Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The People’s Justice: 
Clarence Thomas and the Constitutional Stories that Define Him

by amul thapar
regnery gateway, 304 pages, $32.99

In The People’s Justice, Judge Amul Thapar adroitly assumes the role of storyteller to defend an influential and controversial jurist’s reputation. He recounts twelve prominent cases that have come before Justice Clarence Thomas during his thirty-two-year term on the Supreme Court. The book makes the case that in all twelve instances Justice Thomas faithfully fulfilled his duties as a judge, defending the freedom of each individual citizen and the integrity of the United States Constitution itself.

Like any effective jurist, Judge Thapar marshals all evidence in support of his claim. He presents not only the legal aspects of each case, but also its surrounding personal drama, political landscape, and historic context. As a result, each chapter reads almost like dramatic fiction, with succinct explanations of key legal principles and theories, such as originalism, woven smoothly into the prose.

Even critics of Justice Thomas will be edified by this work, which provides human-interest stories and serves as an astoundingly reader-friendly legal primer. For example, the chapter on Zelman v. Simmons-Harris tells the story of Cleveland parents defending their freedom to choose their children’s schools. Without interrupting the story’s flow, the chapter also explains, in plain English, the important legal doctrine of “incorporation,” which expanded the Bill of Rights’ protections of individual freedom.

In an era of controversy over the judiciary, The People’s Justice is a worthwhile read for any citizen. Both lay audiences and legal experts will come away with an improved understanding of not only Justice Thomas and the judiciary but also of the Constitution and how it affects the lives of Americans every day.

Mary Margaret Beecher

The Godfather and Philosophy:
An Argument You Can’t Refute

edited by joshua heter and richard greene
open universe, 306 pages, $24.95

Does Vito Corleone achieve Aristotle’s eudaimonia? Can the narrative progression of The Godfather trilogy be understood as a Hegelian dialectical movement of the world spirit?

These are some of the questions addressed in The Godfather and Philosophy, an installment of the “Pop Culture and Philosophy” series from Open Universe. The book features twenty-nine essays that analyze the story of everyone’s favorite crime family through varying philosophical lenses.

One of the most interesting essays is by feminist philosopher Abigail Levin, in which she theorizes that the sharp distinction between public and private spheres—a defining characteristic of Western liberalism—is what drives much of the drama throughout the series. Seen this way, Don Vito, raised in the old world of Sicily, embodies an Aristotelian conception of the public–private distinction, wherein the two spheres are deeply interconnected. (Recall his chiding Bonasera’s Wall Street–esque transactionalism, “I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee.”) On the other hand, American-born Don Michael tries to run the Corleone family like a liberal state, in which private and public affairs are divorced from one another. (Think of his affirmation before the McCluskey killing: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”) According to Levin, the Aristotelian integrated self allows Vito to enjoy a measure of satisfaction, while the liberal divided self drives Michael’s profound misery.

As for Levin’s reading of Kay as a representative of second-wave feminism, that would be better off sleeping with the fishes. She frames Kay’s abortion in the second film as a commendable act of asserting personal autonomy. However, she leaves out Kay’s insistence that her abortion is “unholy and evil.” If the scene is to be read as an Aristotelian critique of the liberal public–private distinction, it much more easily lends itself to a criticism of opposing abortion personally but not publicly. As Michael learns all too well, attempting to maintain peace in the private sphere while supporting murder in the public sphere is the pinnacle of folly. Nonetheless, Levin’s essay, along with many others, convincingly invites us to view the classic trilogy through new and intriguing lenses.

One of the book’s endorsements remarks, “Every chapter in this volume is a cannoli.” I disagree. In an age when we devour a staggering quantity of film and TV content, The Godfather and Philosophy is more than a delightful pastry: It’s the post-meal passeggiata that helps us to healthily digest all that we have consumed. With its “Pop Culture and Philosophy” series, Open Universe is doing the public—and the private—a great service.

Michael Samaritano

The Discarded Life:

by adam kirsch
red hen, 56 pages, $13.95

In the final poem of Adam Kirsch’s latest collection of poetry, he remarks that “Poetry is a method of disposal, / Giving a decent burial in words / To the discarded life I have no use for.” “Or else,” he adds immediately, “a way to throw it overboard / As the balloon jerks higher toward the sun, / Affording one last comprehensive view.” The tension is an old one. Poetry is a way of giving the past a second life by bringing it into the present again—and a way of giving it a final, unchanging form.

