The beginning of a new year provides me with an opportunity to outline a personal reading plan for the coming year and to reflect upon the books I read last year. Reading is both a conservative and revolutionary pursuit. Through reading we connect with past generations, as well as with thoughtful people of our own time. Books preserve the wisdom of the ages and uncomfortable truths that we might sometimes rather forget. Every year I try to work in some classics, whether ancient or modern. Last year that included books by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Frederick Jackson Turner, and others. I also always find time to read some books by friends, like Brion McClanahan and Hunter Baker. And I cannot imagine a year that I do not read some Wendell Berry.
John Lukacs, one of my favorite historians, believes that, although there may be fewer serious readers than there once were, “the necessarily small minority of men and women who take pleasure in books will find each other and draw closer together. There are already signs of such a development across the isolated…suburban wastelands of this great country.” Let The Imaginative Conservative be one such sign of hope and renewal, through which readers can reach out across space to connect with one another. In that spirit, here are some of the books I read for pleasure last year. What books did you enjoy last year?
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
A satisfying mystery. Chandler is not simply a master of the noir crime novel, he’s also a sharp prose stylist and a perceptive observer of human nature. Philip Marlowe’s Laurel Canyon address should be as much a literary landmark as Sherlock’s address on Baker St.
Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story
A gritty and, at times, brutal tale of one family’s involvement in the illicit liquor trade of the 1920s and 1930s. Based on court records and family history, Matt Bondurant fleshes out the “truth that lies beyond the poorly recorded and understood world of actualities.” Highly recommended to those interested in Southern history.
John Wooden, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court
Excellent advice from a modern Stoic. For Wooden, success is found in making each day your masterpiece; gaining peace of mind from knowing that you have prepared for life’s challenges by doing your best each day.
George Ade, People You Know
A series of amusing vignettes. Writing in the Local Color tradition, Ade parodies turn-of-the-century Midwestern characters.
Brion McClanahan, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
A concise and accessible guide to how the Founding Fathers understood our constitution and the nature of federalism. The constitution, as McClanahan clearly shows, is not difficult to understand. The constitution, as ratified, was widely understood to be a compact among the people of the states, and created a federal government of expressly delegated powers.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
A classic analysis of our educational and ethical decline. “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.”
Charles Portis, True Grit
Excellent. One of those rare cases where neither the book nor the movie (indeed, neither of the movies) disappoints.
Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
This is a delightful little book. The only real similarity between it and the film is that they both have a flying car. My daughter says “It was awesome. And funny.” I agree.
John Shelton Reed, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s
John Shelton Reed never disappoints. Here, one of the most perceptive observers of the South takes on the artistic circle of friends that formed around Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and William Spratling in 1920s New Orleans.
Charles and Mary Beard, History of the United States
A good survey of American history by two of our best historians. The Beards are solid on most issues. Though their last chapter is a bit weaker, but the events described in that final chapter were too recent to be viewed historically.
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Hemingway. Paris. Fishing. Spain. Bull fights. What more do you need to know?
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party
Anderson writes well and accurately captures the feel of the exciting years leading up to the American War for Independence. I wanted to like this book, and I did. Nevertheless, Anderson’s pacing is uneven.
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
If you aren’t religious, or aren’t from the South, you might read this and think O’Connor is making fun of rural evangelical Southerners. She’s not.
Edward G. Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory
Lengel not only exposes some of the most cherished myths surrounding Washington, he makes historiography fun.
Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger
Well, it’s Mark Twain. This darkly comic (well, sort of comic) novel shows signs of his literary and comedic genius. But it is far from his best work. Nevertheless, The Mysterious Stranger is certainly worth reading.
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
I don’t believe it took me over a month to finish this one.
Hunter Baker, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide
Hunter Baker has written an excellent, concise introduction to political thought. Don’t let the size of this slim volume fool you. Baker carefully guides students through the vital questions of political philosophy: whats is the nature of justice, what is the proper role of government and what should be its limits, and what is the nature of a good society? I am impressed with Baker’s ability to address such a large subject with clarity.
Frederick Jackson Turner, Rise of the New West, 1819-1829
This book is why I wanted to be a historian.
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
A charming little novel.
Hammond Innes, The Trojan Horse
A solid British adventure novel.
Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
This isn’t a bad book. Thompson can write. And it is entertaining enough. But it is also pretty clearly derivative of Ernest Hemingway.
Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture
A slim little volume that teaches us the importance of taking time for wonder and contemplation.
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Abbey is one of that breed of American contrarians who doubt the Doctrine of Progress.
Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems
“To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, worse
for the heart. The world
is a holy vision, had we clarity
to see it—a clarity that men
depend on men to make.”
Wendell Berry is the sanest poet we have. Will we listen?
Books mentioned in this essay may be available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.