Now we’ve got time on our freshly cleaned hands, The Spectator’s literary luminaries are lubricating the wheels on time’s wingèd chariot and seizing the chance to boost their morale and brain function, reflect on the meaning of life and catch up on a good book or six. Each day, the Lockdown List carries our bibliophilic recommendations.
Day 74: Indian summer
The success of Black Lives Matter has deflected attention from a group which has no less a cause for grievance over its treatment throughout US history: native Americans. Indeed, to this day Native Americans, thousand for thousand, have an even greater chance of being killed by police officers as do African Americans.
The Earth is Weeping tells the story of the decisive years in the fate of the Indians on the western plains (and in this book, which is delightfully free of politically correct language and doctrines, they really are Indians) between the 1860s and 1880s. It is essentially an age-old tale repeated so many times over human history, from the enclosures in 19th century England to the Amazon of the present day: the battle between hunter-gathers and cultivators, between wanderers and settlers, between those who belonged to the land and those who considered the land belonged to them. Ultimately there was only going to be one winner, not just because the US cavalry had superior firepower but because the Indian way of life was fatally-dependent on the buffalo, whose herds were inevitably going to be disrupted and diminished as US settlement pushed westwards.
Even so, the Indians could pack a punch and on several notable occasions scored important victories against the white man. Their firepower often impressed the cavalry, not least in their ability to fire an arrow straight through a buffalo and out the other side — something a bullet from a Colt .45 could not achieve. Rains of arrows put paid to more than ill thought-out advance. Unlike bullets, the arrows could be pulled out of dead soldiers and reused.
This is a refreshingly fair book which tells the story straight. Cozzens doesn’t hold back on the crimes of hot-headed generals like Armstrong Custer and their unprovoked murderous attacks on Indians — even against those who just wanted to live peacefully on the lands where they had always lived. But neither does it romanticize the Indians as innocents.It describes in great detail their violence – both that towards the white man and toward other Indian tribes. Fighting was inbred in their culture long before the cavalry arrived to dispossess them. They, too, often staged unprovoked attacks of settlers. Not only could they be efficient killers; their treatment of bodies after battle was little short of psychopathic. After Custer and his men had been surrounded and killed at Little Bighorn the warriors withdrew in victory — only for the womenfolk and children to desecrate the bodies in ways which are described graphically and which require a strong stomach to read.
The Earth is Weeping is a tragedy played out under big skies and in fickle weather which could often turn from searing heat to temperatures of minus 40. It is a story punctuated with treaties and broken promises, where the land available to Indians contracted progressively to the reservations which exist today. As someone who has never been out west, it left me enchanted by the vastness of the place — and, from the vantage point of lockdown, pining for the freedom of those who called it home.
Day 73: Escaping New York with Heyerdahl and de Gaulle
Early in the lockdown I thirsted for stories of resistance, so I pulled the World War Two memoirs of Charles de Gaulle from the shelf and dedicated myself to reading the whole thing. Stirring stuff, especially the run up to the general’s dramatic radio appeal to occupied France, on June 18, 1940, for continued war against Germany, and later his recounting of the tenacious defense by outnumbered Free French forces against Rommel’s Afrika Corps at the fortress of Bir-Hakeim. The perfect companion book was Ernest R. May’s revisionist history of the Fall of France, Strange Victory, since it argues that with better luck and intelligence methods, the French military — not at all overmatched in weaponry and manpower — could well have halted the German blitzkrieg during those four awful days in May 1940 and stopped Nazism in its tracks.
Now I just want to escape from virus-occupied New York, so I’m rereading Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s hair-raising account of his 1947 voyage from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood sailing raft. An ethnographer and adventurer, Heyerdahl wanted to demonstrate how Indians from the Americas could have settled the South Seas perhaps a thousand years earlier, although his theory was controversial even then. But while he probably got the history wrong, he inadvertently provided a powerful rebuke of modernist architecture and design that I’ve never forgotten. On the deck of Heyerdahl’s vessel, he had built a ‘shaky bamboo cabin’ situated ‘only a foot and half above the water line’, open to the ocean and the sky, but nevertheless a great comfort to a crew surrounded by raging seas and thousands of miles from land. Why? Because of variety — a variety of building materials and colors as opposed to monotonously flat surfaces and uniform structures:
‘The green and yellow bars, with fringes of foliage hanging down from the roof, were restful to they eye as a white cabin wall never could have been…this primitive lair gave us a greater feeling of security than white painted bulkheads and closed portholes would have given in the same circumstances… There we could lie on our backs and look up at the curious roof which twisted about like boughs in the wind, enjoying the jungle smell of raw wood, bamboo, and withered palm leaves.’
I’m happy to know that Heyerdahl also served with the Free Norwegian forces that fought the German occupiers of his homeland.
Day 72: Ulysses S. Grant, misunderstood president
Every now and again I find myself reading a book that proves to be timely. On this occasion, that book, Grant, is Ron Chernow’s biography of 18th president and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant. Although the book runs to nearly 1,000 pages, Chernow’s organization allows him to dive deeply into each aspect of Grant’s life without covering minutiae that would lose most readers. Many historians have praised Grant the General, but dismissed Grant the President. Chernow shows why that approach is a mistake.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s recent gaffe in which he stated that any black person who votes for Donald Trump isn’t really black should ignite the broader debate about the Republican party’s rich history in improving the lives of African Americans. Of course, President Abraham Lincoln gets enormous credit for the Emancipation Proclamation and committing the North to the cause of ending slavery, but Chernow reminds us how critical Grant’s role was in that story. Specifically, Grant not only backed Lincoln’s position during the Civil War, but also fought aggressively as president to protect African Americans from violence, break the Ku Klux Klan and ultimately do what he could to give African Americans political equality.
Additionally, Grant, like Donald Trump, wasn’t a career politician or committed Republican, so was viewed by the political class as ‘uniquely stupid’. Nonetheless, his most ardent critics had to concede that ‘We do not know why the president is successful, we only know that he succeeds’. Chernow’s treatment of Grant is even-handed, showing both his failures when it came to trusting people and his successes in getting results.
Finally, Grant shared another trait with Trump that ultimately made him successful. As Confederate general Robert E. Lee noted about Grant near the climax of the war, ‘Grant is not retreating; he is not a retreating man.’ Despite failing miserably in his private life, Grant’s ability to win during wars spanned both his service in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. This record largely was due to his refusal to retreat married with his penchant to attack — he clearly believed being on offense won battles and wars. Trump possesses a similar mentality as seen in his constant use of Twitter and his relentless clashes with the mainstream media. While some people are troubled by these tactics, Trump’s ardent supporters love what he does. Like Grant, he fights to win.
I believe Chernow’s book will force historians to reevaluate Grant’s presidency. I hope it also spurs more Americans to pick up this book to learn about one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. I can only imagine what a biography about Trump will look like 150 years after his presidency.
Matt Mayer served in the Department of Homeland Security and now works at Opportunity Ohio.
Day 71: Count your blessings
With a newborn baby to look after, I haven’t found a huge amount of time to read. Instead, I’ve watched two epics — The Sopranos and The Wire — and have convinced myself that I can chalk these up somehow.
The book I would love to re-read in lockdown isn’t exactly a hidden gem — I imagine most people have come across The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas — but I read it one summer in my early twenties, while looking after three Italian children on Lake Como. I had time on my hands, the summer felt long, and the Count kept me company.
It’s a tale about a man who is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes and sets about seeking revenge on those responsible for keeping him cooped up. The perfect companion for a long summer’s lockdown, I’d say.
Lara Prendergast is Food & Drink editor for The Spectator’s US edition.
Day 70: Cicero, Obama and Chrissie Hynde
I’ve been reading John Gribbin’s Schrödinger’s Kittens, just to assure myself that reality does not exist either at a quantum level or indeed inside my own house. The early days of lockdown were spent re-reading Cicero’s speeches which, as a young man, I thought wonderful, but now remind me of Obama at his most duplicitous. Also Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power by the excellent Humphrey Hawksley, to prepare myself for the next Armageddon, and Robert Harris’s brilliant new novel The Second Sleep, which is dark and cunning.
The most odd, perhaps remarkable, has been a book which I suspect is self-published: Disappearing by a man called Chris Heal, who may not be actually called Chris Heal. It is erudite, confused, deranged in parts, entertaining and thoughtful. It tells the story of an Englishman who wishes to remove himself from the modern world and involves himself, along the way, in various wars in Africa. It purports to be a true story, but I have my doubts because the protagonist boasts of murdering Jean-Claude Juncker. A man who is, to the best of my knowledge, still alive. Between Gribbin and Heal the current crisis seems ephemeral. Oh, I also read Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography. Boy, did that Akron babe do drugs.
Rod Liddle is a Spectator columnist.
Day 69: Cocktails in Brooklyn
In May 2020, I was supposed to be visiting New Orleans for the second time. The first had been last December, and my traveling companion (my younger brother) and I were unable to do quite as much as we’d wanted to. We only had a long weekend in the first place, the weather was notably bad, and we needed pretty much a full 48-hours and a lot of Excedrin to adjust to the novelty of a city where you can order a cocktail at a bar and just wander around with it on the street. So I’d been looking forward to this second visit.
Now, given how 2020 has chosen to unfold, the trip to New Orleans was called off and in a twist of irony, cocktails-to-go are now commonplace on my home turf of Brooklyn. The place down the block is even selling frosé. But I have chosen to add Lawrence N. Powell’s The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans to my pandemic reading list. As this book meanders like a lazy river through the Crescent City’s early epochs, these days the reader may find it both shocking and soothing how many norms and seemingly permanent institutions just sort of happened without much planning or foresight. And yet here it is, and here we are. On the bright side, at least things aren’t boring.
Caroline McCarthy is a contributing editor to The Spectator’s US edition.
Day 68: Alaskan Jews
Not every day does the biography of a Confederate general cracks the top 10 of the New York Times’s bestseller list. But Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne managed that feat, and for good reason.
In Rebel Yell, Gwynne charts the life of Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and the battles that made him one of the most famed and feared field commanders in American history. Within its pages, Jackson appears as a complete person — demonstrating greatness and great faults — who was as much a devoted husband and devout Christian as he was a ruthless and unyielding warrior.
The narrative pursues the young Jackson from his orphaned childhood in Appalachian Virginia to the halls of Montezuma at Chapultepec, where he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War. Amid the Civil War, the stoic Jackson stands ‘like a stonewall’ at First Manassas in 1861, raises hell in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, and dies from pneumonia after being accidentally shot by Confederate skirmishers at Chancellorsville in 1863.
Through Jackson’s travails, Gwynne also tells the wider story of the first half of the American Civil War. He treats all of its dramatis personae — the admirably-conservative but grandstanding Union General George McClellan, for instance — with balance and consideration similar to that he affords Jackson.
Alternate history books about World War Two, like The Man in the High Castle or The Plot Against America, mostly ask the big questions. What if the Axis won? What if America went Nazi? In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), Michael Chabon expounds on a more specific question: what if the Roosevelt administration, instead of sending Jewish refugees back to the Nazis, sent them to Sitka, Alaska?
As implausible as that may sound, a Jewish state in Alaska almost happened. The Slattery Report recommended that option, but the administration rejected it. In this timeline, the man most responsible for its rejection died in a car crash. So arises a massive Ashkenazi metropolis, replete with Yiddish street names, Hasidic mafiosi, and the most (surprisingly) mouth-watering descriptions of Jewish food to be found in print. To his invented world, Chabon brings an ethnographer’s eye for details — such as the cultural integration of Sitka’s Filipino minority — as well as a geographer’s eye for scenery, with lush, atmospheric depictions of the snow-swept Pacific Northwest.
Readers enter this curious world just as it is coming to an end. The 60-year-lease of Sitka is expiring, and the evangelical government of the US plans to resettle its inhabitants to a war-torn state of Israel. The murder of a would-be messiah leads an unassuming alcoholic detective — the novel’s pulpy protagonist — to uncover an elaborate government conspiracy. ‘Strange times to be a Jew,’ is the characters’ oft-repeated aphorism. Strange times, indeed.
Day 67: Godless in Belfast
Forrest Reid, one of the great prose stylists of the early 20th century, deserves to be far better known. Even in his home city of Belfast he is considered obscure. His first autobiography, Apostate (1926,) is the best of its kind, a passionate account of his first 16 years, the time which, for Reid, were the most important in any life. So horrified was he by the prospect of becoming an adult that he took an overdose of laudanum before his 17th birthday. ‘I wanted to be a boy always,’ he writes. ‘I would have given gladly the remainder of my existence to have had the past five years over again’. He was violently ill, but soon recovered.
Reid was an animist; he believed that the Belfast landscape was alive with spirits. His paganism was instinctive, a remarkable quality for a boy brought up in the Church of Ireland tradition. As a small child, marshaled into his Sunday best and then into church pews, he would scream and throw his hymnal to the floor. ‘I hated Sunday,’ he writes in Apostate. ‘I hated church, I hated Sunday School, I hated Bible stories, I hated everybody mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments, except perhaps the impenitent thief, Eve’s snake, and a few similar characters’.
Apostate is not only beautifully written, but offers a fascinating recreation of pre-industrial Belfast. Seen through the perspective of this unique boy, the city takes on an almost ethereal quality. Reid was a visionary in the Romantic tradition of Blake and Wordsworth. In the early chapters of Apostate he tells us of a ‘tall smiling figure with long, pointed, yellow teeth’ who would tower over him in bed. ‘If I had the requisite skill I could draw that face now,’ he writes, ‘as I still half-believe I could have photographed it then’.
I have yet to read an autobiographical account of childhood as powerful and engaging as Apostate; it supersedes even Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), another favorite of mine. Although much of Reid’s work is out of print, Faber issued a paperback version of Apostate in 2011. Alternatively, if you can get hold of Faber’s 1947 edition it’s well worth the investment, as it is illustrated with some brilliantly evocative wood engravings by Reynolds Stone.