Kirsch is currently an editor of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend review section and author of four volumes of original poetry in addition to several works of nonfiction on the Talmud, American confessional poets, and, most recently, the transhumanist movement. His poems are full of exiles, and he tends to cast a longing—if realistic—look on the past.

That’s also the case with The Discarded Life, which is his first collection of original poetry since 2015. In forty untitled blank verse poems, he recalls his childhood in Los Angeles—watching the Muppets, playing Atari, and going to Jewish summer camp. While other children learned about sex by watching MTV, Kirsch’s teacher was opera: “From prostitutes and libertines, I learned / The secret of the sweetness of transgression,” he writes. He turned to Beethoven’s Fifth because it was “Turbulent but under strict control, / The way I hoped that I would always be.”

These poems are far more personal than those collected in previous volumes and are some of his best in years. He offers no easy answers in this “record of the life consumed,” as he calls it, preferring instead to capture something of the vicissitudes and inescapable losses of life that somehow also testify to our capacity for love and our pining, however implausible, for “some time out of time.” 

—Micah Mattix

What Are Christians For?:
Life Together at the End of the World

by jake meador
intervarsity, 192 pages, $22

Written to Christians stumbling about in the postmodern world, Jake Meador’s What Are Christians For? attempts to assess our present cultural predicament and lay out a pathway for faithfulness. He seeks to provide a helpful guide to avoiding uniquely modern temptations. Regrettably, Meador will leave the reader with a confusing, grossly generalized narrative of the last five hundred years of Christianity; and it is that erroneous narrative that provides the entire framework for how Meador answers the question, “What are Christians for?” Worst of all, in a book about how Christians should live, the reader will be hard-pressed to find a single scriptural quotation.

To his credit, Meador does remind Christians of how easily we can be tempted by the cultural context in which we find ourselves. He rightly highlights how readily Christians can slip into the temptation the Apostle Paul summoned us to avoid: to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2). Indeed, if there is any virtue in Meador’s book, it is the refrain about our unwitting proclivity to let a godless culture disciple us, driving us further away from God’s design.

Despite this, Meador confronts his reader with threadbare criticisms of “whiteness” and colonialism. Apparently, European colonizers were the only perpetrators of conquest from the late fifteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth. In unspecified ways, this conquering impulse—active only amongst white Europeans—laid the groundwork for white American Christianity and explains the litany of ills we face today. Joining this “whiteness” are forces like industrialism and other aberrations that explain the cultural milieu Christians now face in the West. To prove these massive and sweeping claims, Meador provides but a small sampling of secondary sources. In other words, we must simply assume his claims are true.

If you are looking for a book outlining what Christians are for, leave Meador on the shelf. Instead, take up the Book of Acts.

—Cory D. Higdon

Reflections on Solitary Living

by daniel schreiber
reaktion, 152 pages, $22.50

Loneliness, you read in the papers, is having a moment. Americans are bowling alone, and doing everything else alone, too. The causes could range from social breakdown to capitalist society to the decline of religious faith. But what is it like to be lonely? Flipping the question around, Daniel Schreiber makes a concise intervention into isolation studies with Alone, writing not about what causes increasing numbers of people to live alone, but about the particular joys of solitude, the warmth of rare bonds of friendship, and the opportunity to contemplate and confront the hard edges of one’s own self.

Schreiber isn’t a thoroughgoing apologist for solitude. He acknowledges, “Acute, prolonged loneliness creates, in most of us, an emotional hunger, a serious mental anguish accompanied by a marked loss of meaning and self-worth, with feelings of shame, guilt, and despair.” This familiar pain, though, is often the cost of genuine growth and deep thought, and only the person who is alone on occasion—here he cites Emmanuel Lévinas—will ever be capable of real relationships. Schreiber quotes widely from the literature on loneliness and isolation, thinking through his personal and theoretical perplexities with philosophers, social critics, psychoanalysts, and artists. He mixes personal stories from a life he increasingly lives alone with sharp commentary on the lies we tell ourselves about loneliness—and about love.

Like solitude itself, Schreiber’s reflections are both ultimately ambivalent and deeply moving. The promises of love and friendship, of deep contentment and belonging, always contain the danger of terrible injury, separation, and loss. The provocative suggestion Schreiber leaves us with is that in being alone, our pain can be the cost of wonderful gain.

—Christopher McCaffery

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines