‘Tis that season again, where we’re all scrambling for gifts, and if we’re lucky, we have enough downtime over the holidays to do some reading. So once again, we present The Federalist’s annual year in books column where staff members and valued contributors offer their best reading recommendations.
Keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily books that came out in 2019, merely the ones we happened to read and piqued our interest over the course of the last year.
No book published in 2019 does a better job of describing an industry in the midst of a revolution than The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. Baseball’s analytical revolution has attracted plenty of attention since the 2003 publication of Moneyball, but most of the books published since then that purport to be “the next Moneyball” have focused on advances in statistical analysis and on its application to one team. (One of the better examples of those books was written by Sawchik and reviewed by me for this publication in early 2016.)
The MVP Machine diverges from those patterns. It is about player development and how both technology (including high-speed cameras) and outsiders with the courage to think differently have combined to enable baseball players to reinvent themselves in ways both traditional and sabermetric types had considered almost impossible. It places these developments in the context of baseball as a whole, rather than focusing on one particular team—including how franchises are reorganizing themselves around these insights and how the economic structure of the game is affected. The MVP Machine is a book that puts baseball’s current moment in comprehensive context.
Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard and a head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, was raised as the stepson of “Chuckie” O’Brien, the long-time aide to Jimmy Hoffa who was widely believed to have driven Hoffa to his murder (including in accounts such as the recent Martin Scorcese film “The Irishman”). Now Goldsmith has written a book that touches on his unusual upbringing, In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth.
Much of this book is a straightforward account of Hoffa’s rise and fall, including the aftermath of Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975. But this book is so much more. It also is a story of O’Brien’s futile attempts to clear his name in the decades following Hoffa’s disappearance, with bureaucratic betrayals at key moments.
Moreover, in an echo of Goldsmith’s service in the Bush administration during the Iraq War, the account of Hoffa’s life is a story of policymakers wholly misunderstanding a situation they’d deemed intolerable and therefore making it worse: while Robert F. Kennedy and the Kennedy administration were correct that Hoffa collaborated with the mob, they were completely wrong in their belief that sending Hoffa to jail would break the mob’s grip on the Teamsters.
The truth was quite opposite: Hoffa kept the mob at arm’s length and when he was jailed, the mob took much greater control of the union and its pension funds (such that Hoffa was almost certainly murdered because the mob feared that Hoffa would use his public profile to publicize, and thus disrupt, their cozy arrangements).
Finally, the story is a searing self-indictment of Goldsmith: By his own account, he turned his back on the stepfather who loved him due to embarrassment and ambition to rise in the elite educational and professional circles to which he had gained entry (including dropping the O’Brien name Goldsmith had taken). In that final respect, the book is another entry in the recent spate of skeptical takes on our current meritocracy and what it requires of its winners.
Before Edward Snowden was even born, America’s first cyberspy had begun selling critical U.S. intelligence to the Soviet Union. FBI agent Robert Hanssen spied for the Soviet Union, then Russia, for over two decades before being caught months before his retirement in early 2001.
Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy tells the first-hand story of Eric O’Neill, the rookie FBI employee tasked with catching the meticulous, imposing, and fascinating super spy. Although the magnitude of his theft can still be felt today, Hanssen was not motivated by money or ideology. He was a disgruntled (but brilliant) misfit who decided he would show the U.S. intelligence community just how foolish they were to underappreciate him.
A must-read for anyone in the intelligence, military, or cyber professions, Gray Day tells the story of this history-changing bureaucrat from the man who perhaps knew and understood him best. Released earlier this year, it is also available on Audible read by the author himself.
And from the author of the widely acclaimed The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick’s The Reason You’re Alive is a funny, compelling, and compassionate look at a gun-toting Vietnam vet trying to make peace with his wife’s suicide, his liberal son, and a world that has rapidly changed around him. (Disclaimer: the author was my high school English teacher, so I’m just a little biased).
