Our List of Christmas Holiday Readings and Books of the Year for 2015

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We asked some of our contributors and supporters to send us their recommendations for Christmas holiday readings, as well as their recommendations for the best or most significant books of 2015 (and 2014).

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy Reading!


Joseph Knippenberg (Oglethorpe University)

Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing

This is a thorough and absolutely compelling argument for the practice of esoteric writing in the history of philosophy.  Melzer marshals persuasive evidence both that many philosophers wrote esoterically and that many of their readers understood them to do so.  Taking this book seriously requires us to rethink our understanding of the history of philosophy.  I have promised the editors of VoegelinView a review of this important book, and will make good on this promise as soon as I can.

Steven D. Smith’s The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom

Smith, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, offers a fresh view of a subject one might thought to have been studied and beaten to death, the American constitutional approach to religious freedom.  The separationism and/or neutrality that so many commentators take for granted is, Smith contends, mistaken.  Rather, the Constitution preserved the possibility of a kind of contestation regarding the meaning of religious freedom, leaving a democratic and political space for men and women with different views to work out different accommodations in different settings.

Peter Augustine Lawler’s Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education and Culture, Rightly Understood

My friend Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, is one of our most interesting and provocative public intellectuals.  If you don’t regularly read his little gems, mostly to be found at “Postmodern Conservative,” a number of them are collected here.  As he says in a recent (posted, but not yet in print) reflection, “all of us are called in some sense to contemplate, to reflect on who we are as persons given the singular privilege of being born to know, love, and die–and who have unique and irreplaceable personal destinies that take each of us beyond the limits of our biological being.”  There are few better places from which to begin to think about this than the pages of this book.


Lee Trepanier (Saginaw Valley State University)

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

What better way to spend the winter than reading about a place where it is even colder? Tolstoy’s “novel” is about five aristocratic families from 1805 to 1820, with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia occupying center stage. I would recommend reading the second epilogue first, where Tolstoy accounts for his philosophy of history, as well as keeping a separate list of names of the characters in order to keep count of everyone. Even if you don’t care for the book after reading it, at least you can say that you had.

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One

If you enjoy satire, especially about America, then this is a must-read. Based on his visit to Forest Lawn, Waugh depicts with insight and hilarity the funeral business in Los Angeles and how Americans cope with death. Delightful, fun, and, at times, poetic, The Loved One will almost make you want to visit California.

R.J. Snell’s Acedia and its Discontents

Bored because you have too many channels of television? If you want to know why, then Acedia gives an account that this problem is fundamentally a philosophical, even theological, one of how we see ourselves in the world. For those who enjoy the works of Josef Pieper, Snell’s book is required reading to understand why we are bored today and how we can be cured of it.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Reading about the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden may seem to some a little strange during the holiday season. However, it does raise the question which character would be a better motivator of children’s good behavior: Satan or Santa? Regardless of whether Milton actually succeeds in justifying “the ways of God to men,” the poem is a beautiful account of Christian story of the world’s creation, man’s downfall, and the promise of future redemption.


Zdravko Planinc (McMaster University)

Marcel Proust.  Either of the new translations, In Search of Lost Time, or the Moncrieff translations, Remembrance of Things Past.  Be prepared to give it at least three volumes.

Harry Berger, Jr.  Three books this year alone:  The Perils of Uglytown: Studies in Structural Misanthropology from Plato to Rembrandt; Harrying: Skills of Offense in Shakespeare’s Henriad; Figures of a Changing World: Metaphor and the Emergence of Modern Culture.


