This is the second installment of the “TAC Bookshelf” series. Published each Monday, The American Conservative‘s editorial staff, along with some regular contributors, will share with our readers what they’ve been reading of late.
Rod Dreher, senior editor: Late last year, a TAC reader put me onto Joseph Roth’s 1932 novel The Radetzky March which examines the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the fortunes of one military family. It was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I see why it is a favorite of conservatives. I can’t get the Habsburgs out of my head just yet, so I’ve been taking a deep dive into a winsome, idiosyncratic book called Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe. Its British author, Simon Winder, writes in the companionable style of Bill Bryson, which is not what you want for serious history, necessarily, but it’s a lot of fun by the fireside.
More seriously, in reading to prepare for the next book I’m planning to write, I devoured a couple of shortish books on beauty and transcendence. The first is a thin secular volume, one I read in a single sitting: On Beauty and Being Just by Harvard’s Elaine Scarry. In it, she makes accessible and persuasive arguments for the importance of aesthetics. Mostly she argues against cultural leftists who say that standards of beauty are oppressive. That’s not a mistake conservatives are likely to make, but the book is still quite helpful in teaching what beauty is, and how it affects us.
The second book, which I picked up immediately after I finished Scarry’s book, is The Sacred in Life and Art by Philip Sherrard. Sherrard was a British-born Hellenophile and convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. This book is about beauty, metaphysics, and religion, and can be heady stuff (sample line: “Beauty placed beyond good and evil usurps the place of the Absolute, with total indifference towards truth and goodness…”), though mercifully not because of the author’s style. Sherrard writes about deep concepts pellucidly, and is helping me think more carefully about the moral cost of our culture’s relative indifference to beauty.
Finally, I started reading the new print issue of Fare Forward, the ideas journal written by young Christian authors, including TAC alumni Leah Libresco and Tim Markatos. It’s one of the most vital and exciting magazines I’ve seen in ages.
Andrew J. Bacevich, writer-at-large: I’ve read most of Evelyn Waugh and consider his Sword of Honour trilogy a true masterpiece. Brideshead Revisited ain’t half bad either. Admittedly, I am drawn to those books in part because of their Catholic themes and their searing critique of modernity.
Although I had heard a lot about Scoop, Waugh’s takedown of sensation-mongering British journalism, published shortly before World War II, I’d never gotten around to reading it. I used the post-Christmas break to correct that deficiency.
Verdict? Not so hot. Scoop stands in relation to the Waugh oeuvre much as, say, Across the River and Into the Trees does in relation to Hemingway’s.
While there are moments of high humor—especially when the resourceful Mrs. Stitch appears on the page—few of the characters in Scoop elicit either interest or empathy. They are less funny than pathetic. One can see in Waugh’s protagonist William Boot some slight resemblance to Guy Crouchback, the central figure in Sword of Honour. Both are innocents let loose in a world beyond their ken. But whereas Crouchback achieves some modest enlightenment as a consequence of his adventures, Boot remains implacably dim.
The racist and anti-Semitic overtones will offend some readers.
Daniel Kishi, associate editor: I’ve been reading Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry C. Lynn. In it, Lynn charts America’s political economic history, and argues that a reinterpretation of our country’s once robust antitrust (or anti-monopoly) laws has caused almost every sector of the economy to become dominated by a small handful of well-financed firms.
Whereas prior generations of American lawmakers (Democrats and Republicans alike) passed antitrust legislation in an effort to promote competition and preserve the economic liberty of small and midsize market participants, Lynn argues that a “revolutionary” shift occurred in the early 1980s. Under the influence of economists at the Chicago School of Economics, the Antitrust Division of Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice adopted a set of merger guidelines that permitted, if not encouraged, the concentration of market power. Operating under a newly conceived “consumer welfare” standard, the Reagan administration—and every administration since—would only block a merger if it resulted in a rise of short-term consumer prices. Since large corporations could exploit economies of scale to deliver these low prices, industries now had license to merge into fewer and fewer hands.
Cheap consumer goods notwithstanding, Lynn says that this shift has been nothing short of disastrous. According to Lynn, industries dominated by a handful of firms contribute to a handful of negative economic consequences: the stagnation of wages due to decreased bargaining power of individual, non-unionized employees, the hindrance of innovation as a result of firms pocketing profits rather than reinvesting in additional research and development, and the socialization of economic risk as illustrated by the taxpayer-funded bailouts of Too Big To Fail banks and firms in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
But perhaps most importantly, Lynn—a small-d democrat and small-r republican in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Louis D. Brandeis—argues that economic concentration of such immense scale hinders the ability for small and midsize entrepreneurs, proprietors, and farmers to compete against their deep-pocketed competitors. Not only does this represent a loss of economic liberty on an individual level, but it also undermines the resiliency of local and regional economies—a reality that threatens the stability of our country’s communities and our very democracy itself.
For those interested in this topic, Washington Monthly has published substantive analysis on market concentration for more than half a decade. The magazine’s most recent issue contains a piece by Leah Douglass titled “How Rural America Got Milked,” which explores how consolidation in the dairy industry has made the livelihoods of independent dairy farmers increasingly precarious.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States by longtime Berkeley sociologist George R. Stewart (1895-1980) is a grand, sweeping journey through the American palimpsest of place name etymology. I think what gives Names on the Land such a strong pulse is that it’s told more as an adventure story than a plodding index of bureaucratic revisions. Stewart draws on the playfulness and pomp of the proto-Americans who gave us such place names as Goethe Peak, Death Ball Creek, and La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco to craft a narrative resonate with the restless energy of its people.
This is a book meant to be read by the people who actually live in the places it mentions. Stewart’s stories more closely resemble anecdotes, jokes, or even riddles than dry academic-ese. One of my favorite anecdotes describes the spread of the name “Buffalo.” Stewart writes, “In every glade they looked for the shaggy beast with the ponderous head. Where they first saw him or his traces, they often called the place by that name. So, right across Virginia runs a line of buffalo names. Eastward there are none, for the buffalo had not come. Westward such names are fewer, for by the time men had reached those regions the buffalo had ceased to be a novelty. But north and south, from Buffalo Branch in Augusta County to Buffalo Springs in Mecklenburg, that line of names still shows where our ancestors first came to the range of the buffalo.”
I’ve long been an admirer of Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison for both his New York Review of Books essays and his wonderful podcast “Entitled Opinions” (I recommend you check it out if you’re not familiar), but I’ve only recently gotten around to reading his books. I wasn’t disappointed. The one I’ve been reading most recently is The Dominion of the Dead, an eloquent meditation on “the many places where the dead cohabit the world of the living.” Harrison draws deeply from the entire well of Western culture, referencing sources as varied Vico, Emerson, Heidegger, Rilke, Plato, and Giacomo Leopardi to make what basically amounts to a Humanist case for tradition. Harrison writes that, “To inhabit the world humanly one must be a creature of legacy. That explains why the living housed the dead before they housed themselves.” If books can act as houses, and I’m sure Harrison would agree they can, then this book is a splendid tomb, a temporary abode for the living reader, and a gift to future generations all in one.
I hadn’t read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain since I was in high school, but a friend’s generous Christmas gift of a Word on Fire Classics edition, beautifully bound and with a forward by Bishop Robert Barron, gave me occasion to revisit the classic. I’m glad I did. There isn’t much praise that I can give Merton’s conversion story that hasn’t already been heaped on it, but it does make all the differences that it came to me at the precise moment I was emotionally and spiritually ready to revisit its message. The book sits on my nightstand and I’ve been going to bed earlier and earlier ever since I received it.