In an effort to revive their atrophied brain cells before the swiftly approaching fall semester, college students turn to two experts from the world of publishing and academia for a belated summer reading list.
“Don’t major in political science,” Harry Crocker (pictured) told a room full of undergraduates at Young America’s Foundation’s 26th annual National Conservative Leadership Conference. “Major in literature or history or the classics,” he said, touting a position seldom heard by career-bound college students.
At a lecture entitled “Amazing Books to Read in College,” Harry W. Crocker III, executive editor of Regnery Publishing and recent author of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, listed dozens of classics he considers vital to properly understanding human nature and history, ranging from Virgil’s The Aeneid to Orwell’s 1984. “Greek and Roman literature is a must,” he said, rattling off Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Cicero’s works as examples. Crocker pointed to the “stoic republican virtue that upheld Rome,” reminding his young audience that “as Rome declines, we don’t want to decline. If you want to be future operatives, that needs to be haunting you all the time.” Constant on every American’s mind, he said, should be the question, ‘What can I do to keep America strong?’
“Most colleges won’t assign you the most important book of Western culture: the Bible,” said Anglican-turned-Catholic Crocker to enthusiastic applause from the students. “The essence of the West is Caesar and Christ. If you don’t know them, you can’t know the West,” he insisted.
Crocker went on to list a wealth of historically significant politicians and philosophers as must-reads, among them Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Burke. Referring to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Crocker posited that the greatest book ever written about America, which “still has observations and predictions that are scintillating,” was written in the 19th century by a foreigner.
Moving into the 20th century, Crocker recommended conservative writer and thinker Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order, about the history of American laws and social norms. “You’re a conservative,” Crocker reminded his audience; “you should know what you want to conserve.” Witness by former communist spy Whittaker Chambers and The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by war poet Siegfried Sassoon also made the list.
“Reading can never be an excuse for not doing or not enjoying,” Crocker emphasized, telling students not to discount the merits of works like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
Students were still frantically scribbling titles and authors into their notepads when Paul Kengor, professor and recent author of God and Ronald Reagan, got up to deliver his own list of favorites. Crocker’s list was “classical but timeless,” he said. “My list is very different—it’s much more contemporary.”
A professor at Grove City College, he compiled his list based on the “best of” of two of his classes: Humanities 302, which covers the American Revolution to the end of the Cold War, and Introduction to Politics, which covers more recent history.
Starting from America’s birth, Kengor limited himself to just a few books, though he said he could name 20 or 30 on that period alone. He recommended Tom West’s Vindicating the Founders, which, according to Kengor, provides a rare insight into the minds of Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison; Michael Novak’s On Two Wings, a “fantastic treatment of the faith of the founders”; and David McCullough’s John Adams, a biography of “our most unappreciated founding father.”
He echoed Crocker’s instructions to read the Bible, but added that in today’s world, the Koran must be explored as well. Treading delicately to avoid making politically incorrect statements about Islam as a whole, Kengor stressed the importance of investigating a connection between Islamic fundamentalism and its purported divine source.
“As a Christian, personally, I would recommend Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis,” Kengor said, adding that the book, as well as Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ, made a strong argument for Christianity that is valuable for both believers and dissenters in understanding the religion. In order to debate Christianity, the told the non-Christians in the audience, you’ll have to understand it first.
As examples of “barbarism and what humans can descend to,” Kengor listed Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father on the Cambodian genocide; Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, on Japan’s pre-WWII brutal conquest of Nanking, China; and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners on the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust.
Kengor let himself go with Communism, listing book after book on the subject. Communism: A History by Richard Pipes came strongly recommended; “if you want to understand Communism,” Kengor advised, “this is it.” On Ronald Radosh’s Commies, Kengor said, “This country absolutely lost its mind in the ’60s and this book will help make that clear.” He recommended reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. “It drives me crazy when students say, well, communism is a good idea, it just hasn’t been tried right.” If they actually read the Manifesto, they would realize its idiocy, he promised.
On modern menaces, Kengor recommended Against All Hope by Armando Valladares on Castro’s Cuba, and, if students in the audience need help convincing friends that Iraqis are indeed grateful that Saddam is gone, Saddam: King of Terror by Con Coughlin.
Michele Nagar, a rising freshman at the University of Maryland, is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.