The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
This revised page has fused foreign-language works with works written or translated into English. Most classic works in French, Italian, etc, have been translated into English at some point, and we proceed on that assumption without (for the most part) recommending specific editions. The immense amount of effort we once invested in forging links to Amazon has hence been redirected simply to finding and listing good books.
Though we have lately advertised our site vigorously to home-educators, this by no means implies that the lists below have become more sophomoric. They remain, a service to our adult visitors. Very few titles would be suitable reading for a child beneath the level of a bright ninth- or tenth-grader. Visitors should therefore not suppose that they will find here something akin to a page out of the standard high-school curriculum. Neither To Kill a Mockingbird nor David Copperfield is mentioned, nor is Beowulf or Catcher in the Rye. We have deliberately sought to downplay the obvious in this regard. Precisely because officially sanctioned reading matter is at once so well known and so damaging (if only indirectly) to forgotten classics, we have tried to emphasize the latter without completely ignoring the former.
The political thrust of the earlier page has been rendered less polemical, yet we have not abandoned the areas of social commentary and political philosophy. Visitors must understand that The Center seeks to promote the best of Western culture, while certain very vocal political factions in our time vehemently–and, it often seems, categorically–oppose the Western tradition. We could scarcely fulfill our stated objectives and also avoid every possible clash with such outspoken adversaries.
At the present juncture, very few new titles have been added to the preexisting lists. Several, indeed, have been removed. Please realize that this page is very much a work in progress, especially in those areas not plainly related to literature.
Works by Board Members, Staff, and Friends
Many more titles than these can be attributed to The Center’s organizers and collaborators. Below are merely a few of the publications for which we have complete information.
Helen R. Andretta. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: A Poet’s Response to Ockhamism (1997)
A readable study of intertwining literary, historical, and philosophical issues, Dr. Andtetta’s volume handles Chaucer in the intellectual environment of his day rather than distorting his scale of values to suit our own time’s preoccupations.
Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth. The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006)
How does Star Trek’s Captain Kirk live by the Golden Rule? How does The Twilight Zone show the effects of original sin in our world? And how do the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse make an appearance in The X-Files? Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth examine these and many other Christian themes in six highly popular science fiction television series (including Doctor Who, The Prisoner, and Babylon Five as well as the three previously mentioned). The authors examine such themes as the battle between good and evil, virtue, community, grace, and the apocalypse.
Jonathan Chaves. The Chinese Painter as Poet (2000)
The harmonious integration of painting, poetry, and calligraphy was achieved by Chinese artists as early as the literati of the Song Dynasty. The collaboration of poetry and painting as “sister arts” is explored by prominent Sinologist Jonathan Chaves of George Washington University.
John R. Harris. Adaptations of Roman Epic in Medieval Ireland: Three Studies in the Interplay of Erudition and Oral Tradition (1998)
The epics of Roman masters like Vergil, Statius, and Lucan were all rendered into the heroic idiom of medieval Ireland and adapted to suit the tastes of that rather different time and place. The nature of the changes reveals many popular misconceptions about the medieval view of pagan antiquity.
—–. Chaos, Cosmos, and Saint-Exupéry’s Pilot-Hero: A Study in Mythopoeia (1999)
Summarized by one commentator as a “mystic without faith”, Saint-Exupéry has never been easy to pigeon-hole. This readable study plausibly treats his works as progressive attempts to wrest a deeper meaning from the “arch-cycle” of life’s essential moments
—–. A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason Within the Christian Faith. (2002)
Arcturus Press was a short-lived precursor to The Center—but while it survived, this book was its most successful publication. Critical both of irrational fundamentalism and of doctrinally flaccid tolerance, this book stirred interest in lands as far-flung as Australia and Nepal.
Howard Schwartz. The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness (2001)
Professor Schwartz’s connection of PC to the pathologies eating away at our culture brings recent events into sharp focus. Of special interest to him is radical feminist irrationality. One needn’t be (like Schwarz) a neo-Freudian to agree that an influential strain of feminism “wants it all” and holds men responsible for the limits of reality.
Fiction and Poetry (by Nationality)
This section is still very much under construction. Readers are reminded once again that among our major objectives is to promote works forgotten or suppressed by academic or bureaucratic powers with little regard for pure art.
Celtic Languages (Irish/Scots Gaelic and Welsh)
The selection of Irish Gaelic books is abundant in specialty stores overseas like Kenny’s Bookshop, in Galway, Ireland (http://www.kennys.ie), and Cúpla Focal in Wicklow (http://cuplafocal.ie). Literature in Welsh is harder to obtain, but we have discovered a rare gem in www.gwales.com, which markets books abundantly (including e-books) in both English and Welsh. Here we recommend only titles that have accompanying English translations. All are either collections of folklore and legend or else, as one might expect, have a very traditional flavor.
Titles are listed in order of the original text’s historical recording (admittedly impossible to determine in some cases).
Cecile O’Rahilly (ed. and trans.). Táin Bó Cúalgne from the Book of Leinster (1970)
Cú Chulainn is somewhere between Achilles (whose doom of a glorious youth ended by untimely death he likewise undertakes) and a cartoon Tom Terrific piling up thousands of victims in his sickle-chariot. A therapeutic read for all those who find classical rationalism slightly stifling: this epic tradition is as wild as anything ever produced by the European imagination.
Seán Ó Duinn (ed. and trans.). Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire: The Siege of Knocklong (1992)
Packaged as a fairly small paperback, this obscure little epic from southern Ireland is distantly medieval in its fixation upon names, places, and clan rivalries which mean nothing to most modern students of literature. Yet the tale has quite enough of the wild and the weird to stir that taste which we happen to share with the Middle Ages: a fascination with the otherworldly. In fact, the tale is quite unique in putting arch-druids rather than bloodthirsty warriors at the center of almost every battle scene. Dual English/Irish edition from Mercier.
