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Refreshing, Rejuvenating, and Improving Our Public Discourse: 2020 Book Recommendations

Reading recommendations from The Witherspoon Institute staff.

Public Discourse is the online journal of The Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. For more than a dozen years now, we’ve been publishing thoughtful and accessible essays on some of the most important questions facing our country. But we don’t do it alone. We have the backing of the entire Witherspoon Institute. And as we head into the New Year, we asked them to recommend some books. Enjoy.  

 

John Doherty
Director of Development

Middlemarch, George Eliot’s masterpiece, depicts the lives of several families in provincial, late Georgian England, the setting in which Eliot herself (real name Mary Ann Evans) grew up. The book combines a monumental plot on the order of Dickens, with characters of the depth of Jane Austen’s: the reader learns to sympathize with unlikable people, and to mind that admirable people also have failings to overcome through self-knowledge. At a time when we easily brand our opponents as the devil incarnate and ignore our own vices, Middlemarch’s moral realism is quite salutary. The book’s other great lesson is that, as the final sentence suggests, true happiness lies in “a hidden life” of daily self-giving for one’s family and friends—and not in pursuing unrealistic grand plans. Unfortunately, Eliot’s own life was quite scandalous: she lived openly with a married man (and yet the book upholds marital fidelity, although the characters suffer almost unbearably for it); and she translated into English Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, the starting point of the modern atheism (borrowed by Marx) that declared the notion of a supernatural God to be an alienating projection of man’s own natural greatness. Not surprisingly, although Middlemarch wisely finds happiness in this life’s ordinary commitments, it also leaves the reader feeling that earthly joy is the greatest happiness; that love is more an emotion than a choice; and that, throughout life’s trials, humanity suffers alone and rejoices alone: God (if he does exist) leaves the human race to its own moral resources. Still, the wisdom that Middlemarch does contain proves one of its lessons in the author’s own case: that good remains in people despite their defects.

Katy Francisco
Operations Manager, CanaVox

I wish I could say I’ve finished a novel this year! But the closest I’ll get is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Having been on the stage crew for the play by the same name in high school, I’ve always had an interest in reading this book and took it up in a seminar. Brontë’s an amazing writer with an even more interesting personal and professional development. Her imagery and the eccentricity of characters in Eyre make this a great read for a quiet evening, particularly appropriate if you’re embracing a fire in the impending winter: Hearth is mentioned not a few times and provides a feeling of home throughout Eyre’s journey.

Matthew J. Franck
Contributing Editor, Public Discourse

Because it is bad form to review a book that the author dedicated to me, my wife, and two other dear friends, Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self was reviewed at Public Discourse by RJ Snell. Trueman will be familiar to PD’s readers. In two recent essays here, he sketched the argument of his book, which is subtitled Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. A Reformation historian, member of the Orthodox Presbyterian clergy, theologian, and astute cultural critic, Trueman has assembled a profound explanation of the quandary we find ourselves in. His book takes us back to the founding fathers of modern “selfhood,” Rousseau and the Romantics, then brings us forward through Marx and Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, to explain the intellectual and cultural causes of the sexual revolution. Anyone who feels at home discussing Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor, Horkheimer and Fromm, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, Peter Singer and Shulamith Firestone, and commenting on the meanderings of contemporary constitutional law, all while grounding his account in moral realism and biblical faith, is worth your time to read. It’s a big book, but written so well and clearly that it should not be off-putting if you have any interest in understanding how western societies could adopt such nonsensical ideas as “gender identity.”

Felix James Miller
Teaching and Research Associate

In COVIDtide, I’ve taken to reading short books, so I’ll recommend two, a brief novel and a lengthy poem. The novel is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. You can breeze through it in an afternoon, but the book brings together Catholicism and Eastern mysticism in some of the best English prose I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of a spiritually thirsty college student stuck at home (something with which many can sympathize). Reading it helped to remind me of how our families can call us to growth in love, despite our best efforts at childishness. The poem is T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which, though challenging, confronts how God, “the still point of the turning world,” could allow the flames of World War II, which surrounded Eliot at the time of the poem’s composition. Eliot’s answer is not just to look to Heaven, the rose, but to see that, in God’s love, “the fire and the rose are one.” As we try to find how to celebrate Christmas despite the difficulties this year has brought, I think we could all use Eliot’s reminder of God’s unchanging love, a love that both burns and sanctifies.

