One of my reading goals in 2020 was more fiction. Some fiction. At least some deliberate fiction. In any event, I failed. But these good books did come along:
- Stephen Budiansky, Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas. Holmes was somewhat fashionable among constitutional conservatives around the time Robert Bork, who was fond of quoting him, was: Holmes was a paragon of restraint when constitutional conservatism was more broadly committed to that as a theoretical idea. He has few admirers left, partly for justified but often for caricatured reasons. Excoriated for his worst opinions, such as Buck v. Bell—an abuse of judicial authority that somehow proves the need for more judicial authority—the deeper contours of Holmes are lost. This biography recovers the nuances—Holmes was a hero of the Civil War, a profound thinker and deeply committed to judicial restraint as a principled rather than a partisan principle—without succumbing to hagiography.
- Jeffrey Rosen, William Howard Taft. This entry in Times Book’s The American Presidents Series presents Taft as the rarest of chief magistrates: one who was restrained in the White House by a constitutionally principled view of his office. Among historians, Taft has largely suffered the fate of other restrained presidents, Madison among them: consignment to the heap of failed or at least weak occupants of the office. Rosen, a constitutional scholar and president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, brings a sharp constitutional mind to this balanced rehabilitation.
- Richard P. White Jr., Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long. Long comes off in this biography as thoroughly execrable and entirely corrupted by power. It serves as a reminder of the dangers of populism, particularly when it wraps itself in the patronizing moral superiority of the powerful wrapping their protection around the powerless.
- A.J. Liebling, Major Works (Library of America). I was led to this by two routes. One was the Long biography, which made me curious about his brother Earl, who Liebling—The New Yorker’s virtuoso of the essay form—profiled in a series he compiled into a book (The Earl of Louisiana). The second was that I pulled his collection of boxing essays, The Sweet Science, off the living room shelf, where it had been residing after I picked it up at a used bookstore somewhere. Liebling is a master. I resent everyone who did not tell me about him sooner.
- Marc D. Guerra, Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy. This one, by my Assumption University colleague Marc Guerra, was sitting on the end table for too long. It is a masterful synthesis of theology (his field) and politics (in which he is thoroughly conversant). What is striking about reading this 2010 book in 2020 is how much of what has followed has been derivative of Guerra while lacking his trademark prudence. Attacks on modernity as the root of all evil have become cliches. By contrast, Guerra unsparingly identifies modernity’s problems but also locates resources in Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas—especially as seen through two of their keenest interpreters, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., and Fr. Ernest Fortin, A.A.—for living as citizens in the world we actually inhabit, not a nostalgic, and probably false, memory of what it used to be.