Matt Lewis

It’s a great summer for five great books

By “Matt Lewis & The News” guest blogger Timothy S. Goeglein

My friend and former White House colleague Tevi Troy has a new book coming out soon titled WHAT JEFFERSON READ, IKE WATCHED, AND OBAMA TWEETED: 200 YEARS OF POPULAR CULTURE IN THE WHITE HOUSE. The book will explore, among other themes, presidential reading habits and choices. If this book is like his others, it will be a tour de force survey of important cultural snapshots of the American presidency.

I thought of all this when I read an excerpt of Tevi’s new book in The Wall Street Journal accompanied by a picture of President Obama at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard. The president and his family are vacationing on the island now.

The photo features what appears to be the store’s owner or a clerk helping the president make some summer reading selections. That image prompted a thought: If the president asked me what he might consider reading this summer, what would I commend?

There are five outstanding books that come to mind most readily. Three of the books are biographies of important British literary figures, and the other two are biographies of the most consequential British political figures, other than Winston Churchill, since the 18th century.

The first recommendation would be Alister McGrath’s new biography C.S. LEWIS: ECCENTRIC GENIUS. RELUCTANT PROPHET. Each year seems to bring another biography of Lewis. They are becoming almost as ubiquitous as biographies about Abraham Lincoln. But McGrath’s is not just another biography. It is a brilliantly written and probing, general survey of Lewis’ consequential life.

The author does a marvelous job of exploring the highly unlikely conversion of Oxford’s most famous 20th century don while riding in a sidecar on the way to London’s Whipsnade Zoo, and how that conversion and even transformation seeded a cultural influence and reach almost without peer among popular writers of children’s fiction and Christian apologetics.

Coincidentally, Lewis and President John F. Kennedy died the same day, November 22, 1963. The president’s murder necessarily trumped the news of Lewis’s own demise. But 50 years after both men’s passing, this book prompts the question: Which man had the larger impact on the course of life in the West?

McGrath’s is a compelling and weighty look at Clives Staples Lewis — known as Jack to his inner circle — and includes a brisk survey of Lewis’ closest friendships, including an important section on his closest soul mate of many years, fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien, who probably had the largest influence on Lewis’ becoming a Christian.

The second set of recommendations would be a pair of books either written by or about another famous British author: Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, known of course as P.G. Wodehouse, but to his closest friends as Plum. A LIFE OF WODEHOUSE by Robert McCrum is, as with McGrath’s book on Lewis, a matchless gem of a biography.

This survey was first published in 2004 but has now appeared in a terrific paperback version with a new forward by its author. McCrum is a gifted novelist and prose stylist in his own right; he is the literary editor of The Observer; and he has written at least one other remarkable book, THE STORY OF ENGLISH.

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote of McCrum’s Wodehouse that it “has a tendency to let in daylight upon the magic” of Wodehouse’s masterful comedic writing. Precisely so.

Equally entertaining is P.G. WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS edited by Sophie Ratcliffe. This compendium of WODEHOUSE’s life of letters is a glory. The famous wit and wryness is on full display here, page upon page, and the letters span across Wodehouse’s entire long life. These missives are both elegant and hilarious.

I especially enjoyed reading Wodehouse’s letters to some of my other favorite British writers: Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Orwell, to name but a few. His letters on dealing with publishers are especially rich. All together, this collection helps to enlighten why Plum Wodehouse was one of the greatest comedic masters of the last century.

The fourth and fifth recommendations cover the lives of the two most important British conservative statesmen of the 18th and 20th centuries, Edmund Burke and Margaret Thatcher.

EDMUND BURKE: THE FIRST CONSERVATIVE by Jesse Norman is perhaps the best biography we have had on the great man since Conor Cruise O’Brien’s THE GREAT MELODY in 1994. The inherent value of Norman’s book is that the author himself is a Member of Parliament, as was Burke, and Norman’s first-person insight and eyewitness account of the sturm and drang of day to day politics is effecting in a biography of this nature.

He does a wonderful job of distilling the conservatism of Burke and why prudence really is its first and peerless virtue. I put the book down and felt I had gained a first-rate understanding of the great man, even contemporaneously, which is a difficult thing to achieve in biography.

I was particularly struck by Burke’s deep sense that morals and manners are more important than legislation; he felt societies were organic, and he celebrated the protean nature of confident culture as rooted in virtue arising from faith. Burke’s greatness in undoubted, and this book underscores and confirms the animating principles of his exemplary life as part of a circle of equally-great men: Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Oliver Goldsmith who all personally knew Burke and considered him the greatest orator of his age.

The fifth and final recommendation would be MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY FROM GRANTHAM TO THE FALKLANDS by Charles Moore. There have been three other well-done Thatcher biographies but the unique aspect of this well-done, well-drawn biography is that the author had unequalled access to the late Lady Thatcher’s governmental and private papers and archive.

Also, unlike the other Thatcher books, Moore has done a great job of interviewing not only those who knew her best but also with members of her family who surprisingly and refreshingly candid about what made Thatcher the great woman and leader she was. These interviews cast new light upon her legacy less than a year after her death.

I was particularly taken by the personal letters Thatcher had written to her sister Muriel because they shed an enormous amount of light and learning on the early influences that molded and shaped the future Prime Minister. The enormous influence of her father is evoked here with particular acuity.

The book also contains at least one important surprise: Those of us who are admirers think of her as continually, seamlessly indomitable; she was, but Moore is good about showing her vulnerabilities too, which succeed in making her more human and frankly more sympathetic and transparent. An unwelcome carapace seems to fall away, and we better understand and appreciate her as a human being.

From her first entry into Parliament in 1959, to her leadership in what would prove to be the height of her power and popularity, the Falklands Island war in 1982, Moore’s biography is must reading for anyone who cares deeply about statesmanship and the public square.

Summer doesn’t end officially until September 21, which leaves plenty of time for great reading: To explore the depth and breadth of C.S. Lewis’ faith; to share and enjoy multiple laughs with P.G. Wodehouse; to learn and be moved by the powerful, peerless oratory of Edmund Burke; and to follow the life and career of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century from her girlhood growing up in tiny Grantham to her role as PM at Number 10 Downing Street in London.

In these fine books, worlds upon worlds await the reader.

Timothy Goeglein is the Vice President for External Relations at Focus on the Family.