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The American Conservative’s Christmas Reading

Our writers on the best books of 2014, personal favorites, and bibliophiles' suggestions for Santa.
christmas books


Jeremy Beer

For me, 2014 was the year of David Bentley Hart. His The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (published in 2013) and Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (published in 2009) are usually regarded, I think, by those who have not read them as entries in the ridiculous “God debate,” but in fact they are creative, penetrating works of theology, and in some ways works of deeply theologically informed cultural criticism.

I also discovered Hart’s The Story of Christianity (2012), which not only offers a splendid precis of 2,000 years of Christian history but also takes Western readers into the reaches of what to many of us (save Daniel Larison) remains the unknown and mysterious Christian East. Along the way, Hart points out that medieval practices of torture, for example, clearly represented retrogression from established Christian tradition, and he readily acknowledges the ambiguous legacy of the institutional church. And did you know that some scholars think Tibetan Buddhism’s rich liturgical practices may derive in part from contact with early Christian communities in the far east? I’m convinced that Hart may be our most important living Christian thinker.

Jeremy Beer is president of the American Ideas Institute.

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Gene Callahan

At the end of the 19th century, idealism was the dominant metaphysical doctrine among philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. It was swept aside by the onset of “realism” in the first decades of the 20th Century, although what the realists attacked was generally a straw-man version of idealism. (The most famous “refutation,” by G.E. Moore, was notoriously bad in this regard.) But with recent philosophy coming around to conclusions drawn by idealists a hundred or more years ago, interest in the school of thought has revived considerably.

The existence of British Idealism: A Guide for the Perplexed is a symptom of that revival. It is as easy-to-read and engaging an introduction to idealist thought as one is likely to encounter. (Disclosure: I did my own Ph.D. under David Boucher, one of the book’s authors, so I am biased.) And it does not limit itself to idealist metaphysics, but discusses the intense interest many idealists had in practical matters of ethics, politics, social progress, imperialism, and war. If you are curious about the philosophical ideas that moved such notable thinkers as T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, R.G. Collingwood, and Michael Oakeshott, this is just the place to begin your explorations.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.

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Marian Kester Coombs

For years I have read mostly old books. By the time I tried to join the Conversation, people had written so much wonderful stuff that every day brings me disheartening new glimpses of past wisdom, wit, and unforgettable yet forgotten language. As philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend wrote, “Human beings have always been very intelligent.”

I love the heft and scent of old books, the foxing, the worn gilt, the startling immediacy of marginalia. And there is no electronic finger reaching out remotely to delete or edit anything therein. A recommendation published within the last decade? Not the many books by conservatives; I already read the columns they’re based on, which in turn are preaching to the choir. I could mention IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester. Yet I’ll wager that Adam Smith explained it all in more lucid and beautiful prose 250 years ago.

Marian Kester Coombs writes from Crofton, Md.

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Rod Dreher

For the past year and a half, the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri has been my preoccupation. I stumbled onto the Comedy, two summers ago, as I was in a dark wood of illness and depression. Because I read it carefully, to mine its secrets, and because I studied books about Dante as I read, it took me about five months to read the whole thing. But the book worked a miracle, helping me untie the knots that bound me to the weights that made me so sick, and giving me a new lease on life.

I have read a stack of books about Dante on this journey, but one of the best ones is the newest one: Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by the English scholar Prue Shaw. Published earlier this year, Reading Dante is the fruit of Shaw’s long career as a Dantist, and explores in rich, highly readable prose the great themes of the Comedy. The book serves well as a companion to reading Dante, but also stands alone as a marvelously lucid, even spirited, guide to the meaning and appeal of the first and greatest poem of the modern age.

Be warned: if you read Shaw’s book, your next purchase will be the Divine Comedy, all but guaranteed. To date, Reading Dante is by far the best introduction to Dante for the general reader that I know of; nothing else comes close.

Senior editor Rod Dreher’s next book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, will be published in 2015.

