City Journal editor Brian Anderson joins Vanessa Mendoza, executive vice president of the Manhattan Institute, for our second annual discussion of Brian’s summer and vacation reading list.
Summer is upon us, and the City Journal editors are ready for some vacation. We asked Brian to tell us what books he’s taking with him to the beach this year and why.
Check out Brian’s summer reading list, in the order discussed:
- The Conservative Sensibility, by George Will
- Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age, Remi Brague
- Infinite Baseball, by Alve Noë
- The Awfully Big Adventure of Michael Jackson in the Afterlife, by Paul Morley
- Orange World and Other Stories, by Karen Russell
- Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicolas Taleb
- The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, Alan Brinkley
Also discussed in the episode:
- Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell
- Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Benedicte Delorme-Montini, by Pierre Manent
- The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
- Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami
- MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom, by Tony Robbins
- Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay
Vanessa Mendoza: Welcome back to another edition of the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Vanessa Mendoza. I am the executive vice president at the Manhattan Institute and a proud City Journal Publications Committee member. Today we are turning the tables on your regular host, Brian Anderson for what is now officially an annual podcast tradition, Brian's summer reading list. If you missed last year's episode, here's the background. I've worked with Brian for many years now and he has been, since the very beginning, my first stop for book recommendations— not just for the summer, but all year long. But every summer Brian curates a particularly good list for his August vacation, and since I am not the only one in the office who waits for this list, we thought we'd share it with you, our audience. So summer's here and Brian's getting ready to leave us in a couple of weeks, and that means I get to bother him about what books he'll be reading on the beach. One announcement before we get started: City Journal readers will be delighted to know that the Summer 2019 issue of the magazine is hot off the press and in fact, it is in my hands in our studio right now. They should start arriving in mailboxes later this week. If you are not a subscriber, you should be. Of course you can read the pieces online, but there is nothing like holding the magazine in your hands. It is absolutely beautiful. So please look for it in your neighborhood bookstore or make sure to subscribe online. Okay, that's it for the introduction. We'll take a quick break and we'll be back with Brian Anderson after the music.
Vanessa Mendoza: Okay, we are back. I am Vanessa Mendoza, the executive vice president at the Manhattan Institute and CJ Publications Committee member, and joining me in the studio is the editor of City Journal and the regular host of 10 Blocks, your friend and mine, Brian Anderson. Brian, welcome to your own podcast.
Brian Anderson: Thank you, Vanessa. Very glad to be here, as I am, on the other side of the microphone.
Vanessa Mendoza: I'm sure. Well, at the Manhattan Institute and of course in the City Journal office, we are all big readers. But you may be the most eclectic, or maybe even idiosyncratic in your curation of the books that you read. So why don't we just start with a general question, which is, how do you go about devising this summer list of yours? Are you deliberately hitting all different areas and genres or does it come together organically?
Brian Anderson: I think it's probably a little more organic than planned out. I try to get a range of books. I don't want too many very long ones because I like being able to read at least six or seven books while on vacation. So maybe I'll do one or two bigger ones and then a series of smaller ones. I try to get some fiction in there, but also books that I've noticed over the past months that, either for historical reasons I've wanted to read, or things that have been in the news more recently that I haven't had the opportunity to get to. It's always a real opportunity for me to catch up on intellectual currents, and it's really the one period of the year where I get to read things other than manuscripts for most of the time. So much of your time running a magazine is just involved with reading things that are coming across your desk— submissions, things in the news. So this is just a super opportunity.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I love your lists, not just because they suggest many things for me to take on my vacation, but it's sort of like peering into the mind of Brian Anderson— all the things that you like, all the things that you're looking to learn about. So it's a lot of fun getting your list every summer. With that, let's jump right in. You have seven books on your list this year. First up is George Will's new book, The Conservative Sensibility. Tell us why you put it on your list.
Brian Anderson: Well, I've been reading George Will as a columnist for years. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner, of course. He's been one of the more astute commentators on every aspect of our political life, both domestic and foreign, for decades now. But this book is George Will wearing his scholar's hat, his political philosopher's hat. It's kind of his magnum opus describing his vision of America, of the founding, and providing a critique of where he sees the country heading with regard to things like natural rights and the rise of the administrative state. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a big book— this is my biggest book this summer. But I think Will and his reputation deserve the attention.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I love this book. We were very lucky— for those of you that don't know, we have a young leaders program at the Manhattan Institute and right now the Young Leaders Circle takes place in New York City, and it's an event that we host every month for our under- 45 membership group— and we had George will last month as our guest, and I had the opportunity to interview him. And it was fascinating, not only because, as you say, this is a real culmination of his work, but this is a man who's originally from Illinois, but who has spent the last 50 years in Washington. And so his observations over time are not just fascinating, but, I think, really important. He describes a lot of things that I think those of us at the magazine and at the institute know, but that are really important for a greater audience, including how far away the general public has gotten from understanding the founder's original vision, how absolutely progressives have rejected it, and so he makes a really big plea.
