Well, they say hindsight is 2020 — and thank God for that. Suffice to say, none of us are going to be wistfully blaring Ol’ Blue Eyes’ “It Was a Very Good Year” on New Year’s Eve. (Side note: Have you ever listened to the lyrics of that song? “It was a very good year / for blue-blooded girls of independent means.” Is Frank Sinatra being feminist or classist? I’m so confused.)
Anyway, if we’re going to go digging for some roast beef in this year’s crap sandwich, most of us had a little more time to read this year. That is good, because it’s time for The Federalist’s annual notable books column.
In it, Federalist writers, as well as those in the publication’s large and growing orbit, take stock of the books we read this year. Unlike other annual lists, this is not necessarily a list of books that came out this year, just the ones that Federalist writers happened to read in 2020 and judged worthy of recommending.
America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism by R.J. Pestritto — This book doesn’t come out until next year, but I was lucky enough to score an advance copy. Pestritto is perhaps the preeminent historian of the progressive era, which dramatically reshaped American politics for the worse, by jettisoning traditional notions of constitutionalism and embracing an unaccountable administrative state. The history and politics of the era are fascinating and explain so much about what’s wrong today, and Pestritto has written an indispensible and accessible guide to understanding progressivism.
The Story Bible by Pearl S. Buck — The undeservedly out-of-print Story Bible is a retelling of the Old and New Testaments, in order, and told simply and directly. It’s almost as though what D’Aulaires did for Greek and Norse myths, Buck does for Bible stories.
Without the million begats and thenceforths, Buck relates the stories of our Jewish and Christian ancestors’ relationship with God, the land, and each other. At times it’s an adventure story, as with Joshua spying in Jericho, while at times it’s a morality tale, as with the two angels of the Lord in Sodom. There are stories of young women crossing deserts to marry strangers, prideful Pharaohs, and it’s all told in a way that is keeping my son remarkably engaged in learning the Bible.
It is not scripture, to be sure, but the stories are compelling, and lovingly and thoughtfully written, by a woman with faith. I often think God is revealed in so many ways in the Bible so that each person who listens can find a way to let Him into their hearts, and Buck continues that method of telling.
Buck’s big book was The Good Earth, which is very similar in tone and story to Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil, in that they are both about men who work, raise families, suffer, and toil, with barely a complaint, doing what needs be done when it needs doing.
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time by Joshua Mitchell — America feels like it is coming apart. The last four years under the Trump administration have pushed deeply entrenched problems to the fore, causing some to misdiagnose Trump as the cause of our social unravelling. But if it isn’t necessarily caused by Trump, what is the root cause of the dysfunction?
Is it Marxism? Socialism? The sexual revolution? Christian nationalism? In American Awakening, Mitchell says there are three main drivers. The first one is the most severe: identity politics, the anti-egalitarianism, illiberal toxin.
The academic, political, and cultural elites who peddle the toxin bestow entire groups of people a platform for power and influence, while censoring other groups of people and denouncing all they have touched. According to Mitchell, those who peddle identity politics proclaim who in society are the “stained” and who are the “innocent,” according to race and sex and any other descriptions outside of their control; and it leaves no possibility for reconciliation.
It is a hideous distortion of Christian ideas, without God and without forgiveness. Michell’s other “drivers” are for you to discover when you read American Awakening in the new year.
Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World by H.R. McMaster — McMaster has come to be one of the most interesting players in the Trump drama still unfolding. To me, the most interesting players are the ones who remained able to offer rational analyses without getting wrapped around the axel by the populist outsider president’s tics and anti-establishment approach, a rabidly hostile and sometimes brazenly corrupt White House press corps and broadcast media, and adversaries savvy enough to exploit the domestic tumult to their advantage.
These arethe people who could roll up their sleeves to help the country without, to paraphrase Kipling, lose their heads when all around them people were losing theirs and blaming it on them. McMaster is one of those people.
