From the editor’s desk
I read a lot and many of the books I read get reviewed in these pages, either in longer reviews or essays under my byline or as unsigned brief reviews. But there are many that I can’t get around to writing a review about and I want to let you know about several of them, and conclude this From the Editor’s Desk by strongly recommending several that were reviewed in these pages.
A theme that comes up from time to time in these pages is that the goal of human existence (other than reaching heaven) is a healthy human flourishing. Human flourishing includes the amusements and avocations in which we partake. That can include high and middlebrow culture (and thus the monthly Amusements column of Rick McGinnis), but also our hobbies and past-times. Two books that were quite splendid examinations of a large part of many people’s lives – although not mine – were books about bicycles and drinking. Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle by Jody Rosen (Crown: $39, 396 pages) is part history, part memoir, part polemic. Rosen traces the history of the bicycle from its invention in 1817 (litigating competing (nationalist) claims to inventing a version of the bike) to the current culture wars over bicycles as a “green” mode of transportation. The book’s politics minimally detract from a fascinating history of the bike, including how cities do or do not accommodate cyclists. The switch from bicycles to automobiles in Red China is a fascinating story, with ramifications that ripple throughout the globe. In Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (Little, Brown, $23.99 pb, 367 pages), Edward Slingerland offers a truly absorbing book that blends (sorry) history, neuroscience, and numerous other disciplines in a fascinating narrative about the history of alcohol. Slingerland focuses on the benefits of drinking (for example fostering creativity and social bonds, among others) rather than the costs (intoxication), while offering suggestions on how to better integrate drinking into our personal lives and social order. The author is wrong to find that society’s signals are against consuming alcohol and thus his motivation for “explicitly acknowledging and documenting the functional usefulness, individual solace, and deep pleasure provided by alcohol and other intoxicants (as) a much-needed corrective” is certainly suspect. But Slingerland provides a fascinating history of excessive tippling and the (supposed) benefits it provides.
Among my interests beyond the topics typically covered in these pages are economics and sports. I typically read a lot of books about baseball and football, but not this year. Still, I got time to read How to Beat a Broke Game: The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink by Pedro Moura (Public Affairs, $37, 253 pages). I have soured on the game in recent years because the game has become so perfect, it is interminably boring. I am a stat-head and applauded the Moneyball approach that used analytics to squeeze out every tiny advantage. As data eliminated inefficiencies in the game, and the games became dull. Moura examines the L.A. Dodgers of 2020, their World Series-winning season, and how they took advantage of analytics to assemble a successful team. The book is more about the Dodgers than a sport “on the brink” and ultimately it serves as a useful reminder: regardless of the machinations of general managers and managers, success is ultimately about execution on the field. Knowing what gives an advantage is not the same thing as exploiting it. (The highlight of the book, however, is Dodgers vice president of operations Andrew Friedman, creator of the defensive shift that moves the pitching teams players en masse to where a hitter is likely to hit the ball, saying, “One of the most challenging aspects of the shift is that it’s a terrible quality-of-life play. I just deemed winning more important than that.”)
I read much more economics this year. I will recommend just one: Visible Hand: A Wealth of Notions on the Miracle of the Market by Matthew Hennessey (Encounter, $28, 230 pages). The Wall Street Journal deputy op-ed editor writes a accessible defense of free markets for “people (who) are afraid of economics, or confused or intimidated by it.” Ultimately, economics is not about numbers but human action: responding to incentives and weighing tradeoffs. You might think this is contradictory to my review of the excellent book Wild Problems by Russell Roberts that I reviewed last month, but it is not. The problem with economics is that some economists believe that humanity can be reduced to calculating machines. But just because we cannot be, does not mean that we do not sometimes act self-interestedly by doing a cost-benefit analysis of our actions. Hennessey will teach readers about key concepts such as markets, prices, specialization, work, and business to help us understand the world a little better and with it the knowledge that it is exceedingly difficult to coordinate society according to some leader’s or bureaucrat’s diktats because they cannot take into account individual human action. While we often refer to the “capitalist system,” Hennessey is correct to call the adding up of “all the investing and building … and you get something that resembles a system’,” but it was not “constructed and maintained” but was the result of what F.A. Hayek called “spontaneous order.” Nobody manages the free market; it is, in Hennessey’s words, “merely a summa of individual choices and voluntary market transactions.” I will not say that this book matches Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson (1946), but it is close.
Speaking of Hayek, I should mention a second economics book: The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, Volume 18: Essays on Liberalism and the Economy (University of Chicago Press, $123.50, 549 pages). Hayek professed not being a conservative, but he was no mere libertarian, either. The essays and speeches collected are focused on liberal economics (freedom, the Fabian socialists, Keynesianism, rent control, government interference, unions) and liberalism (principles and language in political thought). They speak to us today just as they did when he wrote them throughout the 20th century. Two worth special note for readers of this publication: “The Atavism of Social Justice” and “Socialism and Science.” It is hard to say that these essays are worth the price of the book, but they are important critiques what I would call a pseudo-social justice (in the former) and the connection between socialism and scientism (in the latter), both of which are important to understanding today even though they were lectures delivered in October 1976.
I am a sucker for collections of essays or columns, and one of the best this year was Diogenes Unveiled: A Paul Mankowski Collection edited by Philip Lawler (Ignatius, $18, 294 pages), a collection of the late priest’s columns. It is the second such collection from the indispensable Ignatius Press, following a collection edited by George Weigel in 2021, Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by Paul Mankowski, S.J. ($18, 237 pages). I read both this year and it was a richly rewarding experience. Fr. Mankowski wrote under the pseudonym Diogenes for Catholic World Report and other online publications because he was not free to write without the heavy hand of his Jesuit superiors coming down on him. The essays are a delight to read because Fr. Mankowski was a skilled writer and gifted logician, and the range is impressive, with essays on his time in Armenia and Romania among the poor to savage critiques of the likes Elaine Pagels, author of the Gnostic Gospels. While one of the main benefits of such collections is that they can be put down and returned to without great demerit, it was difficult putting down Diogenes Unveiled. While entertaining, certainly, there is great wisdom and criticism in these pages, with perhaps the most important: “God gives no command for which he does not give adequate grace to accomplish.”
Which brings me to three collections of essays that have been reviewed in these pages that I highly recommend not only for your reading pleasure and edification, but as suggestions for wonderful gifts. Two are collections of the writing of G.K. Chesterton: The Story of the Family: G.K. Chesterton on the Only State that Creates and Loves Its Own Citizens edited by Dale Ahlquist (Ignatius, $17.95, 237 pages) and What Wrong with the World by G.K. Chesterton with a foreword by Sohrab Ahmari (Sophia, $18, 238 pages). I am firmly of the view that the world needs more Chesterton, and having the new collection of his writing on the family (The Story of the Family) and his critique of the wayward culture, economics, education, and politics of early 20th century Britain (What’s Wrong with the World), illustrates the truism that it often seems like Chesterton is writing about today’s travails as much as those of a century ago. We are blessed to have a Chesterton in our own time; my friend Harley Price, an equally brilliant thinker and stylist, whose collection Give Speech a Chance: Heretical Essays … On What You Can’t Say Or Even Think (FGF Books, $31.25, 325 pages) is essential reading to understand the Cult of Woke and the Covidocracy that infects our politics and culture today. I worry that a century hence, Price’s warnings, having gone unheeded, will still seem contemporaneous.