Robin Gwyndaf (ed.). Chwedlau Gwerin Cymru: Welsh Folk Tales (1999)
Published by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, this large, sturdy paperback is grandly illustrated and presents brief versions or summaries of some sixty-three legends or folk cycles associated with various Welsh places and historical figures. The introduction is a bit dense with scholarly jargon.
David Greene (ed. and trans.). Duanaire Mhéig Uidhir: The Poembook of Cú Connacht Mág Uidhir (1991)
These sixteenth-century laudations of the Maguire family are more interesting for indicating how people (and particularly poets) thought in traditional societies than for relating imaginative images or intricate tales. Definitely for those of a scholarly turn.
Brian Merriman (trans. Patrick C. Power). The Midnight Court: Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (1990)
Ireland is not supposed to have participated significantly in the Renaissance, let alone in Neoclassicism; but this extraordinary poem about a simple churl’s vision of elegant courts and regal ladies might have flowed from the pen of Pope. It bristles with subtle, often ironic insights into such delicate subjects as sexual mores and politics. A small paperback, very affordable; dual English/Irish edition from Mercier.
James MacDougall (ed. and trans.). Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English (2013)
The publication date in this case actually refers to an e-book! MacDougall’s project of collection from Hebridean sources occurred over a century ago, and the tales he gathered are naturally far older still. In fact, the account in his introduction of how local transmitters of Gaelic culture were bullied into suppressing ancient lore and ways—not by edicts from London, but by the bigotry of hellfire Protestant ministers—itself makes this book worth acquiring.
Anthony Raftery (trans. Criostoir O’Flynn). Blind Raftery (1998)
O’Flynn selects, translates (facing original Gaelic text), and copiously annotates these verses of nineteenth-century fiddler-poet Antaine Raifteiri. Beginning Irish-learners will be pleased to know that Raftery was a man of the people, not a medieval court poet, and hence used delightfully simple language.
James Stewart (ed. and trans.). Boccaccio in the Blaskets (1988)
Contrary to American Webshop’s assertion, the author of this collection was no more Giovanni Boccaccio than were Virgil or Statius the authors of the Irish Aeneid and Thebaid. The degree of adaptation here is admittedly rather less than it would have been in the Middle Ages; but this paperback (which you can obtain with persistence) proves yet again that the Irish had a vigorous, centuries-old industry in transforming continental classics into their own.
Gordon MacLennan (compiler; ed. and trans. by A. Harrison and M.E. Crook). Seanchas Annie Bhán: The Lore of Annie Bhán (1997)
A very accessible hardback to the casual student of both folklore and Gaelic. English on facing pages. Old Annie had a great many tales of the Fianna and other legendary figures to entrust to the compiler’s tape recorder as she bustled about her household chores, and her Irish is the simple speech of a country woman.
The Gaelic word bán, “white”, was often used to designate fair-haired people, just as dubh attached to the black-haired, donn to the brown, and ruadh to the red. In English, these very traditional coinages were rendered into the surnames “Bain” or “Vaughn”, “Dow”, “Dunn”, and “Rowe”.
French literature has been perhaps the most prolific of any modern European nation’s, and the titles offered below are patently inadequate to do justice to its breadth. The reader should recall our stated purpose: to give special mention to less anthologized or largely forgotten authors. Hence Corneille, Molière, Balzac, Flaubert, and a score of other canonical writers do not appear on our list. Others like Montesquieu and Baudelaire, who are anything but forgotten, nevertheless tend to be little read in translation nowadays for various reasons, though a familiarity with them should be part of a well-rounded liberal education. We should repeat, as well, that this and other sections are very much works in progress.
Titles are listed in order of the original text’s first publication or (in cases of multiple titles, as is most common here) of the author’s historical point of highest productivity.
François de la Rochefoucauld. Maximes et Pensées
The spirit of classicism, skeptical and fortified against human folly, is nowhere more acerbic than in La Rochefoucauld. Should we call this pessimism–can we be quite confident that so pitiless an observer of our vanity is not, in fact, the supreme realist?
Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu. Lettres Persanes
Persian Letters is as odd a read today as when it first appeared—more so, no doubt. Yet Montesquieu’s devotees have never known quite how to take this not-quite-novel, its critique of customs and manners no more sparing of French ways than Persian ones, its dry cultural commentary interrupted by a shocking conclusion.
Abbé Prévost. Manon Lescaut
This eighteenth-century morality tale of a young aristocrat who “throws his life away” for a beautiful woman of very dubious morals anticipates Romanticism in many ways. Decide for yourself if, despite Manon’s obviously weak and faithless character, the young Chevalier would have been better advised to fulfill a rather suffocating set of parental and social expectations.
Charles Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal Petits Poèmes en Prose
As poetry goes, The Flowers of Evil translate rather rewardingly in most cases, since Baudelaire’s art relies heavily on gripping images that appear to have bolted straight from a dream—or a nightmare. The Prose Poems (which inaugurated a new genre) are rather more “formal dress” in style, and indeed frequently display that uncanny similarity with Edgar Allan Poe’s work which was to lead the poet to rehabilitate the obscure American author’s legacy for the literary canon. The one was no more a “Satanist” than the other, by the way. Baudelaire, in particular, invoked diabolical powers only when wryly caricaturing the hypocrisy of his day’s very proper, self-satisfied bourgeoisie.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Gigi Chéri La Chatte
The minor masterpieces of this worldly Parisienne, like her sexual legendary adventures with members of both sexes, would be far too numerous to cite here in their entirety. Quite aside from her torrid personal life, however, Colette is a surprisingly deep fountain of common sense. While her works are uninterested in abstract moral issues, her understanding and depiction of human character imply many salutary life lessons.