In Battlegrounds, Trump’s second national security advisor will disappoint the Always-Trumpers and the Never-Trumpers, although he does destroy the erroneous and malicious myth that Trump’s policies toward Russia were evidence of some kind of Trump-Putin plot. However, McMaster didn’t write a book to embarrass or boost the president. He wrote the book to outline the greatest threats to American security, how we got into the complicated fixes we find ourselves in, and what approaches have worked and haven’t, in an attempt to right the ship.
His book brings his decades of serious thinking as a strategist and a warrior. He led the Trump National Security Strategy, which oriented the next several years of policy to engage in competition with peer threats from Russia and China. You can’t sift through noise and chaff of Trump-era national security challenges and policies and make sense of the way forward without reading Battlegrounds.
Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson — The closest word to safety in the Russian language is “Bezopastnost,” which is transliterated to “no danger.” To understand Russia, perhaps that is a starting point — a historical great power, driven paranoid due to its history, lacking defensible natural frontiers like the British and Americans, and invaded by Mongols, Muslims, Swedes, Poles, Napoleon, Kaiser, and Hitler.
The only times Russia felt secure were when it expanded and had buffer zones. But that’s not all. Our understanding of Russia is shaped by the Bolsheviks.
We forget that Russia is a Christian conservative power historically defending Eastern Europe from Ottomans and, at the peak of its geopolitical power in 1815, the founder of the Holy Alliance with Austria and Prussia. The Soviet-era was an aberration, and current Russia is far more Christian and conservative than the European Union, for example.
Robinson’s fascinating book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the socio-cultural dynamic and history behind Russia’s great-power ambition, and illustrates somewhat convincingly that a farmer in Idaho will have more in common with an average God-fearing Russian trucker than with an Antifa non-binary student rioting in Portland or an EU bureaucrat in Brussels.
You Say You Want a Revolution?: Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences by Daniel Chirot — Speaking of Antifa, is anyone cognizant of the threat we face from left-wing radicalism? Daniel Chirot’s new book argues in the negative.
Studying revolutions and providing empirical evidence, this book argues that history usually repeats simply because we forget lessons of history, that idealism is the ultimate destructive force in the history of humanity. Liberals opposed to tradition and culture, and in thrall of an idealistic worldview, result in radicals taking power. Violence ensues. Moderates always instinctively and naively oppose conservatives and support radicals, only to lose power to radicals, who then cull the moderates.
This book is a neo-Burkean warning against attempted revolutions and revolutionaries of both left and right, with all the modern research methodology and empirical evidence one requires. Perhaps this book should help change the mind of the FBI directors that ideas are not always inherently neutral.
Under a Darkening Sky: The American Experience in Nazi Europe: 1939-1941 by Robert Lyman — Every dark story somehow has something hopeful, and Lyman’s book about Nazis manages to be a hopeful journey.
What were Americans doing in Europe before their country was officially at war? Lyman, a fellow at the Royal Historical Society (and a mentor of mine) charts the poignant experiences, including that of Josephine Baker, an American who later worked for the French secret service, and Janet Flanner, a reporter for New Yorker magazine. He reminds us that not all things are grey, and sometimes there are unconditionally good people in this world, fighting their own Tolkienesque good fights during times of global darkness.
The best political book of 2020 is Ilya Shapiro’s Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Court, which not only provides a fantastic historical primer but offers an accessible look at the legal and political battles that dominate our contemporary debate over the court. (You owe me five bucks, Ilya.)
Environmentalist Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, is a clear-headed debunking of the corrosive Malthusian hysteria that surrounds the issue of climate change.
One of my favorites, the always compelling Matt Ridley, is back to explain How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom.
On the ancient history front, Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price, and Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge all stand out as excellent.
I also quite enjoyed The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution by Chris DeRose, an event I knew nothing about, and The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution, by David Kuhn, about an event I didn’t know enough about.
This year I also felt compelled to re-read Frank Dikötter’s brilliant The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976 and Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Both are accessible, horrifying, and indispensable in understanding the evolution of the Chinese communist regime.
