One of the challenges one faces in reading a lot is selecting which books to read: There are just so many out there. For this reason, I not only read a lot of books, but book reviews as well. Alas, book reviews are fewer and farther between these days. The loss of the Washington Post‘s “Book World” a few years ago was compounded this year by the retirement of longtime Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley. And it remains unclear what will happen to the “back of the book” at The New Republic now that Leon Wieseltier has left that post while that once-respectable magazine pursues clickbait.
Fortunately, conservative publications still see the value in book reviews, and I get many a book suggestion from the pages of National Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, and my favorite newspaper section of the week, the Wall Street Journal‘s great “Review” section. I also listen to a host of book podcasts, including NPR Books, John Miller’s Between the Covers, C-SPAN’s Afterwords and Q&A, New Books in History, and KCRW’s Bookworm.
The problem with these sources is that the bulk of their book recommendations are for new books. For this reason, I often make a special effort to look for older books that I can fold into my reading. One of these older ones that I read this year was Richard Rhodes’s masterly The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In these days, when the U.S. has thousands of nuclear warheads, it is easy to forget how difficult and uncertain the entire bomb-making effort was. Rhodes quotes Henry Stimson, secretary of war during the years in which the bomb was created, as saying, “I have been responsible for spending 2 billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth.”
Another older book that covered some of the same ground, but also so much more, is Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. In addition to looking at the Budapest Jews who worked on the Manhattan Project, such as Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, the book discusses others who fled Hungary and were influential in the cultural sphere. Michael Curtis, for example, directed Casablanca, while Robert Capa became a storied war photographer. Until reading this book, I had no idea that Capa was the model for Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rear Window, or that Capa had dated Ingrid Bergman, who was the model for Grace Kelly’s character in the same film.
Among more recent books, one of my favorite reads of the year was Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. One of the reasons that the Soviet spy Philby was able to fool both British and American intelligence and cause untold damage was the existence of an old-boys’ club that didn’t look too closely at its own members. McIntyre notes that a British intelligence official asked Philby’s father “over lunch at the club” about Philby’s politics: “He was a bit of a Communist at Cambridge, wasn’t he?” Jack Philby’s response: “Oh, that was all schoolboy nonsense. He’s a reformed character now.” As MacIntyre shows, he most decidedly was not.
The Americans were not without their own spies in their midst. Mark Bradley’s A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior tells of a high-ranking spy within the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA. Even though a Soviet turncoat fingered Lee, and, unlike Philby, he did not flee, Lee was never punished for his espionage efforts. What’s worse, Bradley notes that “after World War II, the FBI and National Security Agency would identify at least 22 women and men, including Lee, who were Soviet sources inside the OSS.”
Another book about friendship, albeit among more admirable characters, was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I knew the story of the 1912 Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson election, but I had not realized just how close Taft and Roosevelt had been, and for how long they had been friends. Goodwin has a great quote from Roosevelt showing the depths of his political miscalculation in passing the presidency to Taft and then hoping to get it back later: “Oh things will be alright, I have left Taft sitting on the lid.” Thanks to Roosevelt’s error, things were not all right, for Taft or for Roosevelt’s electoral prospects, nor for their friendship, which shattered over the bitter election fight. The book also has a very interesting subtheme on the rise of investigative journalism. In this part of the book, Goodwin tells us that the journalist Ray Stannard Baker had a series in the winter and spring of 1910 called: “Is the Republican Party Breaking Up?” It’s been more than a hundred years, and journalists still love writing that same story.
A different book on an important and intense rivalry was Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. NRO readers know Yuval from his insightful posts in the Corner, and his magazine, National Affairs, is must reading (although I do wish they would do book reviews). The book will really make you think about where you stand on the political spectrum, and why. For my part, I was surprised at the degree to which I found myself sympathizing with Paine, something I had not anticipated.
Another fascinating book about the origins of ideology, in this case a bad one, was Josh Muravchik’s Making David into Goliath. This book details how Israel went from being an admired nation in the 1960s to a pariah nation today. As Muravchik details, this evolution was not accidental, as Israel’s foes engaged in a concerted effort to assault Israel on multiple fronts. A combination of strategically directed terrorism, shameless distribution of oil money, and the adaptation of leftist victimology put Israel in its current state, loathed by leftists, European nations, and Arab states alike. Muravchik cites a telling quote from Golda Meir, Israeli prime minister in the 1970s, on European nations’ silence on behalf of Israel: “Of course they can’t talk. Their throats are choked with oil.” It’s a depressing read, but perhaps only through understanding how it happened can Israel’s allies come up with a plan to change things for the better.
Finally, for my sins, and in anticipation of 2016, I read multiple books about Hillary Clinton this year, including Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen’s HRC, Daniel Halper’s Clinton, Inc., Kim Ghattas’s The Secretary, and Hillary’s own book, which was dull in both title and content. Halper’s was the most informative of the bunch, as it showed how all the Clintons — Hillary and Bill, but also Chelsea — have profited from their various post–White House ventures. I am also looking forward to Gil Troy’s (yes, relation) forthcoming book about the Clintons and the 1990s, which I am reading in draft form over the holidays, and will fill readers in on during next year’s roundup.