Alain-Fournier. Le Grand Meaulnes
This is perhaps the most beautiful pastoral novel—sad, dreamy, rustic, and nostalgic—ever composed, coming from a national tradition that has produced many elegant examples of the genre. Available in English under the title, The Wanderer.
Georges Bernanos. Dialogues des Carmélites Sous le Soleil de Satan
Perhaps best known for his play, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and his novel, Under the Sun of Satan, Bernanos was a voluminous author, producing abundant essays as well as creative works. He displays a Catholicism at once mystical and traditional in that he believes in active supernatural presences—be they divine or diabolical—ever ready to surprise us along life’s road.
Roger Martin du Gard. Les Thibault
It is very puzzling that our era should have forgotten Martin du Gard. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Les Thibault (a series of painstaking novels tracing one influential family’s tragic decline in a fast-modernizing Europe—its composition required twenty years), he always restrained himself from sermonizing in these psychological studies. His only sins against “post-modernism” were no doubt to have been bourgeois (which is to say, “possessed of common sense”) and to have refrained from political activism.
François Mauriac. La Fin de la Nuit Le Mystère Frontenac Le Noeud de Vipères
Other than Bernanos, France has produced no Christian novelist throughout the twentieth century more celebrated than Mauriac. The latter’s enigmatic characters oppose social and psychological complexity to the former’s primordial struggle of spiritual forces. Mauriac won the Nobel Prize in 1952. His Thérèse Desqueyroux and La Fin de la Nuit, the most famous of his works (both about a desperate woman who ruins her life so thoroughly that she can no longer fight against salvation), have been frequently translated.
Georges Duhamel. Chronique des Pasquier Le Combat Contre les Ombres Le Voyage de Patrice Priot
Once highly esteemed, at present virtually forgotten, Duhamel chronicled—in his novels about the Pasquier family—the agonizing era from the Industrial Revolution’s full-throttle point to the disastrous years of World War One, and his later novels probe into the middle of the century. Although his works fall neatly into no political camp, the struggle of his sympathetic characters against a stupefying bureaucracy has many points of correspondence with our contemporary crisis. We would do well to rediscover these works.
Pierre Benoit. L’Atlantide
Benoit’s greatest novel is a sexual as well as geographical odyssey whose psychological dimensions are so numerous and deep that the book verges on surrealism. The conclusion seems inescapable that, far from being light-hearted recreation, sex is all about power and—if the stakes are raised to their highest level—death.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Night Flight Wind, Sand, and Stars Flight to Arras
Best known as the author of The Little Prince, Saint-Ex also composed several novels in exquisite prose dedicated to the man’s life of risk and challenge and the vision that technology (especially the airplane) could advance human civilization. A novelist-pilot whose Hemingway-like legend continues to fascinate many, he sketched out an incontestably masculine universe. Hence his works draw a relentless “flak” today from part of the academy—but his robust vision only seems to emerge the stronger for it.
Jules Romains. Préface à Verdun Verdun Donogoo Tonga
The late Jules Romains was one of the most versatile and humane authors of the twentieth century, yet he has already been largely forgotten. Scholars sometimes credit (or accuse) Romains of founding unanimism in French literature. Unquestionably, he subscribed to a species of progressivism, insofar as his artistic principle of unity insists that the meaning of an event lies in the collective contribution of all participants. Such ideas can be carried to disturbing political extremes (and would be so in Romains’s own time, though he himself was a tireless enemy of fascism). From a literary perspective, at least, he delights the reader with a comprehensive grasp of the human condition united with much finesse in registering the faint ghosts that drift across the human subconscious. From satirizing commercial marketing to teasing out the evidence of extra-sensory perception to lyricizing the magic of friendship to painting the epic dismay of World War One, Romains is never stale or blunt.
Jean Giono. Colline Provence Jean le Bleu L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres
Giono is a heathen of the most disarming and unpretentious sort. Without the slightest hint of intellectual posturing—and with irresistible surges of naive reverence—he sings the raw, rusted simplicity of life where water is transported in pails and where mountains and forest fires have their own demonic spirit. A unique respite from modernist ideology and post-modernist sophistry: the novels listed above are but a small sampling of his prolific output.
Various political movements have caused the Italian language and its literature to be undervalued in the United States. Italian emigrants themselves have historically manifested little interest in conserving their belles lettres against Anglo-Saxon customs (a heritage which, in any case, had seldom been entrusted to these humble laborers and artisans). Recent arrivals to our nation from South America have been still less lettered, of course–but the sheer volume of Spanish-speakers and their proximity to their native land have operated as a counterpoise to Anglo culture. If one then considers the fascism/communism polarity so volatile in Italy throughout the twentieth century (neither of whose alternatives was ever very attractive to most Americans), and also the fervent Catholicism of previous centuries which has become anathema to contemporary academe… no wonder, really, that the most ancient of European traditions should have been all but canceled from our Anglophone memory.
Titles are listed in order of the original text’s first publication.
Dante Alighieri. John D. Sinclair’s edition/translation of The Divine Comedy
Sinclair’s classic handling of these classic texts features original Italian on the left and English translation (with emphasis on literal meaning) facing on the right. Sinclair also includes ample footnotes and very thorough discussions of medieval context after each canto. Indispensable to any serious student of literature’s library.
Torquato Tasso. Gerusalemme Liberata—Jerusalem Liberated
The Renaissance resuscitated the classical epic in more than a few efforts informed by a solemn, often allegorized Christian dimension. We moderns are seldom moved by their attempts: Tasso’s nostalgia for the Middle Ages ends up puzzling us. The attractively heroic characters of this near-novel, however, will be far from uninteresting to the thoughtful reader. Milton scholars, especially, should make the attempt, for the English poet was well versed in Tasso and emulated him in several ways.