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Scott Galupo

The richly deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is a combination punch of literary beauty and brute force. Told in nonlinear fashion and from multiple viewpoints, Flanagan’s novel fictionalizes an unrelievedly ugly chapter of the Second World War: the attempt by the Imperial Japanese to construct, using forced labor, a railway between modern-day Myanmar and Thailand. Flanagan’s protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is an Australian surgeon who becomes the de facto leader of a group of war prisoners enduring starvation and disease as well as torture. On that score, The Narrow Road is a timely reminder that America already has faced, and overcome, an enemy at least as psychotically ideological as, and exponentially more powerful than, al-Qaeda. “To have been part of a Pharaonic slave system that had at its apex a divine sun king led [Dorrigo] to understand unreality as the greatest force in life,” Flanagan writes.

Scott Galupo is a contributing editor to The American Conservative.

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Philip Giraldi

The best popular history with a contemporary message that I have read in the past year is without a doubt William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842. The First Afghan War is frequently cited in the graveyard of empires narrative attached to Afghanistan and rightly so. A British-Indian expeditionary force of 20,000 invaded the country only to find itself in turn besieged in Kabul prior to a horrific winter retreat in which only one Briton, a medical doctor, survived.

Dalrymple starts with the Great Game and local tribal politics in Central Asia and introduces the reader to a colorful and sometimes bizarre cast of characters. The British defense and eventual retreat are compellingly described, the narrative reading more like a novel than a history. Highly recommended, particularly to those who continue to be fascinated by the clueless attempting to govern the ungovernable as it continues to play out in today’s Kabul.

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

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Samuel Goldman

The best new book I read this year is actually an old one: The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Since I’ve devoted many recent days to reading by and about the Puritans for a book project, I’ve been delighted to spend evenings in the company of their weirdest descendant. Although the principal contents of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft have appeared in many other editions, the thorough annotations by Leslie S. Klinger shed new light on Lovecraft’s imaginary world. Why has no one before compiled a faculty directory for Miskatonic University?

Reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft has also given me the chance to think through an issue that has split the science fiction/fantasy/horror community over the last year: Lovecraft’s racism. Without excusing the ugly fear of genetic corruption expressed in both minor stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” (not included in this collection) and more impressive pieces such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” I was struck by how little relevance it has to Lovecraft’s very best work. The basic principle of Lovecraft’s horror is the absolute indifference of the cosmos to human plans, concepts, or categories. From the cosmic perspective, differences between black and white, Yankee or immigrant have no more significance than variety among species of cockroaches.

Lovecraft gives this principle a deeply entertaining treatment in At the Mountains of Madness, which describes the discovery of a pre-historic alien civilization in Antarctica. But it receives its most concentrated expression in the “The Colour Out of Space,” which eschews the trappings of the classic adventure story in favor of an essay in pure existential dread. Much more than the octopoid monsters of the Cthulhu mythos, the life-sapping being visible only as a kind of shimmer is a thing that cannot be named, annihilating human distinctions through its very otherness. It is Lovecraft’s greatest achievement.

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

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Paul Gottfried

Although I might have taken this opportunity to plug my study Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement, I won’t bother to do so, seeing that Ken McIntyre and Andrew Sullivan have already praised my labor. Rather I would like to call attention to several recently published monographs on the First World War that explode the simplistic view that the Central Powers were exclusively or primarily responsible for that conflagration. The block-buster on the subject, which sets out to document the blunders on both sides, is Christopher Clark’s The Sleep Walkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harpers, 2014). For its thoroughness, balance and felicitous style, this book can’t be beaten as an investigation of the background of the Great War. I would also suggest the following studies of the still widely ignored Franco-Russian responsibility for the war from which European civilization never recovered, Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard, 2011), Terence Zuber’s The Real German War Plan, 1904-1914 (The History Press, 2012) and Zuber’s better known Inventing the Schlieffen Plan (Oxford University Press, 2002). The most eye-opening revisionist study, detailing the specifically French responsibility for fanning the impending war in the decade before its outbreak, is by a French economic historian, Philippe Simonnot, Non, l’Allemagne n’était pas coupable (Europolis, 1914). Although Simonnot’s documentation is compelling, his study should have been longer, considering the bombshell that he’s dropping. Moreover, in view of the author’s reputation as a popular historian, he could have found a publisher with better distribution.

Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.

