The Bookshelf: Who Is in the American Canon?

Moving books home has turned my mind toward publishers that seem to be of high value because of the enduring importance of their books. One such is Liberty Fund, which specializes in classic conservative and libertarian texts in politics and economics. Another is the Library of America, which has a broad mission to publish (in its own words) “America’s greatest writing.”
There may indeed be a case for distinguishing the “female voice” and the “male voice” in literature. But don’t let anyone sell you on the false essentialism of a necessary “identity” of a writer with his or her principal subject, whether it be an identity of sex, or race, or culture.
Some of the best perspective-altering reading experiences I’ve had in recent years have come from books that I read well outside the bounds of my own research. Nonetheless they made their way into my thinking and writing in various ways—they “stuck.” And books that “stick” in this way we are apt to recommend whenever an opportunity arises.
Summer—a time of lounging in a shaded hammock between two trees, or under a beach umbrella—is a great time for bite-sized nonfiction. With Public Discourse taking a publishing hiatus for the week following Independence Day, now is a perfect time to stretch out with some small provocation of thought.
Every “no” to the state in the name of religious conscience is predicated on a greater “yes” to a power higher than the state.
“Medicine is a humanistic discipline that uses science to accomplish what all human beings would like to see for themselves, in their capacity to sustain themselves. Ultimately it is to aim for a person who could be what God intended him to be.”
One of the vital experiences of which the current pandemic robbed us for too long is the dinner party with friends. Reading about food, too, can be a pleasure in its own right, whether one tries out daring new recipes or not. My small kitchen library has a few notable classics that are as interesting for their authors’ voices as for their instruction in preparing dishes.
Many of the books behind our favorite films are very much worth reading. But the medium of cinema does not necessarily translate great literature effectively.
What libraries do on the demand side—acquiring the books and other materials that their faculty and students need to do their research—the university presses do on the supply side, bringing important research into print. Unfortunately, one of the best university presses in the country now faces the threat of closure.
Partisanship is strong drink, and moderate consumption of the intoxicant has always been difficult. Herewith some recommendations for reading on partisan moments in American history.
Dipping into Shakespeare’s plays from time to time was unsatisfying; I grew ambitious to read all of his works. Yet how to proceed through it all? Some eight years ago, I resolved to make my own daily reading plan for moving through all of Shakespeare’s works in a year. Here, I present the 2021 version.
Perhaps what unites the books that I’ve dragged my feet about reading is that they are Big Books, long and serious works of great literary merit. These require an investment of one’s time and energy, representing a reader’s marathon. There is no training for these marathons, of course. One must simply plunge in.
I have called books and authors “friends,” and that they are. Aristotle tells us the highest form of friendship is that which aims at another’s good as though it were one’s own, for in truth it is indistinguishable from one’s own. We reread our favorite books in gratitude, not only for the repeated pleasure of the experience but to know once again the good that our old friends have selflessly done us.
There never was a golden age when low politics didn’t enter into the process of Supreme Court nominations, but the furies unleashed by Roe v. Wade have driven the politics lower and lower. Perhaps one day the end of Roe will mean the end of “Borking” too. So we may fervently pray.
Although kid-friendly movies continue to be made—usually animated ones rather than live action—the movie theater is no longer the safe space it generally was before 1960. Fortunately, the best family films of yesteryear are still available to us.
The opinion editor of Newsweek should be commended for striving to publish a diversity of views at the site, but its editor-in-chief committed journalistic malpractice by taking down an essay already published in order to reschedule it when it could be “balanced” by a view less challenging to the site’s readers.
Can the American people and their representatives set aside their immediate interests and attachments and “think constitutionally” about the presidency, and about how we choose presidents? Some scholars hope so. But the passionate partisanship of the most attentive Americans, and the inattentiveness and apathy of the least partisan Americans, make this hope seem forlorn indeed.
What is it that makes screwball comedies so much fun? With their manic scripts and their depiction of characters of both sexes who will say anything and do anything for love, they bring together men and women—whose senses of humor often differ sharply—to laugh at the same crazy antics, and to see what mad joy love can be. In the summer of COVID, as we stay home with our loved ones, the screwball may be just what the doctor ordered.
For reasons that pass all understanding, modern academic disciplines are where English prose goes to die. Fortunately, profound and compelling historical writing has a history of its own that predates the modern research university by two and a half millennia, stretching back to Herodotus in the fifth century BC. Such a tradition is resistant to the chloroform of the modern academy, so long as gifted storytellers find publishers and readers.
Like the spirit of liberty itself, the spirit of liberal education is “not too sure that it is right.” As colleges and universities are beset by the twin challenges of the pandemic and of ideological activism, will we able to keep that spirit of inquiry alive?
Americans love America because it is their own and because it is good. Our ability to detach ourselves from America and decry its injustices only increases our attachment to it as a continuing project that is truly our own.
The best depictions of fathers in classic films.
Accommodation and half measures—the stuff of everyday political life—will not do when we encounter the politics of mastery and subjugation. Aristotle’s “partnership of free persons” demands more.