Avid Readers, Occasional Bloggers

Tag: nonfiction Page 1 of 5

My Top Five 2021 Nonfiction Reads

More than half of the books I read in 2021 appear to be nonfiction (tracking and math are not precise) which kind of surprised me.  But I did have a goal of reading a great many books on Saint Paul of which more anon, as they say.  So what were my favorites?

Here are five of the non-Paul focused nonfiction that stood out to me from 2021 (books I read, not that were published last year):

A book that is hard to say “I liked it” given how depressing and challenging it is. I am far from an expert on these things but I found it all too persuasive in its underlying argument about decadence. The chapter Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly depressing. I wish I had a brilliant answer as to how to get out of the seeming cul-de-sac we find ourselves in but, alas, I do not. 

An insightful and challenging book that forces you to acknowledge the challenges our culture presents for people of faith and those who seek to pass on that faith to the next generation. While there is a tad too much jargon in places, and it is also earnest at times, it really is a great outline for thinking about encouraging and inculcating deeper faith in young people and adults alike. The idea of call, community, creed and hope for the future is something I will be chewing on and working out for some time. If you have an interest in youth ministry, church revitalization or just faith in the modern world, highly recommended.

A discursive, and sometimes elusive, meditation on freedom that touches on evolution, history, science, sociology, economics, and psychology, among other things. Thought provoking and a bit haunted.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America. At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

Honest, playful, melancholy, at times dark, yet hopeful Mackall packs a lot into this short volume. Wonderful exploration of family, history, stories and their impact on our lives. Both a book to read for the content and for the writing itself.


The Good Life Method by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko

The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko is the perfect early January book to review. In this time of New Year’s resolutions, what better to discuss than a book on pursuing the good life:

Two Philosophers Ask and Answer the Big Questions About the Search for Faith and Happiness

For seekers of all stripes, philosophy is timeless self-care. Notre Dame philosophy professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko have reinvigorated this tradition in their wildly popular and influential undergraduate course "God and the Good Life," in which they wrestle with the big questions about how to live and what makes life meaningful.

Now they invite us into the classroom to work through issues like what justifies our beliefs, whether we should practice a religion and what sacrifices we should make for others--as well as to investigate what figures such as Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Iris Murdoch, and W. E. B. Du Bois have to say about how to live well. Sullivan and Blaschko do the timeless work of philosophy using real-world case studies that explore love, finance, truth, and more. In so doing, they push us to escape our own caves, ask stronger questions, explain our deepest goals, and wrestle with suffering, the nature of death, and the existence of God.

It also fits in rather well with my post from yesterday:

Like many during the never-ending ongoing pandemic I was trying to figure how I wanted to structure and approach my life. What would I spend my time on? Where would I put my focus and energy? What ultimately brought joy and meaning into my life?

And this approachable and engaging look at virtue, ethics, and the good life will reward careful reading and contemplation. While the book begins with a contrast between virtue ethics and consequentialism, it is really about how to go about a thoughtful, active and meaningful life; wrestling with the big questions and coming to grips with partial and contingent answers as best we can.

But like so many non-fiction books I have read in the past, I am struggling to organize my thoughts into a concise review.1 But will try to recap the main ideas and offer what I liked and learned.

The Best of 2020: Top 5 Nonfiction

A totally nonscientific, off the cuff, Top 5 nonfiction books I read (not necessarily published in) in 2020

A Time to Build by Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin has become one of my favorite authors.  His books are both brilliant, illuminating and important. A Time to Build is no different. Here is what I wrote for Goodreads:

If you want to better understand where we are as a country and what we can do to change for the better, read this book. It is insightful, challenging, and yet ultimately hopeful.

tl/dr –> We need to commit to rebuilding institutions that are formative nor performative; that form us rather than giving us a platform to raise our profile and become a celebrity.

This is not a partisan message or book. Readers of all perspectives can and should read and think about the issues Levin raises.

I hope to post a longer, more thoughtful review here in the coming days. [fingers crossed]

Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is another author who has grown in my estimation as I have read more of his work.  One of my goals in 2020 was to read most of his books and I did (a couple of his early books are a bit pricey for me). His latest, Breaking Bread with the Dead, is another must-read I recommend constantly.

