Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, by Walter A. McDougall
This is a great treatment of the run up to the most pivotal event of our history through its conclusion and its aftermath. Its narrative is the political history and it is told in somewhat of a style that I would characterize as tongue in cheek in the sense that McDougall uses the word “pretense” literally hundreds of times to describe what he clearly believes to be the case–the act of pretending: a false appearance or action intended to deceive, and he focuses on four major subjects: Jacksonian democracy, territorial expansion, the Civil War, and postwar Reconstruction. Not that I think he believes this thread of the American story is fraudulent, but that we are, as he describes us, “a nation of hustlers” with a lot of “show”. Nothing wrong with that; we’re still hustling. But you will be challenged by a number of hard questions about the American idea and identity, which I think is healthy. It’s a different approach that will hold your attention for the over 600 pages of narrative plus over 100 of notes.
On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton
This is a relatively short book by one of my favorite living philosophers. The text is the Charles E. Test memorial lectures given at Princeton in 2013. Its major theme is the absolute uniqueness of human nature and he lays it out in four chapters–Human Kind, Human Relations, The Moral Life, and Sacred Obligations. Above all, and without getting too deeply into the philosophical “weeds”, he hopes to convince the reader that human persons, who can never be understood simply as biological objects, have the only claim to simultaneously and irreducibly being subject and object, ends and means, minds and bodies, and in so doing he confronts the prominent views of evolutionary psychologists and philosophical materialists. Needless to say, not a light read, but rewarding.