Recreational reading took a back seat to building my company and enjoying time with my family this year. So, I am limiting this year’s selection to my favorite six books.
The Throwback Special | Chris Bachelder
[Andy] wasn’t ready to go inside yet, and he was trying to give the impression to any possible witnesses that he was busy and content here alone in his parked and running car. Through the curtain of rain on his windshield he thought he saw George, the public librarian, doing calisthenics on a berm. George was someone Andy did not want to see. George’s thin gray ponytail was just ridiculous, never more so than when trickling out of a football helmet. Whenever anyone asked George how he was doing or how this year had been, he always replied the same way: “Just doing my thing.” Then he would talk, in a slow and agonizingly thoughtful way, about budget cuts at both the state and local levels, the power of information, the marketplace of ideas, the future of the book, the public’s appetite for memoir, the digital divide, and, worst of all, the First Amendment. Andy hated talking to librarians, and he did not want to be hugged. He cut his engine, not unlike an animal playing dead. He worked earnestly and with renewed vigor at the pretend mud in his cleats. A sudden vaporous notion—he should not have come—dissipated before it could condense into conviction. He kept his head down, hoped George would menace someone else with his idealistic interpretations of devastating factual evidence.
There was a tap on the passenger-side window. Andy looked up to see George giving him what he believed to be the first peace sign he had ever seen outside of documentary footage. George’s face was so close to the window that he was fogging the glass.
“Hi George,” Andy mumbled. He kept the doors shut, the windows raised.
“Andy!” George said.
“How’s it going?”
“Just doing my thing!” George yelled.
Andy pointed to his ear and shook his head, pretending he could not hear. He hoped these conditions would prove too difficult to support conversation.
“My thing!” George yelled.
“Our branch is closed on Tuesdays! Serious cuts!”
My favorite book of the year was Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special. It’s a laugh-out-loud novel about a group of guys who convene each year to re-enact the infamous tackle when NY Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor snapped the leg of Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.
Well, that’s the plot, but the book’s about much, much more. Bachelder has a deft perception of human behavior and a sharp wit, and together these make for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. The Throwback Special was a finalist for the National Book Award. I’m looking forward to reading more of Bachelder’s stuff.
Musashi | Eiji Yoshikawa
The world is always full of the sound of waves.
The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?
Musashi is an epic novel about Miyamoto Musashi, renowned samurai and author of A Book of Five Rings. Yoshikawa’s writing is beautiful. The plot has pace, the character development is top-notch, and the zen philosophy is on point. Recommended for fans of Japan, samurai, Shōgun, or more generally those individuals who are on the path of continuous self-improvement.
The Federalist | Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continued danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free. (Hamilton, No. 8)
For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are commonly most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion. (Hamilton, No. 25)
Given the morass into which the United States has descended, I decided to give The Federalist Papers a fresh read. They truly are remarkable documents. Everyone should read them.
Liberty and Coercion | Gary Gerstle
Once again a deep commitment to allowing individuals to live freely cohabits in one system of governance with a profound determination to police the population. The difference is that now the cohabitation of liberty and coercion involves not so much the federal government and the states but instead different sectors of the federal government itself.
Gerstle, a professor at the University of Cambridge, offers a fascinating perspective on the expansion of federal power since America’s founding. He focuses on three strategies that the Executive branch has used:
- Exemption — permission from the courts to exempt central government activities from constitutional constraints;
- Surrogacy — using explicit powers to expand authority into “forbidden legislative terrain” (e.g., policing morality through the supervision of mail and the regulation of interstate commerce); and,
- Privatization — encouraging private groups to take on work that the central government could not (e.g., railroad / infrastructure development, surveillance).
A fourth strategy, national security, emerged after 1945.
These strategies effectively broke the power of the states and created a Leviathan. Gerstle argues that we are in the midst of a conservative revolt to reclaim authorities that have been ceded to the central government. I grow less convinced that “conservatives” have any organizing principles beyond power and corporatism with each passing day, but it’s interesting food for thought.
The Evolution of Civilizations | Carroll Quigley
There are two important ideas: one is that no one has the whole truth now but that it can be approached closer and closer in the future, by vigorous effort, and the other is that no single individual does this or achieves this, but that it must be achieved by a communal effort, by a kind of cooperation in competition in which each individual’s efforts help to correct the errors of others and thus help the development of a consensus that is closer to the truth than the actions of any single individual ever could be.
Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations develops a framework for historical analysis, with a view toward determining the drivers for the rise and fall of civilizations. It’s a deep book, with the benefit of being much shorter than his mammoth tome Tragedy & Hope.
I particularly enjoyed his argument that societies create tools / instruments of expansion, but over time these instruments become institutions. As they do so, they become less effective at achieving the ends they were designed to pursue, and become beholden to vested interests. Look around; the institutional sclerosis and the corruptions of vested interests are visible everywhere.
The Nature and Destiny of Man | Reinhold Niebuhr
The quest for truth and the achievement of just and brotherly relations with our fellowmen. These two categories comprise the cultural and the socio-moral problems of history.
The philosopher who imagines himself capable of stating a final truth merely because he has sufficient perspective upon past history to be able to detect previous philosophical errors is clearly the victim of the ignorance of his ignorance. Standing on a high pinnacle of history he forgets that this pinnacle also has a particular locus and that his perspective will seem as partial to posterity as the pathetic parochialism of previous thinkers … Each great thinker makes the same mistake, in turn, of imagining himself the final thinker.
The Renaissance is interested primarily in freeing human life, and more particularly the human quest for knowledge, from inordinate social, political and religious restraints and controls. It is, therefore, the direct source of the struggle for freedom in human society, which has characterized the modern age. The Reformation means by freedom primarily the right and the ability of each soul to appropriate the grace of God by faith without the interposition of any restrictive institution of grace. It is interested in a freedom which transcends all social situations and may express itself even within and under tyranny.
Human history is indeed filled with endless possibilities; and the Renaissance saw this more clearly than either classicism, Catholicism or the Reformation. But it did not recognize that history is filled with endless possibilities of good and evil. It believed that the cumulations of knowledge and the extensions of reason, the progressive conquest of nature and (in its later developments) the technical extension of social cohesion, all of which inhere in the “progress” of history, were guarantees of the gradual conquest of chaos and evil by the force of reason and order. It did not recognize that every new human potency may be an instrument of chaos as well as of order; and that history, therefore, has no solution of its own problem.
I generally enjoy lecture series for their brevity. Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man, delivered as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh between 1938 and 1940, does not fit this bill.
Across two volumes, Niebuhr explores: (1) why a Christian interpretation of human nature is better suited to understanding the human condition than (post-)modernist views (i.e., it acknowledges sin); and, (2) why the destiny of man is to participate in history without ever reaching its end. The books plod on quite a bit at times, but they contain some extraordinary nuggets of insight and wisdom as a reward for one’s persistence.
[No links for this one — try to find it used somewhere]
Happy holidays to you and yours.