Lodovico Ariosto. Orlando Furioso
A recent translation by Guido Waldman exists; others are available free online, but they are centuries old and were dismal, to start with! Ariosto’s Orlando was one of the best loved and most read works of the Renaissance, but now few recognize the title, even among “scholars”. Yet the dizzily interlaced adventures of this epic-romance’s “heroes” are often uproariously funny as well as profoundly instructive and psychologically brilliant. Motivated by lust, greed, and vanity, a bombastic crew of stalwarts from both Christian and pagan camps pursues self-interest under the guise of fighting for God and country… except, perhaps, for Orlando, whose infatuation with the lovely fluff-head Angelica turns him madly against every rational objective conceivable.
Giacomo Leopardi. Canti Pensieri
Although Leopardi seems to be much-cited as the premier Italian romantic poet, this solitary man of delicate health detested what he perceived as romanticism. Of refined taste and classical style, and mildly misanthropic in his inclinations, Leopardi always remained considerably more aristocratic than utopian (to the extent that one excludes the other).
Alessandro Manzoni. The Betrothed—I Promessi Sposi
One of the first great historical novels, I Promessi Sposi was conceived on the same grand epic scale of Walter Scott’s works. Concerned with the events of the Thirty Years’ War—especially a dreadful outbreak of bubonic plague—it nevertheless focuses on a few simple people caught within events and ushered safely through them by religious faith.
Silvio Pellico. My Imprisonments: Memoirs of Silvio Pellico
Le Mie Prigioni is a forgotten classic. Playwright Silvio Pellico was imprisoned under the repressive Hapsburg regime during the dismal third decade of the nineteenth century, having done little more than communicate revolutionary thoughts to friends. Over the following years of cold, starving incarceration, he forsook his futile visions of a man-made utopia and discovered religious faith, like Solzhenitsyn.
Ippolito Nievo. Le Confessioni di un Italiano
An extraordinary work—the fictional reminiscences of an octogenarian composed by a young man of not yet thirty years! Nevertheless, this portrait of seventeenth-century rural Italy, though sometimes bordering on an idyll (especially in the early chapters), has few sentimental excesses. Nievo should be considered no less valuable to the historian than to the literary enthusiast.
Luigi Capuana. Il Marchese di Rocaverdina
A would-be “verist” of Giuseppe Verga’s stamp, Capuana nevertheless created in this novel a work of classical tragedy. His protagonist, the eponymous Marchese, hurls himself into a frightful hell despite (or because of) his will to lord it over the people like a proper aristocratic tyrant of yesteryear. It would be difficult to find a more devastating ending in the literature of any modern language; and yet, the devastation lacks neither a compassionate touch nor instructive potential (in contrast, say, to Madame Bovary or virtually all of Verga’s stories).
Antonio Fogazzaro. Piccolo Mondo Antico
Few novels of the twentieth century have managed to weave a drama that does not finish in madness, absurdity, or death (among which disheartened efforts must be included Fogazzaro’s own Malombra). The subtle hope offered in this novel’s final pages, then, must be considered a rare and wonderful creation. Fogazzaro’s many other novels sometimes court with too much naiveté the optimism of faith beset by unbelieving, “positivist” elements. Readers may use their own judgment: in ours, this is his masterpiece.
Grazia Deledda. Canne al Vento Il Paese del Vento Naufraghi in Porto
Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927 (the first woman to be so garlanded), Deledda remains almost unknown outside of Italy, notwithstanding the prominence of feminism in recent literary studies. It is entirely possible that her devout Catholicism may have proved a fare difficult to digest for our Young Turks and their diet of intellectual “fast food”—or perhaps our contemporary Marfisas just haven’t made for themselves sufficient repose to read widely. Deledda’s tales are “earthy”; and though that adjective is brutally overworked, it is fully justified in her case. She can project herself into the mind of a scarcely literate peasant with seamless credibility, as she does in the magnificent Reeds in the Wind.
Ignazio Silone. Pane e Vino Il Segreto di Luca La Scuola dei Dittatori
The Pythian aphorism, “cristiano senza chiesa e socialista senza partita” (“Christian without a church and socialist without a party”), well summarizes Silone’s independent spirit. Disaffected with a Communist movement for which he had risked his life as a youth, Silone remained no less suspicious of the Byzantine, often highly corrupt hierarchy of the traditional Church as it appeared to him in provincial life. One might say that he thereby burned all his bridges—but bridge-burning is not, after all, an unimpressive testimony to any person’s earnestness.
Giovanni Guareschi. Anno di Don Camillo Ciao Don Camillo Il Compagno di Don Camillo Don Camillo della Bassa Mondo Candido Piccolo Mondo Borghese La Scoperta di Don Camillo
The twentieth century has inspired few humorists with its various ideology-primed executioners. Of these very few, even fewer have possessed the irony of a traditional realist rather than the absurdism of a grandstanding iconoclast. Guareschi and his lovable two-fisted village priest, Don Camillo occupy this rarest of niches.
Tasso and Ariosto were bedside reading for the English Renaissance, and Dante surely remains one of the five greatest authors of all time to people who still compile anthologies. The bemused and skeptical postmodern, especially, is doing himself out of a treat by neglecting the Orlando Furioso, which Galileo recognized as an extremely fine study of complex character and mixed motives, and which Peter Wiggins plausibly credits with being the first modern novel.
Insightful Works About Literature and Culture
Literary criticism has taken a self-inflicted black eye in the past half-century. Jargon-ridden, unreadable prose is ground out in defense of irrational theories and second-rate fiction as a means to promotion and tenure. Great works of art belong to us all, and studies dedicated to such works should speak to any intelligent adult rather than an elite of initiates. The titles below indicate the level of discussion to which literary classics are capable of lifting fine minds. A few of these books are overt responses to the decline of critical discourse.