Day 66: Just like old times
During a time when it’s impossible to travel, and often difficult even to get outside, I’ve enjoyed the writings of English author Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is a Cambridge professor, but not the sort you find in an ivory tower. He’s far more likely to be walking an ancient path or sliding through a tight spot in an underground cavern. I recently completed his book The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, in which Macfarlane describes his long walks and rediscovery of often ancient pathways. He reconnects to an earlier time and opens up often lost ways of thinking.
I’ve now taken up his most recent book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Rather than walking old paths, Macfarlane takes a plunge into caverns that are thousands, or millions, of years old. There he still finds the legacy of man, our ancestors who left us messages from tens of thousands of years ago. If you feel stuck at home, Macfarlane’s writings will let you do some thoughtful traveling at home.
Alan Cornett is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky.
Day 65: Thunder at twilight
It’s hard not to feel that the corona-crisis is much bigger, if possible, than its direct effects; that it embodies somehow a fundamental break with the world of the past half-century, at least, and all its presumptions, especially about globalization. That should probably mitigate towards some light reading, Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse, but the issues seem too important to try and divert one’s attention from.
The sociopolitical balance in Western democracies already seemed so threatened, even before coronavirus, that it seems necessary to plumb how our fractured view of the world came about. I’m trudging through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, 35 years after failing to understand any of it as a college freshman. His limning of our modern emotivist worldview, a product of the failure of the Enlightenment to replace traditional Aristotelian ethics, is the best explanation I’ve come across for why we can agree on nothing and why all we can do is yell at each other. Read it with David Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic, which a half-century ago perfectly, indeed eerily, predicted the intellectual and emotional breakdown that defines our world.
If MacIntyre and Rieff’s philosophy and sociology is correct, then we’re in the middle of a fundamental historical change. Jacob Burkhardt’s The Age of Constantine the Great beautifully, if datedly, lays out the epochal transition from the pagan classical world to the later Christian Roman empire and an entirely new worldview. The exhaustion of Western liberalism, the ‘decadence’ identified two decades ago by the late Jacques Barzun and more recently by Ross Douthat, similarly afflicted the Roman Empire before the transformation in Constantine’s generation. With no new integrative belief system on the horizon, our breakdown seems more to point to a new Dark Age than a renascence.
COVID itself seems to be a new dark age, where monsters lurk and we all pray for a magic solution to keep the dangers at bay. For many, our horizons have shrunk to our houses, blocks, and neighborhoods, while the larger world suddenly feels far away and mysterious. But venture into it we must, at some point, regardless of the threats. I always regretted never feeling much moved to read The Lord of the Rings, but I now feel compelled, and have grabbed my one-volume edition to eagerly follow, if not empathize with, Frodo and his fellowship as they leave the Shire and journey to Mordor. But whenever it ends, I think I’m going to need some Wodehouse.
Michael Auslin is the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics.
Day 64: Amis is a hit
Surprising they haven’t canceled Martin Amis yet. Throw Money: A Suicide Note in the air and let it fall open where it will. There’ll be more than enough there for the social justice mouth-breathers and culture psychopaths to go at — more than enough to deem, what’s the word? problematic. It’s all ‘faggot’ this and ‘bumboy’ that. Violence visited upon women: early on the narrator lets us know he is ‘a hitter’, and a memorably busy paragraph on page 291 begins, ‘Then I tried to rape her again.’ There’s no shortage, too, of racial epithets that back in the early Eighties, when the book was written, might not have seemed so shocking, but that today cannot fail to make the modern reader wince.
Why hasn’t one of the more lurid female television news anchors — the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, say — had the opportunity yet to give the septuagenarian author the treatment, live on air? ‘You say Money is intended to be a comedy, but can you explain what’s funny, to pluck a sentence at random, about: “thus midday discovered me with a second scotch in my hand, a Pakki nightie round my waist, and a half naked sex stewardess straddling my thighs”?’
Amis, you’d imagine, might try to weasel out with the usual excuses — the novel’s narrator is not meant to be sympathetic, he’s meant to be grotesque. But that wouldn’t wash. No, sir. Because the problem is the novel’s narrator is grotesque, but he’s also incredibly sympathetic. He gets more so by the page. Send for the cancel firing-squad goons!
I picked up Money in a moment of lockdown despair, because it’s blindingly funny. I think this is the fourth time I’ve read it. It’s about a man, John Self, who is trying to get a movie made. He jets between the mirror-worlds of New York and London, and behaves appallingly in both. The joke, and it’s a good one, is no matter what he does, he keeps getting richer. And he keeps being indulged. The writing is beyond the reach of virtually every other modern writer. It’s dizzying, virtuoso stuff — 450 pages comprising only sentences that can’t be improved, every word picked with the poet’s precision. The high voltage energy is maintained throughout — there’s no lag, no attempted triple backflip that doesn’t land perfectly.
Amis, thanks to Money but also to London Fields, both masterpieces, is the only British writer able to enter, let alone stand a round, in a bar containing Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Richard Ford. He is easily the greatest living British writer and should therefore be celebrated keenly, at every opportunity.
Which is why they’ll cancel him. If they can’t do it while he’s alive – and they probably can – they’ll definitely do it when he’s dead.
Day 63: Days of her life
Lockdown has been kind to me. I live in a big house with a lovely wife, two bouncy dogs and a super garden that’s just reached its springtime best. I’m compensating for these blessings by reading a book about a famous American ascetic: Dorothy Day by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. In early life Day (1897-1980) was a Greenwich Village radical, writing for the Masses, having an affair with Eugene O’Neill and getting herself arrested outside the White House during a women’s suffrage rally, then going on hunger strike in prison.
In the mid-1920s, however, she astonished her friends by converting to Catholicism and founding a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, that preached an uncompromising blend of absolute pacifism and radical poverty. For the rest of her life she opened her doors to society’s outcasts, asking nothing of them and giving everything in return. She proved, perhaps inadvertently, that to live a genuinely Christian life makes shattering demands that no ordinary mortal can manage. The FBI collected a bulky file on her anti-war activism while belligerent bishops denounced her. Still, they knew that, in the long run, she was a much likelier candidate for sanctification than they were!
Patrick Allitt is a professor of American history at Emory University.
Day 62: The right stuff
Spectator readers might enjoy American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, just published by the Library of America. Don’t be deterred by the fact that I am the editor of this anthology, which collects works by American conservatives or by writers working in the conservative vein. The collection begins with Henry Adams and finishes up with the likes of Antonin Scalia, Patrick Deneen and Wendell Berry. It even includes Zora Neale Hurston and Joan Didion. Trust me: plenty of food for thought here, which is what the country needs just now.
Andrew Bacevich is co-founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Day 61: Trigger warnings and tricky words
Before mask-wearing and the ecstatic shunning of outdoor mask refuseniks, the safetyism ideology that is currently destroying millions of livelihoods in the name of public health had already taken root. Witness the pre-corona sidewalks of Manhattan. A young child, maybe 40 inches tall, would be slowly wheeled along on a tiny tricycle scooter by his father, the father’s hand resting protectively on the boy’s shoulders. This three-wheeled toy is eminently stable, yet the boy would invariably be wearing a massive helmet, lest somehow he keel over and hit the ground. Given the boy’s lack of both height and momentum, such an unlikely fall would not even produce a bruise, yet every possible precaution had been taken to protect him from calamity.
An antidote to these bubble-wrapped childhoods lies in H.L. Mencken’s luminous memoire of growing up in 1880s Baltimore, Happy Days. It was a time when boys were still allowed to raise hell, explore city alleys and bramble-filled ravines, defend territory, and torment girls — all untethered from officious adults. Mencken’s treatment of boyhood is in the great ironic tradition of Booth Tarkington (Penrod) and Mark Twain. Fittingly, his life-long obsession with books started with the discovery of Huckleberry Finn at age nine: ‘probably the most stupendous event of my whole life’, he writes. ‘If I undertook to tell you the effect it had upon me, my talk would sound frantic, and even delirious…I had not gone further than the first incomparable chapter before I realized, child though I was, that I had entered a domain of new and gorgeous wonders.’
Mencken captures the vibrancy of the post-bellum American city, with its abundance and squalors. Chesapeake Bay provided oysters and prime hard crabs, ‘blue in color, and with snow white meat almost as firm as soap’. Summer in the country brought stewed blackberries, served warm over just baked bread. ‘To this day I can taste it at the moments when an aging man’s memory searches through his lost youth for bursts of completely felicity.
Bugs were everywhere: mosquitoes, chiggers, bumble bees, and huge beetles that blackened ceilings in the summer. Mencken and his brother Charlie were always ravenous but were only allowed to gorge themselves without restraint on Christmas, provoking the inevitable visit from the doctor. Odd taboos governed what children could safely eat: No uncooked fruit, for example. How lucky we are to live in times when people are more sensible about risk!
Mencken’s father, a traveling cigar salesman, is a powerful presence, his mother invisible. The father took his son with him to visit customers in the cool, shady saloons of Washington DC, a city notable at the time for its modern asphalt streets. The father’s Christmas gifts introduced Mencken to technology and the trades — the most fateful being a toy printing press. Less successful were a microscope (revealing a ‘revolting mass of worms’ in a drop of vinegar), an electric battery, and a box of carpenter’s tools.
What would Mencken make of today’s social distancing enforcers? He and his fellow gang members certainly did not think well of the police: ‘A cop was a congenitally iniquitous character, an enemy to society, a master of all the slimy devices of espionage and betrayal. He was against all the manly sports of boys of normal mind and high metabolism. If they started a ballgame in the street, he would take his stand behind a tree a block away, watching for some violation of his arbitrary and incomprehensible regulations, and spoiling all the fun.’ That today’s officious rule comes not from the authorities but from private citizens would not surprise Mencken. The more books he read, he wrote, the more he acquired a ‘despondent view of humanity’.
Trigger warning: Mencken’s sympathetic but honest description of Baltimore’s blacks, who were suffering under all the enforced ignorance that slavery and segregation could impose, would not get past current school and publishing house censors.
Another memoir is a rebuke to contemporary college students, whose fantastical illusions of identity-based threat and demands for bureaucratic protection from that threat set the stage for the virus panic. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Boston ancestors played a central role in the nation’s founding, took a ‘gap year’ from Harvard in 1834 unlike any of the credentializing internships with progressive institutions favored by today’s elite student.
Dana signed up as a sailor on a Boston trading ship, believing that non-bookish work would save his failing eyesight. The ship headed around the tip of South America to California, then a Mexican province, to purchase cowhides for leather manufacturers on the East Coast. Dana’s diary, which became Two Years Before the Mast, recorded without a trace of self-pity the incomprehensibly grueling work of a sailor, unfathomable today even if one is not a member of the knowledge class. The captain abused the crew with floggings, a reminder of the dangers of unchecked power that most moderns have put out of mind with their treacly view of human nature. Scarcity and deprivation were an unremarkable fact of life; the reader joys along with the crew at a windfall of precious fresh onions, vital for curing a fellow shipmate’s potentially lethal scurvy.
Dana’s descriptions of the terrors and sublime beauties of the sea are gripping, but the highpoint of Two Years Before the Mast is his ethnography of the different cultures bumping up against each other at the primitive ports of San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay. The aristocratic sloth and peacock preening of the Mexican male aristocracy augur their demise; the enterprising Germans and crafty Russians vie with the Americans for commercial advantage, while the sleek native Indians share their navigational skills with the Anglo-European traders. Here was real ‘diversity’, without double standards or victimhood, that would likely send a contemporary Harvard student running for the shelter of his ideologically monolithic Gender Studies class. Dana foresaw how American entrepreneurship would transform the stark California coast and unleash untold wealth, which he confirmed upon a repeat visit to San Francisco in 1859.
Dana returned to Harvard in 1836 ‘in a state of intellectual famine, to books and study and intercourse with educated men’, and graduated with highest honors. He brought out Two Years Before the Mast in 1840 for the measly sum of $250 and no royalties; as the first account of pre-Gold Rush California and a literary masterwork in its own right, the chronicle became a success on both sides of the Atlantic. In his subsequent law practice, Dana defended fugitive slaves and agitated against sailors’ traditional state of indentured servitude.
Vocabulary warning: The book’s nautical terminology is hard-going for the uninitiated. Sail through it.
The daring, joy, and manliness memorialized in these great narratives recall a world that grows more remote with every injunction to ‘stay safe’.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor at City Journal and a frequent Spectator contributor. Her latest book is The Diversity Delusion.
Day 60: Avoid Graham Greene
Shut-ins during a pandemic are expected to dig out the big books they’ve always meant to read. Horsefeathers!
What people want, when they read the daily death tables, are distractions, not Milton. For those who’ve been binge-watching the Bosch series on Amazon, therefore, let me suggest the 22 novels on which it’s based, by Michael Connelly. Start with the beginning. Apart from being the closest thing to Raymond Chandler, it’s also an insider’s guide to the neighborhoods and restaurants of LA. Venice. Angel Flight. Musso and Frank. Du-Par. If you can’t visit them, the next best thing is to read about them.
One negative suggestion. Not a good time for Greeneland or novels set in leper colonies.
F.H. Buckley’s latest book is American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter).
Day 59: A genius for inaccuracy
Father and Son by Edmund Gosse is a beautiful childhood memoir of the ambivalent relationship between the author and his suffocatingly religious but very affectionate widowed father, P.H. Gosse, who was also one the great naturalists of the Victorian era. Gosse senior was an accomplished artist whose illustrations in his books were paeans to the glory of God; but as a member of the strict Plymouth Brethren sect, he did not allow his son much boyish pleasure, albeit that he inducted him into the glories of the natural world. Gosse junior became the most famous literary critic of his time, though Henry James said of him that he had a genius for inaccuracy. All the same, his memoir is a moving account of how he escaped from a confinement that was both very limiting and a rich source of experience and reflection.
Anthony Daniels is a contributing editor to City Journal.
Day 58: Locked down with Mrs Thatcher
A charming new book that delves deep into both genes and fossils, while also telling stories about intriguing people, is Some Assembly Required by Neil Shubin. It’s science writing at its best, unraveling deep mysteries about evolution and finding very surprising results: our memories may depend on ancient viruses, for example. Also on science, a spy thriller of great suspense is Trinity by Frank Close, about Klaus Fuchs, who stole the secrets of the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union, while MI5 and the FBI missed several chances to catch him. A great novel, only it happens to be non-fiction. But for lockdown length, there is nothing better than Charles Moore’s third volume of Margaret Thatcher, the culmination of an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary career. And from May 19 you can buy my new book How Innovation Works: and Why it Flourishes in Freedom.
Matt Ridley is the author of How Innovation Works and a frequent contributor to The Spectator.
Day 57: Cromwell’s road
Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of finest historians in the English-speaking world and preeminent in the area of the English Reformation. He has combined his expertise in 16th-century history with a compelling literary style in his latest book, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life. It’s the definitive work on Henry VIII’s great minister and an extraordinary insight into the politics and religion of the age, and of any age for that matter. Thomas Cromwell’s somewhat dark reputation was given a new and bright shine by Hilary Mantel in the Wolf Hall trilogy and this life takes us from the fictional into the authentic; its triumph is that it is just as thrilling and equally stimulating and challenging. A profoundly important book.
Day 56: The survivor’s tale
Rachel Moran’s Paid For is a powerful memoir based on her experiences of prostitution from the age of 15 on the streets of Dublin. Moran’s book inspired sex-trade survivor-led movements including SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment) International, and became a useful weapon in the global fight against the normalization of commercial sexual exploitation. Moran, abused into prostitution as a homeless 15-year-old found the strength to escape after seven years, signed up for a journalism degree, and then took a decade to write a book that would educate the general public against so-called ‘sex work’.
If you are looking for something uplifting to read during lockdown and this title puts you off, don’t let it. It is the most courageous, optimistic and beautiful book you will read on such a harrowing topic. In exposing the truth about the sex trade, this book will save lives.
Day 55: Mysteries of the lockdown life
The optimistic take on lockdown reading is that it’s the chance to read big, demanding books. This may be possible if you’re in solitary confinement but if you’re living with others, your best bet is a series of short books.
The obvious choice is Albert Camus’s The Plague. Right now it raises all sorts of questions: were the restaurants of the town of Oran really serving customers to the end of lockdown, with just rice running low? It was a very sociable crisis. Though they didn’t have streaming, poor things.
Penguin has issued all 75 of the Inspector Maigret books by Georges Simenon; if you’re an addict, a pile of them to read one after another would be bliss.
Thrillers in general are good lockdown material. I’ve had an Eric Ambler phase. There’s something about the claustrophobic atmosphere, the helplessness of the decent ordinary man inexorably caught up in bizarre circumstances which make these stories grip even if I can’t follow the plot. They’re a classy read. Try the best known, The Mask of Dimitrios, which starts in Istanbul and ends in Paris.
Graham Greene’s 1932 novel Stamboul Train has that excellent quality of the train thriller, viz, a contained setting: characters can’t get away between stations. Like all the best of them, the destination is Istanbul. It’s wonderfully expressive of the tense atmosphere of the time. Modern readers will wince at the merciless depiction of anti-Semitism, but it’s not Greene’s attitude here; it’s society’s.
For history, Eamon Duffy has written a terrific short book on John Henry Newman, especially good on his take on the psychology of religion.
For American history, go search for a copy of The Aspirin Age, brilliant essays on wonderfully various aspects of the period 1919-41 by well-known writers, edited by Isabel Leighton. The one on the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Coughlan’s ‘Konklave in Kokomo’, is very funny. Bring it back into print, someone.
Day 54: Death by ennui
It’s almost arrogant to try and recommend a book by Michel Houellebecq. The man is quite literally a genius, and the generally understood Houellebecqian premise of a western world in terminal and irreversible decline is hard to argue with: so what can be gained by punishing ourselves further and reading him again now?
His latest novel — Serotonin — was reviewed by Douglas Murray for this magazine in the context of the gilets jaunes movement. Now we find ourselves in quarantine, I am again struck by Houellebecq’s knack for writing novels that beautifully express something the reader already knows but cannot clearly articulate to themselves. In the case of Serotonin it is this: the trend towards governance of citizens by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats and experts is a sickness that will cause our social fabric to rot and decay faster than nearly anything else.
Serotonin depicts an armed farmers’ revolt of sorts, the uprising of French milk producers who have had their businesses and economic prospects crushed for the sake of EU price controls.
We find ourselves now in a comparable situation — different states and jurisdictions have enforced wildly different lockdown regimes, nearly all of which impart arbitrary economic cruelty on those subjected to them with the thinnest of epidemiological justification. How many lives will be crushed by the response to COVID-19? Do any of the nominal experts making these decisions truly care?
Cameron Hendy is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.
Day 53: The bookworm’s turn
The lockdown has turned me into a bookworm. My friend Michael Mailer, son of Norman, has just finished directing The Boys in the Boat, a film of the wonderful book by Daniel James Brown about the nine American working-class boys rowing for the University of Washington who somehow qualified for the Olympics, beating out powerhouses like Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Better yet, the sons of loggers and farmers then stunned the world by beating out the heavy favorites of Germany and Italy. The emotional heart of the story lies with one of the crew plagued by personal demons and crushing poverty. Reading this book should be a wake up call for Americans to stand up and recover from the Chinese-made and delivered virus.
Andrew Jackson is not so popular these days with virus-averse (she’s too horrible even for the virus to approach) Ocasio-Cortez, but I love and admire him and think he’s probably the greatest of our presidents. Robert Remini’s The Battle of New Orleans turned American history around. It is a gem of a book, short and to the point, and Jackson won a battle against great odds that defined the nation ever since.
Taki has written The Spectator’s High life column since 1977.
Day 52: Galaxy of the Guardianistas
I’ve been mulching about in Tessa Hadley novels since the lockdown bit. Her most recent book, Late in the Day, is a languid tale about two interlocking couples in north London who have to adjust after a bereavement.
I tend to read most before I go to bed and it’s a wrench to put Hadley down when I finally accept I must sleep. There’s a dreaminess to Hadley’s prose that makes me want to read on and on. Her characters are, in the main, middle-class Guardianistas with mortgages and ailing parents, and they meander through their plots with a certain innocence, hurting one another negligently and letting their children down. Dramatic things do happen in Hadley’s books but they are tamped down by the fineness of her writing, which always stops proceedings from becoming lurid.
Leaf Arbuthnot’s debut novel, Looking for Eliza, is out on May 14.
Day 51: Ears wide open
During the shutdown, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks. They’re fantastic for having on while I get on with other things, or on sunny days simply lying in the garden, eyes closed. The thing with audiobooks is it’s not just the text: the narrator makes or breaks the experience. There are many probably good books I’ve had to give up on because the narrator’s voice was too annoying.
But when I have found good narrators, I end up following them to other books I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The wonderful Gareth Armstrong I first encountered when he narrated John Hooper’s The Italians. I’m now working my way through his narrations of Georges Simenon’s back catalogue: the Inspector Maigret books are great for a lazy afternoon.
Katrina Gulliver is a historian and a frequent book reviewer for The Spectator.
Day 50: Profits of doom
Perhaps the government would like a consulting contract with my book club? Way back in February, we presciently chose the pandemic novel Severance by Ling Ma as our April read, long before Cuomo blew his proverbial bugle. I’m not going to say we knew what was coming, but rest assured we aren’t reading The Road next month.
Severance follows Candace, a wry, detached young woman who has meandered through her mid-twenties in mid-aughts New York City, sort of doing a career, sort of having a relationship, sort of making art. By the time we meet her, though, she’s one of nine known survivors of a virus that came to New York on a cargo ship from China. Improbably, I loved it.
Trigger warnings for certain scenes, if you witnessed the onset of COVID in a metropolis: the HR department that passes out masks, hand sanitizer and friendly hygiene tips just weeks before civilization’s collapse; the gradual departure of Candace’s colleagues from their office, then the city; her walks through the abandoned streets, taking pictures of defunct subway stations, zombie coffee carts and closed storefronts. I, too, enjoy long, wistful walks in the city, pondering disasters both personal and cosmic, and I really vibed with Candace’s canny observations of the crisis, as well as her clear-eyed reflections on the world that existed Before.
Severance was marketed as a satire when it was published in 2018. Whether it reads that way now, rather than as thriller or allegory or prophecy, probably depends on your experience of corona. Regardless, we can take comfort that Severance did not predict at least some particulars of our own crisis: the COVID mortality rate is thankfully not 100 percent, like the fictional virus; and I hear you can still get take-out coffee in New York.
Day 49: Happy families
E.B. White’s 1949 essay ‘Here is New York’ discusses a different New York to the one I’ve gotten to know in the past four years. Different restaurants, bars, neighborhoods, etc. But like his prose, the city White paints is also timeless. I left Manhattan over a month ago in the knowledge that it may well be quite different when I return. Is it too soon for nostalgia?
I’m now in leafy Virginia, staying with my friend’s family/sister’s future in-laws. They have an enviable library, a wide collection of Easton Press classics, gorgeous leather-bound books almost too nice to touch. I’m more than halfway through Anna Karenina and agree wholeheartedly with whoever it was that said the opening epigram is the wrong way around. I’ve also been dipping into Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a tremendous grab bag of the 20th century. The 1990s, I reckon, must have been a great decade in which to live as an adult: ‘the end of history’, and all that. Eager to learn more about history, but unwilling to put the time in, my mum has sent over some of Jonathan Sumption’s Reith Lectures. So far, they have not disappointed.
For a more spiritual perspective, I’ve been reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43. Etty (we’re on first-name terms since I’ve intruded on her most intimate thoughts) was a young Dutch Jewish woman, who, age 27, was sent to a Nazi death camp. My friend Olivia, who is 21 years old and living with Stage Four cancer (alone, since she’s highly vulnerable to coronavirus), has been enjoying them too. Over Zoom, we’ve been discussing Etty’s inspirational hope: her interior freedom. ‘Our greatest injury is the one we inflict on ourselves,’ Etty wrote (a sentiment which might have saved Anna Karenina). ‘I find life beautiful and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head. I believe in God and I believe in man, and I say so without embarrassment.’
Madeleine Kearns is the William F. Buckley Jr Fellow at National Review.
Day 48: Master of disaster
As a philistine with little time to read things unrelated to work even during lockdown, I have been exploring the great books of the Western canon. That is, books ostensibly written by Donald Trump. Like binge-watching episodes of The Apprentice, they do give insight into the president’s rhetoric and decision-making. (One thing I noticed about TV Trump — he appeared to be carefully considering the advice of his fellow judges, including his children, and when asking them questions seldom said anything that tipped his hand as to which way he was leaning, but made decisions too fast to have actually incorporated their feedback). A particularly good one is Think Big: Make It Happen in Business Life.
Yes, these books are all ghostwritten. But the best ghostwriters capture the nominal author’s voice and many actually write the books based on interviews with them. Think Big does that compellingly, as Trump recounts when he powered through financial calamity through little more than the power of wishful thinking. Sound familiar during the crusade against the coronavirus?
I hope to get to Andy Bacevich’s The Age of Illusions soon enough.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.
Day 47: What can Churchill teach us about China?
Engaged on writing the biography of David Stirling, the founder of the Special Air Service, I’ve been re-reading Winston Churchill’s history of World War Two. Churchill’s son, Randolph, served temporarily with the SAS in 1942, and the British Prime Minister was a fierce supporter of irregular warfare.
But the first volume of Churchill’s magisterial work has left me uplifted and alarmed. Uplifted because I’m reminded of his lone courage and perspicacity in warning that Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany would end badly, and alarmed because it appears that the country is in danger of committing the same grave mistake with another totalitarian regime. ‘Hitler’s aggressive policy and treaty-breaking had rested, not upon Germany’s strength, but upon the disunion and timidity of France and Britain and the isolation of the United States,’ wrote Churchill. ‘His opponents were too irresolute to call his bluff.’
Substitute ‘Hitler’ and ‘Germany’ for ‘Xi Jinping’ and ‘China’ and that sentence rings true today. Britain, in particular, has been so naive in its appeasement of the Chinese Communist party in recent years that we are on the brink of allowing Huawei a role in our 5G mobile phone networks.
German troops marched into Austria on March 12, 1938, and as Churchill recounts, he warned Parliament two days later: ‘Europe is confronted with a programme of aggression, nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage… If we go on waiting upon events, how much shall we throw away of resources now available for our security and the maintenance of peace? How many friends will be alienated, how many potential allies shall we see go one by one down the grisly gulf?’
This week in the South China Sea the Chinese navy has been aggressively pursuing its claims, seeking to exploit the chaos in the West caused by coronavirus with a calculated display of force. As Hitler did in the 1930s, Xi Jinping understands that Europe and America is weak and divided.
Firm and honest leadership is urgently required and whatever the faults of Donald Trump he has from the outset identified China as the West’s biggest threat. Boris Johnson, the man who claims Churchill as his hero, seems as blinded to Chinese ambition as his predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron.
Johnson needs to dip into his hero’s history of World War Two to better understand the mind of dictators or else he could go down in history as not a Churchill, but a Chamberlain.
Day 46: Wyndham’s world
It’s a crime that John Wyndham isn’t a household name. Nonetheless, he casts an extraordinary shadow over modern culture. Every catastrophe movie owes him a debt. You can see and hear him in much of Spielberg’s work. And he was a huge influence on arguably the most zeitgeisty author of our era: Margaret Atwood. We might not use the word Wyndhamian, but we live in Wyndhamian times.