Brian Anderson: It's a very libertarian vision for Will, more so than I would have been expecting, but I think he's moved in that direction in his thinking over time. So it's a strong defense of natural rights, of limited government, of the role of religion in public life, the importance of property, all of these things that he articulates as being part of this incredible new vision of the founding fathers. And then, as I mentioned earlier, the book is also a description of how we're— as you've just said— drifting away from these things over time.
Vanessa Mendoza: Yeah. There's a lot to take away from the book, but the big news in the book is his views on judicial supervision, because this is a big move for him from what he had formerly believed.
Brian Anderson: Right. And here I would disagree with him. He is very antimajoritarian, I guess you would say, in his conservatism. So he believes that the originalist constitutional thinkers like Robert Bork, or, on the court, Scalia, have ceded too much ground to the popular will in the way they think about the constitution. And Will is in favor of a more activist judiciary, but one that would be defending the founder's vision of natural rights.
Vanessa Mendoza: He says that judicial deference to Congress and the executive, in his words, is an abdication of duty. It's fascinating, he has a long chapter on this. I think it's a really important read whether you agree with that particular portion or not. The book is absolutely beautifully written, very important, and so I will look forward to talking to you about it once you've had a chance to get through it.
Brian Anderson: Yeah, looking forward to it.
Vanessa Mendoza: Will does talk about the role of religion, but he is what he calls a low-voltage atheist, so God did not play too central a role in his book, but that is not the case for the next book on your list, which is Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age by Rémi Brague. Tell us a little bit about the book and why you picked it.
Brian Anderson: Well, Brague is a preeminent French theologian and philosopher; he's taught in the U.S. as well. This is his first book that was composed in English. Several of his other books have been translated, including The Law of God, a book called The Kingdom of Man that recently came out in English; Eccentric Culture is another book he wrote, which was a kind of theory of the foundations of Western civilization. This book is based on a series of lectures he's given over the years in America, and it's really a kind of critique of the modern world arguing that we've lost a kind of transcendent ground for recognizing the fundamental importance of human beings or even of the natural order— that we recognize these things as important, but we no longer have a way of saying why in a kind of deep philosophical sense. So his argument in this book, as I gather it to be, is that we should look to, or we can look to, the Middle Ages, not in the sense of trying to return us to a more primitive era, but in the sense of trying to grasp its understanding of creation as divinely established and good, intrinsically good. In his view, the risk of losing sight of that kind of transcendence is that we're going to wind up in a kind of nihilism and begin treating people as mere matter or cogs in a machine. So I'm looking forward to it. This is a deep book, I imagine, having read several things of his before, but it's also nice and short.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, he was not a student of, but I think he was heavily influenced by Strauss.
Brian Anderson: He's conversant with that language. He was a teacher; he's retired now— he's an emeritus professor at the University of Paris. But he was a medievalist and he's an expert in Arabic philosophy and Islamic thought. He's won a major religious prize, called the Joseph Ratzinger Prize after the later pope, which many people consider a kind of Nobel Prize of theology. So he's a heavy hitter. I think the connection with Strauss probably comes through the University of Chicago, where I believe he has taught. And the University of Chicago has published several of his books.
Vanessa Mendoza: That's right. He gives Strauss a lot of credit.
Brian Anderson: Yeah. He's very conversant, again, with all of these European currents of intellectual life and writes very beautifully, too.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, taking a right turn from there, the third book on your list is Infinite Baseball by Alva Noë. I know you're a basketball fan; I think I sort of knew you're a baseball fan. Is that pretty large for you?