David Walsh (Catholic University of America)

Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Tradition, and Responsible Knowledge

This is a very substantial study that is distinctive for the focus on the idea of the person that is traced from the Greek and Christian beginnings up to the contemporary period. The narrative follows a MacIntyrean mold in which the discovery of the person is progressively lost in the early modern period. The break is more specifically located in the medieval turn toward nominalism. What makes Pfau’s study notable is that it ends with the recovery of the idea of the person in Coleridge who receives an extended treatment. This is an invaluable contribution, as Coleridge is a difficult figure to unravel and Pfau’s location of him in relation to the personalism that begins to emerge with Newman is spectacular. The judgement of modern developments, despite the generally negative assessment, is more ambivalent or at least open to revision. The big obstacle is the dismissal of Lockean liberal political thought without consideration of the practical outcome in the form of protection of individual rights and dignity. Another possible readjustment derives from the turn involved in German Idealism. It is after all from this tradition that Coleridge and personalism are derived. Pfau is a professor of English and German at Duke. His remarkably deft philosophical handling is all the more impressive for that literary background.


Brendan Purcell (Notre Dame University, Australia, Sydney Campus, and Fellow of St John’s College, University of Sydney

Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker. A great update on Solzhenitsyn studies, going far beyond its stated aim of clearing up what Voegelin would have called the inbuilt Apperzeptionsverweigerung re Solzhenitsyn by the usual suspects. It’s a refreshing rediscovery of Solzhenitsyn’s huge cultural importance.

Michael Zantovsky’s Havel: A Life. By no means a hagiography and by one of Havel’s closest companions and advisers, currently Czech ambassador to the UK., it show Havel, with all his flaws. Havel comes over as one of those historical figures who can’t help being a symbol of what a creative and person-centered politics should be.

Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. For me this was an exciting study that opened up the Eucharist as sacrifice and as communions in a completely new way. Pitre shows that new way is utterly traditional, but it’s both an intellectual and spiritual journey I was grateful he made me take.

James Lee Burke’s Light of the World. Another smashing Dave Robicheaux story – is there any fiction writer in any language today with such a feel for issues like evil and redemption? I’m sure I’m not the first to see him as an American Dostoevsky, exploring ever different facets of America’s Crime and Punishment.


Peter Meilaender (Houghton College)

I suggest a pair of books from two giants of Swiss literature who are unlikely to be widely known among American readers.  Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854) was a pastor and author who lived his entire life in the rural area surrounding Bern.  Beginning late in life, he produced a dozen novels along with numerous novellas and short stories describing the peasant villages he knew so well and their efforts to adapt to the political, economic, and social transformations of modernity.  Although little of his work has been translated into English, his best-known novella, The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne)–the suspenseful tale of one village’s pact with the devil and its consequences – exists in a recent English translation by Susan Bernofsky (published by NYRB Classics).

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), the twentieth anniversary of whose death just occurred on December 14, perhaps enjoys a somewhat wider reputation, but he is hardly a household name among English speakers.  Also a native of the Swiss Emmental, and like Gotthelf a pastor’s son, Dürrenmatt was an acclaimed dramatist and the author of numerous prose works treating philosophical, ethical, and political themes in often grandiose ways – imagine a bizarre combination of Plato, G.K. Chesterton, and Raymond Chandler.  Two of his finest thrillers, the mystery novellas The Judge and His Hangman (Der Richter und sein Henker) and Suspicion (Der Verdacht), have been translated by Joel Agee and published under the title The Inspector Barlach Mysteries.  Anyone looking to while away a few hours on a post-Christmas afternoon and discover a new author at the same time could do much worse than to pick up one of these books.


Michael Henry (St. John’s University, New York City)

Lucy Beckett’s A Postcard from the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany. This is the story of Max von Hofmannswaldau, a young member of the Prussian aristocracy, from his childhood at the beginning of World War I up to World War II. The political, cultural, moral, and religious issues of the time are all discussed by the characters and play various role in the life of Max. A tour de force.

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. A very detailed account of how people lived in a totalitarian dictatorship during its most oppressive phase.

Hugh Ross’ Why the Universe is the Way It Is. This book is written from a very Christian point of view but nonetheless it is a very scientific account of the staggering complexity of the conditions that must be precisely right for life to exist. It’s difficult to credit sheer chance for our existence.