Harley Granville-Barker. Prefaces to Shakespeare (first published in 1953)
Nobody could write about Shakespeare with Granville-Barker’s sensitivity to specific lines and what they reveal about specific characters. Himself an actor-playwright, Granville-Barker demonstrated how deeply a keen observer can plumb a work’s soul without the scaffolding of any theory, but only the textual evidence. Many of his analyses of individual plays are still in print and widely available. This volume is well worth seeking out among used-book sellers.
Jacques Barzun. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000)
A mammoth undertaking whose wealth of detail about authors, artists, and thinkers is captivating even when its broad thesis slips out of focus; intelligent and free of jargon. Barzun calls absurd “the belief that ultimately computers… [will] think—it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer” (From Dawn to Decadence, 797). Something in this witticism goes to the matter’s heart. Cultural success cannot be measured merely in terms of GDP or life expectancy: the true, full human being is a complex harmony of insoluble mysteries.
Mark Bauerlein. Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997)
A few of the entries in this section analyze the literary analyst—and this is among the best of that sub-group. Professor Bauerlein is clearly one of the great esprits fins of our time. His surgically precise glossary dissects such obscurantist gobbledygook as “problematize”, “interdisciplinary”, and the incorrigible critical affection for titles with gerunds (“-ing” nouns).
John Ellis. Against Deconstruction (1990) Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (1999)
Professor Ellis, long a major figure in the ill-starred Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, knows first-hand and inside-out how shallow but jargon-cloaked propaganda and careerism have damaged the study of literature in the public eye. These books are a good starting point for anyone who loves great writing, detests what the Academy has done with (i.e., to) it, and wishes to understands how we got from alpha to omega.
Frank Kermode. The Sense of an Ending (2000)
An often-republished classic, this little volume underscores the very basic (yet strangely ignored or forgotten) aesthetic fact that narratives seek to create meaningful time. It is perhaps their greatest difference from daily life, and their clearest indication that the human spirit is groping for something beyond material realism when it produces stories. All of Kermode’s many works deserve attention, by the way. The Cambridge scholar’s distinguished career was recently acknowledged with a knighthood.
Pierre Lasserre. Le Romantisme Français
One of the most brilliant critical works of the twentieth century had scarcely seen the light of day when catastrophic forces swept it into the abyss, along with the last traces of resistance to our dominant nihilism. Lasserre’s Romantisme Français burst upon the Parisian academic community like a bombshell in 1907. Its wholesale denunciation of Rousseau’s self-serving rhetoric and of the narcissistic effusions which broke down the dam of shame, decency, and proportion during the next century was so powerfully worded and well documented that every starry-eyed utopian was put to flight. Unfortunately, a very real war was just on the horizon. In its wake, the young men who had escaped slaughter were nonetheless poorly educated by traditional standards. Even those who had managed to make the acquaintance of their heritage now found it stale and meaningless. Lasserre’s commentary upon the last era of that heritage was hence allowed to molder upon the ash heap, as if it had grown irrelevant. Had this generation only read him carefully, Western Europe might have been spared the dual poisons, both refined from romantic anti-rationalism, of fascism and communism. The Francophone reader should undertake to procure a copy by any means possible; no English translation, sadly, appears to exist.
Carl Rapp. Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-Rational Criticism (1998)
The academy is beginning to fight back against the forces of helter-skelter within it. Though this book is probably too dense in ideas for professorial Vandals to feel its barbs, the astute and impartial reader can enjoy a certain squaring of the record: pompous absurdities are finally made to stand before a mirror and look squarely before them.
Tobin Siebers. Morals and Stories (1992)
No literary scholar with any regard for the Western heritage or for the obvious tendency of stories to project values should pass over this eloquent book.
Peter DeSa Wiggins. Figures in Ariosto’s Tapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso (1986) Donne, Castiglione and the Poetry of Courtliness (2001)
Few can imagine reading Ariosto today—all the more reason to possess Wiggins, who recognizes in the Furioso a degree of wry wit and finesse of characterization which leave Don Quixote a distant second. His work should indeed be read first lest Ariosto’s subtleties pass unnoticed. The Poetry of Courtliness is also a joy to read: Wiggins, fortunately, does not assume that fluid prose compromises an author’s profundity of thought.
R.V. Young. At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (1999)
Professor Young, whose activity on behalf of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has drawn supercilious sniffs from the academy’s elite, shows here in his dedication to the New Criticism that a zeal for truth and a respect for mystery are infinitely more enlightening than deconstructive parlor games.
Determining whether an Eric Voegelin or an Oswald Spengler should be considered more cultural commentator or historian is complicated and, to some degree, subjective. In this section, however, we have opted for works that bear more directly upon culture and less upon historical process. Certain themes recur here: e.g., the threat of advanced technology to humane values, the relationship of technical media to habits of thought, the alarming decline of contemporary Western society by most recognized measurements of cultural health, and the problematic role of religious faith in a thoroughly empirical culture. Certainly history is not irrelevant to any of these areas of inquiry, and all indeed require a high degree of historical awareness. Yet there is, perhaps, a more strongly implied ethical judgment of the process among these authors.
Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1995)
Birkerts was still writing exclusively on a typewriter as the millennium turned—and he does so to this day, it seems safe to assume. The subjects he raises have not been adequately examined or even entertained in most intellectual circles, where the newfangled is felt to be self-justifying as “progress”. Yet the cost of speed-and-ease in quality of thought is neither minuscule nor particularly concealed.
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2001)
This matter-of-factly written (and very effectively illustrated) indictment of our suburban nightmare was authored by three liberal academics who champion what ought to be the ultimate conservative cause: preservation of vibrant communities built around people rather than machines. Along the way, they unmask various special interests, from big government to local codes to firemen’s unions, whose behind-the-scenes manipulation is as at least as great an impediment to sensible construction as the greed of capitalist developers.
