Rod Dreher, senior editor: For a TAC review, I re-read Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book To Change The Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. It really holds up, and as this papacy falters further—now the sex abuse scandal has directly touched the Pope, in the mess with the Chilean bishop—Douthat’s book is a must-read for understanding how Francis gets into these messes, and what it may portend for the future of Catholicism.
Late last week, I received in the mail Philip Lawler’s latest book, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock. I can hardly wait to jump in. Lawler has long been one of the handful of must-read Catholic commentators on the Church—on the abuse scandal, certainly, but not only that. He’s a conservative, but not a bomb-thrower, and he has a deep understanding of how the Catholic Church works as an institution. It’s pretty clear from the book’s title what Lawler’s take on the papacy is, but I’m eager to crack this book open because everything Lawler writes about Catholicism is worth reading.
The impending Vatican concordat with Beijing has been in the news lately, with some conservative Catholics shocked that Francis appears to be selling out the underground church to make nice with the communists. Lost Shepherd was already printed by the time this news broke, but I flipped through to see if Lawler in any way addressed China. Sure enough, speculating on the future of the Vatican’s negotiations with Beijing, Lawler observed that Francis “typically betrays his anxiety to reach an agreement regardless of the cost.” He then uses the example of how Francis sold out the Venezuelan Catholic bishops in their struggle with the oppressive socialist government there. I didn’t know that had happened. And now it’s happening with China. See, reading Lawler really does teach you something.
This week I’ll be in France giving some Benedict Option talks. At week’s end, I’ll be addressing a national conference of French Catholic farmers and agrarians. To prepare for the talk, I re-read some Wendell Berry, specifically his great short book Life Is A Miracle. I don’t know if Berry is well known in France, but the French farmers are going to hear about him from me.
Daniel Kishi, associate editor: I’m reading The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Your Head by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law. In it, Wu charts the long-standing commercial effort to monetize what has become our most valuable commodity: our attention.
His narrative traces the developments of mass marketing and mass media, beginning with the 19th-century penny press and concluding with the rise of the 21st-century digital platforms of Facebook and Google. From print to radio, television to the Internet, the business model of the “attention economy”—harvest attention and sell it to the highest-paying advertiser—has remained largely the same. And yet, Wu argues that the introduction of each medium has enabled the “attention merchants” to become increasingly adept and efficient at hijacking our consciousness.
Equal parts history and social analysis, I’d recommend The Attention Merchants to anybody interested in the history of advertising, the formation of our consumer culture, and the drawbacks of an economy that richly rewards the harvesting of our attention.
Scott Beauchamp, contributor: I’m not a huge fan of the New Yorker for a number of reasons, and not having read the magazine until I was already an adult means that I don’t have the nostalgic attachment that so many media people and East Coast people (and especially media people on the East Coast) seem to have. That said, I have a voracious appetite for John McPhee, and for all of the reasons that people usually can’t stand him. I know his prose isn’t flashy. I know he rambles on. I know he’s middlebrow. But I’m a sucker for the middlebrow deep dive. It’s why I also like The Grateful Dead and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—sifting through massive amounts of unique and oddly ambitious middling art is an addiction. So I was pleased to receive McPhee’s latest book, Draft No. 4, from my father in law for Christmas. Sure, it’s full of pretty obvious writing advice and anecdotes that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it’s McPhee! If you enjoyed any of his other books even slightly then you’ll find some pleasure in this slim volume of instruction and recollections.
I’ve been reading another slim volume, Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution: A History, as part of a much larger project that I’m working on. I’ve read pretty widely on the Romantic movement, and I don’t think you’ll find a more clear or concise introduction to what I think is an often misunderstood period of history. My only complaint is that it could stand to have a little more about Coleridge, the poet/essayist/thinker who introduced German philosophies of Romanticism to the English speaking world almost singlehandedly.
I won’t say too much about D.C. Schindler’s Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, since I have a review forthcoming over at The Public Discourse, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention in passing what for me could be the most influential book I’ve read in years. If you harbor some distrust of Locke’s definitions of power, will, and freedom but aren’t quite sure why, this book will definitely help to clarify your thoughts. Caveat Emptor: This book isn’t only for professional philosophers, but it’s pretty dense. It’s also worth the trouble.