Barry Rubin’s and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz’s Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. This will give the reader a better understanding of the origins of Jihad more than a century ago and the role that Germany played in it even before the Nazis.

Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. There is not as much discussion of the Frankfurt School here as publicity about the book led me to believe, but it is nonetheless an incisive analysis of the subversion of the West.

Lopez Lomong’s Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games. Lopez Lomong was kidnapped by guerrillas when he was six. He managed to escape from them but then spent ten years in a camp for lost boys in Kenya until he was adopted by an American family.   The story of his journey to the Olympics is particularly engaging because of his personality, sense of humor, and dogged determination to succeed.

Barbara Lovenheim’s Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin. Thousands of Jews went into hiding in Berlin and quite a few survived the war. This is the story of one family who all managed to survive thanks to the kindness of ordinary Germans who were willing to risk their lives to help them.

Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.  A lengthy account of the years before World War I that makes clear how very much war was in the air before Sarajevo.


Bradley Lewis (Catholic University of America)

This year saw publication of Ralph Hancock’s splendid translation of Bénédicte Delorme-Montini’s book-length interview with Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically. I had to force myself to put it down periodically in order to attend to other work and intend to read it again over the Christmas break. Manent discusses his youth and education, his relationship with Raymond Aron and to the thought of Leo Strauss, and the influence of his Catholicism on his work. He also reflects on the nature of modernity, the differences between European and American universities, the character of the political, and many other things in a strikingly personal and always illuminating way.

Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler kept me up late several nights. It is as riveting as a first-rate thriller, but it is all true, as established by the hundred-pages of notes referring to documents and archives in various countries, some only recently accessible. It tells the story of Pope Pius XII’s involvement in at least three plots to assassinate Hitler and the heroic collection of often high ranking German officers and Catholic priests (mostly Jesuits and Dominicans) who hatched and attempted to carry out the plots. Many of the conspirators met martyrs’ deaths in concentration camps.

There is no better way to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta—and we all should—than by immersing oneself in David Carpenter’s magisterial translation and history, Magna Carta (Penguin). The book has everything you ever wanted to know about the Great Charter, which, all of its well-known limitations considered, remains among the “title deeds of freedom” celebrated by Churchill in his famous Iron Curtain speech. Limited government and the rule of law don’t simply preserve themselves and they didn’t rise up out of nowhere. Reminding ourselves of their complex and often tenuous origins is a way of preserving them for the next eight centuries.


Barry Cooper (University of Calgary)

(Professor Cooper provides us with the reading list of his book club, The Angst Club. – JvH)

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Earth, Sand and Stars

Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind

Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels

Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth

André Malraux’s Man’s Fate

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beasts

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone

Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather

William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell

David McCullough’s The Greater Journey

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way

Elizabeth Nickson’s Eco-Fascists

Douglas L. Bland’s Uprising

Stephen R. Bown’s The Last Viking (the Life of Roald Amundsen)

Edward Larson’s Summer of the Gods

Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram

Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken

Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country

Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography

Mark Twain’s Huck Finn

Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor

Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Harvey Sachs’s The Ninth: Beethoven and the Word in 1824

Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail

Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele


Christopher Morrissey (American Journal of Semiotics)

Pierpaolo Antonello’s and Paul Gifford’s (eds.), How We Became Human: Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins.

Pierpaolo Antonello’s and Paul Gifford’s (eds.), Can We Survive Our Origins? Readings in René Girard’s Theory of Violence and the Sacred.

Pierpaolo Antonello’s and Heather Webb’s (eds.), Mimesis, Desire, and the Novel: René Girard and Literary Criticism.

Bradley J. Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

Richard Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln.

Pierre Manent’s Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, Translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with an Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney.

Roger Scruton’s The Disappeared.

Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

Barry Strauss’s The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination.

Stefano Tomelleri’s Ressentiment: Reflections on Mimetic Desire and Society.