The COVID crisis — by which I don’t just mean the virus itself but also our societies’ deranged, authoritarian response to it — drew me back to Wyndham’s best-known work, The Day of the Triffids. Hopefully Americans won’t have the same response to that book’s name as many Brits do: it makes us think of the rather camp, naff mini-series the BBC made of it the 1980s.
It’s a uniquely haunting novel. What strikes many people when they first read it is that the infamous walking, carnivorous plants of the title don’t feature all that much. It’s mostly about survival in a world rendered apocalyptic by a weird meteor shower that makes most of humanity go blind. Walking around deserted London now, in which many have had their senses of smell and taste, though mercifully not their sight, obliterated by an unwanted visitor, I think often of the book’s opening line: ‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’ Every day sounds like Sunday now.
For uplift, delve into G.K. Chesterton’s 1914 novel The Flying Inn. It tells of a future England in which the ruling elite has given into Islam — controversial! — and outlawed all pubs. So two blokes ramble round the country in a cart selling rum to a booze-desperate populace. Anyone up for doing something similar in our currently pub-less countries? Or treat yourself to the greatest autobiography ever written: Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge. ‘One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him’, Serge wrote. Words to live by in the lockdown, and after it.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Day 45: Writer to the point
For a journalist, there are few better omens than when your boss gives you a book to teach you how to write good.
That’s what my editor Freddy Gray did in February, lending me his copy of Write to the Point by our colleague Sam Leith. Finding myself pinned in my Brooklyn apartment for weeks on end gave me the excuse I needed to start it — and I’m so glad I did.
Sam Leith speaks my language. I don’t just mean this in the sense that the conversational British English he writes in makes his writing guide very accessible; his chosen example to demonstrate the future perfect tense is ‘By closing time, I will have drunk about a gallon of Strongbow and will very much need a wee.’ This is exactly how I would be spending my time if bars were still open.
The tips in this book are a must-read for any developing writer. He perfectly captures why use of the impersonal pronoun ‘one’ sits so uncomfortably: it sounds ‘rather affectedly aristocratic’. He also describes how pomposity ‘tells your audience that you have an unduly high opinion of yourself (though a more confident audience might diagnose the opposite: that you’re writing pompously because you’re nervous)’.
And ‘making your audience laugh is a way of hot-wiring their goodwill’ is a line I’ve adopted as an unofficial mantra. I’m considering making it my first tattoo, even if I have to drive to Georgia to get it.
Matt McDonald is the managing editor of Spectator USA.
Day 44: Flashman revisited
This is not a good time for reading. In my Oxford suburb I can clearly hear, in the small hours, the dismal groaning and threshing sounds of the British economy suffering an officially-imposed heart attack. It keeps me from Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, which I want to read but which is so unbearably grim that it is the last thing I need just now.
I have instead fended off the night with re-reading. George Macdonald Fraser’s original Flashman books — Flashman itself, Royal Flash and Flashman at the Charge, are all based on the brilliant conceit that the fictional bully of Tom Brown’s School Days was in fact a real person, a cruel, immoral, lecherous poltroon with the Devil’s own luck, caught up in all the best historical melodramas of the 19th century. The early books remain works of genius, funny, sparely written, bitter, merciless, fast-moving and always intelligent. Those who have not read them should do so. Those who have should read them again. The world recedes as you turn the pages.
I have also re-read, in the original unaltered 1945 version, Brideshead Revisited. While looking out for differences from the later revised text (they are few but important) I read the book more thoroughly than ever before. I must have read it 20 times, but Evelyn Waugh’s writing is so intricate and unwasteful that there is always more to find. There are some passages which, however many times I read them, almost cause me to cry out, especially the repeated blow on the bruise , and the moment when the incessant shouting voices cease. The only book I have come to afresh in this odd time is from Ann Patchett’s neglected backlist, a small jewel called Taft which really ought to be easier to find. Find it anyway.
Day 43: Roman across the shelves
It’s hard to concentrate these days. Two screaming toddlers at home, a wife screaming wife-things, and my genuine concern about our economic future has combined into a large mental roadblock on any path toward finishing a book.
What this looks like practically is that I pick up one text only to discard it after a day or an hour or a few minutes. I tried comedy, but found Wodehouse too light for my mood. I thought Nietzsche’s Untimely Mediations might be a nice project, but had to stop after two weeks. (Who serious really gives a damn about Nietzsche at a time like this?) It occurred that self-harm might offer some release, so I dusted off some Jane Austen. I just kept it at dusting, though. I was never really going to re-open her work. V.S. Naipaul’s short stories were presented to me by a friend. I’ll give him a go one day, but not now. Magazines — except for The Spectator and the Claremont Review of Books, of course — don’t do it for me for longer than a few articles a sitting.
So happy day indeed when I found my old Dryden edition of Plutarch’s Lives. I started out of order, and since I was in a weird mood, began with my favorite weirdo, Alcibiades. Plutarch’s manner of writing in the Lives is captivating. Part-gossip, part-history, part-political philosophy, there is something for everyone, and so something for whatever side of my mood takes over.
After Alcibiades I decided to set a challenge and work through the book straight. I spend each evening with another character, forgetting, if only for an hour or so, the distractions of the here and now. I’m now on the life of Poplicola. Hopefully I can keep this up. If not, I’ll just look at the pictures in People.
P.S. If there are any other Plutarch lovers out there, drop me a line.
David Bahr is managing editor of the American Mind.
Day 42: Escape into oligarchy
In these times of great uncertainty, I’m sure many will be reaching for escapist novels or books that transport them out of their current reality. I find it more comforting to lean into the feeling of chaos and read books that paint a picture of societies in decline. The double header of The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America by George Packer and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev fit that bill nicely.
The former, a richly reported history of four decades of American decline, is told through the eyes of a factory worker in Youngstown, an entrepreneur from the Tobacco belt and a young Democratic activist. Packer explores the forces behind the subprime mortgage crisis, the decline of Midwest manufacturing and the influence of money on US politics through beautiful vignettes and stories of how some of America’s most famous names started out.
On the other side of the coin is Pomerantsev’s look at the insidious world of Russian oligarchs and misinformation. Having started his career in Russian reality TV, Pomerantsev describes how reality is constructed and controlled through the nation’s TV screens. Writing that TV is ‘the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism’, his work too focuses on outliers in Putin’s Russia; he rarely mentions the Supreme Leader by name, opting instead to drop a breadcrumb trail that leads the reader to wonder if there’s anything Putin doesn’t control.
But when dark tales of sinister global capital are too bleak, there’s always the warm, comforting embrace of Nora Ephron. The true voice of sardonic Jewish culture, Ephron’s novels and personal essays hold up incredibly well to the test of time. Peppered with recipes that everyone now has time to cook, Ephron’s first novel Heartburn is a biting, deeply witty story about how to go on when the world feels like it’s closing in on you — a warm bath for the soul to soak in.
Josh Kaplan is the social audience manager at Joe.co.uk and a Spectator USA contributor.
Day 41: Lockdown rock
I, Fatty:A Novel by Jerry Stahl is your burn-through biography. Stahl has ‘lived’ a bit, so is the perfect conduit to tell the tragic tale of silent movie auteur Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Narrated in the first person, Fatty wiseguy’s his way through his own life. From a bleak, dust-poor childhood where he got a starring role as his papa’s punchbag: from the carny to silver screen stardom. Fatty’s most famous role was as a junked-out, impotent rapist killer, but that was off-screen. He was found to be not guilty, but by then he was toast. We also learn that Buster Keaton was a major dude and a genius, and that Fatty’s only crime was getting railroaded by the ‘mean’ girls. Johnny Depp loves this book. Don’t let that put you off.
Dead Fashion Girl — A Situationist Detective Story by Fred Vermorel is an epic, scrupulously researched, true-life unsolved murder mystery, concerning the 1954 strangulation of fashion designer Jean Townsend. Fred — an art school pal of Malcolm McLaren and confidante of the Sex Pistols inner circle — spends a lot of time visiting care homes and talking to nearly dead survivors of London’s creepy post-war vice scene. If you like this sort of thing (I do), then this is the book for you. 1950s Soho was a cess pit.
Staying in 1950s London I point you in the direction of Fear And Loathing In Fitzrovia, Paul Willett’s biography of the great Soho writer and roué Julian MacLaren-Ross. MacLaren-Ross follows in the fine tradition of Brits who are seen to have wasted their talent (patron saint, Peter Cook). Of course, ‘wasting’ one’s talent is a supreme talent in itself. Writers! Marvel at MacLaren-Ross’s uncanny ability to squeeze an advance out of any hapless publisher, squander it on a new coat, then vanish. Drinkers! If during this enforced lockdown you are missing your favorite bar or speakeasy, then read this book. You’ll be on the wagon before you are halfway through.
Luke Haines is a singer and songwriter, and The Spectator’s rock critic.
Day 40: Churchill revisited
On the advice of a friend (advice in this case meaning she ordered me the book and wouldn’t stop inquiring about it), I’m reading Brideshead Revisited. I am perhaps the only Spectator staff member to have not read Waugh’s classic. The book, for the uninitiated, takes place in early 20th century England among the upper crust of society and spans approximately 20-some years up to World War Two.
Brideshead makes for great lockdown reading, with its descriptions of the fantastic meals, banquets, parties and European travel that currently eludes us. The plot is also quite good, but I won’t bore you with the details. It also includes at least 200 percent more gay relationships than I had anticipated in a book published in London in 1945, which according to the same friend shows my blind spot towards mid-20th century British literature. The two books in line after this are Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, and The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s latest. Moving from the decadence of the 20th century to dystopian novels set in the near future seems appropriate. Perhaps I’ll make another entry and let you know how they are.
For those looking for something lighter yet still literary, I might recommend diving into classic spy novels. The spy novelists writing between the 1960s and the 1990s wrote fantastically cerebral thrillers: nothing like the stuff you find in airport bookstores today. I recently discovered Len Deighton, a writer you should check out if you think le Carré’s books are a little over the top. I ‘discovered’ Deighton by stumbling upon a paperback of Twinkle Twinkle Little Spy in a seconds bin outside Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, and read it as I traveled in Morocco. That’s obviously irrelevant to the book recommendation. I’m only mentioning it as a tease.
I often recommend to Americans Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill, The Churchill Factor, both as a light and quick biography but also an introduction to Johnson. No question the entire book was a branding exercise, Johnson’s attempt to make the case for himself as the heir to Churchill’s legacy. It doesn’t matter: it’s still well done. Johnson explains the nuances of what made Churchill great, such as the rhetorical and oratorical tricks he used to make himself sound grand and wise. It might make you feel better that it took Churchill years of practice to become Churchill.
Lastly, I always recommend Barbarians at the Gate to anyone with even a faint interest in business. This book essentially invented the genre of non-fiction narrative business storytelling that paved the way for the books by Michael Lewis and others. It’s the story of the attempted takeover of RJR Nabisco by competing private equity firms in the late 1980s, the decade that would end up being the last gasp of the era of corporate raiders. If that sounds boring, I promise you it’s not. You become a fly on the wall to the excesses of Wall Street in the 1980s. If you think the world of corporate finance and big business is crazy now, this book might provide some perspective.
Zack Christenson is the publisher of The Spectator’s US edition.
Day 39: Lowlives
I was going to suggest Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but thought better of it because what we need now, more than ever, is a dose of light entertainment. Alexander Baron’s comico-serious novel The Lowlife, first published in the UK in 1963, concerns the antics of Harryboy Boas (‘two syllables, please’), an inveterate gambler and Stoke Newington man-about-town. The novel, with its street-savvy Yiddish wit and wisdom, is what Harryboy would have wished: a winner. Harry H. Corbett of Steptoe and Son (adapted for the US as Sanford and Son) fame was due to play Harryboy in a film of the book, but, sadly, it was never made. The Lowlife has something of the dark cockney menace of Harold Pinter; and, strikingly, it was one of the first British novels to incorporate Caribbean immigrants as characters. COVID-19: oy-yoy-yoy!
Day 38: All in good taste
If you’d like something prosaic, irreverent and appealing to the gustatory senses, Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour is a delightful book that’ll leave you wistful for the late chef.
I recently read Debating China: The US-China Relationship In Ten Conversations which could help anyone trying to catch up that tumultuous relationship today, although the book is a few years old and doesn’t account for the Trump administration. For something heavier, I highly recommend Christopher Lasch’s Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism. In that same vein, Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays is provocative and perennial.
For those looking for a lighter read, The Best American Food Writing 2018 and 2019 editions are collections of well-reported essays from numerous American publications — since they’re organized as individual essays, it’s a book that’s easy to pick up and pace yourself with, and it also presents food writing as a one of the most exciting fields within journalism.
Marlo Safi writes on food and drink for The Spectator and is a culture writer for the Daily Caller.
Day 37: Viktor Frankl’s search for meaning
We don’t need escapist reads right now. We need inoculation against the hardships to come. Who better to teach us about resiliency than a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps before founding a school of therapy on the meaning of life?
To kick off quarantine, I picked up Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. During the height of the war, the Austrian doctor rejected an American visa to stay with his aging parents in Vienna, until they all were deported to concentration camps. He spent three hellish years in Auschwitz, Dachau, Theresienstadt and Kaufering, ultimately losing all members of his family save one.
Frankl’s experiences, as difficult as they are to read, provide consoling proof of man’s resiliency. In the camps, a slice of bread becomes an indescribable luxury. A pile of bodies in a tent becomes Frankl’s treasured spot where he can rest for a moment and look out at the Bavarian countryside. He bears witness, in his own words, to the truth that ‘man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable’.