Brian Anderson: When I was growing up, I was obsessed with baseball. I would play it with my friends every day after school or during the summer. I obsessively followed all of the statistical information; I used to buy Sporting News, or have my parents buy it for me, and pore over all of the hitting charts. I'd listen to the Red Sox— I grew up in the Boston area— on the radio or would go to Fenway Park and see games a lot. I played this game called Strat-O-Matic; it was a board game, and you managed teams, and the players were represented by cards, and the cards translated all of their statistical abilities into the game. But I got away from baseball over the years, and, as you mentioned, I'm much more of a basketball fan now, and have followed soccer the last five or six years. But I want to read this book, Infinite Baseball— Alva Noë is the author, he's a philosopher— to see if I can reconnect with my youthful interests in this area. Major League Baseball is just incredibly profitable these days. It's profitable because of the number of games and the TV contracts, but attendance is dropping and younger people aren't as enthusiastic about baseball. They find it too slowly paced, as I kind of do now. But this book, from what I understand about it, makes an intellectual case for baseball and tries to take you inside games— what is actually going on in a game— and explaining what that says about life, so that when you watch a baseball game, you're not going to be bored. You can understand that there's an entire array of things going on that are very, very important.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I'll note that our first author on our list today, George Will, has also blurbed this book, which makes sense since he's such a big baseball fan.
Brian Anderson: Right. Will is a huge baseball fan. I never read Men at Work, his famous book on baseball. But he also did a little one, which I did read a couple of years ago, on the history of the Chicago Cubs— Will is a huge Chicago Cubs fan— and I found that charming.
Vanessa Mendoza: So we've gone back to your childhood for baseball. I think in part we've gone back to your teenage years for your next book, which is called The Awfully Big Adventure: Michael Jackson in the Afterlife by Paul Morley. Now, Paul is an English music journalist, and why I'm sure that connects to you is something our listeners probably don't know: you started your work life in a music store.
Brian Anderson: Yes, that's right. I can remember, in fact, when Michael Jackson's Thriller was the big hit record when I was working in the record store at that time— that was his famous album that was produced by Quincy Jones— that record was just flying out of the store day after day after day for years. It was really an extraordinary music success. It's been ten years now since Jackson died in Los Angeles. He was an early victim of the opioid crisis in a way, or opioid abuse. But people have started to forget about his extraordinary cultural influence, which was very pronounced when I was working at the record store: as a singer, a dancer, as a pioneer in the MTV era of videos, short films, accompanying music. These days, though, when we think of Michael Jackson— if you think about him at all— it's as a kind of monster mutilating his face through plastic surgery, whitening his skin, and of course for all of his creepy interest in children and the rumors that he was a pedophile. So this book is trying to come to terms with Michael Jackson, to look at this tragic arc of his life. The author, Paul Morley, was a writer I first began to read when I was in my early twenties. He was a great music critic and writer for New Musical Express, which was a British weekly music newspaper. I would go into Boston and hit the newsstand whenever the new edition would come out, every week; it was something I just pored over page after page. He authored a book two years ago on David Bowie called The Age of Bowie, which I also read. He's, as you mentioned, a kind of regular presence in British media. I've loved his musical sensibility and he's brought a lot of pleasure into my life over the years, just through his music recommendations and criticism. But there's another interesting detail. The other great critic for New Musical Express at that time, his morally youthful partner in crime, was a writer called Ian Penman, who now writes regularly for City Journal. He's published wonderful essays for us on Walter Benjamin, Steely Dan, James Brown, John Fahey; he's just a great writer himself. So it's been exciting to connect with this aspect of my youth through the magazine. And this is a short book as well.
Vanessa Mendoza: You're right. No matter what happened to him, Michael Jackson definitely still lives on. My seven-year-old is dancing to Thriller.
Brian Anderson: Right. There you go. So it is still present.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, that looks good, and so does your next book, which is called Orange World by Karen Russell. Karen is an American novelist; she's essentially a short story writer, I think that's the majority of what she does. She's best known for a book called Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As I think I've told you before, I've never read Karen Russell, but I'm really interested in her book Vampires in the Lemon Grove. But tell us why you picked Orange World.
Brian Anderson: Well, I had read her novel Swamplandia!, which is sort of a surrealist tale set in Florida about a family of alligator wrestlers, and they have a run-down amusement park in the Everglades and supernatural things creep in, and I just found it a kind of riveting book that came out maybe six or seven years ago. So I love that book. I have not read, though, her short stories, and she is best known for her short stories. A previous collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which you just mentioned, came out in 2013 and this new collection, Orange World and Other Stories, has just appeared and it looks terrific. She writes these fantastic, Gothic stories about human nature, about family, about complex relationships, and she can be— at least on the basis of Swamplandia! and what I've read about some of these short stories— funny and terrifying and tender at the same time, all within 20 pages. So this collection reportedly features stories about a ghost ship, a town succubus, tourism in a post-apocalyptic drowned city, and the devil, among other things. So it sounds like it will be a very entertaining beach read.
