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From TAC’s Bookshelf: Undermining Conventions

Looking back at a year of reading with the staff of The American Conservative.

Lincoln's Address at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery
Lincoln's Address at the Dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, November 19, 1863, lithograph published in Chicago by the Sherwood Lithograph Co., 1905, 41.2 x 50 cm. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

As we celebrate Christmas and look forward to a new year, in an homage to an old “TAC Bookshelf” series, we hope you’ll enjoy a glimpse this week of some of what we at The American Conservative were reading in 2022.

This job assumes I hold some controversial opinions, since those are the ones that in theory give you the most to write about. Of course, there are much more famous columnists paid to hold only uncontroversial opinions, and they are paid the big bucks, because people are eager to be told their boring conventional beliefs are actually deeply interesting, even revolutionary. While normal self-deceptive human psychology does a lot of the heavy lifting here, that is still a pretty tricky thing to pull off, so while I do begrudge those establishment hacks their wealth and prestige, I admit the market forces are there and in some sense they’ve earned it. 

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Anyway, one of my controversial opinions is that listening to audiobooks counts as reading. That is, while of course you are not reading a book when you listen to a narrator read it for you, you have read the book when you finish it if you have really been listening. Reading is a thing you do with your eyes. But when you have read something, you have encountered the ideas and images the author presented in the words and way the author presented them, and that can be done with the ears, too. Western literature began, as far as we can tell, with an oral tradition, most importantly with Homer and The Iliad. I’m not actually writing this column as a defense of my opinion, so take it up with the blind bard if you have further objections. 

No, that preamble is only to lead up to my admission that I am a peripatetic person by disposition and so listen to far more audiobooks than I do tolle lege sitting down. So, as I look back at 2022, and a year of things I’ve read, I find myself reviewing my Audible library as much as my bedside table. Perhaps you are the same, and have not yet let podcasts totally drive out books from the aural rotation. 

The last few years have been, it is almost trite to say, apocalyptic. By this, the writer usually does not mean momentous and monstrous only, but familiar with Revelation and St. John, also means the literal sense of unveiling. The curtain is parted, the intellectual sky rolled up as a scroll, and everything appears in a new light. Some days it does feel like that. And certainly it feels as though it is vital to consider that perhaps things are not as they seem, that stuff does not work the way you suppose it to, that history has only ended insofar as official versions of events are increasingly detached from what actually happened. In that vein, as a sort of practice in mental flexibility—what if?—allow me to recommend The Morning of the Magicians: Introduction to Fantastic Realism (1960) by Louis Pawels and Jacques Bergier. Do you enjoy schizophrenic speculation? This French book will delight. 

From France to England, and Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. We have had an American Caesar before, three or four of them. Lincoln is, after FDR, the most obvious and world-historical. Dear Leader Frank is still perhaps too close to us to really be seen, but we can get some outlines of Father Abraham. Lord Charnwood writes with the proximity of 1916 but the distance of an Englishman and it shakes out to something like a humane and realistic, admiring appraisal of America’s Napoleon and the freeing of the slaves. What is striking in his account is Lincoln’s ambition; the man possessed a sense of destiny that, from an adolescent suspicion that he must be born somehow of noble stock, persisted despite setback and setback, failure after failure, all the way to the White House and final unionization of a confederated republic. Yes, there was the depression, the unhappy marriage, and tragedy, but there was also a driving purpose.  

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C.S. Lewis once advised that if we are not such ascetics as to be able to read only old books, we ought to at least read an old book for every three new books. I trust readers of The American Conservative are regular old book readers, so I suppose I owe you a third new book to round out this list. 

You might have already seen, in the magazine or online, that I read Stephen Wolfe’s brand new The Case for Christian Nationalism recently. Even if you did not see that piece, you have probably heard of Wolfe and the book; he has caused something of a stir. I won’t repeat myself, but rather use Lewis to suggest some of what has been controversial about Wolfe’s book. In the essay “High and Low Brows,” Lewis distinguishes between the vulgar and the Vulgar. The latter is a moral judgment, the former aesthetic; Lewis writes, “What is vulgar in this sense (cf. ‘the vulgar tongue’) may be perfectly good: to lack refinement or subtlety when refinement or subtlety are not required is no blemish.” And a few lines later, “the directness, the unelaborate, downright portraiture of easily recognizable realities in their familiar aspects, will not be a fault unless it pretends to be something else.” Much of the controversy around Wolfe’s book stems from the fact that he has written it in what in this sense could be called a vulgar style: direct, linear, earthy. A bold choice for a theoretical treatise, it has perhaps opened him up to more accusations of having written a Vulgar book, too. 

So, there you have it, three controversial books read this year by your humble controversialist and suggested to you for consideration. As you might have guessed already, my earbuds have been playing C.S. Lewis this Advent and Christmas season. That might be a more conventional recommendation, but it’s a good one nevertheless, so let me toss old Jack in, too. 

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