The soul is resilient and fights for self-preservation in a number of ways: humor, beauty, memories of loved ones, plans for the future. This is what interests Frankl. The second half of his memoir is devoted to how we find meaning in life, which as he sees it, is through embracing the idea that we are challenged by life, daily and hourly. The meaning of life is to rise to the challenge and persevere.
In our current moment, life challenges us to stay indoors, near our panic-stocked kitchen and finish Tiger King on Netflix. All of a sudden, life’s pretty good.
Carolyn Stewart is the publications director of the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
Day 36: Trollope in space
I’ve just read Cold Storage by David Koepp, about a deadly fungus that escapes from a decommissioned bioweapons storage facility. It charts the efforts of a group of unlikely heroes to contain the outbreak. It’s very entertaining in an action-movie way, full of suspense, shoot-outs and explosions. Admittedly, I read it about two months ago, before we knew how serious COVID-19 was going to be, so it’s possible I might not enjoy it as much today.
If you like science fiction, but don’t want anything too close to the bone, I can recommend the Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson, which is about a World War Two destroyer that passes through a portal in the space-time continuum and plunges its crew into an alternate universe in which highly-evolved lemurs and lizards are engaged in an epic struggle for control of the earth’s resources. It sounds rather lowbrow, and I suppose it is, but the characters are very well-drawn and every inch of the canvas is filled in. The author is a gun buff so there’s lots of detail about ordinance, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. Highly recommended — and there are 14 of them in total so they should keep you busy.
I’m currently reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope, having read the Palliser novels last year. The great thing about the Palliser novels and the Barchester Chronicles is that you can get the audio versions by Timothy West, which are absolutely sublime. If you actually get the virus, and find reading a struggle, you can always lie in bed listening to them.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
Day 35: Indian ink
The first five pages of Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds seemed deathly boring. This, I said to myself, truly is a dreadful book. I turned to page six and couldn’t put the book down. Murray is one of those writers I hadn’t properly read but whose opinions culture had distilled and deposited in my consciousness. I had been dissuaded from reading his books by enlightened acquaintances with powerful views on tolerance. Then recently, one of my oldest and most literate friend, an editor at Murray’s publisher, pressed the book into my hand as a Christmas present and asked me to read it. It was a mistral of fresh air.
Murray is gay — a disclosure that grabbed me only because of his unwillingness on the page to advance mitigations for the politics of personal destruction pursued by influential pockets of the gay community. He brings that honesty, that sharpness of vision, to every issue that the mob decrees should be beyond discussion. He has the courage to defend human beings whom others have abandoned out of fear because he is animated by principles that are worth defending. I did not agree with everything Murray wrote. But I knew that I was reading someone who cherished civilization — and was determined to safeguard it from the passions of the mob. What Waugh said of Kipling is true also of Murray in this instance: ‘He believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved but only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned.’ Crowds madden. Crowds kill. Crowds undo civilizations. This period of enforced solitude might be the perfect occasion to read The Madness of Crowds.
The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour advances similar warnings on the dangers of the mob — and on the destructive potential of technology — but from a political perspective that could not be more different from Murray’s. I have been reading Seymour for many years and I have found him, even when I have disagreed with him, to be illuminating. He is the closest thing to an Indian Marxist Britain has. The Twittering Machine is a wonderful antidote to the delusion that social media is liberating. This protracted bout of self-isolation, when our dependency on those platforms will intensify, might be a good time to read it.
Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days, about the dying days of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, is the best work of historical fiction I read this decade. I recommend it to everyone. A poet of extraordinary talent, McGuinness conjures up a totalitarian dystopia in breathtakingly beautiful prose.
I was deterred from reading Keshava Guha’s Accidental Magic by the publicity surrounding it, which sold it as a book for ‘Potterheads’. I set aside my prejudices to dip into it. It’s an exceptionally brilliant, and brilliantly intricate, debut novel about Bostonians and Bangaloreans by a tremendously talented young writer.
Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and the Sea is the most poignant novel I read last year. It’s a work of extraordinary empathy that reaffirms the role of a writer in society.
For those with an interest in India, may I recommend Tripurdaman Singh’s Sixteen Stormy Days, a riveting, blow-by-blow account of the first amendment to constitution of the world’s largest democracy. Aatish Taseer’s The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges is one of the more poignant tributes to India. Taseer is a writer I admire immensely. His devotion to his craft is exceeded only by his love for India and its past. So naturally, the benighted regime that now governs India revoked his overseas citizenship. The book I’m most eagerly awaiting is David Frum’s Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy.
Kapil Komireddi is a Spectator contributor and the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
Day 34: Gray wigs and gray cells
With news and talk of COVID-19 virtually everywhere, the past is the only place left untouched by this pandemic. With the United States facing an uncertain national crisis that has left many questioning the role of American government, liberty and citizenship, let’s consider the first time it happened: the American Revolution.
For a compelling story on the American Revolution that reads like a novel and are destined to be feature films start with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing. (Russell Crowe for Revere and Hugh Jackman for Washington, anyone?)
Paul Revere’s Ride follows the famed members of the Sons of Liberty, silversmith, and ‘Midnight Rider’ Paul Revere, but it’s so much more. It tells the story of a military occupied Boston with all the drama and intrigue that went into the start of the Revolutionary War. It busts the myth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’, and offers compelling theories on a well-placed spy and who really fired the first shot of the war.
Washington’s Crossing, perhaps the best book on George Washington period, brings to life one of the most iconic moments in American history. It follows the Continental Army from their crushing defeat in New York to the triumphant Christmas crossing of the Delaware and victories New Jersey campaign.
For two books that help define how the Revolution transformed America, look no further than the Bernard Bailyn’s classic Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and the Good Will Hunting-famed Gordon Wood and his masterpiece Radicalism of the American Revolution. (If you want a Revolution book right on the nose, try Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.)
But since we’re all essentially locked inside, who better to read than the Queen of Crime and master of the locked-room murder Agatha Christie. Her incomparable sleuth, the mustachioed Belgian Monsieur Hercule Poirot, known for his ‘little gray cells’, is certainly at the top of the heap of all-literary detectives. Murder on the Orient Express is the best-known (and features a locked train compartment), but for true locked room novels try The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Cards on the Table and Murder in Mesopotamia.
For history mixed with mystery, it’s Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead (part of the Inspector Gamache series, read them all) featuring Samuel de Champlain and a modern Québec City. For supernatural histories starring vampires (and witches), Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and historian and novelist Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy are not to be missed.
Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.
Day 33: What the Dickens
My time spent reading as an adult has mostly centered on making my way through the classics I may have missed from my middle and high school reading lists. The latest book I’ve been working on is Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. It’s actually a perfect piece of literature for our current moment, as the stories of the idiosyncratic Pickwickians eating, drinking, and sporting their way around the country through a series of delightful mishaps will help fill the social void left by quarantine.
Anyone looking for a healthier alternative to the smash Netflix series Tiger King should consider picking up Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I was forced to read this before my freshman year at Georgetown and automatically despised the book as a side effect of being assigned a summer project. However, I revisited it a few years later and realized how much I had missed the first time around. It’s a spirited tale exploring family, death, and mythology in a fictional province in the Balkans. I found myself lost in the rich stories Natalia, the protagonist, tells about her grandfather’s life as she comes to terms with his death.
Day 32: Albion’s seed
Priscilla M. Jensen
In this time of plague, I’ve found myself holding forth to my contemporaries about accepting that we are geezers, with a sprinkling of crones. I picked up my trusty Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, his eye-opening study of ‘four British folkways in America’, to have a look at the sections on age as apprehended in the cultures of Puritan New England, Anglican/cavalier Virginia, Quaker Delaware, and the one I know of first-hand, the hard-headed borderers who came from the Scottish marches to Appalachia and ain’t given up yet.
In each regional case, the story is much as one might expect, but rather more interesting. In New England, the aged were looked upon as the favored of God — why else would they have outlived so many? In a culture which saw His hand daily at work, survival to the age at which one might be regarded as what Fischer calls an ‘elder-saint’, was so much venerated that early on in life people began to round up their actual ages — ‘age-heap’ — to appear a bit older. Age, one might say, served as a sort of synecdoche of Providential benediction. Virginia tradition is familiar to Americans, and to The Spectator’s UK cousins, as a patriarchal analogue of the divine right of kings, in which deference rather than veneration is owed to the elder and awareness of the bareness of one’s chin daunting in company.
Older persons in the Quaker culture of the Delaware valley were looked to as guides or teachers, to the extent that ‘to elder someone’ meant to admonish him, to scold, or correct. And in the backcountry, in the hills where the Scots-Irish headed from Ulster, the very ancient echoes of tanistry, says Fischer, accorded considerable power to the accomplished and powerful aged, while relegating their less impressive contemporaries to the inglenook or the road.
Ways of understanding, dealing with, age are not, of course the only folkways Fischer describes in this magisterial yet deeply entertaining work. (For decades it’s been my family’s — my parents’ and now my — gift to any foreign visitor with enough English to puzzle it out.) He explores, in each of the geographic areas, ways of looking at elites, gender ways, courtship and marriage, work and learning, magic and religion, speech and naming, aging and death. One of my favorites has to do with language and naming habits — I’m happy to onomasticate my way through anthropological records of all sorts, and these are familiar and revelatory at the same time.
Albion’s Seed rewards both deep reading and browsing; I’ve been messing around with it for several decades now and appreciate it more every time I pick it up. Indispensable for the American bookshelf.
Priscilla M. Jensen is The Spectator’s copy editor.
Day 31: Heroes behind bars
An essential for those now compelled or ‘advised’ to hunker down at home are books that act as a reminder that, however irritating this may be, it beats, well, actual imprisonment. A novel or two with a hero behind bars but (don’t overdo the gloom) emerging triumphant ought to be on anyone’s social isolation list: Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo might be one, but there are, of course, countless others.
Xavier de Maistre went through a considerably less trying period than the unfortunate Edmond Dantès, when, in 1790, he was confined to his room in Turin for 42 days for taking part in a duel, an experience that he turned into his remarkable A Journey Around My Room a few years later. Whimsical, discursive, and with more than echo of Lawrence Sterne about it, de Maistre’s sprawling novella (that’s not the contradiction it seems) is a masterclass in making the best of a mildly uncomfortable situation (in his case, made even milder by the presence of an obliging servant and a faithful dog). A journey around a room is, de Maistre points out, cheap, safe for the sick, comforting for the cowardly, attractive to the indolent, and a healthy alternative for those of ‘you whose minds are brooding over sinister plans to reform your way of life’. Join him on his journey as he gets up from his armchair and, ‘walking towards the north’, there comes into view of his bed ‘a most agreeable sight’.
Interior, which its author, Thomas Clerc, describes as an ‘over-inflated recreation’ of A Journey Around My Room, broadens things out a bit. Clerc dedicates over three hundred pages to not just a single room, but a whole apartment — if not a very large one. Like de Maistre, Clerc uses his journey as the basis for digression, discussion and observation while adding a fine collection of aphorisms and some good jokes into the mix. He also focuses much more attention on what’s in his ‘sanctuary’, some might say obsessively so: The description of his desk and its contents (‘the left side is the empire of the archive’) spills over more than a dozen pages. Then again, as Clerc notes, his previous book ‘was devoted to annotating every street in Paris’s 10ème Arrondisement’. There are moments, however, when one begins to wonder if the poor man has not spent just a little too much time indoors. A bottle ‘gorgeously sheathed in brown wicker…brings to mind a woman tied up with rope for some erotic game’. There’s a warning there, I feel, for us all.
Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor at National Review.
Day 30: The land of Lawrence Durrell
Here in Corfu, Greece, we have almost total shutdown. The one major hit to existence is the loss of the café, the focus, in city as in village, of gossip, information, argument and saving the planet — or at least the Greek part of it. In the absence of this pivot of social life, universal dismay is as prevalent as the Covid-19 virus. You can hear the silence.
I shall avail of the time afforded by this enforced privacy, to read through the entire fiction of Lawrence Durrell, from his earliest Pied Piper of Lovers (1935) to the closing volume of The Avignon Quintet (1985), to gear myself for a new edition of my Lawrence Durrell: the Mindscape.
Not everyone’s cup of tea? Well, let me recommend the short stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), one of the fathers of modern Greek fiction. Papadiamantis, from the island of Skiathos, lived in Athens, working as a translator, but commuted in his mind between the city and his island birthplace. His stories are intensely local, visceral, feral, passionate and compassionate. Publisher Denise Harvey, based in Evia, Greece, produced the first of a projected three-volume collection under the title The Boundless Garden in 2007; the second volume has just appeared. These stories can be compared with the stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984), from the western Irish island of Inishmore. O’Flaherty’s stories are also available in a three-volume collection, published by Wolfhound Press. Like Papadiamantis’s insights, they portray the loves, fears, anxieties and fierce realities of primeval island life. If the two men had met, they would have understood each other intimately.
Richard Pine directs the Durrell Library of Corfu and edits the journal C20.
Day 29: Consolations of philosophy
If you’ve never read any books by Iris Murdoch, then do yourself a favor and begin with her 1958 novel, The Bell. Like most of Murdoch’s books, it is full of strange characters that are seeking some kind of salvation, whether religious, sexual, or even philosophical. It takes place near Imber Abbey, which is surrounded by a community of eccentrics who do not see themselves as such, and they all have something to hide. A new bell is about to installed in the Abbey when, suddenly, the old, long-lost bell is recovered. This is the catalyst that opens up different paths for all of the relationships in the book, especially those dominated by sexual obsessions. Deeply erotic and steeped into the paradoxes of sex and religion, The Bell is one of Murdoch’s best books that takes the reader on a journey through the joys and absurdities of love.