Vanessa Mendoza: The story which is, I think, the primary story about the devil is about a new mother desperate to ensure her baby's safety. She strikes a deal with the devil in exchange for the child's protection. Something tells me that story will float for a long time in the public ether.
Brian Anderson: Yes. That's probably my main fiction component this summer.
Vanessa Mendoza: So, the next book on your list is Antifragile, which is Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book. It's a book in his series that is an investigation of luck and uncertainty, probability. And it's, of course, a really big book. He's also the author of the bestselling book The Black Swan, which sold over 3 million copies. The Black Swan is generally about how uncertain the world is, and I think Antifragile is supposed to be his response to that. How do you live in that world?
Brian Anderson: That's exactly right. Fragile things break when they're under stress. According to Taleb, though, there are other things that, instead of breaking when they're stressed, actually get stronger, in the way that when you lift weights in exercising, you damage your body, but it comes back in a stronger form. So he shows how this anti-fragile aspect of life shows up in economic life, in biological systems, urban planning with cities, all these different areas. And for him, it's what we should be modeling our public policy on and trying to move society towards. So we should have a financial system that is anti fragile. We should have city streets organized in an anti-fragile way. It's one of these ideas that's very sharp and captures something about life that nobody else had quite written about in this way before, because it's different than resilience. We often talk about the resilience of systems, that they survive stress, but what he's talking about is something that gets stronger with stress.
Vanessa Mendoza: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, who wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, talk about this a lot in reference to kids and teenagers, and how you raise your children so that they can be strong, but be able to participate in public life as they get to college and otherwise. And Haidt cites Taleb, but he makes a very persuasive argument in that book around how kids should be thought of in that way, too. They're a muscle that needs to be built.
Brian Anderson: Yeah, it's an idea that can have applications in almost every area of life. Now, Taleb is a very pugnacious person. His style puts some people off and makes for energetic reading; he goes after the people he disagrees with, sometimes in intemperate ways. That's very evident on his Twitter feed, which can be off-putting to some people, but he's clearly one of the more original and insightful thinkers of our time. And I've read several of his other books, including his most recent one, Skin in the Game, but I have not read this, which many people consider his best.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, he's made a lot of money for his investors, right? He's safeguarded them from a lot of the big dips.
Brian Anderson: Right. His idea of The Black Swan was that you are not calculating risk properly in most financial models and that you hedge massively against that risk. That's how he got rich when he was an investor, and as an advisor he has recommended a similar kind of approach.
Vanessa Mendoza: You're right. His way of communicating is not for everybody, but I do think he's on everybody's must-read list.
Brian Anderson: Yep. So that's probably my most challenging book this summer.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, that brings us to number seven, which is Henry Luce and His American Century by the historian Alan Brinkley. Tell us how and why you put this on your list.
Brian Anderson: Well, anybody who works in the magazine world, in the area of politics and public policy, would be interested in Luce's life. He died 50 years ago, but he was the founder of three iconic American magazines: Time, Fortune and Life. Two of those are still with us, Time and Fortune. These are three of the great magazines in American history. If you go back, as I do— I look for these old issues in flea markets— when you pick up the old issues from 30 or 40 years ago, you'd be astonished at the kind of literacy— their range of intelligent articles, the design, which was just magnificent. I found an old issue of Life magazine last summer at a Cape Cod flea market and it had a brilliant, beautifully illustrated essay by the great social thinker Daniel Bell, who was also a longtime labor editor at Fortune magazine. Fortune published Jane Jacobs's first major foray into journalism, a piece on trying to understand what was going wrong with Pittsburgh's urban redevelopment plans. Whittaker Chambers was Time magazine's literary editor for a period. Brinkley is an eminent historian at Columbia University. The book looks at the 20th Century through Luce's lens and his publishing empire, and I expect it will have something to say about where we're heading with media and journalism, which is transforming in so many unpredictable ways. And there's also a connection with City Journal in that my predecessor as editor of City Journal, Myron Magnet, was previously an editor and writer at Fortune, and when he came to City Journal, he brought some of the Luce empire editing lessons to the magazine's house style, which we retain: strong topic sentences, elimination of jargon, minimal use of passive sentences, one big picture is worth more than three small ones. Those have become part of our DNA at the magazine and I guess it probably traces all the way back to Luce.
