January – The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky'tis the season for making lists, and this one is far better than anything that has ever appeared in the NY Times book lists,* or at least in the last half century. I certainly recommend Lewis' Space Trilogy and try to read it or parts of it every year. But there are two on the list I cannot suffer.
February – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
March – Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
April – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
May – The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
June – No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
July – The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
August – Moby Dick (or The Whale) by Herman Melville
September – 1984 by George Orwell
October – We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
November – That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
December – The Count of Monte Cristo By Alexandre Dumas
(from the list here)
The first is 1984. Given that I graduated high school in 1984 and so the book hung above my head like some literary sword of Damocles, you might be surprised to learn that I have never finished it. Oh, I tried a couple times, but after slogging through page after page, the part of my brain that whispered "realize that you will never get this time back, ever" eventually won out. Switch that to Animal Farm. Napoleon Pig, FTW!
The second is Rand's Fountainhead. It's not that it's a big book that is the problem, it's that Rand does not have anything to say that should take nearly that long. Swap that out for Anthem, then toss in Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress and maybe Double Star. No, they are not Rand, and thank God for that.
So now that we've cleared up a little space, it might be time to wedge in a little light non-fiction.
I re-read an essay last night that had been on the shelf for a while, and it goes a long way toward explaining not only why we seem to be falling apart, but why it's going to get worse. It's the last essay in Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy called "The Dangers of Peace."
In addition to that essay, I highly recommend the book's namesake essay as well as "Was Democracy Just a Moment?" "Idealism Won't Stop Mass Murder" might also be apt considering the idealism of teachers who this week are declaring that all we need to do is pass a law and school shootings won't happen anymore.** They are fairly short pieces (most of them were published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1990s). While I seldom agree with Kaplan completely on anything - and while some of the essays are hopelessly outdated now - he is very much worth listening to and wrestling with. Here's a .pdf of the whole book. It's also available for a penny on Amazon, I think. You have no excuse not to get it.
The Fourth Turning (Strauss-Howe) - by the authors of Generations, this book explains how having a generation like the Boomers (they come along every 4 without fail) in charge always results in societal breakdown and total war. So we've got that going for us. Or coming at us.
The Sovereign Individual (Davidson and Rees-Mogg) is one I have read a handful of times. This insightful book explains why technology will result in the fiery death of all large organizations, especially large, broke governments, and how a lot of people who live very well with very little effort on their part will not like it all that much. Also by the same authors, Blood in the Streets and The Great Reckoning, recommended in that order. If you look closely, you can get them on Amazon for a penny or so.
The thing I like about all these books is that they stand the Fukuyama thesis (The End of History) on its head. The end of the Cold War does not mean, as the US State Department seems to think,*** that liberal democracy is the final form of human government and that votes will henceforth rule the world. While they do not come to the same conclusions about what governments will or even ought to look like, all of these authors realize that violence applied by individuals and groups ultimately rules the world, and that there's nothing magical about democracy that makes it inevitable or in a number of cases even desirable. Each of them has helped me reach the conclusion that politics is at present an all but futile response to the challenges we face.**** We can talk about avoiding the slippery slope of slanted death all we want, but once the ride starts - as it has in earnest - there is really no choice but to hang on and scream. It's going to be an ugly decade, at least. But once we reach the bottom of the slide, we can dust ourselves off and start climbing again.
And batting cleanup, I recommend you celebrate the Mayan non-apocalypse with a glass of wine and a nice little novel about the end of the world and the happy-go-lucky days that follow: Lucifer's Hammer. And don't forget your towel.
* For some reason, "damning with faint praise" comes to mind, but it's certainly not my intent.
** I suggest a law against murder might prove quite effective in such cases.
*** You keep using that word...
**** primarily a lethal cocktail of bad mathematics and cultural despair.