Nathaniel Peters
Contributing Editor, Public Discourse

The book I’ve most recommended to others this year, without question, is Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, which I reviewed earlier this summer at Public Discourse. Hitz clarifies the importance of the intellectual life as a real human good, as a source of human dignity and communion with others that is withdrawn from the world. This, in turn, allows her to give an account of why intellectual work matters as a way to help others pursue that good. Lost in Thought would be of natural interest to teachers, professors, and other intellectual workers, but offers great insights for anyone who loves the intellectual life. Give it to a high school or college student who needs a better sense of what authentic study looks like and why it matters.

April Readlinger
Executive Director, CanaVox

After watching the documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, which aired on PBS this past May, I was intrigued to know more about the characteristically reserved justice. In his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, Justice Thomas shares the heart-wrenching story of his life, rising from abject poverty and family dysfunction to his appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Much like the autobiography of his Supreme Court colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor (My Beloved World), Justice Thomas’s story is one of grit and determination. Even those who may not agree with him will be inspired by his account.

Ana Samuel
Academic Director, CanaVox

What’s better than a 5-star holiday dinner party with friends? Philosophizing about one. Join Leon R. Kass as he explores the meaning of eating in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our NatureDrawing from foodies throughout philosophical history, Kass teaches us what distinguishes human eating from animal feeding, why it is ethical to eat meat, how civilized eating evolved, and the role of food in our sanctification. All to help us contemplate the logos of that 3-layer cake before we scarf it down!

Serena Sigilito
Editor, Public Discourse

This year, instead of recommending a good book, I’m going to recommend The Good Book. Last year at this time, with great excitement, I purchased the Augustine Institute’s Bible in a Year. It’s laid out in an easy-to-use format that Catholic mass-goers will find familiar, with three readings each day: one from the Old Testament, one from Wisdom literature, and one from the New Testament. Especially during lockdown, it was comforting and fortifying to step back from all the depressing news coverage and immerse myself in God’s word. I stuck with it for the first half of the year, but I eventually got so behind that I gave up. Still, hope springs eternal, and so does my propensity to buy new books. So, as the new year begins, I’m beginning anew, this time with The Great Adventure Catholic BibleThis edition is organized around the Bible Timeline developed by biblical scholar Jeff Cavins, which foregrounds the dramatic narrative of salvation history to help readers understand how each of the books of the Bible fits into the greatest story ever told. Even better, Father Mike Schmitz (whose homilies I highly recommend) is using this version as the basis of his new Bible in a Year podcast, produced by Ascension Press. In 20-25 minutes per day, he promises to deliver a daily scripture reading, reflection, and prayer. Who knows? Maybe next year I’ll really get through the whole Bible. Either way, I encourage you to join me.

R.J. Snell
Director of Academic Programs
Contributing Editor, Public Discourse

The recent passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks provides an occasion to honor him and his work by reading, or rereading, his The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society. In it, he notes that multiculturalism has served to fracture and disintegrate societies, but rather than calling for a return to some supposed golden age of assimilationism Sacks suggests we view society as a home built together. In this project, social contract theory is buttressed by covenantal thought of the Hebrew scriptures and well-known in the American Founding. As our own country exhibits factions and fractions, reminding ourselves of Sacks’s distinguished text is well worth the time.

Andrew Walker
Contributing Editor, Public Discourse

Three books come to mind marked essential right now. First, Carl Trueman’s excellent new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is an extraordinary work explaining both the inanity and insanity of our times. I reviewed this at The Gospel Coalition. Second, a very small book by theologian John Frame, Nature’s Case for God, is not necessarily new, but nonetheless important. The older I get, the more I am persuaded of God’s existence by the structure of creation. Frame helps us make sense of this, as well as explaining why general revelation parallels special revelation. Last, J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics I’ve found to be a helpful book on reexamining the role of creation in Reformed Christian apologetics.

Ryan T. Anderson
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Public Discourse

Allow me to repeat the recommendation of my colleagues: Carl Trueman’s  The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is simply a must read. So, too, is Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. These two books help explain how body-self dualism and expressive individualism lie at the heart of our sexual and bioethical debates. You’ll find both recommended, along with other titles, at the page Amazon invited me to create with books that have shaped my own thinking. You can find them here.

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