Note from the Editors: Every year, we ask the Public Discourse editorial team and Witherspoon staff to write about their favorite reads in 2021, which we’ve listed below. Happy reading!
You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble, Intervarsity Press: I read this book this fall and have been recommending it ever since. Noble borrows the wording from the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism for his title and ultimate theme. Why do so many young and not-so-young people feel such anxiety, emptiness, and loneliness in a plentiful society where technology and efficiency have provided us with so much leisure and endless possibilities for connecting? If the modern world is built on the assumption that we ultimately belong to ourselves, then we bear the crushing weight of creating and cultivating our own lives, curating an image that we present to others and endlessly trying to live up to that presentation. George MacDonald said in a sermon that the one principle of Hell is “I am my own.” I found Noble’s treatment of that hellish lie, and his articulation of the alternative possibilities that come with recognizing that we belong to God, insightful, hopeful, and inspiring.
In the past decade, we’ve seen a cottage industry of genealogical accounts of modernity arise, especially among conservative authors. Many of these trade in broad historical generalities and fall narratives, trying to identify the point at which everything goes dreadfully wrong—the introduction of progressive thought into American universities, the Founders’ Locke and Hobbes, or perhaps the rise of the nominalists in the late Middle Ages. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self avoids many of these pitfalls and is the strongest effort I can remember to try to help Christians understand the present moment, themselves included. As I wrote in my review of the book, “Trueman thinks that Christians and other social conservatives tend to misdiagnose these changes by blaming them broadly on the sexual revolution or the expressive individualism at the heart of progressivism. Instead, he sees the sexual revolution as the natural outgrowth of a larger change in our understanding of the human self. All Americans are expressive individuals, he writes, conservative and progressive alike.” Trueman concludes that the problem is not individualism per se, but the way in which expressive individualism detaches individual dignity from any grounding in an objective, transcendent order. Those who want to think more about how that detachment took place and what we could do to remedy it should read his book.
Every December, Public Discourse publishes a list of recommended reads, and every December, I agonize about what book to pick. This year is no different. Should I succumb to recency bias and recommend something I’m currently reading and enjoying (Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman) or recently polished off (The Deep Places, by Ross Douthat)? Should I pick something seasonally appropriate, like Katherine May’s Wintering? A classic read I turn back to time and again, like C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces? An engrossing series of long novels to dive into during that delicious time between Christmas and New Year, like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, or Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunsson tetralogy? Or a quick but enchanting read like Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi?
It’s so hard to choose. And that’s why my official recommendation this year is something a bit unorthodox: not a book of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, but a “book journal” titled My Reading Life, created by Anne Bogel. Bogel, a prodigious reader and author, hosts a popular podcast called “What Should I Read Next?” She loves to serve as a literary matchmaker, helping others find their next great read. This journal offers suggested reading lists in various genres, space for “to be read” lists, a tracker to help create the habit of reading daily, and a log to record and reflect on 100 books. As the new year approaches, if you or someone you love wants to push back against digital distraction and reconnect with the love of reading, My Reading Life is a great place to start.
This fall I was lucky enough to teach a graduate seminar on my favorite book, Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus. It is a classic in every sense of the word: the original in the “mirror of princes” genre, arguably the Western tradition’s single greatest text on political and military leadership, and a favorite of philosophers from Cicero to Machiavelli to Rousseau. The Greeks are always relevant, but I was particularly struck this time by Xenophon’s eerie timeliness. Brave and ambitious patriots overthrow foreign tyrants, repudiate their hidebound ancestral ways of life, and build a cosmopolitan empire staffed by highly competent bureaucrats, only to see their nation’s morally formative institutions corrupted by the same economic success that had at first rewarded their hard work and creativity; by the end, their meritocratic class becomes corrupt and self-serving, their weakening military relies increasingly on contractors, and their sclerotic empire settles into an ugly but surprisingly sustainable decadence. Alongside the truly timeless portrait of worldly ambition in all its heights and depths, we get psychological tidbits including the only extant ancient account of adolescence, and (in just a short subplot) one of the most beautiful love stories you will ever read. This book is inexhaustible.