Given the fact that there is indeed so much ugliness in the world today, we should seek more beautiful things that uplift the human spirit as well as ask what does it mean to be human? This is exactly the gift you will receive if you read Roger Scruton’s Beauty, in which he awakens the mind to art, but also trains the mind to make proper aesthetic judgments. Scruton has a wonderful gift in writing about aesthetics in an approachable manner, and here too, he wants us to dig deeper into what the nature of beauty really is. Is it subjective? Can it be judged? Can we say that something is not art? In all of these beautiful musings, Scruton offers philosophical and aesthetic nourishment, an oasis from the paint splatters brought on by the cult of ugliness.
Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Prague during the Communist regime. Like most of Kundera’s novels, this too is philosophical in nature and its aim is to reflect on the meaning of sex and love in the times of totalitarianism. It mainly follows the womanizing escapades of a surgeon, Tomáš. Who will he choose? His wife? His mistress? How can they all make sense of relationships and the existential burdens that are placed on human beings during times of utter absurdity and evil? Despite some of its underlying political themes, Kundera’s novel is an aesthetic experience of the tragic, erotic, and the absurd.
Day 28: ‘Two popes and now a plague!’
A friend exclaimed the other day, ‘Gosh, two popes at the same time and now a plague! It’s the 14th century again!’ Very much in that spirit, I’ve been happily rereading the Decameron in quarantine. For those who may not have had the pleasure, this masterpiece by Boccaccio is set during the outbreak of the Black Death in Florence in 1348. To escape the pestilence, a group of seven women and three men retreat to the hills above the city, where, to keep themselves amused, they agree that each will tell one story per day (with days off for chores, Good Friday, and the odd fast). The result is, that after 10 days of storytelling distributed over two weeks, they have told one hundred bawdy, scandalously anti-clerical, hilarious, and ultimately redemptive tales. My practice has been to keep to the schedule of the characters themselves, so I read 10 stories each day — which means, alas, that I’ll be out of stories even before I run out of hand sanitizer.
A particularly striking feature of the text is the typology of reactions to the plague that Boccaccio sketches in the introduction. There were those, he explains, who believed that a ‘sober and abstemious form of life’ would protect them and so ‘lived in isolation from everyone else’. On the other hand, there were those who ignored the peril, gratifying all their cravings for drink and debauchery, and shrugging the whole thing off ‘as one enormous joke’. One thinks of the spring breakers in Miami Beach. Last, Boccaccio adds, there were those who attempted to steer ‘a middle course’, which is of course our challenge as well.
Eric Nelson is a professor of political science at Harvard. His latest book is The Theology of Liberalism.
Day 27: The end of empires
When it comes to shoring up morale, you can’t do much better than diving into any book by J.G. Farrell or J.G. Ballard, two wonderfully leftfield British authors who remain under-read and under-appreciated, especially in the US. Self-isolation should give you enough time for Farrell’s ‘Empire trilogy’, his tragi-comic take on the political and human foibles of British colonial rule.
The plot of Troubles centers around the once grand but now dilapidated Majestic Hotel surrounded by the political upheaval of the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence. Guffaw-out-loud humor and pathos occupy almost every page.
The Siege of Krishnapur recounts the 1857 Indian Mutiny siege of a fictional Indian town from the perspective of the eccentric British residents. Farrell wittily nails the strange alchemy of absurdity, idiocy, courage and British pluck that permeated the British colonial adventure.
The Singapore Grip — the title derives from a fabled sexual technique practiced by local prostitutes — deals with the fallout of the World War Two Japanese occupation of Singapore for a British family running one of the colony’s leading trading companies: ‘when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself’. Reading that line lifts me every time.
My challenge to you: read all three books and decide on your favorite. You can while away hours of self-isolation arguing about it. Put a gun against my head, I’d go for The Singapore Grip.
With J.G Ballard you are guaranteed a feisty, compelling and smolderingly sensual experience. This is exemplified by the likes of Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes about the dark secrets of dystopian resort and gated communities chasing the next sordid high. The only problem if you are self-isolating celibately is the steamier sections will likely leave you feeling thoroughly vexed and in need of a cold shower or a quick batch of 30 press-ups to take the edge off.
Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun and its sequel The Kindness of Women draw on his teenage years spent in a Japanese internment camp after the fall of Shanghai. Both offer searing candor and wisdom about the human condition that is all too relevant given our current COVID-19 predicament. His prison camp experience inspired a life-long obsession with civil society’s fragile veneer and how easily it can shatter — a timely theme again, unfortunately — explored in the likes of High-Rise and Millennium People. His science-fiction novels and short story collections — written in the elegant literary New Wave style of the 1960s and 1970s — offer a perfect escape from the oppressive realities of society’s current veneer being tested. Ballard would tell us he told us so.
Day 26: Dr Johnson, we presume?
There’s no better book to lose yourself in than James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. The huge cast wanders in and out, bouncing off the humane, bizarre or profound conversation of its subject. Boswell had a genius for bringing not just individual humans to life, but cats (poor old Hodge, threatened with being shot by hooligans) and, in the end, a whole society. Well-read, heavy-drinking, witty, confident London society of the 18th century leaps from the wry, ironic, forgiving pages. You don’t have to read it from beginning to end — any 20 pages are a delight — but it has a cumulative power like nothing else
Philip Hensher is a novelist and the London Spectator’s lead fiction critic.
Day 25: Splendid isolation with Anna
We were in France when the coronavirus hit and a generous (and very wealthy) friend allowed me to use one of his homes, an impossibly beautiful 18th century château near Avignon. It was easy to quarantine ourselves because the château stood in splendid isolation in acres of grounds. On the first day there, I could see a number of gardeners in the distance, before they disappeared following the edict to stay at home from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who declared: ‘Nous sommes en guerre.’ In the mornings, the housekeeper — who lived in the nearby village — would leave a fresh baguette and a couple of pains au chocolat on the doorstep. I’d see her from the kitchen window, giving me a wave with a hand encased in a disposable plastic glove as she made her way home down the long gravel drive.
As you would expect from such a house, there was a well-stocked library. From one of the shelves, I pulled down Anna Karenina. It has one of the most famous opening lines in literature and even if you have not read the book, you will probably know it: ‘Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I had always been put off reading it by the length, 960 pages, but with gendarmes outside the gates — vos papiers, s’il vous plait — now was the perfect time to start.
Tolstoy hooks you from the first page: ‘All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess…’ This was the 2001 Penguin edition, the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which puts Tolstoy into simple and direct English. Compare that line to the version from the Everyman edition, published in 1992: ‘The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess.’ It matters which translation you read.
As the preface to the Penguin edition says, Anna Karenina began to form in Tolstoy’s mind after a woman threw herself under a train near his country estate of Yasnaya Polyana (‘Bright Glade’): ‘Jealousy and an unhappy love affair were involved, and led Tolstoy to reflect very seriously on the role of love and marriage in society.’ The novel rings true partly because Tolstoy drew heavily on his own life to write it. For instance, the scene where Levin shows his future wife the diaries revealing his youthful debaucheries came from the author’s own experiences.
That comes from How to Write Like Tolstoy, by Professor Richard Cohen, which is interesting to read alongside Anna Karenina. Cohen discusses Tolstoy’s gift of creating solid, three-dimensional characters, telling the story of when Turgenev visited Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy took him to see a barn full of animals. A few minutes later, Turgenev stormed back to the house. He had been infuriated by Tolstoy’s casual ability to go up to each animal — horse, cow, or duck — and describe its character, love life, and family connections. According to Cohen, Turgenev complained: ‘It was intolerable! He knows I can’t create characters like him, and here he was doing it with a whole menagerie!’
We left the château and drove for England (not wanting to expose my 75-year-old mother-in-law to the corona-soup of an airport departure hall). We drove for miles on the autoroute without seeing another vehicle; service stations were eerily deserted. Our companion on the drive was an audiobook of The Last Juror, by John Grisham — a master of pulp instead of a master of literature. It’s the story of a murder trial in Mississippi and how, one by one, the jurors are killed off after convicting the murderer. It was gripping, entertaining, and substantial as candy floss: perfect for the endless empty road. Britain was a week behind France. It seemed strange to see the motorway full of cars, a line of people at the till in the gas station.
I’m now reading Tolstoy in my own home, a Victorian semi, instead of under an ancient, spreading plane tree on a small estate. But if we are still isolating by the time I finish the 960 pages of Anna Karenina, there are books go with my new, more English, more reduced surroundings: Dickens, Chesterton, and Orwell all seem right.
Paul Wood is a regular contributor to The Spectator and was for many years a BBC correspondent in the Middle East.
Day 24: A whale of a time
Like the rest of you, I’m stranded in lockup. Unlike the rest of you, at least I hope, I caught this horrid Oriental bat flu early and am recovering. Full quarantine for half a month already. My doorman leaves packages out front and uses a broom handle to knock. Delivery men hiss incantations at me in inscrutable tongues. And my once and future ex-wife still has my dog.
Life, you see, is not boffo for old Digby. Sure, I’ve had time to read more than usual, but my symptoms keep getting the better of me. A fever and headache this bad is almost enough to make one erotically engaged by a pubescent Pole I suppose.
Anyhow, I’ve mostly been thinking about Hoyt Fish, my father’s best friend and one of the finest men I ever met. Tall and affable, Fish was descended from patroon stock on his mother’s side — a Rensselaer maybe, or a Stuyvesant perhaps — and, well, a New York Fish. He and my father joined the same firm a few years out of the war and were insuperable thereafter.
Fish really was the paragon: impeccable breeding, with easy natural manners, he became one of America’s finest litigators. And he couldn’t read a lick to save his life. We’d probably label Fish a dyslexic today, but in my father’s generation they simply sent him to be educated by Quakers and then to graduate Penn. Twice
He had a Portuguese secretary from Provincetown, Maria Saramago if memory serves, with whom he worked his whole career. He dictated. She transcribed and enriched. People spoke of them as the Platonic Ideal of attorney and secretary. Nothing scandalous about it. The Fishes and the Saramagos both retired to Miami, where he died in early 2009 of that dreadful pig sickness at a ripe old age that escapes my febrile brain. So that’s why I’m taking this whole miserable business seriously.
Oh, right, Dominic asked what I’m reading during my sequester. When my father retired, Maria gave him copies of three novels written by some relative of her husband’s. One is titled The Year of the Death of Somebody or Something. Seems fitting. If my head stops hurting I’ll read that. After it, I’m reading Moby-Dick again. If I’m still in the clink when I finish the cytology chapters, I’ll read the damned phone book.
Digby Dent is The Spectator’s Wasp Life correspondent.
Day 23: Human nature
Of living writers I recommend anything by Bernd Heinrich and, incidentally, why this man is not better known and more celebrated is a complete mystery. A good place to start with his 21 books about nature is either Bumblebee Economics (1979) for its relentless self-motivated interrogation of the lives of these popular insects, or The Snoring Bird, which is his gloriously ramshackle semi-autobiography full of fascinating natural history and Heinrich’s bizarre family story.
The ultimate inspiration in historical self-isolaters is Henry Thoreau, still for my British pounds, the best author on nature in the English language. There is no substitute for the entire original 7,000-page and two-million-word multi-volume diary. Yet the New York Review of Books single-volume digest entitled The Journal 1837-1861 is a convenient alternative. I have a relationship to it unlike any other book, my copy being littered with annotations and a private index for key passages. I think of it more like an organic organism, a quality Thoreau himself noted of his own favorite texts. A ‘truly good book’ he wrote, ‘is something as wildly natural and primitive…as a fungus or a lichen’.
With the exception of field guides that I use outdoors, The Journal is the only book that I have laminated to protect it from constant wear. I see it as a sort of field guide for life. Its inspiration is to both the naturalist and the author, occupations that are integrally linked through Thoreau’s astonishing powers of observation. He could stand so still that animals would mistake him for a part of the landscape, climbing upon him to feed or perch. Eyewitnesses in his native Concord described how they would find him Socrates-like completely absorbed in some act of contemplation. At the end of day he would be in exactly the same place as when first spotted and still watching.
Although it is pre-eminently about Thoreau’s observations of wild nature, for me this New England diary is also a powerfully political work. And it means much — more even perhaps? — to someone from the Old World, where land is almost never land, but property. On this side of the Atlantic, English-speaking people see place and the living animals and plants upon it through a dense layer of other processes that are about ownership, control, class and money. All of these impose a deadening gauze over our senses and our sense of place like a cataract over the eye. Thoreau writes not about ownership, but about belonging. To read him is to be liberated from all that stuff and to recover the republican and democratic greatness of our connection to the whole of life.
Mark Cocker is a naturalist and the author of Claxton Diary: Further Field Notes from a Small Planet.
Day 22: The write stuff
Where do we find the ingenuity and courage required to lead us from adversity to victory? Once it was deep in West Virginia coal country, so far back that ‘they had to pipe in the daylight’. That’s the origin of Chuck Yeager, one of the heroes of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction classic The Right Stuff. Reading Wolfe’s chronicle about the ‘ineffable quality’ possessed by Yeager, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and other American aviators is just the kind of exhilarating and inspiring story we need which shows we can overcome anything. In the race for space, the US conquered the Soviets because we had men who, as Wolfe writes, had the ability to ‘go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.’
The perfect antidote to the Masters tournament being pushed back to the fall is Dead Solid Perfect, Dan Jenkins’s hilarious novel about professional golfer Kenny Puckett. Kenny is trying to manage the pressures of competing in the National Open championship and recognizes that golf is ‘probably some kind of a mental disorder like gambling or women or politics’. Even though Kenny admits he never tried to learn much about anything except the game, readers will discover that he sure does know how the world works:
‘Some guys sell little ones, some guys sell big ones, some of it comes in on trains and some of it goes out in barges, a guy named Irving is locked up in a closet somewhere to figure it all out, most of it adds up to an argument in a courtroom, and all the people who’re lucky enough to be hanging around drinking at all the country clubs get to shit on everyone else.’