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Bonnie Kristian

Rare is the history book that I would recommend for casual reading, but Justo L. Gonzalez’s two volumes of church history, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, more than make the cut. A Methodist theologian who was born in Cuba, Gonzalez masterfully tells an engaging story of the church, weaving together brief biographies and broader analysis of monastic movements, theological controversies, ecclesial power plays, and more. Though writing from a Western perspective, he gives ample attention to the Eastern Church and non-European contexts; and though clearly sympathetic to his subject matter, he never shies from discussing the less illustrious actions of the church. These two volumes provide a much-needed but often little-discussed background for anyone living in the waning shadows of political Christendom.

Bonnie Kristian is a communications consultant for Young Americans for Liberty and a graduate student at Bethel Seminary. Find her at bonniekristian.com and @bonniekristian.

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Daniel Larison

Prof. Barry Posen’s Restraint is a well-researched and persuasive case for the adoption of a new U.S. grand strategy to replace the prevailing approach that Posen dubs “liberal hegemony.” Starting with a review of liberal hegemony’s excesses and failures, he sketches an outline of an alternative that rejects the overreach and ideological ambitions of the last 25 years of U.S. foreign policy. He identifies several of liberal hegemony’s key weaknesses, including the tendency of U.S. support for allies and clients to result in “cheap riding” (relying on U.S. protection and neglecting to provide for their own defense) and “reckless driving” (behaving irresponsibly on the international stage on the assumption that the U.S. will bail them out). More important, he recognizes that the maintenance of hegemony is unsustainable and that it is bound to generate significant resistance on nationalist and religious grounds. All of these impose significant and unnecessary costs on the U.S., and all can be reduced or eliminated through the practice of restraint.

Posen seeks not only to avoid the costs associated with the maintenance of this hegemony, but also to bring U.S. foreign policy back in line with what he regards to be its truly vital and quite limited interests around the world. To that end, he describes how a reduced military with an emphasis on naval power would be sufficient to provide for American and allied security while substantially reducing other U.S. overseas deployments and commitments, especially in Europe and the Near East. The book is intended for a scholarly audience, but at 175 pages of text it is brief and very accessible to the lay reader.

Senior editor Daniel Larison blogs at TheAmericanConservative.com/Larison.

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Leah Libresco

There were two books in 2014 that compelled me to host dinner parties in order to bribe my friends into reading and discussing them with me: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Jamison’s book is a collection of fantastic essays (read the title one here) that frequently touch on what it means to be embodied. Jamison narrates her experience playing a stand-in patient for doctors learning how to speak to patients, her visit to a conference for patients suffering from an allegedly psychosomatic disease, and being punched in the face.

The Empathy Exams is a great spur to thought and conversation about how we relate to our bodies and those of others. Tushnet’s book could be slotted under the same theme, but the most powerful parts of her book touched on the way we’ve circumscribed all forms of intimacy (not just the physical/romantic ones), restricting them to couplehood and leaving celibate queer people like Tushnet out in the cold. Tushnet’s book is a handbook on ways to offer sacrificial love to others, especially when cultural scripts have failed you.

Leah Libresco is a statistician in Washington, D.C., and a former editorial assistant for TAC. Her first book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer will be released in May 2015.

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Daniel McCarthy

A big book of general interest that American Conservative readers ought to pick up before the year’s out is The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, by David Bromwich. But I won’t say much about it here—I reviewed the book earlier this year for the New York Times, and for a contrasting (but still appreciative) take there’s TAC’s own review by Jonathan Green. It’s a book that shows Burke in often surprising and even counterintuitive lights, which is all the more reason not only to read it but to think about it carefully while re-reading Burke.