Oriana Fallaci. If the Sun Dies (1967) Interview with History (1977) Letter to a Child Never Born (1978) The Rage and the Pride (2002) The Force of Reason (2006)
The late Ms. Fallaci’s works are now almost unobtainable in their native Italian; if she was famous and notorious before her death, she became instantly legendary after it. Fallaci so enraged Europe’s PC elite that she was ordered to stand trail in Italy for “hate speech” after her ringing indictment of Islam’s cultural imperialism in The Rage and the Pride. It is highly ironic that she became a Right Wing cause celèbre during her self-imposed exilie in New York, for her stubborn atheism and opposition to lockstep militarism (her father had been tortured almost to death by the Fascists) were clearly compatible with Left Wing positions. Yet she remained independent in most her writings and real-life choices, including a decision not to have an abortion which drew upon her the reproach of many close acquaintances. Her longest works—Un Uomo and Insciallah—are disappointing, though not without interest to devoted Fallacistas.
Eric Gans. Science and Faith (1990)
”Science and Faith explores the phenomenon of religious revelation in the light of the originary hypothesis, which postulates the origin of human language and culture in a unique event. It is the third in a series of works by the author, including The Origin of Language (1981) and The End of Culture (1985), that develop a generative anthropology founded on this hypothesis” (quoted from Amazon.com). For some reason, this little book is very highly priced. The volume is something of a postscript to Professor Gans’s Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology (twice the length for half the price).
Jeffrey Hart When the Going Was Good! American Life in the Fifties (1984) Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education (2001)
Jeff Hart (Senior Editor of The National Review for years) enjoyed the post-war forties as a student at Columbia, worked in naval intelligence during the Korean War, suffered through the sixties as a professor at Dartmouth (with a stint as a Nixon speechwriter), and in general has watched our culture’s intellectual and spiritual meltdown from as close up as any survivor could possibly have gotten. His latest book is less a prescription for academic renewal, to be honest, than a revisiting of cultural landmarks to which the West has returned for centuries.
Michael Heim. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1994) Virtual Realism (2000)
Heim is rather more sanguine about the future in his latest book than in Metaphysics, but even his most enthusiastic moments are predicated upon informed and intelligent analysis of a subject which usually draws the very shallowest kind of optimism. Readers who believe that the dates of both books indicate their irrelevance to the issues, thanks to huge leaps in computer technology, don’t understand that the threat is not a pragmatic or mechanical problem.
Gertrude Himmelfarb. On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1995) The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996) One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution (2001)
Himmelfarb has enjoyed a distinguished career as a literary scholar, and as such possesses a more proper pedigree to lament the decline in Western manners and morals than her husband or her son (Irving and William Krystol). These books do not peddle a political position; the necessary historical facts are ballasted with common sense, sound experience, good taste, and a sense of proportion, if not optimism.
Alvin Kernan (ed). The Death of Literature (1992) What’s Happened to the Humanities? (1997)
Professor Kernan’s success in the earlier Death of Literature made him a natural choice to edit the collection of spirited essays in What’s Happened? These books have become a springboard into the ensuing decade’s mushrooming literature about the rot and decay of liberal arts programs. As such, they are not so much dated as foundational for those who wish to autopsy our moribund culture of letters.
Christopher Lasch. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978) The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991) The Revolt of the Elites (and the Betrayal of Democracy) (1995)
With the steady rise of a more federalist, less statist spirit among the general populace in North America, the late Professor Lasch’s work has garnered an enthusiastic following. The Canadian thinker issued a thorough chastening both to the putative Right (with its concern for economic exploitation over living environment) and the Left (with its endless costly programs to gratify the masses instantly). The chapters of Lasch’s formidable books are often very loosely connected and sometimes rather dubiously related to the title’s announced focus; yet one scarcely notices such superficial untidiness from within the welcome depth of his observations.
Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, Christina Desser (edd.) Living With the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery (2003)
A small-press publication, this unique paperback covers issues as diverse as human genetic engineering, the genetic modification of staple crops, artificial intelligence, and high-tech weapons of mass destruction. With over a dozen contributors, it does not—fortunately—project a monolithic view of technology’s role in human progress. The optimism of Ray Kurzweil, for instance, is balanced by the reserve of Lightman himself.
Dana Mack. The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family (1997)
Undergirded by statistics and clinical studies, Professor Mack argues that the ideologues of our educational establishment are turning our kids into robots whose primary allegiance is more to a depersonalized state than to parents, and perhaps even more to PC sentiment than to the state.
Myron Magnet. The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (1993) Modern Sex: Liberation and Its Discontents (2001)
A journalist, editor, and historian of distinguished credentials, Magnet writes without particular political agenda. He does not advance candidates, lobby for special interests, or work at a mysteriously funded think-tank. His method is to cast a sober, rational eye upon his subject, even though honest examination often leads him to acknowledge our accelerating slide into a cloaca maxima of self-centered amusement.
Marion Montgomery (ed.). The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality (1999)
This collection of essays handles our cultural decadence with a placid irony in which recalls the Stoic nil admirari and Ecclesiastes’ “nothing new under the sun”. As new books about the PC stultification of the Humanities have proliferated, the approach taken by this one—which might be called “southern agrarian”—remains pleasantly distinct.
Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (republished in 1988)
Father Ong (S.J.) helped to revolutionize the way we think about the life and lore of pre-literate cultures; it also assisted in recasting several of our own assumptions about reality and truth as cultural categories conditioned by the literate basis of our learning. This little book is a modern classic.
José Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses (republished 1994)
Ortega y Gasset had little taste for any of the factions competing in a power struggle that would explode into the Spanish Civil War. He imposed exile upon himself and continued writing and teaching in Argentina. His dismayed vision of a world peopled by insignificant drones has proved all too prophetic. This classic work collected a series of earlier essays about such subjects as mass mentality, the rise of the specialist, and the “spoiled brat” consumer bred by advanced technology. The integrated result is a prolegomenon for any social commentary upon the contemporary world.
Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1986) Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education (1992) The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1996) Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993)
The late Neil Postman was among the first to lead the charge against electronic “culture” in a highly literate, analytical fashion (as opposed to the anecdotal swell of indignation from a few grade-school teachers and traditional moms). His more recent works also bring the computer into focus.
Judith A. Reisman. Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences (1998)
Tolstoy insisted that Napoleon could never have led the French if the French hadn’t wanted to follow. The same is surely true of Alfred Kinsey and our culture’s sexual revolutionaries: Dr. Reisman is perhaps overly dramatic in laying the Sixties and the Sexual Revolution at this twisted man’s doorstep. At the very least, however, her volume is an appalling (and depressing) chronicle of how eagerly our “best and brightest” have perverted the truth in pursuit of a good orgy; and given the cachet that Kinsey’s cooked-up “findings” still enjoy in intellectual circles, the truth about this critical moment in our culture’s evolution should be widely known.
Barry Sanders. ‘A’ Is for ‘Ox’: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age (1995)
Since Marie Winn’s classic critique of TV’s corrupting influence on children (The Plug-In Drug) was published in the early Seventies, many works have followed with a similar thesis. Now the identification of electronic technology with television at any level seems quaint. Sanders escapes this unfortunate aging effect by adopting an approach reminiscent of Walter Ong’s cultural analysis. His insights lead to alarming conclusion: that our society is not a reprise of the oral community (as Marshal McLuhan, Ong’s contemporary, argued), but a negation of both oral and literate orders. A courageous book, given our intelligentsia’s general reluctance ftp hold the media responsible for inspiring violent behavior.
Roger Scruton. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (2007)
Scruton’s many fine books are instantly dismissed or categorically condemned in certain academic circles because of his association with the dreaded Right Wing; yet he is conservative in the sense that anyone who prizes the great creations of the past and the cumulative insights of humane cultural endeavor must be. Indeed, the “neo-cons” who dominate the current political scene are themselves often examples of the indifference to cultivated tradition which he deplores… but he is optimistic (perhaps too much so) that they ultimately represent a minority.
Sandra Stotsky. Losing Our Literature: How the Multicultural Classroom Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Think (2002)
Professor Stotsky (of Harvard) stitches into her common-sense argument against “diversity”-filled elementary readers (often riddled with unpronounceable words from exotically non-European languages) a great many studies and examples. The work may indeed be somewhat overloaded with proof and documentation for those who want a discussion only of ideas; but her purpose, after all, is to show the hard facts about what ideology has wrought upon our children.
Stephen Toulmin. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1992)
Unusual among theorists of our cultural decline is Toulmin’s specific interest in science, inasmuch as the scientific perspective is usually accompanied by a progressive optimism. One may well flinch at the thoroughness with which Toulmin indicts rationalism, yet this remains a most thought-provoking work.
Don Watson. Death Sentences: The Decay of Public Language (2001)
Watson, a familiar on the Australian political scene, is virtually unknown in the United States, and some of his linguistic peeves likewise do not resonate beyond his island-continent. For the most part, however, his mourning the loss of conventional language should touch a chord in any reflective survivor of contemporary chatter.
Works that could defensibly have found their way onto the “Cultural Commentary” list have sometimes ended up here if they appear to have built their argument more on empirical observation of the human past than upon speculation about human nature. Indeed, we have scarcely included at all any such works as are most commonly considered historical: i.e., rigorously objective accounts that seek to evade generalization or abstract conclusion. Such texts are simply far too numerous for the very tight constraints of this page.
Martin Amis. Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2003)
Martin Amis (the son of Kingsley) examines the appalling indifference—nothing less than a neurotic denial—with which the Western Intelligentsia received the steady stream of evidence that Stalin’s Russia was a vast slaughterhouse.
James Goldsmith. The Trap (1995)
Readers seem either to love or loathe Sir James’s quasi-conservative assault on neo-conservatism. The dust jacket reveals that “he officially ‘retired’ from business to devote himself to ecological causes…. His enquiries led him to confront the worldwide problems of unemployment, urban decay, the poisoning of our food and air, and made obvious the lack of essential solutions politicians, of whatever persuasion, were offering. He confronts in this book, the ‘sacred cows’ of modern political and economic thought, exposing why global free trade will destroy nations, the lies about the nuclear energy industry, why agricultural policy is poisoning and destabilizing communities, and the cost of a welfare state that doesn’t deliver welfare.”
Herbert Hoover. Freedom Betrayed (2012)
It is a mystery indicative of highbrow conspiracy (involving both the academy and the publishing industry) that the former president’s vast memoir about events leading up to and accompanying World War Two should have been published just lately. When Hoover died in 1964, his magnum opus was incomplete but needed only finishing touches… yet the manuscript has remained under wraps until now. The former president marshals a tremendous amount of documentation while inserting extremely little editorializing. Nevertheless, he succeeds in having the bare facts demonstrate how persistently FDR pursued war with Japan in order to support Stalin, for whom he felt near adoration; and, on a different but equally disastrous tangent, how persistently Churchill allowed his passionate loathing of Hitler to blind him to the megalomaniac ambitions of Stalin and Mao. Fortunately, this damning series of “inconvenient truths” can now be read as easily as downloading a e-book.
Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (republished in 2001)
Though the late Professor Kirk has been commonly venerated (or deplored) as a founding father of twentieth-century conservative thought, his association with theatrical progressive-manqué, William F. Buckley, Jr., has probably obscured his true contribution. As this work’s title suggests, he ranged freely (if perhaps too eclectically sometimes) among poets, philosophers, novelists, and economists. Any of his works is well worth obtaining.