In the face of today’s caustic, politicized culture, it tells the story of a family devastated by mental illness, the wounds of war, and the broken relationships we all have. Quick’s merciless humor, casual tone, and affection for all his characters shines through in this fun, touching, and uplifting book. A great, easy read for your holiday travel or a fun holiday gift for both MAGA fans and Bernie Bros alike.
Everyone with power and influence in our nation should read Chris Arnade’s Dignity, with its moving mix of reporting and photography from “back-row America.”
Justice on Trial by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino is the definitive book on the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, and a model of excellent political reporting and writing.
Kevin Williamson’s The Smallest Minority stood out for style. This man can write and the role of conservative curmudgeon suits him.
One of the greatest American novels of all time is Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. It’s about Lily Bart, a single, broke woman trying to navigate a career, life, and society while being continuously and solely valued for her sexual attractiveness and perceived availability.
She was trained to be a rich man’s wife, but she can’t stomach the men to whom she could be wed. Well-connected but broke, beautiful but desperate, plodding the path of privilege and wealth for which her shoes were made, Lily is of the fashionable set of late 19th century New York. What she’s got is is beauty, charm, masses of debt, and that most cursed of all things, standards.
Critics painted Wharton’s heroine as someone who eschews passion and love for money and security. But when men demand she be used according to their aims, not her own, she refuses them. Time and time again, Lily holds tight to what she knows to be right, and in not letting herself be used by men, she is destroyed by them. Wharton’s heroine yearned for love, family, and understanding, and though she was hated by critics for being a spoiled aristocrat, her story is remarkably compelling and resonant, especially for the single, driven women of today’s America.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
If your goal is to live healthier, or perhaps to have a baby in 2020, consider reading Leonardo Transande’s Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future . . . and What We Can Do About It, which explores how the many chemicals surrounding us are making everybody sicker, increasing obesity, and generating huge societal health care costs. While it’s positioned as an environmental book, I thought it was actually better read as a book about healthier living, with some concrete tips readers can implement right away.
The biggest yet most underreported news story of the year has to be the resurgence of antisemitism, not only globally but also domestically. If you’re looking for a book that explores the roots of this global virus on the far-right, the far-left, and among Islamists, Bari Weiss’ How to Fight Antisemitism is a good place to start. It’s a good overview, and the section on antisemitism from the left is particularly strong.
If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live through one of Jewish history’s most infamous chapters — the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion — first-time novelist Faith Quintero has written Loaded Blessings for you. Set partially in 15th century Iberia and partially in contemporary Israel, the novel toggles between the two telling the story of one family across the centuries, while also addressing larger themes like antisemitism. As a historical fiction buff, I found the historical sections most interesting, but those looking to learn more about Israel will enjoy the modern sections too. While I won’t give away the ending, I will note it will be controversial.
Finally, Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter, Sarah Hurwitz, deserves credit for doing for Judaism something like what Kanye West is doing for Christianity. In her new book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), Hurwitz, who grew up assimilated, makes an affirmative case for choosing Judaism. She explains why being Jewishly engaged is so meaningful and what Judaism can offer to those who’ve grown up with “pediatric Judaism” but lack deeper religious knowledge, or those who might be considering conversion. This book may well interest Christian readers curious about Judaism, too.
Though he didn’t write any books in 2019, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend Clive James, who died last month. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts is a good place to start, although Unreliable Memoirs, or any of his collected essays, are fantastic, as well. James wasn’t merely one the great cultural critics of his age, he was one of its greatest essayists, period. RIP.
Speaking of cultural critics, Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History, is a fascinating account of the role music played in initiating social and political change.
The Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes and The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties by Christopher Caldwell are two books that offer much-needed perspective to our contemporary political debate by taking a fresh look at the past.
As always, history dominated my reading list and Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West is a sprawling story about the populating of The West by the always excellent H.W. Brands. And A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution by Jeremy Popkin might be the finest book I’ve ever read on this pivotal historical event.