My main pitch for now, though, is for Daniel Kelly’s biography of Brent Bozell Jr., Living on Fire (reviewed in TAC here). I was already taken with the book when I browsed the galleys a year ago, and having read it this year my appreciation has only grown. Kelly wrote a masterful biography of James Burnham a decade ago—one of the best books written about any 20th-century conservative thinker—and his Bozell biography is just as good, yet very different. Where the Burnham book delved deeply into its subject’s career and thought, but less so into his personal life, the Bozell book captures the struggle and triumph of the inner man as well as the public one. Bozell was a brilliant Yale undergraduate, a contemporary of William F. Buckley’s and soon his brother-in-law and collaborator on an early book, McCarthy and His Enemies, and on National Review. But Bozell became disillusioned with the conservative movement, even as it then was, in the 1960s, and he looked to Catholic traditionalism, as it could be seen in Spain, for a more than merely political alternative. He launched his own magazine, Triumph, whose takes on the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and America’s broadly liberal traditions differed markedly from those of Buckley’s magazine. The stresses of the time took their toll on Bozell, as did alcoholism and what was at last diagnosed as a bipolar condition. He never lost his family or his faith, but he lost almost everything else, yet he came to an inner peace and outward mission of mercy—serving poor Latin American immigrants and the destitute in Washington, D.C.—that made his life another kind of triumph. Kelly tells it all with great feeling unexpected in such economical prose; but Kelly himself was dying as he wrote the book, and in suffering there was kinship between author and subject.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.

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Scott McConnell

The best book I read published this year was John Judis’s Genesis, the story of Truman’s recognition of Israel. Judis clarifies something which long mystified me—how Truman would zig-zag between backing the State Department (which wanted some arrangement acceptable to both Jews and Palestinian Arabs) to backing the Zionists, and then blurting out remarks which to contemporary ears would be anti-Semitic. The answer is that Truman was genuinely suspicious of a religion as the foundation of a state—though he was anxious to resettle Jewish refugees, and desirous of accommodating major Jewish donors to the Democratic Party. But the latter put him in a position he didn’t care for.

Genesis is also an eviscerating indictment of many of America’s most revered liberal intellectuals who were happy to ignore their professed ideals in order to support ethnic cleansing where Palestine was concerned. It is surprising to me how this much-trod-over ground could yield so much fresh insight and material, but Judis managed to pull it off.

And it was not published this year of course, but I greatly enjoyed Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, edited by Carol Brightman. It is sad thing to recognize that books like this soon won’t be published anymore: e-mail changes letter-writing, renders this sort of careful correspondence, with letters worked at for days and weeks, obsolete. And when they are written, they are less apt to be gathered and saved, and their authors are likely both more superficial and cautious, knowing how easily one’s intimate thoughts can be shared, or hacked in the digital age.

The two gals are full of gossip and casual, penetrating political insights—on several occasions I was moved to snap a picture of a page with my iPhone and send it to friends far and wide. (Not surprisingly, Hannah’s insights more than Mary’s). If you are interested in the postwar intellectual life of the West at all, there are few more entertaining vantage points.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

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Noah Millman

Opinion journals have sought to change the world in various ways, but sometimes the point is to escape it. If you’re of that mind, may I recommend Cary Elwes’s As You Wish, his memoir of the making of the film, “The Princess Bride.”

The book would be worth reading if only to recall to mind the delights of the film, and to deepen your appreciation for them by giving the reader a bit of back-story on how they came to be. But the book offers a more general gift to the reader.

First, “The Princess Bride” is cited so often as a “classic” that we may forget how strange a movie it really is—particularly in terms of tone. It’s not a straightforward swashbuckler. It’s not a spoof. And it’s not winking, “Shrek”-style smart-aleckism. Like J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” it is deeply in love with the very tropes that, on another level, it looks back on from a very mature and even sad place.

Elwes’s book will remind you of this strangeness, over and over, so you understand what an exceptional achievement “The Princess Bride” is. This unique tone is the reason the film sat stuck in development hell for so many years, and it’s the reason the film was a flop theatrically—the studio had no idea how to market it. But it’s also a key reason why the film was such a huge sleeper hit, and why it remains so beloved by so many.

And the book itself has a very special tone, similarly still in love with an experience that isn’t exactly innocence but may be as close as one can get this side of fairy tales. Elwes has written a rare behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a film that is uniformly generous to everyone involved in the production without ever seeming like he is engaged in flattery or back-scratching. Rather, he comes off as a ridiculously nice guy who genuinely likes other people, all kinds of other people, if at all possible—and who also has a bunch of great anecdotes to tell.

Who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of hours curled up in front of the fire with a guy like that?

Senior editor Noah Millman blogs at TheAmericanConservative.com/Millman.