The book I enjoyed most, however, was Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of ,by Eric Cline. For anyone interested in archeology and the intertwined histories of Abrahamic faiths in Jerusalem, this book is for you.
As a huge fan of Woody Allen, I found Apropos of Nothing to be a quite entertaining memoir – but mileage may vary. Guilty pleasures included Made Men: The Making of Goodfellas and the Reboot of the American Gangster by Glenn Kenny; Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr; and Oliver Stone’s Chasing the Light.
Alex Ross, the author of the excellent The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century – is back with Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Like Wagner, it’s not an easy read. But it’s worth it.
The Politics of Envy by Anne Hendershott — Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted: “Our envy of others devours us most of all.” This observation is at the core of Hendershott’s extraordinary book, which is a desperately needed investigation into that destructive human emotion.
Envy is the main force behind today’s polarization, unrest, and violence. Hendershott really nails the green-eyed monster, tracing its corrosive power from ancient times to the modern practice of scapegoating in politics, in academia, in social media, and even in religion, where the “social justice gospel” subsists on cultivating envy. Advertisers, demagogues, and media figures stoke envy as a path to power. Envy is also the driving force behind excessive taxation, regulations, and all manner of social control by the state.
Hendershott does a superb job of outlining how envy poisons human relationships and sows misery throughout society. As a sociologist, she draws from Rene Girard’s groundbreaking work in developing the theory of “mimetic desire.” Girard argued that “people desire objects and experiences not for their intrinsic value but because they are desired by someone else.” So we tend to mime or imitate the desires of others, thereby coveting the shiny objects that we think we want. The results are deep-reaching and ugly for society.
When the envious feel frustrated as have-nots, they become obsessed. They target for destruction those they envy, even if it means great cost to themselves. Hendershott sheds much light on Girard’s contention that envy is the primary force behind all violence. Indeed, we see it in mobbings of successful academics, in cancel culture, in rioting, looting, and in all horrific crimes motivated by envy.
In a chapter on antisemitism, Hendershott notes that Jews in 1930s Germany, envied for their success, were described as having “the Jewish advantage.” As I read that, I was unsettled by its striking parallel to the concept of “white privilege.”
Envy can’t be eliminated, but we can try to control it. Hendershott cites Girard’s call for a new “heroic attitude” through Christian charity as the only way to end the cycle of envy, violence, and revenge. The Politics of Envy is an eye-opener. It deserves to be widely read because it is critical medicine for our angst-ridden times.
Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero by Tyler Cowen — The prolific scholar and polymath Tyler Cowen published Big Business in early 2019, and as the subtitle indicates, the book represents Cowen at his most overtly contrarian.
Despite the title, the book was not mostly a defense of American business’ size and scale per se but a more fundamental defense of the American private sector, featuring chapters defending features of that system such as Wall Street, big tech companies, and CEO pay, as well as other chapters pushing back on common criticisms of American business as being anticompetitive, unethical, and just plain evil.
At the time, I thought it was not one of Cowen’s best books because many of the arguments seemed too obvious. But at the time, I also thought the arguments Cowen wrote his book to counter seemed to mostly come from the left.
This includes the Bernie Sanders wing of explicit anti-capitalists and the more establishment liberals such as those who write for and read The New York Times who, while not forswearing any material aspect of the system, profess the belief that business is usually spelled with four letters. Recently, though, given the ongoing pandemic and the spread of anti-business sentiments among many conservatives, I reread Cowen’s book and found it more relevant in 2020 than when it was first published.
Some parts of the book hold up even less well than they did at the time, especially one portion where Cowen defends the burgeoning trend of employees being fired for the “offense” caused to other employees by even routine political beliefs or activities. This was tough to swallow when the book was first published, even accounting for the fact that Cowen is clearly trying to appeal to liberals who agree with this trend, and is much more jarring almost two years later.