It’s a tough question—I won’t say an unfair one—to ask a fellow who has been writing a regular book column for the better part of two years to name his favorite book from the last twelve months! But my daily companion during 2021 has been Shakespeare, since I chose this year to read all his works once again for the third or fourth time. I am not so given to Bardolatry as to contend that every part of his production is marvelous. Yet the cumulative effect of reading some of his work each day, and of methodically proceeding through it all in a year, is a sense of astonishment at Shakespeare’s gift to our culture. The richness of his contributions to our language, the adroit efficiency with which he limns his characters’ essential natures, his equal facility with every mood and context from the vulgar to the sublime, from hilarity to solemnity, and from the intimacies of love and family life to the grand sweep of politics—all these, combined with his mastery of poetic form, seem simply unrivaled. If you wish to follow suit and read all of Shakespeare’s works in a year, I have adapted my daily reading plan for 2022 . Happy reading!
I am cheating, and using my authority as Founding Editor of Public Discourse to praise three books, all on similar themes, and all three written by colleagues of mine at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where I now serve as President. First, Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics; second, Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision; and third, Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. All three explore the deep philosophical roots of our present malaise. And all three authors will speak at an EPPC breakfast in Washington, D.C. the morning of the March for Life. Register here.
R. J. Snell
A man I greatly admire advised me some time ago to “study humanity.” That is, to understand people as they really are, and what motivates them in the concrete. While Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) is at times more cynical than is warranted, more Machiavellian than I would be, his book, The Pocket Oracle and the Art of Prudence, sometimes translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, certainly describes how humans often behave and what often motivates them. The book might not help you become a saint, but it goes some way to understanding the cunning of others. If you want to study humanity, one could do worse than read Gracián, as indeed a group of my friends and I have done periodically throughout the year.
I recently started on Robert Caro’s Working, his shortest book and only memoir. Caro is the standard-bearer for writers who take their time, having devoted more years than he ever imagined to biographies written on a grand scale. He and his wife and fellow researcher, Ina, sold their house rather than relinquish their life’s project: understanding political power as it is wielded and as it operates on people. Ever the reporter, Caro felt compelled to observe power and its consequences closely before writing about it. He released Working under some duress; as he notes, he is working on a larger memoir but is cognizant of his age. Working is a portrait of a life spent largely immersed in other lives, and not only those of his main subjects, Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. The opening chapter of Master of the Senate is a small masterwork and does not mention Johnson at all. It describes instead the desks of the Senate, the drama of the chamber and its ghosts. In crafting these books, Caro had to withstand the pressure to produce quickly.
Academic Director, CanaVox
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Admittedly a little macabre for a holiday book list—but for anyone interested in mulling over death, this is a great read! Medical science has radically changed the way we approach the final years of our lives, extending it in all sorts of new and distorted ways. Gone are the centuries of experience, tradition, and wisdom about our mortality and how to approach death with naturalness and courage. Dr. Gawande wishes to revive the ars moriendi of medieval times by offering us a wealth of wisdom from the trenches. Combining clinical experience and research with stories of sick patients and friends, it will teach you various ways of approaching your own death and the death of your loved ones. And you’ll come away with some important resolutions. Although the book lacks a spiritual component and offers a purely secular outlook on the art of dying, its humane prudence will surely dovetail with whatever spiritual insights you bring to the text.
I just finished Edith Wharton’s 1920 book The Age of Innocence, which made Wharton the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a wonderfully vivid historical novel set in late 19th-century New York City, a time and place so thickly laden with social scripts that most characters’ lives consist in acting out a preconceived role. These roles are curated to protect polite society from discomforts and unpleasantness, leaving no room for originality, imagination, or experimentation. The norms of this period condition women into a state of artificial and permanent naïveté about the ugly sins abounding in their community, and even in their own homes. Yet, when the protagonist grows restless with his manicured world and seeks to burst out of it, Wharton masterfully shows the calamities awaiting him should he opt for total upheaval. I was left pondering the mutual destruction of both total conformity and total independence. The generation that follows after Wharton’s main characters offer needed correctives to their parents’ excessively curated world—a refreshing reminder that what is new can, though certainly not always, offer improvement.