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Gracy Olmstead

Julian Baggini’s book The Virtues of the Table excellently considers how we ought to buy, prepare, and eat our food. Baggini is an atheist, but this book presents a very thoughtful Aristotelian argument for gastronomic virtue. Each chapter includes anecdotal and analytical arguments for such virtues as humility, compassion, moderation, gratitude, and technophronesis. In a world that tends toward habits of excess or defect in eating—be it going on a juicing cleanse or eating takeout for every meal—Baggini presents a refreshingly balanced and appropriately skeptical examination of the habits of our tables. The book has already affected the way I buy, prepare, and eat my food, and has reminded me to perform each of these actions with greater gratefulness and conviviality.

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

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James Pinkerton

I learned a lot from Karen M. Masterson’s The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Malaria Cure. Masterson focuses on the World War II era; in that conflict, virtually all the combatant countries had to fight malaria, as well as each other. We naturally associate malaria, of course, with tropical regions, but it was also a big problem in Europe—tens of thousands of soldiers, Allied and Axis alike, came down with the debilitating, even killing, disease in Italy, Greece, and other Southern Mediterranean countries.

Masterson’s emphasis, however, is on the U.S. She reminds us of the good work done by the Rockefeller Foundation, which early in the 20th century recognized that malaria was a major impediment to the economic development of the American South. And she revives the memory of such important malaria fighters as Lowell Coggeshall, Samuel T. Darling, and Paul Russell. The US achieved only a partial victory against malaria in World War II; indeed, in some parts of the world, the disease is still a killer. But in the purposeful scientific efforts that Masterson chronicles, we see at least the hope that malaria can someday be eradicated.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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William Ruger

Adam Smith is most well known today as the author of The Wealth of Nations, the father of economics, and a champion of capitalism. However, Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is arguably his best and deepest work. And those with the courage to immerse themselves in this dense text will be more richly rewarded than Smith’s poor man’s son thought he would be by all his “toil and anxiety.” As a realist who appreciates the world as it is, though, I know few will find the time and tranquility perhaps necessary to fully explore this long work.

Thankfully—and I say this with some trepidation as someone sympathetic to the great books approach—Russ Roberts has produced an excellent, readable book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, boiling down Smith’s views on human nature, how individuals can truly flourish, and how they can make the world a better place. As he showed in his videos on the economic debate between Hayek and Keynes, Roberts is a skilled popularizer of sophisticated ideas. He doesn’t disappoint. I recommend this book for those who want an easily digested taste of Smith with a robust intellectual aftertaste. For those who want the whole gourmet meal and are willing to invest the time and thought to eat it, I hope they’ll consider sitting down with Smith’s TMS itself as well as James Otteson’s 2002 primer on Smith’s thought: Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life.

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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Gerald J. Russello

The past, as someone once said, is a foreign country. So it is important for conservatives, and others interested in our cultural history, to remind ourselves of our past. The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid by Philip Hardie does just that.

One hears offhanded remarks about how important Latin was to the West, or the literary centrality of the Roman poet Virgil. But those references usually progress little further than the Catholic liturgy and Dante. But as Hardie, an eminent classicist, shows in an act of remarkable cultural retrieval, Europe (and, before the invasion of Islam, North Africa as well) was awash in Latin, and its foremost poet, Virgil, was its dominant figure. His poem of Rome’s founding was so influential that monarchs were composing genealogies to Aeneas well past the middle ages, and epics and visual works on all subjects across the continent were composed in his style or invoking his poetic images. Indeed a style of poetry (the cento) developed that was composed of retrieved bits of his verse to form a new artifact (including religious ones). Understanding Virgil goes a long way to understanding ourselves. Well worth dipping into.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.

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Benjamin Schwarz

I’d read the cuboid book (848 pages) The Making of the English Working Class, by E.P. Thompson, in college, but in the way that undergraduates too often read—too rapidly, for the purpose of regurgitating arguments in a seminar and to root out facts to deploy in a term paper. Revisiting it now for no particular reason, the book has given me the most exhilarating experience of my reading life this year. Thompson—English patriot (he fought his way up Italy in a tank unit), former Communist, political activist, rigorous historian—chronicled how between 1780 and 1832 the culture, traditions, and economy of artisans, small producers, tradesmen, and the yeomanry gave way to wage labor, the factory system, and mass industrialization.

