democracy itself being threatened. Easily the most clarifying book of the year.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel J. Boorstin—The growth of the media is harming Americans’ ability to choose wise leaders, Boorstin wrote … in 1962. He diagnosed this problem prior to the fax machine, cell phones, and internet that sped up information sharing as well as the round-the-clock cable news and flood of social media that enabled its constant dissemination, but his harangues against political press conferences and televised presidential debates are as timely as if they were written this year. A good book to pair with Matt Bai’s All The Truth Is Out, about the media’s role in Gary Hart’s failed presidential campaign.
Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade, by Clarke D. Forsythe—There have been many compelling books written on the abortion topic, but Clark Forsythe’s is the single best explanation of how Roe was decided. Even as a veteran of the pro-life movement, I was shocked to read about some of the shoddy statistics and media manipulation behind the decision. Forsyth’s discussion of legal arguments, the media environment, and activist efforts is must-reading for any student of the pro-life or pro-choice movement.
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin—Written in 1921 Soviet Russia, this dystopic novel was a precursor to Orwell’s 1984. The main characters navigate totalitarian systems, natural man, and even affirmative sexual consent. Couldn’t be more timely, or more terrifying.
Tom Nichols: Rick Wilson recommended The Big Con, a 1940 book about con men that was the basis for The Sting, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s amazing how Americans keep falling for the same cons over and over.
Also in the name of classics, I re-read Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which is a must-read in the Age (however short-lived it might be) of Trump.
The newest thing I read was Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, which has been out for two years, but it takes that long to get through it. A must read on the nexus of social collapse and economic dislocation.
I also want to second Mollie on We, which was the godfather of 1984 and was shamelessly ripped off by Ayn Rand for Anthem.
Bill McMorris: If we can go back beyond 2015, Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words was released mid-2014, and it’s a brutal indictment on modern arts’ obsession with political utility over craft. The novel follows a prestigious book awards committee as it weighs the merits of literary triumph against an ethnic cookbook submitted accidentally, a pop-historical-novel, and a liberal populist professor’s cliched imagining of the underclass among other cliches the postmoderns mistake for art. You can guess how it ends, but St. Aubyn’s expert prose and on-the-nose rendering of the new elites—from the politician who heads the committee, to the illiterate columnist who serves as the publishing world’s gatekeeper—makes it worth your time.
Stella Morabito: So glad you included We, Mollie! (Editor’s note: I guess we all need to read We!) First, naturally, I’d like to plug The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing, by Joost A. M. Meerloo, a psychiatrist and witness to 20th century totalitarian upheavals and the propaganda that produced them. With keen insight, Meerloo discusses the processes by which people succumb to mass delusion, and then—by default—to totalitarianism. Though published in 1956, it’s so relevant to our age of social media. The book was discussed at length in The Federalist.
I also recommend Jephthah’s Daughters: Innocent Casualties in the War for Family “Equality”. Authored and edited by Robert Oscar Lopez and Rivka Edelman — who both grew up in gay households — Jephthah’s Daughters is a groundbreaking read if you want to understand what lies ahead in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling on marriage. It was published early this year in anticipation of that ruling, and contains dozens of essays by numerous contributors who address the coming chaos and challenges to children, women, society at large, foreign nations, gay men, and free speech.
Then The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis chillingly describes how we are changing ourselves through moral relativism and our abuse of technology. It’s a short and extremely urgent read for today, especially considering transgenderism, biotechnologies, and now, the call for transhumanism. As Lewis warns: “Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument . . . . Man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned . . .”
Daniel Payne: One that I read was A Disgrace to the Profession, compiled by Mark Steyn. It was a very illuminating look at how divided the climate change debate really is.
Sean Davis: You people all have time to read books? I mean, I read a metric ton of books last year, but pretty much all of them were written by Sandra Boynton. (Editor’s note: I think Green Hat, Blue Hat has maybe ten words total, and it’s classic of the oeuvre.)
David Harsanyi: In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argued that free trade and human adaptability propels us towards ever increasing prosperity. In his new book, The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, Ridley takes a deeper dive, exploring how various aspects of everyday culture evolves. Few people write with more intelligence and clarity.
Neal Stephenson destroys the world in Seveneves. And though it’s quite a long book, as you might expect from this author, it’s probably the most dynamic thing he’s written since Cryptonomicon—certainly, it’s the most ambitious.
Three of my favorite books were about musicians who didn’t quite become households names: A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton by Holly George-Warren, Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon, and Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine, now the editor of Fortune, but once member of a number of fantastic underground bands, including Bitch Magnet and Coptic Light.
There were three older books I reread this year that became relevant again: One, A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson. If you need comprehensive but readable history—from an admittedly philosemitic perspective—you can’t do better. Two, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise—because, obviously. Finally, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric Cline. A superb history of the mysterious Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt and transformed the ancient world.