How did China get a chokehold on the US? Because of decades of catastrophic decisions made by the ‘best and brightest’ in both political parties. They’re the kind of leaders Eddie Quinn fights against in Dark Horse, a prescient bestselling novel by Fletcher Knebel, published in 1972. After the sudden death of the GOP presidential nominee, party kingmakers gamble and select Quinn, a New Jersey highway official, as the standard bearer. Nobody thinks Quinn has a shot to be president — he was a truck driver in his previous job. But Quinn is fearless and adopts a populist agenda that shatters conventional wisdom and offers pathbreaking solutions to the nation’s ills. Even though voters start listening and telling pollsters they’ll vote for Quinn, experts still dismiss his ideas and ridicule his supporters as deplorables. Quinn answers his critics:
‘The well-off, old-family people call us prejudiced. We say we’re human. They call us narrow. We know our hopes are as wide as the country. They call us limited, but we know we’re the ones who built America with our sweat and our toil. And we also know that for many years our country has been mismanaged, depleted, corrupted, polluted, and almost bankrupted by the country-club set and the front-office crowd.’
Knebel’s story of a presidential campaign while the nation is in crisis is a thriller that deserves to be rediscovered. Donald Trump and Joe Biden should study Eddie Quinn’s playbook because his kind of fearless leadership is what’s needed most right now.
John Meroney is the editor of Garden & Gun.
Day 21: No roaming in Wyoming
Living in Wyoming, a state of 97,818 square miles with a population of 577,737, I am not presently living in lockdown, though my gym is closed and all public Masses in the state have been suspended until further notice. Moreover, I have worked at home for all but six years of my entire career. So my life is little changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Were I actually a prisoner in my own home, however, here is what I think I’d settle down to:
The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Beginning in grade school, and at intervals throughout my adult life, I’ve read, I suppose, most of the plays and poetry. Much of this of course, I’ve found magnificent; though I do agree with Johnson (or was it Jonson?) that the Bard would have done well to have blotted a good many more lines than he did. Anyhow, I’ve found that for me at any rate it is too easy to put off reading him in favor of more modern works — and of prose rather than verse, novels instead of drama. That is a failure on my part, and one I need to rectify.
Italian Journey, by Goethe. As no one is presently allowed to visit Italy, and barely to live there, this account of a trip to the peninsula in 1786 is especially inviting to an armchair traveler. I recently acquired a copy; it is beside me on my desk as I write.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. This novel, about a party of American misfits hired by the governor of Chihuahua State in 1849 to hunt down, butcher, and kill as many Apache as they could find and take their scalps in exchange for bounty, has the great virtue these days of demonstrating for its readers how extremely nasty life can really be.
Chilton Williamson, Jr. writes The Spectator’s Prejudices column.
Day 20: A Woolf of One’s Own
In 1977, in an atmosphere of mounting critical and commercial interest, Virginia Woolf’s voluminous diaries were pared down and collected in one brick of a volume. The Shorter Diaries are a monument to the writing life in general, and its author’s frightening and uneven genius in particular. Woolf lived through two world wars, a global pandemic, a worldwide economic collapse and the rise of Stalin and Hitler; but largely, she worries here about her servants and her novels.
At turns Woolf is scathing, candid, appalled, uxorious, frustrated, peeved, delighted, upset, immodest, moody, nostalgic, concupiscent, frigid and sad, deeply sad, and often direly ill, mentally and physically. It is her lapidary observations of herself and others that will keep you reading. Her sword flashes from its scabbard every few pages, and rarely misses its mark.
On herself: ‘I am resigned to my station among the badly dressed’ and ‘I live like a weevil in a biscuit.’
On others: ‘as low as the tone in a coal cellar’, ‘his sentences creak with rust’, ‘like pet dogs threatened with a cold bath’.
Like all novelists, she is at heart an entertainer. What emerges from these diaries is not the revolutionary harridan that feminist critics have spent decades constructing. Ultimately her brilliance can be attributed to her late Victorian upbringing, with all its creases, cracks and pitfalls, as well as its Carlyean emphasis on work (she never stops working), rather than to her being ‘modern’, whatever that is supposed to mean.
Otherwise, for a novel about the highs and lows of isolation, I’d choose J.K. Huysmans’s À rebours (1884). For the downfall of an entire civilization, I’d go with J.G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, starting with the bleakly humorous Troubles (1970). My favorite stuff on absurdity and the arbitrariness of life comes from the Edwardian short-story writer Saki. His knowledge of these topics was personal: when he was a child his mother was crushed by a rogue cow in Burma. Thankfully, her baffled son turned to literature as solace, rather than something boring like accountancy. Start with Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914).
Will Lloyd is a Spectator USA contributor.
Day 19: Fictitious books from a fictitious author
How to Cook Pasta When You’re a Demisexual Genderbender by Fletch Hendricks is an absolute boon for any gender-questioning multisex individual having to self-isolate right now. Hendricks goes into great detail regarding the history of pasta-making, and what the different shapes of pasta might mean to you, depending which part of the sub-binary gender spectrum you identify with. For instance, as a non-binary trans women who prefers to engage in polyamorous relationships, I learned that the bow-like farfalle are most likely to reflect my lived experience, and that I should steer clear of tubular penne. Very useful and informative for planning meals during a global pandemic.
Drag Queens: Survival of the Fiercest by Charity Balls is the first book of a seven part sci-fi epic by a real-life drag queen. This series is a no-holds-barred look at an alternative reality in which drag queens are being mercilessly chased by cyborg bounty-hunters intent on capturing them for their elaborate wigs, which have become a form of currency in a world where Donald Trump still rules supreme. Their only hope of salvation comes in the form of Dennis is Fantastic, an android drag kid sent from a more progressive version of the future to save all dragkind.
The Bumper Book of Intersectional Crosswords, edited by Dr Zumi Spaysip. Dr. Spaysip has used her PhD in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies to great effect here to create this trans-inclusive puzzle book. It’s a pleasant way to spend an epidemic, curled up in your favorite chair with a cup of warm hemp milk and no risk of coming across any clumsy micro-aggressions.
Godfrey Elfwick is The Spectator’s Woke Life correspondent.
Day 18: Dickens in Greece
Now that it is time for us each to hole up in our separate Growleries, it is helpful to think of some books to take with us. When, a few years ago, I underwent a procedure that left me radioactive for two weeks, I decided it was time to finally tackle Bleak House, a book I had tried to read on three separate occasions, each doomed. (One copy was left on a plane, etc.) This time I made it through, and enjoyed it thoroughly. There is even, as in many a 19th-century novel, a contagious disease as a plot device. Dickens peoples his books with such vibrant characters — heroes, villains and assorted minor actors — it is hard to feel lonesome, even in isolation. The Dickens novel that immediately came to mind, though, in this instance was Little Dorrit, a novel whose plot begins in some ways in quarantine, as several important characters meet on shared quarantine on a boat in Marseille harbor. Its debtors’ prisons used to feel Victorian and dated, but now seem quite contemporary.
You will have already considered bringing along Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, Camus’s The Plague, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and Stephen King’s The Stand, so I will forbear to mention them.
Plagues serve as pivotal moments and plot devices in numerous ancient works — a plague is what sets off the action of the Iliad for instance (you might enjoy the translation by Caroline Alexander), and the tragedy of Oedipus. A real plague has consequences for Athens in Thucydides’s History; Thucydides is not only an eye-witness, but a survivor. That plague goes viral in literature, as it were, showing up as literary set-pieces with ethical dimensions in Lucretius’ epic The Nature of Things and Virgil’s Georgics.
That said, do we really want to be reading about disease at all? Perhaps what we need is unalloyed pleasure. For comfort reading, it is hard to beat Stella Gibbons’s 1932 comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm. The heroine asserts at one point: ‘Well, when I am 53 or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion but with a modern setting, of course.’ Gibbons was 30 when the book was published, but it is in its way as sharp and funny as Austen.
We removed to a Greek island from Athens early in the virus crisis to self-isolate, and while there are books at the house we rent, of course we also took what we were reading.
The novel on my bedside table at present is (recent Nobel Prize recipient) Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I am enjoying its deadpan humor and eccentric middle-aged lady narrator, who is also the amateur sleuth in this quirky thriller that touches on astrology, human nature, and the poetry of William Blake.
The genre I most turn to in times of uncertainty is poetry, not because poetry has a consoling message (it usually doesn’t), but because it has a way of companioning one. (‘And I will friend you if I may,’ as Housman says, ‘In the dark and cloudy day.’) We are lucky to have the 1983 New Oxford Book of English Verse at the house, but poetry books I took with me include the somehow apropos Survival is a Style, by Christian Wiman, his best book to date, Ernest Hilbert’s Last One Out, poems of masculine tenderness and fatherhood, and Rosamund Stanhope’s So I Looked Down to Camelot, a book with which I am currently fascinated. Stanhope died in 2005, and this collection, first published in 1962, has recently been released by Flood Editions. The poems are gorgeous and unfashionable and so somehow fresh and just right for the times. Of the anthology I carry in my head, the poem I have most often been reciting is Auden’s ever-topical ‘Fall of Rome’, with its eerie stanza:
‘Unendowed with wealth or pity
Little birds with scarlet legs
Sitting on their speckled eggs
Eye each flu-infected city.’
A.E. Stallings is a poet and translator.
Day 17: Saints and sanitation
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, is a 2017 book that will give you a new appreciation for New York’s oldest and most infamous public hospital. Bellevue can trace its roots to a small infirmary built in the 1660s for Dutch soldiers overcome by ‘bad smells and filth’. As told by David Oshinsky, a professor of history at New York University and the director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, this book is just as much the story of the city’s history of contending with epidemics.
From the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s to battles against cholera, typhus, puerperal fever, influenza, tuberculosis, Aids, on up to the current crisis, the city’s hospitals have long been on the front lines fighting our invisible enemies. Bellevue doctors, for example, played a central role in writing ‘Sanitary Conditions of the City’, the groundbreaking 1865 study that led to the creation of New York’s first official Board of Health and the building of the Croton Aqueduct to replace the city’s fetid wells. Medical knowledge combined with civic action can indeed work miracles.
And speaking of miracles, I have been thinking about the lives of the saints and, in particular, the plague saints. The Golden Legend compiled a Cliff’s Notes version of their miraculous deeds for the Middle Ages. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, after all, waves of bubonic plague killed upwards of 50 million people, so such things were on the mind.
Turn right to the chapters on Roch and Sebastian. Saint Roch, known in Italian as San Rocco, was born around 1300 to a nobleman in what is now the southern French city of Montpellier. Taking a strict vow of poverty, he made his way to Rome to tend to the plague-ridden. When he became ill himself, he was cast out of town to die in the forest. Fast forward to a miraculous spring, a dog that licks his wounds, and a case of mistaken identity and imprisonment, and you have one of the greatest inspirations of plagued Venice.
Then there is Sebastian, another plague saint who deserves his due. While Sebastian is best remembered for his willowy body pierced with arrows — long a favorite for artists — many forget that the early Christian martyr survived this first attempt at execution. Sebastian is therefore worshiped as another saint to survive bodily torments. With the spent arrows in hand, it was only after Sebastian went to reprove his pagan emperor for his sins that Diocletian finally had him clubbed to death. In other words, if these guys can keep it together, so should we.
Day 16: How a Mann stays sane in the sanatorium
With time to kill, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A spry Hans Castorp sets off to spend three weeks visiting his cousin Joachim in a Swiss sanitarium. He stays for seven years. One hopes our present crisis won’t last so long, but as Castorp learns, there’s a funny relationship between disease and the suspicion thereof. And when illness means vacation, and that vacation looks like this — well, who could ignore a diagnosis? If wading through the daily soup of facts and figures has left you out of sorts, the rarefied atmosphere of this Alpine resort may be just the ticket. The book is long. But the hours spent reading it evaporate, as into thin air.
Robert S. Erickson is the Hilton Kramer fellow at the New Criterion and writes about theater for Spectator USA.
Day 15: Lent and Enlightment
Alas, I have not had the energy to prepare a reading list for lockdown, but at the moment I am in the middle of Christopher Caldwell’s magnificent The Age of Entitlement — a political and social history of the United States since the Sixties. Caldwell shows that what passes for conservatism is often no more than economic liberalism, and that economic liberals have joined with social liberals to create a world of porn TV and mind-bending social media. But wait: we are not just in lockdown. We are in Lent, too. My Lenten daily reading is the Divine Office, or at least part of it — Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Often what I read, especially in the Psalms, makes me wince and whine. (‘That’s not very nice, is it?’) On the table behind me, meanwhile, I see a number of books that I have been been dipping into, among them the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (introduced and edited by Harry Mount) and Pascal’s Pensées. Maybe I’ll get through Lent and shutdown.
Day 14: King Lear and the Red Horse
Spring is sprung, the bird is on the wing, and The Spectator’s nobly self-quarantining public will be looking longingly out of their windows today, dreaming of warm breezes and late afternoon walks through the city. ‘From you,’ as the Shakespearean sonnet laments, ‘have I been absent in the spring…’
But stay strong, dear readers! Make friends with vernal lassitude, put your feet up and sink into a volume of poetry or catch up on a classic you’ve always meant to read. Have you already worked your way through Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and the Divine Comedy? Try Eugenio Corti’s The Red Horse. An Italian bestseller after its publication in 1999, voted the greatest Italian novel of the decade, this book has been sadly overlooked by English-language readers. It’s a World War Two epic told from the unusual (to us) perspective of Italians, and it pulls no punches; although you might think war a heavy theme for these uncertain days, the darkest moments in this novel are shot through with beauty and hope. In my humble opinion, future generations will recognize The Red Horse as one of the great literary works of the 20th century.