You can read my review over at the University Bookman

Jacobs argues neither for throwing out the past as hopelessly wrong nor for ignoring the serious issues with which readers must wrestle. The reader with personal density doesn’t have to abandon engaging ideas from the past because they may encounter racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, and other beliefs with which they strongly disagree. Instead, Jacobs’s strategy acknowledges that even the brilliant and insightful writers of the past were human beings with foibles and sins; with wrong beliefs that sit, often uncomfortably, beside their insights and talents.

Suicide of the West and Its Critics

The first part of my review of Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg sought to outline the book’s argument (1900 word outline, I know).  In this post I want to address some of the critics of the book and thus explore the tensions noted at the start of my review.

Many of Goldberg’s critics charge that he ruled out the answer that must underlie any true restoration or rehabilitation of our society: God.  I think this is an unfair criticism in a couple of ways; tactical and philosophical.

From a tactical standpoint, they ignore the fact that Goldberg removes God for the sake of argument not because he is an atheist or thinks religion plays no role.  He is aiming at persuasion in a democratic public square where reason and decency are the highest form of argument. To argue from the perspective of faith would be to lose a sizable chunk of his audience from the very beginning.

Philosophically, Goldberg is arguing from a position of pluralism and common ground because he believes it is the best way to defend and shore up the blessings of the Miracle.  The book is full of calls for strengthening and restoring civil society, for creating space for institutional pluralism, for refusing to ground meaning in national political symbols and language.  The place for religious values and faith to flourish is in this system, not in a hoped for near universal faith-based worldview or culture.

Two critiques/reviews are worth noting.  Let’s start with Jonah Goldberg’s Soulless Case for Liberty by Richard M. Reinsch II.  Allow me to quote a section that represents the heart of this critique:

Does the Enlightenment Miracle provide the best understanding of America? And if it doesn’t—if in fact there are better tributaries that nourished the American Founding—does that mean that Goldberg’s diagnosis of what ails America will be similarly off-target?

This is not to affirm Rousseau’s political project, but it is to say that you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you are going to set the Enlightenment Miracle as the standard of human excellence, one that we are losing, you must also clearly state the dialectic it introduces of an exaltation of reason, power, and science that can become something rather illiberal. If man’s mind constitutes reality, then truly how far are you from arriving at Marx’s famous admonition that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Frankly, I do not have the philosophical or historical chops to untangle the arguments Reinsch makes regarding Locke, et al.  But there are two basic points worth highlighting. One is the argument that the excesses of the Enlightenment are part and parcel of the Enlightenment.  In this view if you are going to celebrate the good, you must include the bad in the accounting; if you accept the blessing of the Miracle you must also accept Marxism, Communism, Scientism and a host of other extremes.

John Daniel Davidson’s review follows similar lines:

The fundamental problem with his argument is that it rests on an incomplete account of the Enlightenment and the liberal order. Yes, the Miracle gave us capitalism and democracy, but it also gave us hyper-individualism, scientism, and communism. It gave us liberty and universal suffrage, but it also gave us abortion, euthanasia, and transgenderism. The abolition of man was written into the Enlightenment, in other words, and the suicide of the West that Goldberg warns us about isn’t really a suicide at all, because it isn’t really a choice: we aren’t committing suicide, we’re dying of natural causes.


If Goldberg wants to preserve the Miracle, he’s going to have to do a better job of explaining how it happened. To do that, he’s going to have to look back further than 300 years and rediscover the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to. Western civilization depends on sturdier stuff than material wealth, or individualism, or even democracy.

First, I think this is a little unfair.  Goldberg is describing the ingredients that led to the Miracle not trying to define and argue the strengths and weaknesses of something broadly termed the Enlightenment.

Second, if you accept what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) as the basis for politics must you then accept any and all of the extremes of individualism, reason and science?  Does an appreciation for liberal democratic capitalism require accepting Marxism, Communism, and Socialism not too mention the extremes of the Progressive Era?

I think Goldberg makes a compelling, if limited, case that the extremes were more outgrowths of romantic and reactionary impulses than simply natural outgrowths of the foundational ideas.  But he understands that history is messy and that ideas are not teleological but interactive and contingent.

Look closely and you will see that both Davidson and Reinsch are putting a greater burden on Goldberg than he seeks to take up.  Goldberg sought not to offer the best explanation for America nor the whole of Western Civilization but rather the explosion of wealth and flourishing he calls the Miracle.  

As was noted in my review, civilization alone is not sufficient to create the Miracle.  The ancient roots of Western Civilization are important but they did not lead directly to the change Goldberg seeks to explore .  The “old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to” can and did exist without the economic explosion that is at the heart of the book.

