Books for Christmas 2019

George Weigel

Resist the twitterization of thought — give books for Christmas! The following titles will delight, instruct, edify (or all of the above):

Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts (Viking): There seems to be no end to the making of books about Winston Churchill. I own 17 and have no hesitation in saying this is the best Churchill biography ever, written with a narrative drive that sustains your interest through even the familiar bits. It’s also a treasure-trove of witticisms, including this rapier-quick Churchillian riposte to Charlie Chaplin’s announcement at a Chartwell dinner party that his next movie role would be Jesus Christ: “Have you cleared the rights?

In Oceans Deep: Redemptive Suffering and the Crucified God, by Eduardo Echeverria (Lectio Publishing): A powerful reflection on the mystery of evil from a fine theologian and insightful commentator on matters ecclesiastical, written while he was mourning the death of a two-year old granddaughter.

Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay (Encounter Books): The antidote to the damage caused by Howard Zinn’s wretched People’s History of the United States. Give it to every millennial on your Christmas list.

Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie (Tim Duggan Books), and 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster): Two powerful reminders that pretending totalitarians don’t mean what they say makes matters worse.

The Day Is Now Far Spent, by Robert Cardinal Sarah in conversation with Nicolas Diat (Ignatius Press): Cardinal Sarah is a radically converted Christian disciple whose love for Christ impels him to speak without euphemism about Catholicism’s contemporary challenges. Some may find the cardinal’s reading of the signs of the times apocalyptic; the same people would likely say the same thing about St. Augustine.

The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America, by Daniel Okrent (Scribner): A chilling exploration of how WASP prejudice married to crackpot “science” warped American politics and law — and a preview of how the same cocktail of nonsense (and some of the same people) helped advance the abortion license.

Last Testament, by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald (Bloomsbury Continuum): Forty-five minutes with the Pope Emeritus in October easily rank among my most bracing conversations of 2019. This interview-style memoir ought to (but likely won’t) clear up some misconceptions about a brilliant and holy man, as it ought to (but certainly won’t) put a stop to lurid speculations about the reason for his abdication.

Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, by David Lowe (Potomac Books): An overdue celebration of a man of conviction and courage and a useful reminder that not so long ago “liberal” meant something much better than “crazy leftist.”

George Marshall: Defender of the Republic, by David L. Roll (Dutton Caliber): Hard as it may be to imagine these days, giants once walked the earth along the Potomac littoral. As U.S. Army Chief of Staff throughout World War II, then post-war Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, George Catlett Marshall didn’t get everything right; no one does. But he was the antithesis of those who crave distinction from high office instead of bringing distinction to it, and his example continues to inspire.

Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, by Mary Eberstadt (Encounter Books): Anything Mary Eberstadt writes is worth reading — and doubly so when her latest exploration of our wounded culture worries a New York Times columnist.

Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, by Father Carter Griffin: A powerful explanation of an ancient tradition’s relevance for 21st-century Catholicism, which should have been a reference at the Amazonian synod but wasn’t.  Especially useful for seminarians but important reading regardless of your state of life in the Church.

The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger (Riverhead Books): A delicious send-up of bulldozer parents in a progressive town, but also (and perhaps unintentionally) a stark evocation of lives without God.

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, by Elizabeth Lev (Sophia Institute Press): Liz Lev not only makes you see things you never saw before in a painting or a sculpture; she brilliantly explicates the meaning of what you’re seeing afresh.

And (if I may): The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the World to Reform (Basic Books): I hope you and those on your gift list enjoy reading it as I enjoyed writing it.

COMING UP: Books for Christmas

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The past year has seen the publication of any number of books I’ve wanted to write about, but didn’t. Here they are, as suggestions for Christmas gifts that will provoke thought and give pleasure throughout the new year.

Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War (HarperCollins): Beginning with his monumental study of German National Socialism, The Third Reich: A New History, British historian Michael Burleigh has been restoring religious (and pseudo-religious) passions and convictions to their rightful place in the study ofmodern history. Earthly Powers is a great, sprawling smorgasbord of a book, showing how the emergence of the modern state in Europe, and its displacement of religion from public life, opened the door to a variety of fanaticisms that laid the cultural foundations for the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century (which Burleigh explores in depth in a follow-on volume, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, to be published in the U.S. in March 2007). Demanding but richly rewarding reading, and likely to change the way reasonable people think about the past two hundred years.   

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press): Here is the Pope’s most succinct formulation of his proposal for a cultural renewal of the West — “Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to accepting the existence of God ought nevertheless to try and direct his life…as if God did indeed exist.” Former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, himself a nonbeliever, comments in a fine Introduction, “This proposal should be accepted, this challenge accepted, for one basic reason: because the one outside the Church who acts [as if God did indeed exist] becomes more responsible in moral terms. He will no longer say that an embryo is a ‘thing’ or a ‘lump of cells’ or ‘genetic material’. He will no longer say that the elimination of an embryo or a fetus does not infringe any rights. He will no longer say that a desire that can be satisfied by some technical means is automatically a right that should be claimed and granted…He will no longer act like half a man, one lacerated and divided.” Like the 2005 volume, Without Roots (Basic Books), the Ratzinger/Pera dialogue in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures opens a window into one of the most important, and hopeful, conversations underway today.

Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale University Press), and Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 ((Knopf): Habeck’s book is the best single introduction to the ideas that drive jihadist Islam; Wright’s is a brilliant piece of reportage, showing how the ideas Habeck analyzes shaped (and misshaped) the men who made 9/11 possible, ideologically and operationally. If you don’t understand how an Egyptian intellectual’s unhappy experience of a church social in Greeley, Colorado, in the late 1940s eventually led to the deaths of some 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, you should: and Wright tells the story masterfully. Both books are must reads for any friends you have in government — Habeck’s, to explain precisely what it is we’re fighting, conceptually; Wright’s, as (among many other things) a chilling cautionary tale of governmental incapacity.

Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature (Regnery): Dr. Kantor takes no prisoners in this romp through the madnesses of contemporary literary theory — which is, at the same time, a fine introduction to what we used to call the literary “canon.” A couple of her characteristically bracing claims — “most great literature was, in fact, written by dead while males” and “Jane Austen was a fan, not a critic, of ‘patriarchy’” — suggest why Elizabeth Kantor need not apply for a faculty position at most of U.S. News & World Report’s top-tier colleges. But that’s all the more reason to read and enjoy her book, and to give it to your favorite high school senior or college freshman.