Seeking ideas for presents this year, we asked several of our well-read friends and contributors for recommendations of a few wise, or fun, or disturbing books that every First Things reader should know—limited only by the request that the lists not include the Bible, Shakespeare, or volumes by authors who appear regularly in First Things' pages.
Wilfred M. McClay
• Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams:
An autobiographical meditation on the costs of modernity, providing along the way a richly allusive slice of American history and life as viewed by the great-grandson of our second president. It is occasionally annoying and self-indulgent, but well worth the aggravation. Best read along with Adams' beautiful Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.
• Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America:
It's still the one—the single best book about America, if one has to choose only one, and more generally about the pathologies and possibilities of democracy. Even its errors are stimulating, and, to paraphrase Chou En-Lai, it is probably too soon to know for sure whether they are in fact errors.
• Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard:
A stunningly beautiful, and very Tocquevillean novel about the life of a Sicilian aristocratic family during the Risorgimento and about how one learns to live on the cusp of great historical changes.
• Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud:
A book that fearlessly and relentlessly follows the analytic attitude to its logical limit—and gestures with a long skeletal finger toward the bleak moral vistas that lie beyond. A work of great distilled power, employing a unique diction that somehow manages to be at once prophetic and clinical. Dense and deep, far more subtle than the easy characterizations pinned to it, it is worth many rereadings.
• D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature:
You can loathe Lawrence's novels but still love this crazed, off-the-wall but brilliant book. It's not only very funny, it's also jammed with more insights into American life and literature than any other short book I know. Among other things, too, it is also clearly a source from which Tom Wolfe derived much of his writing style: excited caps, copious exclamation points, the whole thing. One has to ignore the occasional intrusions of Lawrence's dopey philosophy and pay attention instead to his specific observations, which are astonishingly acute and fresh. It is an irony, but not a coincidence, that this is the book from which we got the wise saying “Trust the tale, not the teller.”
• Peter de Vries, I Hear America Swinging:
One book of many coming from the hand of a true master of American comedic prose, a man who deserves much wider recognition than he has ever received. I for one would trade three Twains for one De Vries, perhaps in part because (unlike Twain, who could not stop playing the village atheist) De Vries knew something about religion, bringing a wry Dutch Calvinist sensibility to bear on the fertile subject of modern American confusion. Those who have not yet read De Vries should not deprive themselves of that pleasure for even another day.
• Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics:
Many are of the opinion that this is simply the best book of philosophy ever written. It argues that the happiness all humans necessarily desire is more than a feeling, more than a possession. It is, rather, our being personally engaged in a set of activities that are done for their own sake, which fully integrate all aspects of human life and which are exalted enough to be worthy of human nature's essential rationality.
• Karl Barth, Fides Quaerens Intellectum:
This work by the greatest religious thinker (in any tradition) of the twentieth century is the most profound discussion of how one can utter the name God with philosophical perspicacity and theological integrity. It is also the work by Barth that is most relevant to the philosophical and theological concerns of both Christian and non-Christian theists.
• Judah Halevi, Kuzari:
For many, this is the most important and influential work of medieval Jewish theology. It is an argument presented to a gentile king on why his search for God should lead him to adopt Judaism. The book does this by explicating the main ideas and practices of the Torah and Jewish tradition.
• Joseph Hertz, Sayings of the Fathers:
Hertz's translation and commentary on the classical rabbinic theological treatise Pirke Avot is the most accessible introduction for nonspecialists into the thinking of the rabbis of the Talmud. For Jewish readers, it presents all the key elements of Jewish theology. For Christian readers, it provides insight into the thinking of the rabbis who were teaching in the same Jewish milieu as was Jesus.
• Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man:
In my view, this is the most profound work of Jewish theology written in the twentieth century. More than anyone else, Heschel made theology a respectable discipline among modern Jewish intellectuals. And his influence on Christian thinkers is still immense.
Some may consider eclecticism an indication of disorderly mental habits; I like to think of it as essential to the reading life. Here, then, is a very eclectic list of personal favorites I'm always eager to press on others:
• John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries:
If you like your political-diplomatic diarists arch, stick with Harold Nicolson. If you prefer exceptionally insightful portraiture, dry wit, and zero condescension, then Colville, writing about the dramatic years of his service to Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, is the man for you. The sharply etched sketches of the principal dramatis personae, collected at the end of both volumes, are worth the entire price of each book. (If I may be permitted to sneak in another Colville volume: Footprints in Time is a splendidly evocative memoir of the lost world of England at its twentieth-century apogee. Among the gems: the Aga Khan, at a ceremonial court evening, telling the twelve-year-old Colville, then a page to George V, that “it is against the rules of my religion to drink champagne, but fortunately I am so sacred that it turns to water in my mouth.”)
• Paul Horgan, A Distant Trumpet:
The movie was a fiasco, but the novel (by one of twentieth-century America's most accomplished and underrated men of letters) has been among my standard confirmation/bar mitzvah gifts for young men for years, thanks to its compelling portrait of manly virtue, marriage, and mature patriotism. A Distant Trumpet is also one of the few novels (at least pre–Larry McMurtry) that reflects the complex truth of the American settlement of the Southwest, with heroes and scoundrels among both settlers and Indians.
• Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer:
Yes, it's overwritten, and yes, the bits about the author's mother's fixation on James Joyce are tedious, but it's still, arguably, the best book on baseball ever written, and yes, you still can't understand America without understanding baseball—especially Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese baseball, and what it meant for the country we have become. In our increasingly metrosexual culture, The Boys of Summer is also an important parable about the special qualities of genuine male friendship in the days before bonding applied to matters other than glue.
• Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative:
All right, I'm cheating again by listing a trilogy, but the first volume, in particular, is about as close as anyone has ever gotten to writing the American Iliad—by which I intend no deprecation of the second and third volumes. The second includes a fine depiction of the war's Gettysburg pivot, while the third concludes with a moving dual portrait of the last days of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis: the former well known, the latter almost unknown but quite undeservedly.
• Evelyn Waugh, Helena:
With rare exceptions such as the estimable Douglas Lane Patey (whose Life of Evelyn Waugh is first-rate), most critics regard Helena as one of Waugh's minor works. On the contrary, it's both an interesting experiment in literary postmodernism
or metafiction and a devastating critique of gnosticism. And these days, who besides First Things' readers would laugh out loud at Waugh's humor, as when the novelist slam-dunks a noted chronicler of the Roman Empire by having Lactantius worry aloud about “‘a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,' [as] he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit”?
• Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:
In recent times we have been treated to a flood of books about the personalities, careers, and fortunes of this country's Founding Fathers—which might just mean that the great eruption of political genius once responsible for the invention of the United States government is in the process of being transformed into high mythology from a waning but still living influence. With the passing of so many years, such a development was probably inevitable. In any case, it has occasioned a fair amount of highly entertaining reading—and some of it better than that. By far one of the most interesting of these books is Joseph J. Ellis' Founding Brothers, an account not of the lives and careers of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and all the rest , but of their relations with one another. The book opens, for instance, with the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (from which Hamilton died the following day) and closes with the deaths of the never reconciled Adams and Jefferson on the same day, July 4, 1826.
• Henry Kissinger, Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises:
The two crises anatomized in this book are the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and what Kissinger titles “the last month of Indochina”—the period during which the United States moved to evacuate the last of its military and diplomatic personnel from South Vietnam. And there may be nothing like it in the annals of publishing, for the book turns out not to be the old familiar kind of self-aggrandizing and self-exculpating account produced by a major player in some international crisis or other—though, to be sure, there is some of that in these pages; how could there not be?—but rather a series of transcriptions of memoranda and phone conversations among various officials of the governments involved. Since the handwriting had for some time been on the wall in Vietnam (although there were those in Washington who did not, even then, seem to be aware of the full range of the consequences involved), a greater part of the book is devoted to the crisis in the Middle East. The consequence of reading those memos and the accounts of those phone conversations is that one goes through this book, even all these thirty-five years later, with one's heart in one's mouth. How many would die or give up hope or grow bitter or simply wander through dangerous seas as a result? This may not be the kind of recognition that Henry Kissinger had in mind to offer us, but his open-handedness in doing so cannot be gainsaid. True, it is not a pleasant experience—though as the whole world has always known, it is a valuable as well as healthful experience—to learn how sausage is made. And this particular brand of diplomatic sausage is, after all, still going through the American grinder and may do so forever.
• Paul R. McHugh, The Mind Has Mountains:
This is a collection of essays by the former director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. They speak to his efforts, as he puts it in his introduction, to raise public consciousness about some of the bad ideas, half-truths, and damaging practices floating around in psychiatry. There was, for example, the belief, drawn from the cultural fashion of the time, that schizophrenics are merely people living an “alternative lifestyle.” And then there was the acceptance of the curative powers of sex-change surgery, along with the allegedly healthy practices surrounding the idea of the widespread sexual abuse of little children at the hands of their parents. Finally, there was multiple-personality disorder—which McHugh calls the “star diagnosis” of the 1990s. All of these were skewed in the thinking that led to them and in the psychiatric prescriptions that followed them. The figure in the carpet here, of course, is Sigmund Freud—pulled and stretched and stained and even sometimes dyed another color—but nevertheless a continuing source of far more in present-day thought (not to mention psychotherapy) than he himself might have intended. So pervasive a presence is he that one might have thought the problem he presents to human intellection would remain quite unmanageable. But in the end, this relatively small and somewhat deceptively various book does a great deal to offer medicine to what has sometimes felt like a permanent human distemper.
Stephen M. Barr
• Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages:
This is one of those books which have the potential to reverse a verdict of history. The verdict in this case is one of the most damaging to the credibility of religion in the modern world, namely that religion hindered the development of science. Grant is a leading expert on medieval science, and he here distills for the general reader into very palatable form the knowledge and insights gained over a long and distinguished career.
• Alan Cutler, TThe Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth:
This is a delightful biography of a man, Nicolaus Steno (a.k.a. Niels Stensen), who everyone should know about though few people do. One of the trailblazers of the Scientific Revolution, Steno founded the science of geology and opened the way to understanding the history of the earth and its great age. He became a Catholic, then a priest, and finally a bishop, and was beatified three centuries after his death by John Paul II. This book is thoroughly researched, written in a lively manner, and gives a fascinating and unusually thoughtful and balanced picture of the intersection of science and religion at a critical period.
• Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief:
The only spiritual autobiography by a major scientist of which I know. It is written in a simple, straightforward, and at times eloquent prose. The best answer to Dawkins to date, by a man who is far more accomplished as a scientist and much more appealing as a human being. (But skip the book's unfortunate appendix on medical ethics.)• Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge:
The root of many of our intellectual ills is rotten epistemology. Particularly harmful has been the notion that the only objective knowledge comes from “the scientific method,” understood as an automatic and impersonal process based solely upon facts that are plain for all to see and obvious upon inspection and logical deductions based on them. This belief has fostered various reductionisms about both the external world and the human mind. Polanyi's is the best book out there on how science really works. It is not, he shows, an impersonal process but a deeply personal activity, involving insight and judgment. Polanyi, as a chemist and historian, had an intimate understanding of science and its ways, and he wrote in a very accessible way.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. George Weigel is a distinguished fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Midge Decter is a writer in New York. Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware.