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Library of old books Menendez Pelayo in Santander, Spain. (Manuel Alvarez/Getty Images)
(Manuel Alvarez/Getty Images)

Best Books 2016: Conservative Reading Choices

Tevi Troy

The year 2016 was a good one for books by men named Yuval. Over the past year, I read two, and both were excellent. The first Yuval is Yuval Levin, justifiably well known to NR readers. His Fractured Republic deserves the accolades it has been receiving. It is a cogent and well-reasoned look at how we have come to our present situation of bitter partisanship and broken politics, but it also makes a compelling case for a realistic path forward. He suggests a form of “subsidiarity,” i.e., getting away from solutions at the federal level and finding more answers locally. The book is a devastating indictment of the welfare state and a good primer for effective conservative policymaking in the future.

The other Yuval is Yuval Harari, whose __Sapiens __is a look at our unique species and all that we have accomplished. Harari shows that humanity as we know it has not been around that long when compared to the lifespan of our planet. More interestingly and more originally, he also explains in a compelling way why humanity as we know it may not continue for that long in its current form, either. Hariri sketches out a number of ways this could happen, as technology could enhance both the human mind and the body into something that might not be recognizable to earlier generations.

Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress tells the full story of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. I had certainly seen the famous picture of an armed and militant-looking Hearst in a beret, but did not know much beyond that. Toobin explains why Hearst was so susceptible to the brainwashing of the Symbionese Liberation Army, noting Hearst’s amusing recollection about her confused childhood: “My father is a registered Republican who always votes Democrat. My mother is a registered Democrat who always votes Republican.”

To my mind, the Wall Street Journal puts out the best op-ed page in the business, so I am always impressed when the folks there manage to produce books as well. Melanie Kirkpatrick, who has been sitting in as op-ed editor this fall, put out the delightful Thanksgiving. I like the holiday of Thanksgiving and all, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I opened the book. I was pleased to find it fun and informative. I had no idea that the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving was not the first American Thanksgiving, that the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was lost until rediscovered in the 19th century, and that none of the traditional Thanksgiving foods were actually eaten at that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving. Along the way, I also learned a great deal about presidents and Thanksgiving, and football and Thanksgiving, which dates back to the 1870s.

Sohrab Ahmari, who works for the Journal in London, wrote an interesting and disconcerting book called The New Philistines, about leftist politics infecting the art world. This short book is reminiscent of pre-novelist Tom Wolfe books such as The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, which told amusing but depressing tales about lefty politics making their way into the art world, making both art and politics worse in the process.

Mark Landler’s Alter Egos considers what Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy might have looked like. The not-too-shocking answer: not that different from Obama’s. Landler talks about the politics Hillary brought to the State Department, concluding that “Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political.” He notes that former senator Bill Cohen brought one aide with him when he became defense secretary in 1997. In contrast, he notes, “Hillary ended up bringing close to one hundred to State.” As for Obama, Landler highlights just how bad the relationship has been between him and Israel. Obama’s relationship with Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu “was, bar none, the worst relationship he had with any foreign leader.” Landler makes it clear that this problem stemmed directly from Obama. On this, Landler cites a top Israeli official: “There is tremendous personal animus from Obama toward Bibi; there is no animus from Bibi toward Obama.” Outgoing president Obama showed this animus once again this week, orchestrating his parting shot at Israel via a misguided U.N. resolution that may harm Israel politically, but will do little to bring about peace.

While Obama focuses on the negative when it comes to Israel, Seth Siegel tells an amazing story about Israeli technical know-how in his Let There Be Water. Siegel lays out the immense difficulty of securing enough water to support a thriving modern nation of 8 million in a water-starved part of the world, and shows how Israel has used innovative new technologies to overcome the problem. In doing this, Israel is not just helping Israeli citizens, but the Palestinians as well. Only about 10 percent of West Bank Palestinians had running water before Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967. Today, 96 percent of West Bank Palestinians have running water. Unfortunately, Siegel notes that there is no reciprocal generosity on the water front: “The goal of the PA’s water policy is, more generally, to inflict harm on Israel’s reputation.” Siegel also sprinkles in some humor, if you will, noting that Israel offered the Chinese a demonstration project on Israel’s water capabilities in a small Chinese city. The Chinese selected a city of 1 million, prompting laughter from the Israelis. As Prime Minister Netanyahu explained, “Mr. Premier, we have no city in Israel with a population of one million people.”

As a father of four, I enjoyed Abby Schachter’s No Child Left Alone. Schachter wrote her gripping and unsettling book upon learning that government regulators in Pennsylvania would not allow day-care workers to swaddle her child. Schachter, a swaddling proponent, decided to explore other areas where government got in the way of child-rearing, finding an entire book’s worth of material. While Schachter is rightfully outraged at all of the ways that government intrudes on parenting, in the process making day care more expensive for parents who need it, she too brings a sense of humor to her inquiry. At one point she asks, “Is there really a government entity banning fun and taking toys out of the hands of children? Why, yes it’s called the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” Hopefully, with the departure of the Obama administration, we can at least get some of these unwarranted assaults on liberty removed at the federal level.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank NRO for its kind words written about my new book, Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office, Yuval Levin wrote about it here and later included it among his favorite books of the year; Stanley Kurtz said it “just might scare the daylights out of you — in the very nicest way, of course”; Al Felzenberg reviewed it favorably on dead tree; and Jonah Goldberg plugged it in his indispensable G-File. I am grateful to all of them, and to all of you readers out there as well. As a more hopeful 2017 kicks in, my advice is as it always is: There are lots of great books out there, so keep reading.

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