I posted this over at Right Shelf and thought Collected Miscellany readers might find it interesting as well.
Obviously we here at Right Shelf think books are important. And a cursory look at the history of conservatism reveals that books have played an important role in the battle of ideas. So I thought it might be interesting to ask some of my favorite conservative writers to name five books that had an impact on their thinking. Keep in mind that the lists below are not meant to rank conservative books but rather to note books that have had an impact on the writer’s thinking. I have used the Amazon link for those that are readily available.
– Prejudices, by Robert Nisbet.
An elegant and sweeping survey of almost everything.
– Leftism & The Intelligent American’s Guide To Europe, both by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.
The first is a slightly weird stream of consciousness about the Leftist mind. The second is a counter-intuitive history of Europe which fights the good fight on battles long since forgotten and fills in blanks many of us never even knew existed. Both are eminently readable.
– Modern Times, by Paul Johnson.
For all the obvious reasons.
– The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, by George Nash. Indispensable cliff notes on conservative intellectual history. Still the gold standard and always worth picking up again.
– What is Conservatism?, by Frank Meyer (editor).
Just a good rollicking donnybrook over what conservative dogma should be and proof that we’ll never settle on it.
Here are five books every conservative should read:
– The Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich Hayek.
– The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, by Michael Novak.
– Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman.
– Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches, by Ronald Reagan.
– Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, by Hadley Arkes.
In my view, the central value conservatism should conserve is liberty; these five books describe the principles behind, and the content of, human freedom.
– The Revolt of the Elites, by Christopher Lasch.
A man of the left who became an unclassifiable “left-conservative,” Lasch’s final book is a devastating critique of the American upper-middle class and the world that it’s making. (Ideally to be read in tandem with David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, which offers a sunnier view of the same phenomenon.)
– The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama.
Since 9/11 it’s fallen into undeserved disrepute, but even if its thesis is eventually disproven (which it hasn’t been yet), it’s still a brilliant guide to the dilemmas facing Western man at the end of the modern era. (Ideally to be read in tandem with C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.)
– Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West.
Perhaps the greatest sustained piece of writing produced in the twentieth century, West’s travelogue about the Balkans on the eve of the World War II remains (for all its historical inaccuracies) a brilliant testament to the power of the past, and the futility of trying to bury it.
– Modern Times, by Paul Johnson.
The first popular history of the twentieth century that actually told the truth – about Communism, about the West’s intellectuals, and about the post-colonial world.
– The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.
Everyone reads the first half and skips the more-difficult second and third parts, but it’s Parts II and III that every conservative should read. The early sections will confirm conservative assumptions; the later sections will (hopefully) challenge them.
– Witness, by Whittaker Chambers.
The chapter “The Child” should be required reading for every single conservative, everywhere.
– The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek.
I highly recommend the illustrated version available here.
– The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz.
The future Nobel Prize winning poet explains why Stalinism is so appealing to self-styled intellectuals.
– Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton.
In favor of all that is old and good.
– Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, Hart Seely.
Ben caught Witness. I’d include:
– The Once and Future King — yes, it’s fiction, but it’s so conservative it’s, well, wonderful.
– Paradise Lost (rabid anti-Catholicism to the side, anyone who was going full throttle against gunpowder two hundred years after the fall of Constantinople gets my vote).
– A Matter of Interpretation, by Antonin Scalia and Amy Gutmann which does a fantastic job of explaining the virtues of his approach to statutory (and by extension, constitutional) law.
– The Party of Death, by Ramesh Ponnuru which is really one of the most tightly written books I’ve read in a very long time.
– Parliament of Whores, by P.J. O’Rourke.
As far as I’m concerned, still the best book ever written about American government; O’Rourke brings his vicious humor to every branch and agency of the federal government he can locate. His chapter on farm policy is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and his account of a Housing NOW! march is sidesplitting. Along the way he encounters everyone from Pat Moynihan to Mike Dukakis to Ken Starr. But the book does have just one terribly cringe-inducing line, in retrospect; in his look at American foreign policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, O’Rourke states that
the main thing to be learned about foreign policy in this part of the world is that a wise foreign policy would be one that kept you out of here. There are some things you ignore at your peril, but you pay attention to Central Asia at the risk of your life.
– What I Saw at the Revolution, by Peggy Noonan.
Ask conservatives of my generation about Ronald Reagan or conservatism, and chances are pretty good that you will get a picture heavily influenced by one of his “wordsmiths,” Peggy Noonan. The book is only secondarily a memoir, although it does capture (with Noonan’s eye for sympathetic detail) numerous Washington figures of the 80s, as well as her previous boss, Dan Rather, of whom Noonan was very fond despite his politics. More importantly, it’s a book about writing — about a particular kind of writing (political speeches), how they get created, why they matter, and what’s important in crafting them. It’s also a tribute to a set of conservative ideals, and how they continued to inspire conservatives even when their practitioners didn’t always live up to their promise.
– Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe’s novel about a Wall Street investment banker who becomes a cause celebre after hitting a young African-American teen with his car after taking a wrong turn in the Bronx just perfectly sums up all the ills of pre-Giuliani New York (only some of which have been fixed since then). The satirical bite of the book is only enhanced by Hollywood’s ham-handed efforts to sanitize its portrait of New York’s ethnic politics. My dad, who was on the NYPD until the late 80s, swears by the authenticity of many of the scenes in this classic.
– The Opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia: The Caustic Conservative, Paul I. Weizer and Antonin Scalia.
The two opinions I particularly have in mind, and which have greatly influenced my thinking about American government and its principles, are his lone dissent in Morrison v. Olson (in which he argued that the independent counsel statute was unconstitutional, in terms that his nearly unanimous critics eventually had to concede a decade later), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (his denunciation of the theoretical emptiness and illegitimacy of the Court’s abortion jurisprudence). Taken together, the opinions set out a central theme of conservative thought about government: the need to draw governmental power only from sources whose legitimacy can be reaffirmed by keeping them accountable to the people.
– Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.
A cliched choice for conservatives, although I came to read this one relatively late in life (just a few years ago) after I was pretty well set in my thoughts, and I still haven’t read any of Rand’s others. It’s a tale well-told (even if John Galt’s didactic speech drags a bit), skillfully playing on the unfairness, pettiness and venality of a system that gives some people the ability to decide how to dispose of the fruits of others’ labors.
I second Witness with the greatest possible
enthusiasm. Anyone who fancies himself a Conservative and still has failed to read it, ought to read it –right now.
– Reflections on the Revolution of France and Two Speeches on America, by Edmund Burke.
The latter is usually admired largely for its rhetorical power, but I submit that
Burke’s appraisal of the American people, and his criticism of the attempt to alter the nature of a people through policy, is also a piece of genius.
– The Roots of American Order, by Russell Kirk.
Better, in my view, than The Conservative Mind. A masterpiece of synthesis and erudition.
– Rationalism in Politics, by Michael Oakeshott.
A brilliant, if dense and demanding, explication of the character of a truly conservative politics.