Tom Holland, one of my favorite historians, didn’t let me down with Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. And if you share my obsession with ancient history, you’ll enjoy Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss, who is a lot easier to read than Suetonius.
I was also somewhat surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Working by journalist and author Robert A. Caro, considering his two main objects of affection are the social engineers Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.
The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free by (my new boss) Rich Lowry and The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony were both helpful in putting this important topic into clearer perspective. The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past by Jarrett Stepman is a useful corrective to the fraudulent 1619-ing of American history.
In Erica Komisar’s Being There, Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, she tells women that they can have it all. They just can’t have it all at once. Drawing on decades of clinical work and the latest research, Komisar shares a critical but unpopular truth: moms must choose their babies over their careers. There is simply no substitute for moms in the first three years of a child’s life.
The United Kingdom’s former PM David Cameron is possibly one of the sharpest, well spoken, and most misunderstood conservatives in British history, who did a lot of good, but will ultimately be judged by his call for an EU referendum. In his memoir, For The Record, Cameron manages to justify his decision, saying that no ruling class can simply continue to rule over people, and sooner or later the decision needs to be thrown back to the masses. Nevertheless, his conservative instincts are at odds with his plebiscitary instincts, and history might or might not remember him kindly as a visionary, depending on whether European Union turns to an empire in the future, or collapses.
I also recommend a memoir by Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist, because nothing exemplifies the juvenile and idealistic liberal-institutional core of the West than Power’s disastrous reign under Obama. She brings all the myopic idealism, severe daddy issues and hyper-emotional college activism in diplomacy, a job that needs stoic, cynical realism by grown-up and emotionally detached men and women. Needless to mention, her half-hearted attempted defense of the Libya misadventure was my favorite hate-read part.
The third recommendation is Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. This is a case that is so obvious it barely needs elaboration, and yet, given our current times, this book should be immediately shared and read among conservatives.
We live in an era where the gate-keepers in media and academia are overwhelmingly left and internationalist, and they have all the cultural power, which leads them to shape narratives for generations to come. Nothing is better than countering that popular narrative with clear, coherent, non-academic book meant for the masses, like Lowry’s latest, and I cannot recommend it more.
“Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. This book explores the origins of why people don’t get along.
Haidt shares with us some fascinating and brutally honest insights of human nature based on his psychological research. He sees humans as being “90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” What he means is that on the one hand, humans are selfish hypocrites who are good at putting on a show of virtue and we use reasoning, not for seeking truth, but for supporting our own views and for the manipulation and persuasion of others. That’s why confirmation bias is so powerful.
On the other hand, human nature is also shaped as “groups compet[ing] with other groups.” So humans have the ability under certain circumstances to put aside our selfishness and work together like the bees, for the common good of the group.
Haidt concludes that people are divided by politics and religion not because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, we are divided because “our minds were designed for groupish righteousness” and “we are intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive out strategic reasoning.” Still, Haidt’s well-written and insightful offers some suggestions in this book on how we can bridge the divide and establish mutual understanding with our fellow human beings.
As voters and politicians search for a new path between the welfare-state Democrats and libertarian-ish Republicans, in the The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America Oren Cass outlines a third way forward, one that values work and promotes it as the essence of a healthy society.
Veeck—As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck is more than 50 years old, but will still be one of the best baseball books you read all year. The life story of the one-time owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, this book is a humorous and insightful look at the American pastime.
In Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen examines the success of liberalism in out-competing the rival ideologies of communism and fascism and concludes that in liberalism’s success lies the roots of its failure. It failed by succeeding too well, and by crowding out the traditional underpinnings of society while offering nothing to replace them. This book is a hard look at what happens to a system based on freedom at the expense of everything else.
