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The American Conservative’s 2015 Books Symposium

Our writers recommend the year's best—and a few older gems to be rediscovered.
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Be sure to check out last year’s installment as well. Happy reading!


Catherine Addington

In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott takes the broad highland swath of Southeast Asia known among academics as “Zomia”—a rugged, mountainous region with a population of 100 million that encompasses parts of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, China, and India, and arguably extends as far west as Afghanistan—as the focal point for a study of state evasion.

The book is a bit overwhelming to a reader unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, and written largely in the deliberately inaccessible manner of highlanders and anthropologists alike, but the skeleton of his thesis comes through provocatively. He argues that the “hill peoples,” as they are known, should not be thought of as “ancestors,” as-of-yet “unreached” by the “civilization” of the valleys, but rather as refugees from the state itself and all the pests thereof: land-grabbing, disease, and conscription. The behaviors that “valley peoples” see as backward—linguistic and geographical isolation, ethnocultural flexibility, intense religiosity, nomadic agricultural patterns—were in fact deliberately developed to resist the “internal colonialism” of state control.

Though Scott is adamant about framing the book as a historical depiction, quickly becoming irrelevant in contemporary geopolitics as states expand even into previously unconquerable Zomia, he perhaps doesn’t see the timeliness of his own argument. Our own foreign-policy debate is all about civilizational narrative: what could ISIS possibly be offering that we aren’t? How can states possibly deal with nonstate actors? Why are there some places we just can’t tame? Scott doesn’t offer answers, but he asks the questions from the opposite side. It’s a welcome change in perspective.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

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Andrew J. Bacevich

Biographies are a dime a dozen. Biographies worth reading are hard to come by. Here are three recent ones that received less attention than they deserved—comprehensive, well-written, and, to my mind, gripping accounts that illuminate something more than the life of a particular person. First is The Publisher: Henry R. Luce and the American Century (2010) by Alan Brinkley. Second is The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2012) by David Nasaw. Third is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2014) by Charles Marsh. You don’t have to like Luce or Kennedy to appreciate that they deserve to be ranked among the most consequential Americans of their day, each a larger than life figure leaving an imposing legacy. As for Bonhoeffer, his journey toward eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis bears compelling witness to what it means to be a Christian in an even darker time than our own.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military Historyis due out in April.

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Bradley J. Birzer

While almost every person under the age of 60 recognizes the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological creations as found in his published writings (which remain among the best selling of all-time best sellers), few realize that this Oxford scholar of Beowulf and all things medieval, this niggler of all Western legends, and this very middle-class husband and father was also an extremely good artist, as well as passable amateur cartographer. Since Tolkien’s death in 1973, five books of his art have appeared, with Hammond and Scull having expertly editing three of them. This most recent, The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not only glorious but is also a vital corrective to the cinematic horrors and travesties created by Peter Jackson’s six films. Tolkien, a real master of water colors and fantastic landscapes, fails only in figure drawing. As with his writing style, Tolkien ably matches the style of his art with the subject matter at hand. Hobbiton is ideally agrarian and republican while Mordor is wickedly mechanical and uniform. Most tellingly, however, Tolkien’s art is, somehow, humane.  Even after nearly eight decades, his paintings remain fresh and timeless. Rather than shock as so much modern art does, Tolkien’s art simply invites and welcomes.

Bradley J. Birzer is the author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative.

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Gene Callahan

“Acedia” is the Latin word for the deadly sin of “sloth.” We often think of sloth as roughly synonymous with “laziness” (thus the animal name), but in his powerful book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, R.J. Snell explains that this is only one aspect of how it was traditionally characterized. In fact, in the Christian tradition, acedia often involved a “frenzy of pointless action.” The connection between this traditional understanding and the modern usage is that this frantic activity does, in fact, stem from a form of laziness: being too lazy to hunker down and commit to some full course of action. Monogamy is hard work; it is easier to flit from lover to lover. Reading a great novel is tough going: why not bounce around the cable channels? Even committing to a conversation for 15 minutes seems too much for many of our contemporaries, who cannot resist checking for text messages every 30 seconds.

