At Last: Good Books

If the last really good conservative book you put on your shelf was written before 1980 (or 1950), you may find these six new books worth a look.

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I’m not sure whether it’s Obama’s fault, Wall Street’s fault, or whether people have just started wising up to the shortcomings of centralized planning, but a lot of good conservative reading has been published in the past year. I’ve shared below some of the books I particularly appreciated. Not all are written by conservatives, but they are all clearly born from the same historical moment: the time when, at long last, humans began to realize the limits of what they could control, and began wondering what the political significance of that might be.

The Uses of Pessimism (and the Danger of False Hope) – Roger Scruton

This is a lively and witty critique of what Scruton calls “unscrupulous optimists.” In this camp we might put many Enlightenment thinkers, Marxists, Progressives, Libertarians, technocrats, and other ideologues. Scruton philosophically deconstructs one fallacy of the Unscrupulous Optimists after another; the Best Case fallacy, the Born Free fallacy, the Utopian fallacy, the Zero Sum fallacy, the Aggregation fallacy, and others. Scruton is not ultimately against optimism—really, he thinks we should be scrupulous optimists, who don’t make policy decisions based on fantasy. But given that politics today is, and has been for some decades, governed mainly by Unscrupulous Optimists, Scruton makes one very glad there are pessimists around…and provides some superb intellectual ammunition for them to use.

Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly – John Kay

I have reviewed this book at greater length here; Kay is a London economist who doesn’t really think like an economist any more.  What he does in “Obliquity” is to demonstrate the limits of what humans can know, predict, and control. He doesn’t get too deep into the political implications of what he writes, which leaves the thoughtful reader to notice on his own that Kay has—without directly challenging it—unhinged the prevailing wisdom of not only the 20th-century economist, but also of post-Enlightenment political theory. I would rather have seen Kay eliminate about a third of this book (which gets redundant after the first few chapters) and dive into politics instead, but what is there is worth a read nonetheless.

Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World – The Prince of Wales

I had mainly known Prince Charles as the man who advocated Poundbury, the lovely New Urbanist utopia that looks like it was born out of the 17th century but is in reality brand new. I read this book on Rod Dreher’s recommendation, and it turns out His Highness has a more holistic way of thinking. “Harmony” is his case for rediscovering a classical approach to life—how we build, how we grow and eat our food, how we interact with nature, and so on. In a nutshell, he thinks there is a natural order and human flourishing comes with living according to that natural order, rather than (as C.S. Lewis said in “The Abolition of Man”) trying to conquer or ignore it. If you’ve been trying to show your friends why old architecture, organic produce, or mixed-use living is better, this is the book for you. Much of the book revels in descriptions of beautiful things–the mathematics of music, Chartres Cathedral, an organic farm in Hertfordshire–and is just plain therapeutic to read. As an added bonus, this book is filled with magnificent color photographs: mainly of the best of nature and man’s ability to build things that complement it. It’s easy to disagree with some of the Prince’s conclusions (he has a few dubious ideas about environmentalism and family planning), but given the symbolic role of the British monarchy, this kind of big-picture prophetic task—calling a nation back to its soul without regard for reelection prospects—is perfect work for a prince.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement – David Brooks

Easily the best new book I’ve read in a long time. It’s been compared with Malcolm Gladwell’s pop psychology, but whereas Gladwell makes one insightful point per chapter, Brooks makes three or four per page. Benjamin Storey, in The New Atlantis, thinks Brooks has gotten carried away with neuroscience and is trying to glorify science, just in a new way. That’s not how I interpreted the book. I think Brooks likes the fascinating psychological discoveries of the past few decades not because it brings new revelations about human nature, but rather because it confirms what conservatives knew about it all along. Tradition, community, morality, the family, and various other things conservatives have tried to defend against the press of moral individualism—well, it turns out there’s an abundance of scientific evidence that humans need precisely those things in order to thrive and be happy. And Brooks provides a very engaging, thought-provoking journey through that evidence.

The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor’s Approach to Urban Revitalization That Can Work Anywhere – Rick Baker

The two-term mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida saw his city go from worst to first, almost literally. Baker’s book is a simple, readable look at what he and his city did to turn things around. Since St. Petersburg has more in common with your average American city than with a huge metropolis, this is in some ways a more instructive lesson than the troubles and triumphs of New York or Chicago. Now an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Baker walks his reader through how his people in St. Petersburg sparked their downtown area, turned the worst part of town into a thriving community, made a car-oriented city the most walkable city in Florida, virtually eliminated their problem with homelessness, and a lot more—while reducing property tax rates. This isn’t philosophy—it’s a practical book that is worth consideration for anybody who is interested in making his own community work better.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier – Edward Glaeser

If Russell Kirk’s “The Roots of American Order” was the historical and philosophical case for the value of urban life to Western civilization, Glaeser’s book is the social science case. Glaeser tells you what’s good about slums, why Jane Jacobs (right about so many things) was wrong about skyscrapers, why sprawl has spread, and why less regulation is good for city growth. Glaeser’s is definitely more of a free-market approach to cities, for better and worse, and (but?) he makes some strong points along the way. More importantly, he recognizes cities for the laboratories of human greatness that they are; he sees the great scientific, artistic, economic, medical, and political advances that have come from putting lots of exciting people within walking distance of each other—and this book is his attempt to trace what it is about great cities that makes those things happen, and what our cities need today to be the next Florence, Paris, or New York.


  • October 25, 2011

    Peter S.

    Surely conservative offerings are not so scanty these days that we have to read HRH’s Malthusian rubbish.

  • October 25, 2011

    Brian Brown

    Read the book. There’s a lot of good stuff in it.