By dexterously mining sources that had gone untouched since they’d been interred in the archives, Thompson summoned up the causes, arguments, and stratagems of a nearly wholly forgotten political culture. He revealed how that conservative political culture came to realize that industrial capitalism was uprooting communities, devaluing purposeful work, corroding family life, and concentrating wealth, resources, and production into what William Cobbett (Tory Anarchist par excellence and in some ways the literary hero of the book) called “great heaps”—a process that created “but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.” Lost were the traditional values of liberty, independence, and individualism—and the open, confident, and generous approach to life those values engender. Won was a steely and resilient class consciousness, reconciled to the new order, but which would fight heroically, albeit in a stunted way, to humanize that new order.

Steeped in English literature—see the constant, apposite, and often starling allusions to Bunyan and Byron, Defoe and the Bible—Thompson wrote powerfully, concretely, plangently, with an exquisite sense of cadence and rhythm. That style deepens this elegiac book, elevating it to a masterpiece of literature as well as of scholarship. This is a work, Thompson unabashedly makes clear, about history’s losers, and in its embrace of the losers, as well as in other ways, The Making of the English Working Class is a profoundly anti-progressive book. Its protagonists’ values and their 50-year struggle to resist being turned into a proletariat may have seemed merely primitive and retrograde to strident Marxists (and may seem so to progressives of all stripes today), but Thompson’s historical imagination and sympathy allowed him to see the value, and the tragedy, of lost causes:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan…from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties. Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.

Benjamin Schwarz is national editor of The American Conservative.

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Eve Tushnet

Whenever I tell people they’ve got to read Kathy Shaidle’s 1998 poetry collection, Lobotomy Magnificat, the ones who recognize the name say, “I didn’t know she wrote poetry.” Shaidle is better known as a vitriolic right-wing Canadian blogger (I haven’t been able to read her site for a while; life’s too short) whose blog title, Five Feet of Fury, is truth in advertising.

So her younger self’s poems will come as a surprise: splintery, compassionate, and imagistic snapshots of celebrities, criminals, or artsy Catholic heroes like Flannery O’Connor. Here’s how Shaidle describes a rainstorm: “Skin’s prayed wet rosaries all day”—and you can see and feel them, the bead-sized dappling drops. Her work is allusive, rhythmic, and rich in spiritual insight. (Her compressed phrase, “those God-tossed well-coins/you call saints,” says more about abandonment to divine providence than a year of homilies.) It’s attuned to the spiritual lives of humiliated people, especially humiliated women: institutionalized, incarcerated, guilty, or shamed.

I admit I have a self-aggrandizing fantasy that my periodic reminders of the greatness of Shaidle’s poetry might somehow herd her back to her gentler muse. But she’s also the best contemporary poet I’ve read, and she deserves to be known for what she does best.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

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Matthew Walther

When Dan asked me to suggest one or two Christmas books for readers of this magazine, I immediately thought of Auberon Waugh, the journalist and eldest son of Evelyn, who was once asked to contribute to a similar symposium put on by the American Spectator. Waugh suggested that we Americans, who “have an awful lot of catching up to do,” should “start with the Bible and move on to Shakespeare before tackling Joyce and Milan Kundera.”

Try as I might, I cannot think of a funnier response than Auberon’s, so I’ll just say that the two best new books I read this year were The Good Spy, Kai Bird’s moving, brilliantly written biography of the martyred CIA Arabist Robert Ames, and Oxford University Press’s new selection of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s witty and kind letters, the publication of which bears out Maurice Cowling’s prediction—doubtless delivered with a sneer, but even so—that they would come to be recognized as “one of the wonders of the age.” These two were among the many books I reviewed for money this year; as a private citizen, much of my reading has been given over, as it always is, to P.G. Wodehouse, to whom the best introduction remains Right Ho, Jeeves. Another, more rarified pleasure has been spending a good deal of time with Wittgenstein, whose work is the antidote to scientism, utilitarianism, natural theology, and many other evils. Festively speaking, I spent St. Stephen’s Day 2013 drinking Hendrick’s gin and re-reading The Way We Live Now, the best of Trollope’s standalone novels: this year, I think, it will be Beefeater and Middlemarch.

Matthew Walther, formerly assistant editor of the American Spectator, has written for The Spectator of London, First Things, the Weekly Standard, and other publications.

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