The irony of many of these critics, in my opinion, is that they are guilty of the very reactionary or romantic nostalgia-based impulse that Goldberg decries.  They seek a return to Christendom or at least a worldview based on Christian infused values. They seek a return to a civilization based on the values of Athens and Jerusalem via Rome.  This may be understandable and even preferable in theory, but, in my opinion, that world is not coming back. Can we use ancient wisdom to chart a better course forward and restrain the excesses of our culture?  Yes, but we can’t return to a pre-enlightenment West or rebuild Christendom.

Goldberg doesn’t deny the role Christianity played in the West and discusses and debates the role it played in the Miracle, but he rightly understands that Christendom alone did not create the prosperous West.  Liberal democratic capitalism did. Discussion of where we go from here must acknowledge where we are, how we got here, and plot a path forward not seek a return to a mythical past.

Other critics have questioned whether Goldberg’s argument can really be called conservative (see Davidson).  Before I get to this larger issue, this Trumpian comment at the end of Reinsch’s review I think it points to something:

Trump’s victory, along with the victory of the Brexiteers in June of 2016, led me to the following conclusion: when something like 90 percent of the smart, rich, pretty people throw it all at you and you still win, then a reassessment of politics in your democracy is surely called for. I’m a conservative after all, there are no formulas or templates. For those, I look to the libertarians.

This is what you might call paleoconservative virtue signalling.  It is an attempt to paint Goldberg with the brush of an out of touch and mistaken liberal elite (and the comments use this as an excuse to dismiss the book and author). Put aside Goldberg’s critique of Trump through the lens of romantic and reactionary ideas, and Trump’s clear lack of philosophical conservatism or knowledge of any of the history Reinsch covers, does the fact that Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s historic weakness to win roughly 40k votes in three states, and thus the presidency, really call for a reassessment of politics in our democracy?  Maybe Trump is not sui generis but part of a larger pattern that Goldberg highlights; maybe he is a symptom rather than a cause.

Again, I think attempts to write Goldberg/SOTW out of conservatism is off for both tactical and philosophical reasons.  Tactically Goldberg is seeking common ground within the broad range of American political history. This might be called “classical liberalism” for lack of a better term.  For Goldberg, American conservatives seek to conserve the genius of the American founding. And he believes it is important, and possible, to find common ground on the values and principles contained therein with those who don’t see themselves as explicitly conservative.

I understand that there are strains of conservatism (paleo or traditionalist) that reject classical liberalism, roughly what Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution, as a philosophical or political foundation.  But in my opinion this is not the dominant perspective of modern American conservatism and Goldberg is solidly within the confines of that group; fusionism rightly understood.

Goldberg acknowledges that the ingredients of the Miracle contain within themselves the possibility to undermine the larger project.  Capitalism and innovation are a threat to tradition and stability. Individualism and rationalism can lead to family and cultural breakdown and loneliness and isolation which leads to reactionary and romantic alternatives.  He spends time outlining Schumpeter’s and others arguments on these tensions.

Equally clear, is Goldberg’s rejection of progressivism and its heirs today; those who would overturn the Miracle.  He is seeking, again for lack of a better term, the vital center; a group who may disagree on specific policies and approaches but who share a commitment to liberal democratic capitalism.

While he rejects the romantic/reactionary element of both left and right, he is also deeply conservative and even traditionalist.  Again, he passionately advocates for the rebuilding of civil society, for pushing power down rather than up, and for the institutional pluralism that allows faith, family and community to flourish.  There is a whole chapter on the attack on the family.

The problem is that so many want to nationalize and universalize these battles as part of American politics.  The result is polarizing culture wars that don’t end up strengthening civil society, families or communities.

The challenge is twofold. One is that the mental division of labor critical to the success is unnatural and feels foreign.  Two is that applying these ideas work for the macrocosm but not for the microcosm; they work for the large society and world but not for our families, neighborhoods, and churches.

Goldberg’s answer is not a re-founding of Western thought on Judeo-Christian or pre-enlightenment philosophy  but rather a sort of localist pluralism.  Acknowledging and being grateful for the ideas and principles that allowed for the unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing of the last 300 years while recognizing the constant human temptation to tribalism and romanticism that undermines these values.  But at the same time defending, and at times rebuilding, civil society at the local level. Tending the gardens of family, civic organizations, religious communities, and local institutions.

