New York isn’t quite as extreme as Paris, but the city gets noticeably emptier at the end of July and into August. It’s almost quiet and peaceful. OK, not almost, but certainly less crowded and frenetic.
And therefore friendlier to the idea of settling down to read a book, which is no doubt why last night a friend asked me for some recommendations. I had to pause and think for a bit. The best summer reading combines quality with serendipity. For me it has to be something that is worth reading (I’m perhaps too Puritanical to take pleasure in throw-away paperbacks) but it needs to fall into the wouldn’t-ordinarily category, or perhaps the always-meant-to-but-never-got-around-to-it category. I like summer reading that isn’t so much light as leisurely.
With that in mind, here is what I came up with.
Among the good books that have come across my desk over the last year, one of the best is A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by French philosopher Luc Ferry. Ferry does not dwell on the history of philosophy as a series of figures and doctrines. Instead, he outlines five ways of thinking about life, one of which is a sympathetic treatment of Christianity. Readers who don’t know much about philosophy will find this book accessible; and those who do will find its approach fresh and stimulating.
I very much enjoyed The Marriage Plot, a smart new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. (I wrote about it in the February issue.) The first 100 pages are a literary tour de force and bring alive the student culture of elite universities in the early 1980s. One of the main characters has deep religious impulses that Eugenides treats well, even if in the end he’s not altogether sure what to make of them. But that’s true for our high culture in general.
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray, is a must read for anyone who wants to reflect on the deep social changes that underlie many aspects of our present political conflicts The book looks at the ways in which the middle class myth (and I mean “myth” in the good sense of providing a unifying social consciousness that transcends our differences) has become increasingly implausible.
When I’m traveling I often take books of essays that offer short bursts of insight and literary charm that can be quickly digested. Roger Kimball’s new collection, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, will satisfy anyone seeking a marriage of style and substance. I’m also a fan of Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple), who has many collections. The one I most enjoyed was Not with a Bang But a Whimper.
As long as I’m recommending books of essays, I suppose I should plug my own, Fighting the Noonday Devil. It’s a mix of theological and personal essays that range from discussions of the vice of acedia (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that word means) to stories of mountain climbing adventures and bar room fights (almost).
I’m very opposed to literary presentism, and in fact I used to tell my students not to read books written by authors who are still alive. “Let time be your editor,” I’d say. Of course, as editor of First Things I now see the foolishness of this extremism. But it’s certainly true that we need to go back and mine the past for its treasures.
One book I often recommend is Halakhic Man, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. This is one of the spiritual classics of the twentieth century. It’s a profoundly Jewish book, nonetheless (or perhaps therefore) it’s also a book that Christian readers can learn a great deal from, not just about Judaism, but about the life of faith.
Those with an interest in the literary side of literary criticism should put Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey on their list. This is his novel about the ideological climate of the 1930s. The center of the story lays out the contest between a liberalism tending toward socialism and a renewed and newly articulate conservatism.
More than one hundred years ago, Edmund Gosse, one of the literary lions of Edwardian England, published Father and Son, his story of growing up under the tutelage of a father who was at once an eminent amateur scientist and a Darbyite fundamentalist. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of love and alienation written by one of the great prose stylists of the era.
Another memoir to read is Raymond Aron’s Memoir: Fifty Years of Political Reflection. Aron was a supremely humane man and one of the twentieth century’s most responsible public intellectuals. Still another is Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire’s utterly enrapturing remembrance of his childhood in pre-Castro Cuba.
Of the recommending of books there is no end. But end I must, and I’ll do so by highlighting two books for those lucky enough to be heading off to graduate school in September. You must read The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, by the Dominican theologian A.G. Sertillanges and Leisure the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Both will help defend you against the greatest danger you will face in the academic life, which is not moral relativism or political correctness, but careerism.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.