Jacques Maritain. Man and State (1998) Natural Law (2001) Christianity and Democracy (2012)
A fine, ingenious spirit—a scholar at once Thomist and progressive—Maritain resisted all political and academic coteries of the troubled decades after the Second World War. His generation displayed a tendency (which, indeed, would torment the whole century) to choose either absolute authority or atheist secularism. For Maritain, reason always has a role to serve.
Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu. Concerning the Spirit of the Law (De l’Esprit des Lois)
Montesquieu’s masterpiece was very familiar to the authors of the American Revolution’s founding documents. Any attempt to achieve a deep understanding of our nation’s foundational texts must begin in a study of works like his that informed and inspired them.
Lev Razgon. True Stories (1997)
Razgon is well aware that the world has heard the story of the Stalinist gulags over and over, but he insists that his own experiences need to be left in record lest the millions like him who suffered them be allowed to vanish without having found a personal voice. For that matter, what responsible adult would dare grow bored of the twentieth century’s cautionary tales, particularly when so many of us seem not to have learned our lesson?
Oswald Spengler. The Decline of the West (1991)
Spengler is obtusely caricatured sometimes by self-styled intellectuals as a fascist fellow-traveler. He was nothing of the sort. His erudite debunking of various politically charged notions about racial destiny and return to a mythic past was indeed antithetical to Nazism. In the light of current events, this keen skepticism is frequently relevant to exposing the dangerous naiveté of many contemporary multicultural themes.
Alexis de Toqueville. Democracy in America
Toqueville’s massive and classic study of the new nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century is now available as a free e-book in French, as well as in fairly readable (but archaic) English. Readers fluent in his original tongue should apply themselves to reading the French text, whose style is as elegant as its content is profound. At an incredibly young age, Toqueville had become so shrewd an observer of men and institutions that he accurately predicted the disaster to be wrought by slavery, the tragedy awaiting native Americans, the ecological catastrophe implicit in the northern states’ voracious development, and many other chapters of our nation’s complex history. The word “prophet” often leaps to the reader’s mind.
Eric Voegelin. Order and History: The World of the Polis (2000)
Voegelin qualifies as one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, whose ideas about faith, culture, and our present decline are remarkably compatible with contemporary criticisms of the progressive agenda. Voegelin was convinced that Gnosticism—the heretical and elitist belief that one possesses exclusive access to high truths—has appeared under various names throughout Western history to menace our civilization. This particular volume is the first of five in the Order and History opus, which LSU Press has resurrected along with Voegelin’s other works. His style is dense and demands a dedicated readership, yet his discussions will guide the inquisitive mind into an entire course of very fruitful supplemental readings.
Richard Weaver. Ideas Have Consequences (republished in 1984)
The book was christened by Weaver’s friend Russell Kirk (the author himself hated the title) and has come to be a sacred text of paleo-conservatism. Weaver resists the crude and gaudy crush of the marketplace so stimulating to the contemporary neo-con’s irrepressible adrenaline. At times, however, his opinions creak with rust rather than rusticity: e.g., his indicting Beethoven for robbing music of hierarchy (who invented the symphony?) and his consignment of jazz to “Negro primitivism”. Be prepared to ingest several grains of salt when reading the short section on music and art.
Art and Music
This woefully inadequate section cannot begin to do justice to its worthy subject matter—but we can do no better for the moment. It is perhaps preferable to leave posted our smattering of texts about classical architecture and (at this point) a single series about music than to pull everything down. Please consider the titles below as the first step up a lofty staircase.
Philip Ball. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (2002)
We’ve all heard that the Eskimo has several words for “snow”. Behind the cliché is a stunning truth: familiar sensations are not necessarily universal. The discovery of a certain color may indeed help to define an epoch. Ball astonishes the reader with an evolutionary history of various colors. The enclosed plates of “colorist” paintings are extremely effective.
John Camp. The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens (1992)
A paperback volume recently updated, Camp’s work has received very strong reviews.
Bruce Cole. The Renaissance Artist at Work (1983)
Used as a college text on many campuses, Cole’s book is a highly accessible source for learning about the life and labors of a typical Renaissance artist.
Reynold A. Higgins. Minoan and Mycenaean Art (1997)
The complex prehistoric ruins—often palatial in scope—discovered in Crete and around Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae on Mainland Greece are the basis of much that will follow in classical Greek architecture.
Paul Johnson. Art: A New History (2003)
Johnson does not hesitate to stress some of the alarming qualities of contemporary art with the proper note of dismay. His study projects a sense of values rather than a reluctance to tread on theoretically trendy toes.
A. W. Lawrence. Greek Architecture (1996)
A Pelican Book published by Yale UP, this is an affordable paperback with up-to-date information.
Wilfrid Mellers. Music in a New Found Land: Themes in the History of American Music (1964) The Twilight of the Gods: Wilfrid Mellers’ Analysis of the Beatles (1974) Angels of the Night: Popular Women Singers of Our Time (1986) Celestial Music: Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music (2001) Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century (2001)
Mellers’ life virtually overlapped the twentieth century, and—as these titles show—he did not disdain any variety of music for being too popular or provincial. His writing style, furthermore, is that of an intelligent mind which revels in the musical experience and seeks to communicate its joy to others–the antithesis of a stuffy academic approach.
D. S. Robertson. Handbook of Greek and Roman Architecture (1929)
For some inexplicable reason, the second edition is not currently listed on Amazon. Robertson has been THE textbook for this subject for many a decade in undergraduate courses.
Richard E. Wycherley. How the Greeks Built Cities (1976)
A readable paperback volume, small and portable yet accompanied by ample photos and sketches.