This is my tenth year of writing this annual review of books I've read, which means that I have read well over 1,000 books in the process of providing these year-end selections for you, Dear Reader.
This effort has been incredibly rewarding, both intellectually and culturally. I have also thoroughly enjoyed the positive feedback of NRO readers who have told me their thoughts on books I recommend or, even better, that they have selected books to read based on my recommendations that year.
This year, I'll start off light, with some works from the entertainment industry. When I saw that the great Mel Brooks had an autobiography out — and that he had titled it "All About Me!" — I knew I had to read it. It did not disappoint. There were, of course, some laugh-out-loud moments. For instance, Brooks says to a waiter at the very fancy and stuffy Brooks Club in London: "To tell you the truth, I actually changed my name to Brooks. My real name is Melvin Kaminsky. What was the club's name before it was changed to Brooks?" But I also learned a lot about his work. The rap on Brooks is that he did some very funny movies in the 1970s, and then we didn't hear from him much, but this memoir reveals a deeper and richer career than I had remembered.
A more serious and disturbing book about Hollywood was Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel'sRed Carpet. If you've ever wondered why every Hollywood movie seems to highlight the corruption of American institutions yet never will portray anything negative about America's rivals, especially China, read Schwartzel's book. Yes, Hollywood is liberal, but it is also craven, and Chinese political pressure governs the subject of so many political movies. Richard Gere, for example, has completely disappeared from the movies because no studio can hire him after he irked the Chinese with his movie about the Dalai Lama. It's not just that movies critical of China can't be shown in China. Chinese censorship is so intense and far-reaching that any studio that puts out a film elsewhere with any critical messages about China will find itself blacklisted from China's lucrative movie market.
Another good book from a Wall Street Journal employee was Matthew Hennessey's Visible Hand. Hennessey, deputy editor at the Journal's indispensable opinion page, tries to explain markets in an understandable way, teaching that life is about the choices one makes. I also found his insights into how the Journal makes its own choices on its op-ed page extraordinarily helpful: "Space on our pages is extremely limited. We have room for four or five op-eds from outside contributors every day. . . . We go into every decision about every piece knowing that we are potentially giving up something of value, but there's only so much room in the paper. We can't publish it all."
Another editor at an important conservative publication who wrote a book this year was Commentary's Noah Rothman, author of The Rise of the New Puritans. Rothman describes how this "new puritanism" has a real impact on our lives in some nonpolitical ways that people don't even think about. He argues, for example: "Feature length film comedy is becoming an endangered species. . . . In 2008, comedies accounted for a full quarter of major motion picture offerings. A decade later, they made up just 8 percent of releases and a measly 8 percent of domestic revenue at the box office." And yet, perhaps because this puritanism has become so unpleasant, and so pervasive, he sees reason for hope, in the form of a potential counterrevolution: "The outlines of another political realignment are visible in the resentment brewing among those who labor under the yoke of new puritanism. It has all the potential to incept something that the right has long sought but has never brought about: a popular conservative counterculture." We can only hope.
This year was rich in excellent works of history. Jerry Muller's riveting Professor of Apocalypse looks at the brilliant, but forgotten, figure of Jacob Taubes. Taubes was a challenging person, but immensely knowledgeable about mid-20th-century intellectual developments in both the U.S. and Europe. He was an important cross-pollinator of ideas. He introduced Irving Kristol, Dan Bell, and Gertrude Himmelfarb to the works of Leo Strauss. Kristol called Taubes "the only really charismatic intellectual" he had met. Furthermore, Kristol's comment to Muller that "someone should write something about him" encouraged the author to undertake this impressive work.
Matt Continetti's useful history of modern conservatism, The Right, heavily covers both Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley, as it should. Continetti credits Buckley with recognizing that the first task in creating a viable conservative movement was expunging antisemitism, a lesson we would do well to remember today. Continetti also quotes Buckley's appreciation for the neoconservatives, who "taught the conservatives — they certainly taught me methods of the organization of social data, which I wasn't familiar with." The "godfather" of those neoconservatives, Irving Kristol, unexpectedly emerges as the hero of Continetti's book, mentoring and encouraging influential people such as Michael Novak, Free Press editor Erwin Gilkes, Charles Murray, and a host of others.
Kristol and Buckley both appear in Jamie Kirchick's Secret City, a rich history of gay people in Washington during the Cold War era. On Buckley, Kirchick writes, "Through his editorship of National Review, his spirited 1965 campaign for the New York City mayoralty, and, most famously, his hosting the public television debate program Firing Line, Buckley had redefined the popular image of the conservative from that of a rural troglodyte to a cosmopolitan aesthete." And Kirchick also taught me something new about Kristol: When Jack Kemp was trying to combat rumors that he was gay at the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, he sought advice from a group of thinkers that included both the economics writer Jude Wanniski and Kristol.
Kristol also spread his influence via a well-regarded Wall Street Journal column. Another columnist for that paper, Walter Russell Mead, wroteThe Arc of a Covenant, a fascinating look at the history of U.S. engagement with Israel. The standard story of the Jewish vote shaping U.S. policy on Israel is a misleading one. As Mead explains, conservatives are more important in shaping U.S. policy on Israel than are Jews. He notes that "in the United States, the bond with Israel has not only been a hallmark of most conservative political action for more than a generation; the bond has been a common tie that helped hold the fractious conservative coalition together."
Marc Wortman's Admiral Hyman Rickover looks at a largely forgotten character, the admiral who was in charge of nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy in the period after World War II. Rickover was a household name in the '60s and '70s, and was regularly covered in Timemagazine. He was a hard-charging perfectionist who had a brutal interviewing style that is laid out in amusing detail in the book. Wortman captures this very difficult but essential figure in our military history.
The year 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and so Watergate: A New History, Garrett Graff's comprehensive volume on the subject, is well-timed. Of the many Watergate books that have been written, it's really the first to be able to put together the full picture of what happened thanks to archival material and new information that has emerged in recent years. Even if you think you know the story, Graff's book will remind you of moments you may have forgotten, such as Nixon's observation, "It would be god damn easy to run this office if you didn't have to deal with people."
The people a president has to deal with include administration staff, and this year saw a number of memoirs from insiders in the previous administration. Kellyanne Conway's Here's the Deal has a lot of score-settling for those who like that kind of thing. One of the people she clashed with was Jared Kushner. He has his own memoir,Breaking History, that has a lot of insights into Trump and how he approached things as president.
A lesser-known staffer in the administration, Aryeh Lightstone, served as senior adviser to U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Lightstone wrote Let My People Know about his experiences, which provides a more regular-guy narrative of what it's like to be thrust into these situations. He is positively celebratory when he gets the opportunity to ride along for a trip with U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo, which greatly amuses Pompeo. In another story, an "urgent call" that pulls Lightstone from an important meeting turns out to be from his daughter's school, informing him that she has forgotten her lunch and "is starving." This incident leads the Marine guards at the embassy to begin referring to his daughter as "Peanut Butter," and reveling in asking him how "Peanut Butter" is that day. All this makes for a charming memoir from a man who did not expect to be serving at the highest levels of government and therefore never loses his head in the process.
Finally, allow me to close as most books do, with the index. In this case, I'm talking about Dennis Duncan's fascinating Index, A History of the. Books didn't just magically appear with the onset of human writing or even the printing press, and Duncan's book explains how they came to be and then how the innovation of the index followed. It seems like a dry topic, but I was surprised by how many times this book made me laugh. It also taught me a lot, which is the point of all of this reading. So, you, Dear Reader, go forth and read and learn, and hopefully you will laugh in the process as well.