The cure, Snell argues, is “staying in the cell”: the monk’s phrase for what to do when acedia hits, which is simply to refuse its invitation to dart hither and thither and instead keep one’s constancy of place. The idea bears a striking resemblance to the Zen Buddhist treatment for the same problem, which is to keep sitting through the fidgets. This, and a lot more, from Cormac McCarthy to Charles Taylor to Milan Kundera, is packed into this slim but weighty volume.

Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.

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Marian Kester Coombs

How many books have I never read because continually hearing about them created either a false sense of familiarity or a rebellious resistance? I finally came to open Wilkie Collins’s enduring classic The Woman in White because it was on my shelf in the form of a vintage leather-bound volume inscribed by my ten-year-old mother in 1934; and because I have reached the age of “If not now, when?”

Anyone who reads The Woman in White knows that it is not only a riveting suspense tale, but is formatted in an intriguing, inventive ways—as letters, journal entries, memoirs, legal depositions, and the like, all in distinct voices. The slow revelation of the mystery is delicious. The style is Victorian but not overly so, and virtually every paragraph draws the reader deeper into the maze of the Secret…

The Woman in White is a feminist novel in the sense that most if not all 19th-century novels are: the greatest audience for them was female. In strong female characters the novel does not disappoint. Restive female readers were surely gratified by the valor and virtues displayed by the heroine, Miss Marian Halcombe, in defense of her helpless and outrageously wronged sister Miss Laura Fairlie. (I was also tickled to see my own outmoded name in print for a change.)

“The primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story,” wrote Collins. Simple as that.

Marian Kester Coombs writes from Crofton, Maryland.

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Donald Devine

Ronald Reagan was the man of our times. Who says so: how about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary? Craig Shirley has now written the closing chapter in the Gipper’s consequential life, Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. Like its subject, the book is a class act. This is Shirley’s third work on the former president’s life, with his Reagan’s Revolution on the 1976 election and Rendezvous With Destiny about the victory in 1980. He knows his subject intimately. While this volume has a note of sadness approaching Reagan’s last years, it also is consoling in that it demonstrates that his legacy will be long-lasting. Shirley is especially good in his clear writing style and no-nonsense storytelling. There are thousands of anecdotes and scores of witticisms. And Reagan is there, cheerful and generous through it all. The section on the funeral is especially difficult to read, but the outpouring of affection reminded me that my own nonpolitical children waited on those long lines at their own initiative. He was truly a transformational president who rescued America from 1970s “malaise” and restored confidence in America and its values. Whether it lasts beyond him is up to us, and this book may be just what is needed to inspire such perseverance.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.

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Rod Dreher

The best book I read all year was Laurus, a remarkable novel by Russian writer Eugene (Evgeny) Vodolazkin, a professional philologist of the Middle Ages. Reminiscent of the work of Umberto Eco and Gabriel García Márquez, Laurus tells the story of an unlikely Orthodox Christian holy man in 15th-century Russia and his adventures, hardships, and triumphs in a time of plague and war. A mysterious sense of sanctity illuminates every page of this novel, but filled with a sense of earthy sensuality, Laurus is far from a neat, pious tale. Depicting goodness in an authentic way is one of the most difficult things for a novelist to do, but Vodolazkin, miraculously, succeeds. It’s a terrific tale, and you emerge from this book with a sense of the world’s re-enchantment and a renewed belief in the holy, in the reality of a transcendent order, in a world grown indifferent to its presence.

Laurus gave me hope. The Divine Comedy gave me my life back. I tell that story in my 2015 book How Dante Can Save Your Life, which grew out of a long series of TAC blog posts. A follow-up to my 2013 memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, this book tells the story of the surprising kinship I found with the medieval Tuscan poet at the lowest point of my life. To my astonishment, Dante’s Divine Comedy turned out to be a life-changing guide to spiritual self-examination, and it led to profound inner healing. How Dante Can Save Your Life is not an academic book but an accessible work of literary self-help, in a Christian vein. Pope Francis has encouraged his flock to read Dante on this Year of Mercy. How Dante Can Save Your Life, if I may say so, is excellent preparation for the divine poet, written by and for non-specialists.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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Philip Giraldi

I read Being Berlusconi: The Rise & Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga earlier this year in part because I am acquainted with some of the Italian politicians identified in the “rise” part of the book. The author, Michael Day, a British journalist who has been based in Rome and Milan, has produced a lively account of a man who seems to defy all conventional wisdom in his trajectory as a business-tycoon-turned-politician who eventually became something like a caricature of himself. One might reasonably argue that Berlusconi, shaping today’s political landscape for better or worse, has been the most dominant figure in Italian politics since Giulio Andreotti resigned as prime minister in 1992.  