While the nation continues its deep downward spiral in civility, Arthur Brooks’ latest book is an urgent call to restore the humanity in American politics. In Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Brooks makes an eloquent case by drawing on the latest social research and his own experiences as the head of one of Washington D.C.’s most prominent think tanks for casting political differences aside in these polarizing times to see one another as people first before engaging in constructive debate on the issues of the day. He says that would make our civil discourse far more productive and our society far more prosperous. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals could all learn from Brooks’ plea to love one’s “enemies.”
My brother-from-another-literary-mother David Harsanyi already beat me to recommending Clive James, who’s been in my mind since his death. Suffice to say, he’s an irreplaceable cultural critic.
I won’t, however, let Harsanyi beating me to the punch stop me from elaborating on what a stunning new book my old Weekly Standard colleague Chris Caldwell has written with The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. (Unfortunately, it’s not for sale until January if you’re gift shopping.) Caldwell’s book is at once an admirably concise and piercing examination of modern American history. It should make heads explode, because underneath the veneer of elegant prose, it is both incredibly persuasive and impolitic.
For instance, Caldwell convincingly argues that, while the cause of the civil rights movement may have been urgent and just, it normalized destructive legal tactics that have undermined all manner of unrelated facets of American life. He also doesn’t shy away from slaughtering sacred cows on the right, as he notes lots of data showing that the vaunted World War II vets who took control of board rooms in midcentury America didn’t do us any economic or leadership favors.
The book is full of arguments that are as counterintuitive as they are compelling, and if you read The Age of Entitlement back-to-back with Caldwell’s incredibly prescient 2009 book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Islam, Immigration, and the West, you have the closest thing that I’ve encountered to a grand unified theory of populist discontent that is so politically ascendant.
Aside from Caldwell’s forthcoming book, Rusty Reno’s latest The Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West is also a worthy commentary on how modern liberalism read us astray. Reno argues that post-World War II arguments that an open society would keep fascism at bay may have won the day, but little did people realize that such openness would ultimately erode and break the civic bonds that anchor us to our communities and fellow citizens.
All that’s left in their place are “flesh eating dogmas” that are so rigid that are often enforced with a zeal that feels, well, fascist. The wife practically forced this book on me, so I knew it was going to be good, and for what it’s worth, it also touches on some of the same vital themes as the aforementioned Why Liberalism Failed.
For many years, there were few journalists I disliked as much as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, who despoiled his obvious writing talent with unending partisan invective and an unhealthy Hunter S. Thompson fetish. So I’m as shocked as anyone to see that Taibbi has moderated his political approach and is constructively reassessing things.
He’s been a searing critic from the left of the media’s handling of Russiagate over the past year or so, and his recent book Hate, Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another might be the best work of media criticism in a generation. His lefty credentials are still intact, but his honesty in examining the liberal media means he doesn’t shy away from friendly fire (and admirably involves some significant mea culpas about his own career). And his high-level structural analysis of the media industrial complex is so sound, he might have even persuaded me that Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is merely overrated rather than wildly so.
I’d like to say more about them, but I’ll just mention a few other fine books I came across this year: Myron Magnet’s Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, and though I first read it years ago, current events meant I found myself dipping back into Guy Sorman’s Empire of Lies: The Truth about China in the Twenty-First Century—a compulsively readable and indispensable treatise on oppression in modern China.
Finally, for whatever reason, I didn’t read as much fiction this year as I normally do, but the two most recent novels I read happened to involve British Navy’s 19th century exploits. The first is Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, from O’Brian’s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series and hardly needs an introduction. Suffice to say if you like adventure novels, or Peter Weir’s criminally underrated movie of the same name, you’ll like this.
The second is The Terror by Dan Simmons (which was adapted into the eponymous TV series) and really lives up to the title. It’s a fictionalized account of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror while searching for the Northwest passage in the Arctic. Simmons, a creditable horror and sci-fi writer, essentially produces a mélange of O’Brian and Stephen King, where a combination of mythological monsters and existential dread combine forces to bloody the British Navy’s stiff upper lip.
Well, that’s enough books to keep your shelves groaning under the weight through 2020. Have a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and productive New Year.