Vanessa Mendoza: And in addition to all that he created, what a massive effect he had on the country, he was also very involved in political life.
Brian Anderson: Oh, yeah. He used those magazines with a political agenda, no question.
Vanessa Mendoza: And he had an interesting upbringing. He was born in China and spent most of his early childhood there before coming back to the states. So it would be interesting to think about what he would think about the world today, but I'm sure you'll get a lot of that when you're reading the book.
Brian Anderson: Yes. I'm looking forward to it very much. This came out a few years ago, but it's one I've been meaning to get to and just haven't had the time. So this summer will be that time.
Vanessa Mendoza: So, tell us, Brian— that brings us to the end of our list— but just as an ending note here, anything that you read this past year that you really loved that our readers should know about. These are all books that you are looking forward to reading this August. But anything that you've read over the past year that you think is a must-read?
Brian Anderson: Well, you ask me on one day, I'll give you a different answer than I would on another. I would say recently, maybe over the last two years, there have been three books that have stood out. One is by a friend of Rémi Brague's, the French political philosopher Pierre Manent. A collection of interviews with him called Seeing Things Politically came out recently in English. And I wrote an essay on it for the New Criterion. It covers Manent's readings of the tradition of Western political thought, his reflections on the importance of the nation, his critique of liberalism, his indebtedness to his two great teachers Raymond Aron and Allan Bloom. And it's just this wonderful introduction to political philosophy, but also to Manent's own career. The second I read not so long ago; it's the latest novel from one of my very favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, called Killing Commendatore. And, like so much of Murakami's writing, it's surreal, it's hypnotic. It's tough to even convey the plot. It tells the story of a Tokyo painter, who, after his wife leaves him, moves into the home of this other famous artist, who is deceased. And he discovers a previously unseen painting by this famous artist. And that sets in motion this mad journey that involves a strange ringing bell, a two-foot-tall person, a strange supernatural hole in the ground, a precocious teenage girl, and this wealthy businessman, who's very self composed, but who may be haunted by something very dark and terrifying despite his good intentions. These are all recurring themes in Murakami's novels, if our listeners haven't read any of them. It's got all of his themes— war, the role of art, loneliness, friendship— and it's the author's homage to The Great Gatsby. I just loved it. And then the third— this is a bit of a shift— is Tony Robbins's book MONEY Master the Game: Seven Simple Steps to Financial Freedom. Now, this was one of the most useful books I've ever read. It's by this self-help guru— everybody knows who Tony Robbins is— but it clarified a lot of things for me: 401(k)s, index funds, hidden fees, different ways of saving money, diversification, risk. It's very breezy; it's excessive— I think it's 700 pages— but it draws on his conversations with a lot of leading investors, including Ray Dalio. I wish I had read it when I was 25, but better late than never.
Vanessa Mendoza: I read that book too. It was a big book to carry around, but I agree with you, It was really accessible.
Brian Anderson: Yeah, and it's helped me quite a bit.
Vanessa Mendoza: So, I'll give you one plug for a book that I read this year that I love, because I think it's really important. It's Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred McClay.
Brian Anderson: Oh, yes. We reviewed that recently in City Journal.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I loved it, not only because I'm always happy to reread stories about American history— especially beautifully written stories— but I think it's really important because there are so few books that are this accessible, particularly to all different age groups.
Brian Anderson: This is a history of America designed to be a counterpoint to all of these very critical histories of America. It's not that he's not critical, but it's a balanced treatment.
Vanessa Mendoza: Oh, yeah. I think it's super important, but mostly because— in addition to the fact that it is being responsive to some of those critiques, which I think is really important— it's beautifully written. It's just a gorgeous narrative and I think it's very accessible to lots of different kinds of people, including, for example, my kids as they get older, which is going to be really important. I love the book. I hope a lot of people go out there to read it, not just for themselves, but to buy it and to give it to a young person growing up who's probably not getting this education in their school. At least not right now.
Brian Anderson: Yes. I'm a big fan of Bill McClay and I hope it sells many, many copies.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well with that, thank you, Brian, for sharing your list.
Brian Anderson: Thank you, Vanessa. I'm looking forward to my vacation.
Vanessa Mendoza: Well, you have a great time and to our audience, thanks so much for being with us. Until next time.