Goldberg does not deny the tensions involved in this conservative project within a liberal democratic capitalist system but rather accepts it as the challenge we face.  

The question is whether we are up to it.


Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West (SOTW) is a study in contrasts.  Jonah Goldberg begins his ambitious new book by removing God from his argument, but ends it discussing how the fading belief that God is watching us underlies many of our problems.  The book is a passionate plea for classical liberalism, and yet it is also deeply conservative and traditionalist. Goldberg argues that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and unique in human history while tribalism is the default characteristic of humans, yet calls for a robust defense of the former and firm limits on the later.

It is a complex, sometimes periphrastic, tour through anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and politics.  Goldberg marshalls all of these disparate elements to argue for a seemingly simple thesis: human nature is constant, the vast majority of human history is one of suffering and squalor, but thru a series of serendipitous events the West escaped this torturous plateau into a world of increasing wealth, health and human flourishing.

He then offers both a call to action and a warning.  The call: understand this history, reflect with gratitude on our blessings, and pass it on to the next generation.  The warning is the flip side: this world of freedom, material wealth, and growth was created by the power of words and ideas (the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) and it must be defended. Nature is always waiting.  Corruption sets in without vigilance. The ingredients of the Miracle, as Goldberg terms it, can be lost and we can return to a world of tribalism, conflict and stagnation.

What follows is the first part of my review which functions as a summary of sorts.  In the second part I will address some of the book’s critics and the tensions noted above.

The book starts with a deep dive into biology, anthropology, sociology, economics and history to understand that, as Goldberg likes to say, human nature has no history.  Human beings come preloaded with a great deal when they are born. Preference for the family or tribe, distrust of strangers, adherence to group norms, the importance of status, the desire to create meaning, etc.–these aspects of human nature will always be with us.

The role of civilization is to tame, direct and channel human nature towards productive ends. Civilization is the fundamental building block for the Miracle but it is a necessary, not sufficient cause:

The ingredients for liberty and prosperity have existed on earth for thousands of years, sloshing around, occasionally bumping into each other, and offering a glimpse to a better path. Religious toleration, restraints on monarchy, private property, the sovereignty of the individual, pluralistic institutions, scientific innovation, the rule of law–all of these things can be found piecemeal across the ages.

So why exactly did the Miracle appear where and when it did?  It was “an unplanned and glorious accident.” Goldberg is deeply suspicious of simple answers to complex questions, understands that history is messy and, for the sake of his argument, refuses teleology (whether religious or ideological) as an explanation, but the answer comes down largely to ideas and language.

Building on the work of Deirdre McCloskey and Joseph Schumpeter, Goldberg argues that changing attitudes and forms of speech about markets and innovation led to the birth of capitalism.  Innovation was no longer viewed as a sin, ideas about trade, labor, and private enterprise changed, and the economic revolution followed.

What Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) grew in the unique soil of English liberty and flourished in America due to an equally unique set of circumstances.

The story had been developing organically for millennium but John Locke wrote it down and in important ways universalized it.  The American Founders were both influenced by it and distanced from it but put this universalized form into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  This story (another word for civilization/institutions/society) made liberal democratic capitalism possible.

But a good story requires a villain and Goldberg offers us two (or perhaps one in different forms): corruption and romanticism.  By corruption Goldberg does not mean bribery or payoffs, but a process whereby nature takes back what was hers; entropy, in the sense of decline into disorder, breakdown and decay.  The power of human nature is such that if we don’t work to keep it at bay, it will retake control.

This is where the tension between the ubiquity of tribalism for most of human history and the uniqueness of the Miracle plays out.  We can’t assume that the blessings of our civilization are the new normal; it is not natural or inevitable. We too easily slip into the natural equals good mindset.  Goldberg spends a chunk of the text harshly tearing down this fallacy.

This corruption can come from both the top down and the bottom up and in ways that align with human nature.  Top down: elites make rules that benefit them and block those seeking upward mobility. Whether in politics, economics, sports, religion or any other area of life, the powerful will naturally seek to protect and expand their interests.   History is overflowing with examples.

The benefit of liberal democratic capitalism is the creation of competing spheres of influence, institutional pluralism, in order to restrain and limit this temptation.  The American Founders sought a system with checks and balances that would limit and channel these tendencies in the political arena. The free market fosters competition which undercuts monopoly and other forms of economic power.

