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.

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Yuval Levin on The Path Back From Conspiracy

If I could select on person to rule as a benevolent dictator it would probably be Yuval Levin.  He has the knowledge, wisdom, experience and temperament to make a great leader (which is why he is not so stupid as to run for office but that is another post).

If you are seeking some sense of how we might get out of the mess we find ourselves in, I recommend his piece at The Dispatch today (BTW, you should join The Dispatch): The Path Back From Conspiracy. Building on his must read book, A Time to Build, he locates the solution in institutions but crucially rebuilding the integrity of institutions.

This requires a realistic understanding of human nature:

To imagine we don’t need responsible elites—or that the desire for institutional integrity is a naïve and over-earnest fantasy—is actually to deny the limits of human reason, power, and ability. It is a kind of utopianism masquerading as realism. It ultimately depends upon the fiction that corrupt elites are exceedingly competent, so that what the people need is their own hyper-competent champion to fight back. In truth, however, neither the elites nor their opponents are particularly capable. They are all human beings, and to imagine that human beings can seamlessly pull off a sophisticated, multilayered, sinister conspiracy over an extended period in a free society is already to lose touch with reality.

But our institutions seem corrupt and useless:

That sort of corruption of our professional institutions has grown pervasive. Not only in politics but in journalism, the academy, public health, federal law enforcement, American religious life, and beyond we have lately seen the lure of political expression overcome the strictures of professional formation, and the result has been a cratering of public trust and a growing detachment from reality.

The solution, however, is not to burn it down as so many seem to want, but build it up:

We should criticize elites for failing to live up to professional and institutional standards, not dismiss those standards as a sham. We should demand integrity, not deny it is possible. We should fight for the professions and the universities, not against them. We should want our institutions to be worthy of trust and authority, not seek to burn them down.

The corruption of the American establishment doesn’t mean we can do without elite institutions, it means we need to help them recover their integrity.

We desperately need leaders and communities who can take up this important work. Particularly in the areas noted above that so warp our perspectives these days.

Celebrity Culture, Elected Officials & Leadership

Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt looks at the other side of the issue raised by Leonard Reed: leadership. He offers some wise words on interpreting what you see on TV or on social media:

Not every crime leads back to the suspect you already disliked. Sometimes the trail leads back to the people you thought better of, who you thought were on the right path, the people who you thought weren’t capable of this.

But this section on what it means to serve in elected office is important too:

The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread urban violence should be reinforcing to all Americans the hard lesson that elected office is not about being a celebrity. It is not about looking good on television, or an opportunity to manipulate and control the lives of human beings like moving pawns on a chess board. It is not about soaring rhetoric and pretty words.

Leadership in elected office is often about telling people difficult truths that they don’t want to hear, making hard decisions that will fully satisfy no one, and accepting the responsibility for making those decisions. If you are not willing to accept that, don’t run for the job.

For more insight on celebrity platform versus character building institutions and leadership, I highly recommend A Time To Build by Yuval Levin which I hope to review here soon. Recent events have only highlighted how important these issues are to a vision for moving forward.

Jonah Goldberg: The Cult of Unity Is a Poison

I’m taking a break from Twitter and Facebook this month for reasons I may blog about later.  Normally, I would share an article I found interesting on Twitter (I don’t do politics on Facebook) but today I thought I would go old school and blog it here.


Anyone reading this who knows me will know that I am a fan of Jonah Goldberg.  I have been reading him for decades and he got me my start in online opinion writing at National Review Online.  His G-File this week is both classic Goldberg and well worth reading.  If you haven’t signed up for his new project, The Dispatch, I highly recommend it.

Part of the newsletter is a riff based in part on Yuval Levin’s new book A Time To Build, which I have just started and which I also highly recommend.  He notes how celebrity and social media come not from character formation that are the function of institutions but the using of those institutions for our own needs and wants – as a platform:

Once you start looking around, the list of people who use their institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Ricky Gervais is now a right-wing hate figure for simply pointing out that Hollywood A-listers use award shows as literal platforms for virtue signaling about causes they often know very little about.

One of Yuval’s most important points is how social media erases formality. We say things to and about strangers we would never say to their faces. The anonymity of social media untethers us from the constraints of institutions and good manners. And even when we’re not anonymous social media allows us to cash in on the reputational capital of our institutions for our own agendas.

This is one of the reasons I am so disconnected and disenchanted about national politics these days.  It is platform building, virtue signaling and tribalism everywhere you look it seems.

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