I wouldn’t consider myself an overly severe book critic; with books, I’m usually easy to please. But this month I came across several duds and disappointments. Finding yourself in the middle of one of these books is a real conundrum. Quit or push through?
I’ll make one observation: I’ve rarely been pleasantly surprised by a book I didn’t like 50-100 pages in. You might not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can often judge it by the introduction. In the case of fiction, sometimes the author is biding their time and the book gets better as you go. I’ve rarely found this to be the case in non-fiction - which is why I download about 5x the amount of Kindle samples as I do books.
Some of this is inevitably due to what I’ve decided is a major detriment in the social media world, a lack of imagination that leads to a lack of fascination - maybe more precisely, the lack of being able to be fascinated. People are less interesting than they used to be. I think it’s because we’re less interested. Our attention spans have atrophied.
Acute observers have noticed, all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, that the deeper pleasures require a bit of training. Take classical music for example. Few people will sit down and relish an opera without a little bit of practice. Some of the deep joys and interests in life are acquired tastes. But the risk of sounding snobbish here’s another angle. You can’t truly love someone until you know them, and when you know someone deeply, your love for them changes. It’s richer, more stable, and longer-lasting. Talk to anyone who’s been in a loving marriage for forty years and you’ll see this.
The trouble is we live in a world of flings, literally and metaphorically. Deeper pleasures need not apply, we’ll settle for quick shots of dopamine. In our defense, when instantaneous hits are what you’re used to, it’s very hard to look elsewhere.
Books are one way to break that mold. They demand your attention for long periods of time. As your capacity to be interested develops, so will your capacity to be interesting to other people. There’s an important upshot to this; uninterested people are not very good friends, and worse listeners.
All that to say, I’m learning to read by a new rule: If you don’t like it, move on. Find something interesting. Stoke your imagination and your mental agility. Get a book you can really enjoy; those are the books that shape you.
Here are my best books of May:
Doom - Niall Ferguson
If you aren’t already reading everything you can by Niall Ferguson, make that a goal. Ferguson has one of the best academic resumes you could assemble. Ph.D. from Oxford, teaching posts at Oxford, Harvard, and NYU. Now he’s a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, America’s premier think tank, in my opinion. He’s written on WWI, the history of America and Britain, empire, the Rothschilds, networks, and his essays offer some of the most prescient insights on global and American politics. He’s also Henry Kissinger’s authorized biographer.
Or, pick up this book on the “politics of catastrophe,” which is a book about the pandemic, the history of disaster, and way we can respond better in the future. Like any good history book, after you finish this book you feel like you’ve learned a lot about a lot.
Heroes- Stephen Fry
There’s hardly a better topic - and certainly no better writer - for today’s lack of imagination than Heroes by Stephen Fry. Ancient myths teach us about ourselves. Shoot for the human condition and land among the fantastic adventures of the Greeks. This is the second in a three-part series on the Greek Myths. Mythos came out in 2019 and Troy comes out next week. I really like what he’s up to.
Stephen Fry is a fascinating figure, and I’ve been on a bit of a kick. I feel bad for anybody who has to introduce the guy, because he’s done so much stuff. You’ve probably seen him on screen, either as Mycroft in the Robert Downy Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, as the King of Lake Town in the Hobbit, or you may have seen his debates, alongside Jordan Peterson about political correctness or arguing against the Catholic church. Peterson interviewed him on the topic of myth last month and it’s worth watching.
Maybe you’ve heard his voice. He’s become a sought-after audiobook narrator. Before Jim Dale took over the series, Fry read Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. His versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Oscar Wilde’s plays, and Shakespeare’s sonnets are excellent. During the pandemic, I followed his weekly Instagram #FryTies religiously. It’s almost inconceivable how much he knows about fashion.
Maybe you don’t like Stephen Fry. I’ll admit we don’t run in the same circles; he’s a British gay atheist who got his start in comedy. But there’s something very intriguing about his mind, and it comes through in Heroes. Watch this preview of the audiobook and you’ll know what I mean.
Men and Women in the Church - Kevin DeYoung
There’s an intramural tackle football game going on over men and women in the church. There have been some good books and articles on both sides, but this is my pick for the biblical texts. DeYoung is careful, precise, and pastoral. Even if you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate his attention to the biblical texts and working through his arguments.
While we’re here, I’ll throw in another Kevin DeYoung recommendation. He wrote a long review of the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson and it is excellent. As DeYoung makes clear, reparations for 19th-century slavery do not follow from the Christian worldview.
Here’s a fantastic paragraph summary: “Suppose American history is as bad as Kwon and Thompson aver. Suppose our corporate guilt is everything they say it is. Suppose everything they want to see under the banner of reparations would be good for our country and good for our communities. The religious vision is still one that I find more in line with a community organizer’s dream for America than a distinctively Christian one. It is a vision where sin is White supremacy and salvation comes from a lifetime of moral exertion. It is a vision where the church’s mission is to change the world and heaven is a world of art studios and co-ops. It is a vision where urban renewal feels central and the grace of the risen Christ feels peripheral. It is a vision filled with many noble aspirations, but one ultimately that depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.”
Winston Churchill and the Art of Leadership - William Nester
This title is a misnomer. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty good short introduction to Winston Churchill. I was hoping for an analysis of Churchill’s leadership. I know what he did; how did he do it? The best books on this subject so far are Allen Packwood’s How Churchill Waged War and Martin Gilbert’s Winston Churchill’s War Leadership. I think there’s still a great book or two to be written on this topic.
Nester’s book is not that book but it is a pretty good book. As far as introductory overviews go, this is one I’d recommend. Casey Wheatland put it well in a recent review, “[Nester] opens a door, for those uninitiated in Churchill, to a serious study of statesmanship.”
Hell Is Empty - Craig Johnson
The Western - Library of America
I’m aware that this is what we call a “circle back.” I’ve recommended the Longmire series before, but I’ve dipped back into my favorite book in the series and want to re-recommend it. Walt Longmire is what used to be known as a “hero.” He’s the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, he goes on adventures, and he does what’s right. But he’s also complex. Sometimes he takes the circuitous route to what’s right, but he gets there in the end. Most literature today is consumed with anti-heroes, sympathy for the bad guys, and it shows. Longmire is an exciting throwback.
I’ll use this western paean to recommend another book (which I have not read yet). The Library of America has just released a volume called The Western which contains four of the greatest westerns of all time: The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter van Tilburg Clark, Shane by Jack Schaefer, The Searchers by Alan Le May, and Warlock by Oakley Hall.
Chris Flannery’s review in the Claremont Review of Books and Andrew Morriss’s review at Law & Liberty have convinced me that I need to take this book on vacation. Now the trick is keeping it in my Amazon cart until the week before we leave.
The Western is sometimes taken to be too cliche for today’s entertainment world. Good and bad are clearly defined, courage and character rule the day, and the good guys win in the end. On the contrary, to make this work in a fallen world requires extreme moral complexity. How does the hero keep from becoming the villain? How does virtue triumph over vice, especially when vice cuts corners? This is the dry and dusty moral terrain of the western novel.
I have a hunch that if we want to reteach morality and heroism, capturing the imagination will be the way to do it. Mamas, please let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Start by reading a few westerns.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.