C.J. Ciaramella: My favorite non-fiction book this year was Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes, which is about the innovations (both good and awful) that the Spanish Civil War introduced, including modern field medicine, mass civilian terror, and so on.
Gracy Olmstead: Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle—Turkle gives a thoughtful, thorough critique of our current relationship with technology, specifically social media, without being Luddite. Her research presents a nuanced picture of our relationships—both on and offline—that is both surprising at times, and convicting at others.
From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World, by Norman Wirzba—This book examines the relationship of God to his created world, and asks how best Christians can steward the earth. Wirzba paints a picture of stewardship that is challenging without being extreme; he cautions against “nature worship,” as well as against the maltreatment of the earth. This is an excellent read for Christians who are trying to understand how best to care for the planet. I reviewed it for Christianity Today.
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins—The Girl on the Train is refreshing and thrilling for many of the same reasons Gone Girl was: it contemplates the worst parts of ourselves, and shows the brokenness and sin that result from our self-centeredness. It’s a book about women, and in many ways for women. I also think it’s a book that anyone who has struggled with addiction or heartbreak can find relatable. And, it’s also just a great, engaging read.
Mark Hemingway: I’ll assert my perogative as books editor to cap this off with a few of my own recommendations. First, I’ll express my jealousy David Harsanyi found the time to read Seveneves and second his recommendation of A Man Called Destruction. Big Star remain the most underrated rock band in history, even after the critical resuscitation of their work in the last 20 years—I reviewed it over at Acculturated.
Tom Nichols already mentioned Coming Apart, which really is the essential book to understand what’s driving Trumpism. But Charles Murray wrote a new book this year that’s also essential reading, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission. In this book, Murray tackles the question of how to govern an America where we’ve eviscerated constitutional restraints, we’re strangling ourselves with pointless regulation, and there’s zero trust in our governing class. Murray’s answer is to lay out a grand plan where we form a public interest law firm funded to a degree no one’s ever seen and sue the pants off the government every time feckless bureaucrats attempt to grow the administrative state.
Maybe it’s not entirely convincing, but Murray is brilliant as usual and his thought experiment is fun and surprisingly well thought-out. By The People is worth reading just for the first 120 pages or so, where he lays out and explains the political, legal, and cultural shifts of the last century or so that ended constitutional governance as the founders intended. His assessment what went wrong is bang on, and it’s done in such a concise fashion it should be required reading for everyone.
Mollie and I have two young kids, and we try to make sure that they’re reading edifying stuff. I had especially fond memories of the Illustrated Classics series when I was a kid, so after a sale at the used bookstore near our house I walked away with two dozen or so from the series for our kids. I was very proud when I discovered that my kids really enjoyed them as well. So far, the adapted versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, Mutiny on the Bounty, and King Solomon’s Mines are favorites—with Mollie as well, who’s spent a fair bit of time reading them with the kids.
For my part, I spent some time reading the Yale Press’ fine and relatively new illustrated edition of the classic A Little History of the World to our children and they enjoyed it a lot. Finally, John already mentioned The Inklings above, but along with Lewis and Tolkien, children’s author Roger Lancelyn Green was also a member of the legendary writers group. His children’s adaptations of Robin Hood, the Arthurian legends, and The Illiad are all great. But it’s his sadly out of print Tales From Shakespeare that my eight-year-old has really been devouring.
Speaking of The Illiad, I have been indulging a serious fascination with ancient Greece in the last few years, and Tom Holland has been one of my favorite historians who writes about the period. When I found out he had done a new translation of Herodotus, I plowed through it. Herodotus is damned interesting reading, but parts of his seminal The Histories are inevitably a slog—one can only take so many pages describing the exact geographic provenance of various forgotten tribes of Asia Minor. Thankfully, Holland is an exceptionally gifted writer and his translation is very readable.
Finally, I’m just going to sign off by knocking things out into left field, lest you think all our reading habits are edifying, tasteful, or even all that defensible. Frankly, I have no idea what compelled me to yank Nightblood by T. Chris Martindale off a bottom shelf in the basement of a used bookstore, except that I suspected the adolescent me would love this book.
I was not wrong about myself. The generic 80s horror title and cover art do it no favors, but in a nutshell it’s about a tormented Vietnam vet with a heart of gold (he likes to find solace in romance novels) who drifts from town to town fighting supernatural forces with heavy weaponry. He’s guided in his mission by the ghost of his brother who died in ‘Nam, and spends the book laying siege to vampires poised to take over a small town in Indiana after he gets invested in caring about the locals. It’s as if on a dare Martindale was told to mash-up Rambo and ‘Salem’s Lot and managed to execute the premise with a great deal of aplomb. The book is remembered fondly on the Internet, but I don’t think Martindale has written anything in decades, and it’s a shame. I doubt I’m a better person for having read Nightblood, but I sure enjoyed those few breezy hours reading it.
Anyway, that should be enough recommendations to keep you holed up well into next year. Happy reading!