Tilo Schabert (Friedrich-Alexander-University, Erlangen-Nuremberg)

Patricia Duncker’s Miss Webster and Cherif

Marina Warner’s The Leto Bundle

Two novels on the topics of migration and refugees, sympathetic to their situation, the first one (Duncker), light reading, with more than a sprinkle of British humour, the second (Warner) written in a more serious mode, with intertextual references to the Greek myth of Leto.


William Petropulos (Eric Voegelin Archive in Munich)

My suggestion for a Christmas book (also suitable as a gift) is a poetry anthology of 19th and 20th century poems. (I will leave the choice of the specific edition to the person buying it.)

There are three reasons for my suggestion: Over the years one loses contact with poems that once meant something to one and “meeting” them again is often a very pleasant reunion. Also there are poems that one read years ago, that meant nothing to one at the time, and one now makes the pleasant discovery that one is open to things that one was once closed to. (This builds confidence that one is still capable of learning. A lovely experience in itself.) Finally, one might just discover a poem that one does not recall ever having read before and find it interesting and by extension want to see “what else” the author wrote.

My suggestion of a “good poetry anthology” was prompted by the experience I had recently of re-reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn” after ‘neglecting it for awhile’. I said: “Wow”—or something to that effect. And: “I’m not going to wait so long until I read it again.”


John von Heyking (University of Lethbridge and Book Review Editor of Voegelinview.com)

Jonathan Rose’s The Literary Churchill: Author Reader, Actor

This fascinating book treats Winston Churchill’s statecraft through the lens of Churchill the storyteller and performer. Rose writes in the Preface: “You may object that politics is really a matter of national interests, however this begs the question: what are nations interested in? Of course they want power, wealth, trade, land, and security. But political actors also act out stories, which can have a force and a momentum of their own and which may not always serve the more material national interests . . .  All politicians, however, tell stories.” Read Rose’s book to find out what form the story of Churchill’s statecraft takes: epic, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, or what?

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated by Ann Goldstein

This is the fourth and final installment by Ferrante (the pen name of a Neapolitan author) on the dramatic lifelong friendship between Lina and Lenù. Together the four volumes form one of the most powerful statements of female friendship in modern literature. The novels explore the tensions and possibilities of friendship in the modern world. The setting in Naples is significant because the grittiness of the city, and all the dark underworld forces – both human and chthonic – threaten to erupt and smash the world human beings strive to fashion for themselves, including the expectations of the modern Enlightenment for a harmonious world supportive of personal relationships.

John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait Of Johann Sebastian Bach

Written by the world’s preeminent interpreter of Bach’s music, this musical biography does indeed go along way conveying the essence of Bach’s heavenly music.

Dante’s Paradise, either Hollander or Esolen translation.

Don’t hesitate to sing the song of Love that moves the sun and other stars, “if I in-you’d me as you in-me’d you” (“s’io m’intuassi, come tu t’inmii”).

Homer’s The Odyssey, translated by Joe Sachs. Philadelphia.

Joe Sachs has established himself as a premier translator of ancient philosophy, with splendid translations of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics, among others. His translation of Homer’s Odyssey is musical, clear, and a joy to read and reread. Sing along with his translation of Odysseus’ song at what Sachs identifies as the dramatic center of the epic:


What a beautiful thing this is to listen to a singer like

The one here among us, with a voice that’s a match for the gods.

For I maintain that there is no more perfect delight than when

Good cheer is shared among a whole people who partake in a

Feast as they sit at rows of tables throughout the banquet hall,

Listening to a singer, with bread and meat piled on the tables

Before them, while a steward makes the rounds with the

Wine bowl, ladling up the wine and pouring it into their cups

To my mind, this seems just about the most beautiful thing there is (IX.3-11).



We at Voegelinview.com wish you, our readers and supporters, a wonderful Christmas holiday, filled with wine, good cheer among banqueters, and “bread and meat piled on tables”!

John von Heyking

Written by

John von Heyking is a Board Member and Book Review Editor of Voegelinview as well as a Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. He is author and editor of several books, including The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queen's, 2016) and Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (St. Augustine’s, 2018).