As if peeling an onion, the book works its way through the multiple personalities and complexities inherent in the Berlusconi phenomenon in an entertaining fashion to explain how he got away with it all for as long as he did. But for me the truly most interesting aspect of the book is its relevance to contemporary American politics. I keep thinking of Day’s observations about Berlusconi whenever I read about Donald Trump’s latest antics. Trump is, indeed, the American Berlusconi, artlessly playing on national anxieties in the most outrageous fashion to maintain his political base. Nor is it a mere coincidence that both Trump and Berlusconi are billionaires, as that has provided them with the freedom to thumb their respective noses at conventional politics and politicians, which, in the end, is a large measure of their appeal.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

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Samuel Goldman

Ernst Jünger’s Eumeswil is not a new book. First published in 1977, it received an English translation in 1993. But the German original is inaccessible to most readers, while the translation is expensive and long out of print. This edition makes the masterpiece of Jünger’s later thought available to a wide American audience for the first time.

Jünger’s preoccupation in this period was the “anarch,” or radically free individual. In Jünger’s view, freedom can be sustained only through an act of ironic distancing that combines superficial acceptance of conventional life with spiritual withdrawal. What distinguishes the anarch from the anarchist, Jünger argued, is that the anarchist is really an optimist who believes unfree society can be replaced by a free one. The anarch, by contrast, recognizes that every society is based on constraint and coercion.

Despite its political implications, Eumeswil is not a conventional work of theory. A bildungsroman set in a postapocalyptic future, it blends philosophy, poetry, and natural science in Jünger’s precise but intentionally alienating prose style. Jünger’s main interlocutors—Vico, Nietzsche, Max Stirner, the French Symbolists—belong to European high culture. Readers who come to Eumeswil with knowledge of Anglophone science fiction, however, may notice surprising parallels to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun

Eumeswil can be read as part of Jünger’s lifelong reflection on his flirtations with radical Right in the 1920s and ‘30s. Although he was never a member of the NSDAP, Jünger’s reactionary nationalism and aestheticized depictions of violence promoted the Nazi seizure of power. Like his 1939 novel On the Marble Cliffs, Eumeswil thus considers issues of collaboration and tyrannicide. Should a free man sacrifice his life to eliminate a dictator? Jünger confronted the question himself as a peripheral member in the Stauffenberg conspiracy against Hitler.

Jünger’s mature conclusion is pessimistic. Personal resistance is futile in comparison to the inexorable forces of history. The anarch is not a revolutionary. He is a pessimist and an aesthete, whose freedom consists in his capacity to imagine himself as a member, not of a better world, but of a different one.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

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Leon Hadar

Reading about the origins of World War I continued to occupy my time this year, and not only because there have been a stream of excellent histories about the topic since we marked the centenary of the Great War two years ago. My interest in the subject also stems from the recognition that the evolving international system that is becoming more multipolar in nature, and driven in large part by considerations of balance of power, resembles on the one that existed in Europe from much of the 19th century until it crumbled in 1914.

So it may be appropriate that the first sentence in Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution, which was completed long before the current Ukraine critics exploded, reads: “As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine,” suggesting that notwithstanding changing ideological orientations, Russia and Germany are once again at the center of European and world politics.

Lieven’s study is not a “revisionist” work, but unlike other books on World War I it attempts to place Russia “where it belongs, at the very center” of the war’s history.

In the “fiction” category I recommend Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, which has been reviewed by other TAC editors. I am not sure that the designation “fiction” is appropriate, if one considers that the book that imagines France coming under the rule of Islamists came out before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and was published in English before the more recent ISIS terrorist assaults in Paris.

Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Alan Jacobs

Beyond any question, the four volumes by Elena Ferrante commonly called the Neapolitan Quartet constituted the most powerful and memorable reading experience I had in 2015. That’s an opinion shared by many, it seems, but I have yet to see a review of, or essay on, the story—and it is a single story: Ferrante herself thinks of it as one novel in four volumes—that captures its depth and richness. Most critics assimilate the story to pre-existing categories: it gets called a portrait of female friendship, an exploration of the costs of a rigidly sexist culture, and the like. But no standard political or social framework is adequate to the subtlety of Ferrante’s portrayal of human lives, both in their day-to-dayness and in extremis; and one character in particular, Raffaella Cerullo, known to the narrator as Lila, a girl and then a woman by turns open and hidden, confident and fearful, brilliant and defeated, generous and cruel, completely evades any attempt at comprehension. (But since that narrator—Elena Greco, or Lenù—reveals Lila to us, and Lila’s life is always entangled with hers, it may be best to say that they make an unforgettable pair.) What, fundamentally, is the story about? Loves that are indistinguishable from hatreds; the compelling power and appalling narrowness of a intensely localized upbringing, and the disruption of both the power and the narrowness by technological modernity; the many paths and meanings of womanhood; the profound corruption of a society clinging to the merest shreds of religious habit when the living force of Christianity has departed. Or: life.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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Philip Jenkins

When future historians struggle to choose the single dumbest remark to emerge from the lips of Barack Obama, his portrayal of ISIS as “a JV team” must stand at or near the front of a crowded field of candidates. Dealing with that movement, and preventing its jihadi insurgency going global, will be a primary task of the next administration. For that task, the next president will need first class intelligence, and among several good books now available, The ISIS Apocalypse  by William McCants is by far the best. It is based on an exceptional range of primary sources that are otherwise little known, many in Arabic. At every point, the author emerges as an acute and clear-minded analyst, with an enviable historical grasp.

McCants stresses two critical themes that are far too rarely stressed in general discussions. One is the intimate connection between the Islamic State and the mechanisms of the defunct Iraqi Ba’ath state, its military and its intelligence apparatus. The other is the movement’s profoundly religious content. This is grounded not in generic appeals to Qur’anic tradition, but rather to very deep-rooted apocalyptic ideas that can be traced to the early years of the original Caliphate. Those ideas boomed astonishingly during the general collapse of Arab states and societies during the ironically named “Arab Spring.” Reading McCants, you realize just how absurd is any attempt to pretend that this movement is somehow not Islamic, or not even religious.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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Daniel McCarthy

The current issue of The American Conservative highlights more than one book that deserves mention in a round-up of the year’s best. Bradley Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservative is the indispensable guide to the life of the man who recovered a genealogy for conservatism amid the ruins of World War II. There are many more sides to Kirk than his most famous work, The Conservative Mind, suggests, however: Birzer uncovers Kirk the early libertarian, influenced by Marcus Aurelius and Albert Jay Nock; Kirk the gothic novelist and writer of short stories, anthologized alongside Stephen King and Ray Bradbury; as well as Kirk the Christian humanist, the disciple of T.S. Eliot who somewhat uneasily shared a soul with Kirk the Goldwaterite. Birzer’s book is for conservatives (and not just conservatives) easily one of the most notable of 2015.

Kirk himself would, I suspect, also take note of another title featured in TAC‘s latest issue, the University of Chicago’s new translation, by Margaret Grave, of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius (as this edition is styled). I’m cheating a little here because in fact the translation of Seneca’s letters I’ve recently read isn’t Chicago’s but the old Penguin classic by Robin Campbell. Campbell’s is less comprehensive than Grave’s edition, but even a slender volume of the great Roman Stoic’s letters is tonic for the spirit. Seneca was a pre-Christian humanist of sorts—though he counsels his friend Lucilius against drowning in erudition—and he readily draws not only upon the poetry of Vergil but even on the maxims of Epicurus to show that truth can often be found far afield from the authorities of one’s own school of thought. It’s a lesson worth remembering as the furies of another election season approach.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.

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Scott McConnell

I loved Submission by Michel Houellebecq. I read it in French, early this year, which for me is commitment, 15-20 pages an hour with a dictionary. It provides really shrewd insight into the various mindsets, or facets of them, of contemporary French multiculti liberalism and  reactionary identitarianism. Houellebecq is France’s most important writer, and a kind of reactionary—so quite an accomplishment for a country where it is still unconsciously assumed that art and culture must be of the left. He is acutely conscious of the social weaknesses of the secular liberal society now threatened by Islamic immigration/fertility/devoutness. You can find many people who admire the book debating its political meaning or intent, which is quite a trick for a political novel.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

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William Ruger

Police tactics and equipment have become salient topics in American politics in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore. Law-enforcement agents today are often armed like soldiers in a war zone rather than peace officers aiming to protect and serve their communities. While recent events have shown the need for special units for special circumstances, SWAT teams are utilized all too often in this country for more pedestrian purposes—not infrequently with bad results for individual liberties and for the police officers trying to do their dangerous job. When the police are over-armed, utilizing vehicles built for war, it separates and alienates officers from individuals in the community. Recently, New Haven police chief Dean Esserman spoke eloquently about this loss of faith and what can be done to fix the problem. As he put it, “you don’t know us anymore. We’ve become strangers in the community.” Given our country’s origins and founding ideals, how did we get here? Why does a town like Johnston, Rhode Island with a population of 30,000 receive millions of dollars in surplus Department of Defense equipment including bayonets?

Radley Balko’s detailed history of the militarization of policing, Rise of the Warrior Cop, is a must-read book that answers these questions and more, and is even more relevant now than when it was published in 2013. And if this topic is of interest, I’d also recommend the new documentary “Peace Officer” which touchingly looks at police militarization through the lens of a former sheriff who started a SWAT team that decades later killed his son-in-law.

William Ruger is the Vice President of Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute.  He is also the author of Milton Friedman and co-author of Freedom in the 50 States.

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Timothy Stanley

Peter Longerich’s Goebbels: A Biography smacks of “definitive.” Based upon the propaganda minister’s private diaries, it paints a picture of a narcissist who needed Adolf Hitler to affirm his genius. One could read the relationship as symbolic of fascism as a whole: the father flattered, the nation rallied and the horror came.

Joseph Goebbels was not without talent. Longerich shows how he turned the crude Nazi propaganda machine into something that better reflected the cosmopolitan tastes of the 1930s public, almost Hollywood in elegance. And for all of those who have asked why the Nazis didn’t leave a longer cultural legacy, the answer is partly a failure to launch. In theatre, for instance, the hierarchy found that Nazi-themed works were poorly written and dull—so they stopped commissioning them. The films we remember with a shudder from the Third Reich are Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries of sweaty men marching with shovels, or else the racist dross of “The Eternal Jew.” But this was also a regime that, at the height of the war, poured money into “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which was about as politically radical as the “Police Academy” movies.

Nazism was fanatical and ideological. But the system and its followers often required adaptability to flourish. Longerich shows how Goebbels used the language of Catholicism, socialism, and racism to navigate the ups and downs of a career typically spent on the edge of influence. Ultimately, the Nazi state was a personal one. Goebbels was nearly ruined by an affair that imperilled his marriage to Magda—a woman beloved by the Fuhrer. At the end, however, they were all united in death.

Timothy Stanley is the author of Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.

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Eve Tushnet

It’s easy to find books that take one side or another on the questions the prevailing culture presents. It’s much harder to find books that challenge the questions themselves, asking us to take up new or neglected questions instead. My friend Wesley Hill has written a slender, heartfelt book that intervenes in our often dispiriting debates over family structure, gay people, “emerging adulthood,” and Christianity, by asking a long-neglected question: what would it look like to shape one’s life around friendship, in a culture which no longer recognizes friends as kin? Could friendship serve as the molecular unit of the church? Could friendship be an arena for sacrifice, care, and sanctification? In Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, Hill takes up these questions with the help of art, literature, a deep knowledge of Scripture, and personal experience. This is a conversation-starter, not a treatise. It isn’t the last word. It’s simply a beautiful and provocative set of essays that will challenge all its readers and inspire many of them.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

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