In 1986, Russell Kirk gave a lecture titled “Ten Conservative Books” in which he identified ten important books that distilled or expressed conservative principles, from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the book Kirk pressed upon the hapless Richard Nixon. The essay is worth reading not only for the book suggestions but also for what Kirk has to say about the role of books in the culture; as a bookish person himself, Kirk valued tomes highly, and having been in his library—a converted factory near his ancestral Piety Hill home—there is no question that Kirk was a bibliophile.
Yet Kirk recognized that “It is possible for books to comment upon custom, convention, and continuity; but not for books to create those social and cultural essences. Society brings forth books; books do not bring forth society.” Cultural renewal must occur at the level of the person, family, and community; books can help that process, but wise books come from societies that value and reflect upon wisdom; rarely the other way round.
With that in mind, there is some merit in supplementing Kirk’s list a quarter century on, so herewith my choices for ten conservative books.
1. Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. In his list, Kirk abjured fiction, although in passing he recommended some authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Radetzky March covers the period leading up to the dissolution of the old European Order before, and as a result of, World War I. Like Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Roth is clear-eyed about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its many flaws, but equally clear-eyed about what he calls the “bestial” promise of an order that had ripped aside its traditions.
2. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time of Gifts. Leigh-Fermor, who died recently, was in some sense the highest product of the tradition whose destruction Roth lamented. A polymath, courageous soldier (he led a British commando unit in occupied Crete during World War II), and elegant writer, Leigh-Fermor as a young man walked through Europe to Constantinople, just as Nazism was rising on the Continent. This book, the first volume of two covering the journey, describes a pre-Internet, pre-EU Europe of deeply local customs and perspectives, a collage of nations that is almost impossible for us to imagine; almost, because Leigh-Fermor’s prose makes such imagination possible.
3. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. The Europe Roth and Leigh-Fermor describe was a disparate set of people bound together by a common faith. How that faith—which itself came from outside Europe, bearing with it the markings of Israel and the Near East—came to shape Europe is described in this book, written by one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian historians.
]4. John Lukacs, Last Rites. After Dawson Lukacs is perhaps the historian every conservative should read. Lukacs—a Hungarian refugee to the United States—has written a series of books articulating a defense of European and specifically Anglo-American civilization. He is no mindless defender of right-wing orthodoxy—far from it. But his perspective on patriotism and the moral nature of history, among many other subjects, makes this book—a follow up to his amazing first volume of memoirs, Confessions of an Original Sinner—a perfect introduction to his other works, including the indispensable Historical Consciousness, which explodes every progressive myth about historical thinking you can imagine.
The Conservative Mind. Although Kirk did not include his own works in his listing, now, some five decades on, his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand the conservative tradition. As David Frum once wrote, Kirk as much created as discovered the conservative intellectual tradition, which he traced from Edmund Burke to Eliot. And it is that tension between preservation and innovation that lay at the heart of Kirk’s project, a tension that Kirk navigated through reverence for the past but also the consistent application of imagination to the problems of the present.
6. Bill Kauffman, Ain’t My America. Most books by conservatives are, in some sense, a recovery of all the things about ourselves—our history, our nature, our religious tradition—that is papered over in the standard liberal accounts. Bill Kauffman’s books are a healthy antidote. Along with Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, Kauffman has reenergized a conservative turn toward the local and the undiscovered history of America. In this book, Kauffman revives the noble history of the American conservative antiwar tradition, not in some ersatz “Occupy” nonsense but in defense of home and family, where every conservative position should begin.
7. Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World. Wolfe has been engaged in a lifelong project, through his journal Image, to revivify the search for truth in the arts. This collection highlights some important artists, across a number of media, who are trying to return the transcendent or the true to the larger art world. This is critically important; Kirk wrote decades ago that the postmodern era would be one of the Image, and not the Word, so what we see is as important, if not more so, that what we read. In the age of video games and YouTube, one could not have a more important project.
8. David Jones, The Anathemata. Jones is not often heard of when discussing the World War I generation of poets. Yet this poem, which grew out of his experiences as a soldier in the Great War, represents an attempt to deal with what he and others called “the Break,” that disjunction from tradition occurring in the modern world that renders the past almost unintelligible to us. This poem is hard reading, yet repays the effort. Jones was also a visual artist, trying to capture the Western tradition in stone and watercolor, and to the same end: to recover what has been lost.
9. Roger Scruton, Modern Culture. Scruton is perhaps the leading conservative philosopher and has written great books on everything from environmentalism to religion to beauty. In this book, he tries to diagnose the failures of modern culture and what it has done to family and community. Scruton thereby helps to provide us with a grammar to identify, and ultimately rectify, our decline.
10. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence. Conservatives often criticize the present in favor of the past, but too often this is just nostalgia. Barzun, who died earlier this year at the age of 105 after a remarkably productive career as a writer and teacher, surveys in this magnificent tome the last five hundred years of Western cultural life and gives us the tools and the framework conservatives, and all those interested in cultural change, need to discuss whether, in fact, the West is declining when measured against its past achievements (the answer is yes).