Since the publication of my book, The Texas Pilgrim: 20 Years of Reflection and Commentary, in which I included a number of book reviews of the 150 or so I have written, I have been asked by several readers to recommend my top selections over the years. Given the current circumstances in which we find ourselves fighting boredom while practicing “social distancing”, this month seemed to be a good time to do that. Many of you may remember that several years ago I published a special edition on the top 10 books I have read over the past several decades. For that edition I considered not only those books I had reviewed but essentially all I have read over this period. As I noted then, getting to the top 50 or so was not a problem, but the eliminations down to 10 were difficult. In revisiting the list, I don’t find that I would change it, so I will begin by simply listing those in alphabetical order by author. If you want my comments on each of the books on the list, go to the archives on my site at texaspilgrim.com for the December 2013 issue of The Texas Pilgrim. Here’s the list:
- Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler (1985)
- The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Allan Bloom (1987)
- Witness, by Whitaker Chambers (1952)
- A New Birth of Freedom, by Harry V. Jaffa (2000)
- The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis (1944)
- Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, by Michael J. Sandel (1996)
- A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell (1987)
- Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by Richard D. Heffner (1956), originally published in 1835 and 1840
- Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard Weaver (1948)
- Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel (2007)
Now for some additions, I thought about those published since my original list, a few that just missed the cut, and a couple of items that seem timely. Again as with the previous list, you will no doubt notice an absence of fiction and I admit that my post-college exposure to great fiction has been limited, an obvious shortcoming. In alphabetical order by author, here they are:
- Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, by Hadley Arkes (2002)–Of all the rhetoric in the pro-life/pro-choice debates, this is the best presentation I have read of the grounding of the anti-abortion movement in the doctrine of “natural rights” that formed the main teaching of the American founders and Abraham Lincoln and how the political class has, over the past forty years, convinced itself to leave these principles and their grounds behind.
- A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by Luc Ferry (2011)–This is a fascinating book. Most of the ground he covers is of the major historical philosophical ideas I have studied, but this was different. Luc, who is a philosopher at the University of Paris, takes the reader from the question of what is philosophy, to the Greeks, to the victory of Christianity, to humanism, to postmodernity, and to contemporary philosophy in terms that relate to his concept of the relevance of these ideas to the meaning of life. A very engaging read.
- George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis (2011)–I have often said that, in order to fully understand the 20th century, one needs to read Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, and see the movie Judgement at Nuremberg. After reading this biography of Kennan, I have now added it as a close third place at least for the last half of the century, for this man was either directly or indirectly involved in the development of almost every significant U. S. foreign policy strategy from the beginning of World War II through the Vietnam War and serving in an advisory role for every President from FDR to Bill Clinton.
- Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, by Leon R. Kass (2019)–I first came into contact with Kass and his work when he was appointed Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics by George W. Bush and although he is best known as a bioethicist, at heart he is a humanist. This book covers a wide range of issues from studies of literature, philosophy, and science organized into four sections, some written with his wife Amy, as follows: Love, Family, and Friendship; Human Excellence and Human Dignity; In Search of Wisdom; and The Aspirations of Mankind: Athens, Jerusalem, and the Gettysburg Address, the latter of which is a classic. A great read.
- The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, by Roger Kimball (2012)–I came to know Kimball as Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion. His cultural commentary is particularly penetrating and this book, through a collection of essays, ranges from cultural relativism to multiculturalism to biography to art to books to socialism to the American cultural scene in general. One reviewer characterized it as “essentially an exercise in cultural pathology”, which is appropriate, but it also has its uplifting moments and celebrates plenty of heroes of truth and freedom as well.
- The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla (2007)–For those so inclined, this is a real philosophical treat, a survey of the thinking of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel for purposes of what Lilla calls “The Great Separation” which, of course, implies the beginning of the alienation of religion from public life. It’s a fun read for philosophy nerds like me, but also has important instructive points to make, such as his acknowledgment that Islam, in its adherence to sharia law, is not subject to any such separation, a point that we continue to ignore at our peril.
- The Naked Public Square, by Richard John Neuhaus (1984)–This masterpiece probably did more than any other work to restore the debate on the notion of the vitality of religious faith in informing the deliberation of public polity in America. In this and other pursuits, notably including his ecumenical work involving Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, he was totally dedicated to the proposition that religious faith and practice and their intersection with philosophical reason were critical to sustenance of the American strain of the Enlightenment and, in fact, American exceptionalism.
- Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, by Shelby Steele (2015)–Steele’s essays have provided me the most insightful penetration of the issue of race in America, possibly equaled only by Thomas Sowell. The impact of this book changed my perspective on the race issue, particularly as it has been shaped and portrayed by the activists form all persuasions over the past half century. I have a habit of underlining key passages in the books I read for a second reading and to internalize the thoughts, but this book is so rich with insight that I found my self wanting to underline almost every sentence! It deserves the attention of all who genuinely want to address American race relations.
Happy reading, God speed, and a final thought–my book is still available on Amazon to add to your list.