Absent in the Spring, by Agatha Christie under the pen name of Mary Westmacott, will not go down as one of the great literary works of the 20th century — but it’s a good read nonetheless. Unlike Christie’s other works, it’s not a detective novel; it’s the story of a middle-class British woman who finds herself unexpectedly isolated in the desert and experiences a kind of epiphany as a result. But will she let this experience change her, once everyday life returns? That’s the million-dollar question…
Other recommendations? If I were stuck on a desert island, I’m one of those boring people that would want Shakespeare and the Bible — especially King Lear and the Psalms. The Psalms are exquisite, as every literary person up until a generation ago knew, and their rhythm and song shaped every influential writer in the English language. Don’t overlook them (or read them in a bad translation). Go King James if you must, but I have a weakness for the Douay-Rheims’s cascading phrases and shining imagery: ‘I know all the fowls of the air: and with me is the beauty of the field…’ Or again: ‘He shall come down like rain upon the fleece; and as showers falling gently upon the earth…’ Wistful, hopeful, rich with promise: could there be a better distillation of spring?
Day 13: War footing
I’m trying to read more poetry — William Blake, Eliot and I’ve been repeatedly reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’, which is great and feels apt to this crisis. I’m also reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which is weird and wonderful. Next up is W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction. Cheerful stuff.
Day 12: Race, Russians and American presidents
We’re all guilty of those late night book buying splurges where, as titles arrive piecemeal at our door, we plop them on the bookshelf knowing a single spine won’t get cracked for months. What better time to chip away at that judgmental stack of books than during a city-wide quarantine? The top of my heap includes three history books: Nine Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her by Brion McClanahan, an entertaining read that traces all our nation’s problems to nine highly defective men; City on a Grid: How New York Became New York by Gerard Koeppel; and Behemoth: A History of the Factory and The Making of the Modern World by Joshua B. Freeman.
In Christian books, I finally plan to read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell. For a bit of witty and delicious social critique, I’ve got Snobbery: The American Version by Joseph Epstein. And in historical fiction, I’ve been eager to dive into The Alienist by Caleb Carr a novel about a serial killer in 19th-century New York.
It’s also about time that I read In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, by national trans-racial treasure Rachel Dolezal, who documents her personal journey from blond, suburban white woman to fierce, black mama.
If you’ve got just a touch of Russophilia and find yourself curious about contemporary Russia — not its government, but its people and national psyche — I suggest picking up Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev.
Chadwick Moore is a Spectator columnist.
Day 11: Billy Bathgate’s Bronx cheer
As I am trapped in the Bronx at present trying to get home to the UK, I am zipping through Doctorow novels and have decided he is underrated. Remember Billy Bathgate strutting though East Tremont in his crisp new shirt, or young Edgar (nearest thing Doctorow ever got to an autobiographical figure) in World’s Fair swapping out his books weekly at the library as his father’s business sinks into the swamps of the Depression?
As a habituée of the polar regions where a 10-day whiteout is not uncommon I carry with me Boswell’s Life of Johnson, unexpurgated and printed on bible paper. I reckon that will see the plague out for you.
Day 10: Roman across the centuries
As it happens, I was well into a couple of big classics when the coronavirus hit. My plan was to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in full, by stages on my daily commute and on occasional trips by train or plane. I don’t suggest you spend all your quarantine time with Gibbon, but his massive masterwork can be surprisingly diverting, an emperor or two at a time. For greater pleasure, I’m reading The Red and the Black, which remains strikingly modern. It’s stunning to think Stendhal’s novel was published five years before Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: the early 19th-century French were unmatched for psychological acumen.
Lastly, partly inspired by Gibbon and partly our own civilizational collapse, I’m reading a history of three post-Roman emperors of various sorts, the historian Peter Heather’s book The Restoration of Rome, about Theoderic (neither Roman nor an emperor, but acting as a bit of both), Justinian (an actual Roman emperor of the East), and Charlemagne (who of course laid new claim to an imperial title in the West). Heather argues that the real re-establishment of the Roman West, however, was the work of the pope, another kind of successor to the emperors of old.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The Modern Age and a Spectator contributing editor and columnist.
Day 9: Pepys over the edge
Prompted by my friend Clive Aslet, I am exploring the world of the diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, who lived through London’s Great Plague of 1665, decamping to Greenwich. Pepys approached the Plague like he did much of his life, with sangfroid tinged with just a hint of mischief (consider the tennis ball-sized bladder stone that, once removed, he kept in an expensive case for all to see). Pepys wrote that ‘I have never lived so merrily… as I have done this plague-time.’ And though I wouldn’t go that far about my own semi-quarantine, things could be worse. Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self had been sitting on my shelves for some time and has become a winning companion in these trying times.
For sheer escapism, one could hardly do better than the complete works of Ronald Firbank. In his preface to my edition, which has a portrait of Firbank by Augustus John on the cover, Anthony Powell writes that ‘it is not…“fair” to the author to jog through this volume from cover to cover in a pedantic mood, then complain there are repetitions, samenesses, and a too consistent display of fireworks.’
Indeed, Firbank benefits from a more desultory approach. Take this random section from Vainglory (1915):
‘“I should hate to keep an Italian cow,” she said. “I should be afraid of it!”
“But we should be Byzantine. Just peacocks, stags and sheep…”
“The danger of Italy,” Mrs Asp observed, “is, it tends to make one florid. One expands there so… Personally, I go all to poppy-seed directly.”’
How very far away from our squalid world, and all the better for it.
Benjamin Riley is managing editor of the New Criterion.
Day 8: The way we lived
For my lock-in, I’m taking a mixture of light and heavy reading — a starter and a main course, if you like.
The third volume of the British Conservative politician Alan Clark’s diaries — The Last Diaries 1993-1999 (2002) — is the ideal palate-cleanser. Light, witty, compulsive with a gripping yet terrible ending. To begin with, Clark is the old rogue we’re used to — gleefully rude about his colleagues, eyeing up women, reminding himself how rich he is, regretting his decision to leave Parliament in 1992, delighted by his return in 1997 with the plum seat of Kensington and Chelsea.
But fate has other tragic plans in store for him. Clark was obsessed with his health and, like all hypochondriacs, he was eventually right — brain cancer struck. His wife Jane adds a moving coda, in the form of her diaries of his woefully weak last days when he was unable to write.
And then for the meaty main course. Shamefully, I’d never read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) until this year. What a mighty work!
There are virtuous figures in the novel but the ones who live on in the memory are the heroically caddish, drunken baronet, Sir Felix Carbury; and the appalling, bloated tycoon of a crook, Augustus Melmotte, sucked up to by the great and the good before his Ponzi scheme collapses on a vast scale. I couldn’t help liking them both a bit.
Harry Mount is editor of the Oldie.
Day 7: Little men, big ideas
The Plague by Albert Camus is an obvious recommendation, but I think it has profundity wrapped up in cliché. Far from being a work of existentialist miserabilism, it movingly and wittily portrays people trying to make the best of horrid circumstances. Another favorite is J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which describes a soldier acclimatizing to normal life after the horrors of World War One, and which might give us some perspective while making us look forward to summer. Finally, I recommend my friend Ed West’s funny and interesting new book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, an exploration of the lows and lows of British conservatism.
Ben Sixsmith is a Spectator contributor based in Poland.
Day 6: Look to the light
Personally, I think now is the time to comfort-read, ideally series fiction: long and entertaining and relatively unchallenging books that will take us to a happier and better world. So, the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, the short stories of Damon Runyon and Conan Doyle, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Larry Niven’s tales of Known Space, Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, big anthologies of silver-age Marvel comics. Oh, and lots of Eighties’ Stephen King. But maybe give The Stand a miss for now, eh?
Sam Leith is Books editor of the London Spectator.
Day 5: Decline of the West
Let’s be honest, you’re spending your time in quarantine finally making a dent on the unwatched horror B-movies on your Netflix queue. But if you want to sound impressive to other toilet-paper hoarders, you can do worse than to tell them that you read Original Prin, Randy Boyagoda’s tale of a doomed English professor. The novel opens with ‘Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.’ If you didn’t laugh at that, seek medical attention immediately. But be forewarned, there’s a virus going around.
If you’re not the type to laugh amid pandemics and mass graves, crack the spine of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Day is Now Far Spent. The African churchman takes the west to task for squandering its spiritual inheritance, for exchanging Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the freedom to watch horror B-movies and crack nihilistic jokes about pandemics and mass graves.
Memento Mori, motherfuckers
Bill McMorris is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon.
Day 4: Laughing with Lurie
Fined once at Key West airport for being overweight with too many American hardbacks, this February I was strict. The only hardback I brought back — then read on the plane — was light to carry and has the lightest touch: Words and Worlds, past essays by Alison Lurie, now in her nineties but very compos mentis. I loved her account of attending rehearsals of Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet in 1974 — diva Irene Worth as Gertrude — and her un-bitter description of women’s inferior status at Radcliffe compared to the ‘superior’ Harvard males and the girls’ compliance: ‘when a female classmate attempted to attract the lecturer’s attention, we raised our eyebrows or shook our heads; we considered such behavior rather pushy, possibly a sign of emotional imbalance’.
Lurie is both erudite and hilarious. There’s a large well-informed section on children’s books. ‘The Royal Family of Elephants’ begins ‘for over 70 years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world — and the most controversial. He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living……he has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist.’
There’s a short piece on ‘Zippers’: ‘the zipper revolutionized not only dressing but undressing — and in the process changed relations between the sexes’.
Her last essay ‘Life After Fashion’ contains nuggets of wisdom: ‘an aging woman with bright-red lipstick, especially when it has leaked into the little, otherwise invisible lines round her lips, can look like an elderly vampire, or worse. She can become the sort of terrifying figure that the Ancient Mariner saw on the death ship.’
I laughed out loud several times during my reading.
My American cousin lent me a big paperback collection of Alice Adams’s short stories, which I’d never read. These were both comforting and intellectually satisfying. Many are set in the invented town of Hilton (based partly on Adams’s youth in Chapel Hill, North Carolina), others in Mexico or California. One aspect that struck me was how Americans love to re-marry; several tales were about couples on their second or even third marriages. I managed to finish the last story the night before I flew back to London.
Day 3: Approaching the Montaigne
One of the great self-isolators was Michel de Montaigne, who locked himself away in his estates in horror at the depredations of the Wars of Religion. No fighter, Montaigne’s response was to pick up his pen. The resulting Essays were revelatory, a coruscating exercise in philosophical skepticism that form a cornerstone of western thought. The complete works run to about 900 pages, and the whole thing crackles with brilliance, wit and insight.
Someone else who knew a thing or two about isolation was Cervantes, who in 1575 was abducted by Barbary pirates and held captive for five years, poor man. Don Quixote is another 900-pager, but my-oh-my it doesn’t feel like it. The thing about Cervantes is that he’s just so very funny, funny in a way that even now, after all these centuries, just sings from the page. It’s a joyous, wonderful, absurd and very modern-seeming book. Freud loved it so much, he taught himself Spanish to read it in the original. I have never enjoyed a novel quite as much.
Fancy something shorter, sharper, and much chillier? Then try Endless Night by Agatha Christie. There’s no theatricality to this one, just brilliantly-worked suspense and masterful control. If you’re after something darker still, try The Snow Was Dirty by Georges Simenon, a brutal analysis of a wartime collaborator’s moral vacuity. There’s a cold, ruthless beauty to Simenon’s writing.
But if it’s escapism you’re after, then you have only to reach for P.G. Wodehouse. Summer Lightning and Something Fresh will take you far out of self-isolation to Blandings Castle and to a land of pure joy.
Jay Elwes is a novelist and journalist.
Day 2: The books to end all wars
The History of the Great War from Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Committee of the Imperial Defence is an account of the war effort of the British state between 1914 and 1918, written for the enlightenment of the general public in 109 volumes. I am beginning with those volumes concerning the Western Front, subtitled France and Belgium — two for each war year — compiled and narrated by Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds (1861-1956).
Edmonds’s classmates at the Army Staff College, Camberley included Douglas Haig (commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front), Edmund Allenby (conqueror of Jerusalem) and William Robertson (Chief of the Imperial Staff in 1916.) As a child living in France, Edmonds had witnessed the events surrounding the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and was thereafter a lifelong student of the German army. He spoke several European and Asiatic languages and was regarded as the leading Army intellectual of his day. He is also is credited as a founder the British Secret Service. His articulate soldierly voice, describing terrible slaughter without undue emphasis or emotion, is a great comfort and escape in these upended times, I find. His two 1914 volumes, covering the Battle of Mons and the Retreat can be downloaded from the web.
Jeremy Clarke is The Spectator’s Low Life correspondent.
Day 1: Plants, professors and parsons
What could be more timely and liberating than Stefano Mancuso’s The Incredible Journey of Plants? In this exhilarating new book from Other Press, the eminent Italian neurobiologist shows that plants are an unstoppable force, the greatest colonizers of all as they travel to every nook and cranny of the globe, intent on setting up shop wherever and whenever they can.
Then there is Adam Sisman’s The Professor and the Parson, a riveting tale about Robert Parkin Peters, a gifted imposter in the tradition of Baron Corvo and Trebitsch Lincoln who crossed paths with scholarly luminaries such as Hugh Trevor-Roper. He invented lofty scholarly credentials and wriggled his way into a series of academic and religious positions in America, Canada and the United Kingdom. Exposure always came sooner or later but he achieved a kind of immortality that he could never dreamed of achieving had he been a conventional academic. Sisman tells this delectable tale with such flair that it is almost impossible not to savor his account of Peters’s exploits in a single sitting.
When it comes to Trevor-Roper, I find myself dipping into his Wartime Journals, expertly edited by Richard Davenport-Hines. Davenport-Hines’s suave introduction alone is worth the price of admission and Trevor-Roper’s entries, by turn gossipy and bitchy, illuminating and profound, are always a treat to peruse.
Bonus entries: Judith Cherniak’s superb biography of Robert Schumann, Oliver Sacks’s On the Move and an oldie but goodie, Alan Jefferson’s biography of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest and a contributing editor to The Spectator’s US edition.