But the overall defense of American private sector is now more relevant than ever. It is an exaggeration to say that every public institution at every level in almost every country in the world failed miserably during the COVID pandemic, but it’s not enough of an exaggeration. By contrast, as seen by the recent viral videos of vaccinations being rolled out, the private sector — in the form of the much-maligned pharmaceutical sector — is literally saving the world.
With gyms closed, I ended up taking a lot of long walks and plowed through several books on tape at 1.5 speed. With that on top of my regular reading, I got through probably more books this year than I have in at least 15 years. I count that as a win.
With racial tensions dominating the news, I made it a point to read and revisit a number of books related to understanding racism. I ended up writing about it at length and included a list of books on the topic that I found useful. The list is too long to repeat here, but I encourage you to go read it for yourself.
I also read two utterly fascinating history books. The first, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, is loosely about the discovery of a long-lost manuscript by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius bv a 15th-century papal secretary. It fomented much of the renaissance-era intellectual revolutions.
The book manages to make a great many interesting philosophical concepts accessible, while weaving it all into a series of very compelling historical stories. With due respect to my Catholic friends, the lurid stories of 15th century Vatican politics were both fascinating and made me feel good about being Lutheran. But we can all agree that, as ideas such as secularism and empiricism began to become more widely accepted in the 15th century, they brought more troubling developments than Greenblatt probably wants to admit in his otherwise superb book.
The second book, The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, jumps ahead three centuries, but in many respects it’s similar to The Swerve. The default assumption is that “progress” is always a good thing, but both books show how the development of critical ideas underpinning modernity are usually more complex and questionable than they appear.
Holmes keeps the book grounded by telling the stories of major scientific figures of the 18th and early 19th centuries, many of whom are fascinating and underappreciated. I was only vaguely familiar with names such as Jonathan Banks and Humphry Davy, and walked away with tremendous respect for their influence and accomplishments. Nor had I begun to consider just how quickly the inventions of the era — everything from laughing gas to hot air balloons — radically upended society.
But what makes the book really interesting is how Holmes shows that the tremendous scientific ferment of the time was intimately related to contemporaneous artistic accomplishments. Accordingly, Holmes also provides a lot of insight into Romantic writers such as Coleridge and Shelley (Percy and Mary), which provided great inspiration for each other. For instance, Keats was a failed physician and Davy a not untalented poet when he was younger.
You’re left wondering whether the clinical nature of modern science, which rejects the embrace of mystery in favor strict empiricism, isn’t in some ways holding us back. As Keats put it, “In the dull catalog of common things / Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.”
I had long been meaning to read Roger Scruton, and shortly before he died I had the opportunity to see Scruton speak. I was very impressed. Still, I was wholly unprepared for what a tour de force his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left would be.
Essentially, the book is just a series of targets. Scruton basically picks a liberal or postmodernist thinker, and goes through each one’s life and work, tearing them to intellectual shreds. It’s not an easy book at times, simply because even under the best of circumstances trying to understand the nonsense on stilts emanating from, say, Jacques Lacan is difficult.
Nonetheless, it’s all very influential nonsense on stilts, so it’s important somebody try and at least explain how it’s illogical and pernicious. Scruton’s absolute mastery of such a variety of intellectual terrain is astonishing, as is his vicious wit. No wonder the British press resorted to brazenly lying about Scruton. It was their only option, as they had zero chance of winning an argument.
Finally, I can’t endorse Michael Walsh’s just published Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost enough. Outwardly, the book is what it says on the tin — a series of insightful examinations of historical episodes ranging from Thermopylae to Walsh’s father’s courage at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. But what the book really amounts to is an unrepentant defense of masculinity in its highest forms of courage and sacrifice at a time manhood is denigrated by default.
That’s a wrap. We hope you enjoyed this list and found something to read over the holidays and into the New Year. Thanks again for reading The Federalist, we hope you enjoy a merry Christmas (or already had a happy Hannukah). See you all on the other side of herd immunity.