But corruption can also come from the bottom up.  When the people give into tribal instincts and seek unity above all, corruption will result.  Cultural, religious, and institutional pluralism is a necessary ingredient of the Miracle. This requires a mental division of labor where loyalties are spread across strata and organizations; from our family and relatives up and outward through neighborhood groups and clubs, religious communities, the economy, and government (local, state and federal).

Romanticism, personified here by Jean Jacques Rousseau, is in many ways the driver of both forms of corruption.  Goldberg contrasts Rousseau with Locke, and posits them as two of the main currents in Western thought:

It is a fight between the idea that our escape from the past has been a glorious improvement over mankind’s natural state and the idea that the world we have created is corrupting because it is artificial.  One side says that external moral codes and representative government are a liberating blessing. The other says that truth is found not outside of ourselves in the form of universal rules and tolerance for others but in our own feelings and the meaning we get from belonging to a group.

Rousseau sees the modern mental division of labor as artificial and oppressive and holds out the nation-state as the unifying organizing principle to return us to our natural state and remove our feelings of loneliness and alienation.  His noble savage is a nostalgic seeking of a mythical past of unity and internal coherence. Instead of pluralism, unity and conformity.

This temptation is at the root of all modern politics :

It is my contention that all rebellions against the liberal order or the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic but reactionary.  They seek not some futuristic modern conception of social organization. Rather they seek to return to some form of tribal solidarity where we are all in it together.  Romanticism is the voice through which our inner primitive cries out “There must be a better way!

Which brings us into the realm of current politics, which Goldberg introduces by detailing how the Progressive Era drank deep from Rousseau and thus sought to undermine the Miracle.  He then highlights how the corrupting influence of the romantic/reactionary impulse from both the left and the right is undermining liberal democratic capitalism in America.

On the left, progressives fundamentally reject limited government and institutional pluralism seeking instead a government run by unelected elites; supposedly for the good of the masses.  Seeking flexibility to re-interpret the Constitution in light of their ideology, masquerading as science, they give government more and more power with fewer and fewer checks and balances.

The result is the modern administrative state; vast swaths of government virtually unaccountable and yet controlling practically every area of our lives.  At the same time, the modern left is obsessed with identity politics; tribal groups and power rather than individualism and equality. In the name of freedom and equality they undermine the very system that has brought increased wealth and opportunity to so many.

The troubling part is that instead of defending and strengthening the values and principles that created the Miracle, those on the right seem intent on joining the left.  Tired of being attacked as racist bigots, having their faith squeezed out of the public square, and often out of anxiety with the centrifugal forces of the globalized culture and economy, many on the right are increasingly engaging in tribalism, populism and their own form of identity politics.

Valid concerns about the power of the administrative state and the damage another four or eight years of progressive ideology could do, conservatives seem willing to embrace a figure, Donald Trump, whose character and philosophy reflects the weakness in our culture not its restoration.

Trump represents the romantic/reactionary impulse toward tribal unity, an emphasis on feelings and power rather than ideas and principle, and the hope of a return to a mythical past. Instead of character and ideas, the true meaning of conservatism, they seek power and winning at all cost.

Under attack from the left and the right are the very values and ideals that sustain our civilization.  Democracy, free speech, free market capitalism are all increasingly treated with hostility. If the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves shape our society, then these dramatic changes in rhetoric should be deeply concerning.

So what is the answer?  Be grateful for our inheritance and fight to pass it on to the next generation.  Goldberg knows this is a never-ending battle:

There are not permanent victories. The only victory worth fighting for–because it is the only victory that is achievable–is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and equip that generation to carry on the fight and so on, and forever.  We cannot get rid of human nature and humanity’s natural tribal tendencies. But we know that, under the right circumstances, our tribal nature can be grafted to a commitment to liberty, individualism, property rights, innovation, etc. It happened in England, accidentaly, but organically


And we cannot be forced to stay committed to our principles. We can only be persuaded to.  Reason alone won’t carry the load, but the task is impossible without it. Parents must cultivate their barbarian children into citizens, and the rest of us must endeavor to keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it.

In essence, Goldberg argues that defending and passing on the underlying principles of our civilization must take precedence over both our tribal instincts and our day-to-day partisan battles.  If left and right join together in reactionary populism they will destroy the very thing they both claim to want to preserve and defend.

That is the Suicide of the West.

Next, critics of SOTW.


Page 1 of 5

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén