The Value of Piles: The Best Books of August
You’ll probably notice, as I did scheduling this post, that these monthly reviews have almost become themed. Last month, because I’d been reading Westerns and thinking about courage, my reading started to gravitate that way. Before that, it was the future of geopolitics. I remember listening to Ezra Klein ask Tyler Cowen for book recommendations and being surprised at his answer. He doesn’t read single scattered books very often, he reads piles. Find a topic, subject, or idea you’re interested in and make a pile.
Now, not all of us have the time, money, or the interest to read stacks of books, but it’s a prescient point. One of the best things about reading is gaining perspective. Once you find an idea worth exploring, get a sense of the boundaries, learn the major players, turn it over and look at it from different angles. Then you begin to get a feel for it. That’s when breakthroughs happen. Wisdom is in the abundance of counselors.
Having multiple perspectives, though, is only part of the battle. Reading piles also forces us to grapple with ideas in the long run. But it’s the same with relationships and conversations too. Creating an associative web of themes and theses isn’t reserved for enneagram 5s, it’s the way we’re all designed to explore - some more bookishly than others.
So this review is an exploration. It’s a stack. Of what? I’ll leave that for you to investigate.
The Anglo-Saxons - Marc Morris
Confession time: I really don’t know if anybody else will like this book, but it’s the most fun I’ve had reading a book since I read Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny in January of 2020. Since then, I came close with Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, but that’s a different kind of fun.
In the last 3-4 years I’ve developed a love for the rascally gangs of Angles, Saxons, Britons, Normans, Vikings, and others roving the British Isles between Boudica and William the Conqueror. If at some point I disappear, you’ll find me in Hrothgar’s Heorot or Theoden’s Golden Hall, on a bed of furs in a mail shirt, clanking together flagons of mead, and regaling tales of chivalrous deeds and dragons slain… we’re drifting from Beowulf into Lord of the Rings, but you get the picture. The Anglo-Saxon era captures a strain of history that runs right through our Western heritage, particularly in the English-speaking world, and I wonder if that isn’t because of the unique way that Christianity made a home in England - good, bad, and ugly, yes, but in a way that uniquely sparks our moral imagination. In today’s world, that’s something we should all be sensitive to.
The Anglo-Saxon period stretches from the 7th century through the battle of Hastings in 1066 when the Normans invaded England and crowned William the Conqueror as king of the realm. The figures before this time comprise the mythology of England. Alfred the Great, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. This idyllic era of honor, courtly love, and the knights of the round table has little substance in history, but still captivates the imagination.
The most fascinating aspect of this period, and it comes out in Morris’ excellent way of centering each chapter around an individual, is the arrival of Christendom in England. The country went from a pagan mix of Norse and Germanic gods to a wholly Christian state in this same period. The battles between kings, bishops, and popes showcase the struggles at the very heart of Christendom.
If you're in Carlton Landing, I'm putting this one in the free little library at the Lafferty's.
Ministers at War - Jonathan Schneer
Now, this is the book I’ve been waiting to read about Churchill. There are a lot of excellent books that tell us the what of Churchill’s life. Following Doris Kearns Goodwin’s approach in Team of Rivals, Schneer talks about how Churchill managed to lead his cabinet through the second world war.
When Chamberlain’s government fell, Churchill was faced with the task of constructing a true coalition government, combining the leaders of all the major parties to band together before the Nazi threat. This would be somewhere close to the equivalent of Joe Biden adding Michael Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Rand Paul to his cabinet. He had rival members of his own party to deal with, leaders of the Labour Party, and independents, and somehow he was able to focus these men on defeating Hitler and keeping the country together. In the process, he was subverted, outvoted, and after the war, supplanted, but he was never defeated and he was surely the only leader capable of delivering on the promise he made before parliament in his first speech as PM: “victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
In addition to Allen Packwood’s excellent How Churchill Waged War and Martin Gilbert’s little book Winston Churchill’s War Leadership, this is at the top of my list for books that describe how Churchill did what he did. It’s an essential leadership read and a gripping character study.
Survival and Resistance in the Pacific Northwest - Crawford Gribben
Every now and then you stumble onto a book that you just can’t believe was written. I felt this way about Gribben’s book on evangelicals in the northwest. Do you mean to tell me a prolific scholar has written about Doug Wilson, reconstruction, and other evangelical resistance movements in the U.S. and he’s given it a fair shake? And it’s published by Oxford University Press? Ok, I’m interested.
This book does not disappoint. Gribben has taken a fair, critical, and insightful look at resistance movements in the U.S., focusing on John Wesley Rawles and Douglas Wilson. His approach to Moscow, ID was especially interesting. Wilson has pioneered an all-encompassing vision for Christian living in the chimney of Idaho. He’s not without his critics, but he’s been extremely successful in building platforms, institutions, and influence across the country. What will happen when more Christian communities follow this path? Should they? If Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is the ideological framework for Christian resistance, this book is the sociological field study. Gribben chronicles the reconstructionist tradition, brambles, thorns, and all, in a way that should challenge all of us to think about the future of the church.
King Richard - Michael Dobbs
I could not put this book down. Dobbs chronicles the Watergate scandal through the first hundred days of Nixon’s second term, but he does it as an “American Tragedy.” The pun in the title, eliciting a comparison to England’s three King Richards, and the looming question of which king Nixon ultimately resembles most just puts the book over the top. The writing and storyteller are enrapturing.
In an appendix, Dobbs actually describes his method, and I wonder if it might catch on. He focuses on compelling dialogue, descriptive detail, and third-person point of view. You only realize in hindsight that these factors have been the scaffolding for the intrigue and the gripping storytelling, but it’s made me think differently about storytelling.
The book is written almost like a screenplay, short scenes of days in Nixon’s second term, but it’s styled after Greek tragedy. The central figure has a fatal flaw and shortly into the drama that leads him to make a tragic mistake. In Nixon’s case, the flaws are on full display and the mistake of covering up the Watergate break-in grows into a haunting specter until his whole world is covered in darkness. Dobbs brilliantly organizes the book in four acts: hubris, crisis, catastrophe, catharsis - adapted from the classical tradition.
I couldn’t help but make the connection between Nixon’s descent and sin more generally. In the case of Watergate, the coverup far overshadows the initial crime. One sin begets another. An open door for the flesh leads to dozens more. The pressure to double down, save face, and ride out the storm is seductive, but as Solomon puts it in Proverbs 7, it leads down to the pit.
Tolkien and the Great War - John Garth
Like the wonderful Tolkien movie made from this book, I didn’t want it to end. What about the rest of his life? Garth traces two fascinating interwoven threads in Tolkien’s life: friendship and writing. There’s something idyllically perfect about John Ronald’s group of friends at King Edward’s School, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (TCBS); high school boys who believe they can change the world through language, art, and myth. They were poets and rugby players, and they were also soldiers.
The epic sagas of Tolkien’s Middle Earth germinated in this seedbed of war and friendship. Whereas the movie focuses on the friendship that developed at King Edward's, Garth spends a lot of time introducing the reader to Tolkien’s early poetry. Garth expertly brings you along to discover Middle Earth right over Tolkien’s shoulder and in his own verses.
Friendship, or perhaps we should say fellowship, was one of the driving loves of Tolkien’s life. This book puts the depth of his friendship with the TCBS on display. It casts the Inklings in a whole new light (I hope Garth writes a sequel about this stretch of Tolkien’s life someday) and you’ll never read The Lord of the Rings the same way again.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.