Favorite Novels

Shawn put up his top ten books list, and I was so impressed at his ability to actually pick ten, I thought I’d have a go. In the end, I couldn’t pick ten. There are so many wonderful books that could make the list, I just couldn’t decide where to draw the line.

Does Huckleberry Finn make the cut? What about It, or the Harry Potter series?The Watchmen is very, very good. So is Like Water for Chocolate and The Time-Travelers Wife. I loved The Stand, and Charlotte’s Web made me cry and cry and cry. The Fountainhead was first and I check for news of the latest in The Song of Ice and Fire almost daily. There are just so many good books, picking ten is too hard.

But picking the five was easy. These are the ones I return to year after year. They’re the books I’ve read and re-read and re-read again and again. They’re the books that have meant something to me, the ones that changed the way I look at the world around me.

1) A Room With a View by E. M. Forester

I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy! I hate the word now, because of all the cant with which superstition has wrapped it round. But we have souls. I cannot say how they came nor whither they go, but we have them, and I see you ruining yours. I cannot bear it. It is again the darkness creeping in; it is hell.

I thought about these rankings for a long time, and this book is in the right spot; It’s my favorite. I’ve been in love with this story ever since I first saw the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. The book has a quiet grace that fills my heart; it’s full of tender moments and surprising passion. This book fills me with hope and promise. When I close it–each time and every time–there’s a smile on face and sense of wonder and hope in my heart, “… by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory yes if you will, but a Yes.”

2) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.

If A Room With a View is my romantic touchstone, the book that speaks most directly to my heart, then Atlas Shrugged is my intellectual lodestone. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word, compelling, difficult, complex, agonizing, confounding, enlightening and fabulously gigantic.

3) Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker

I said, ‘Name’s Spenser, with an S, like the poet. I’m in the Boston book.’ I stepped through the door and closed it. Then I opened it again and stuck my head back into the hall. ‘Under Tough,’ I said.

But he doesn’t really know how to be a good man, so he goes for the simple rules that someone else told him. It’s easier than thinking, and safer. The other way, you have to decide for yourself.

Funny. Charming. Disarmingly spare. Parker’s Spenser was my first literary role-model. I recognized very early (I began reading this series when I was 13 or 14) that the core of Spenser’s character was not violence or mystery but integrity and honesty. Parker’s hero has been derided as a cardboard cutout, flat and dull–and he often is. But it’s rare to find a character in modern fiction driven by an authentic commitment to principles.

Spenser isn’t a simple fantasy (although he is often fantastical) of unwavering commitment to an abstract code of honor, he’s a man committed to making principles work in a messy, complicated, often difficult world. The novels are at their best when they explore the moments that Spenser’s principles compromise him and make him vulnerable. Early Autumn is the most thorough exploration of those principles.

4) Possession by A. S. Byatt

They took to silence.

They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it.

On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Neither was sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other. Neither dared ask.

Like A Room With a View, Possession is a beautiful and lyric story of love. At its heart, Possession is about the way that love can change our world; it’s about how love can render our world more beautiful, more lyrical and more moving than we had imagined. It’s about the possibility of a love that can possess us completely and allow us to step through fear, distance, circumstance and time. It’s about how our love creates its own story–a story that is as powerful, as passionate and as extraordinary as any story found in history or poetry.

5) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Daylight… in my mind, the night faded. it was daytime and the neighbourhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. it was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk towards a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing-pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

This is the Great American Novel. Harper Lee’s book is a tale of innocence lost and of justice delayed too long. It uncovers the evil of prejudice and the ugliness of ignorance. It is also a heartrendingly beautiful story of growth and redemption.

Most of us read this book as children, assigned it in school. That’s where I first read it. If you haven’t read it again since, do. As a child, you play in the yard with Scout and Jem and you feel safe when Atticus is home. You run with the children through the streets, and you sneak with them into the courthouse, excited and flush with danger. Your heart fills with pride when Atticus takes aim and shoots the dog.

As an adult, you watch with Atticus as the children play and their fragility terrifies you. You dread the courthouse and you feel flush with the heavy weight of the heat as you watch Tom’s life slip away. You heart sinks with the despair and resignation as Atticus drops his glasses and kills a poor, infected animal.


Heller Affirmed

The U.S. Supreme Court today affirmed the lower court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller.

The ruling essentially affirms that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” Scalia’s opinion (joined by Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, and Thomas) clarifies the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution but allows significant latitude for regulation and gun-control. The ruling is largely silent on the issue of incorporation, although it hints that it would likely decide in favor of incorporation should the issue come before the court. Expect a challenge to Chicago’s ban to be formulated within the year.

I’m not an avid follower of the court, and I only occasionally read the opinions in full, so I was struck by Scalia’s often combative tone and his contemptuous dismissal of Stevens’s dissent. I agree that Stevens’s arguments regarding the definition of “to keep and bear arms” are tortured and forced, and I do think that Stevens’s position is wrong–as it pertains to law, philosophy, and history. (I enjoyed Scalia’s destruction of the argument that the idiomatic use of “arms” would control in the latter half of “to keep and bear arms” while the conventional usage would control in the first half. Scalia likened it to saying that a man, “filled and kicked the bucket.”)

All in all, the decision does as much as I thought it might: it affirms a limited individual right to own and use ordinary weapons for legitimate purposes disconnected with formal military service. It opens the door for further rulings clarifying the bounds of the right and–possibly–incorporating it (which I would applaud: the enumerated rights mean little if they are no safeguard against the tyranny of the respective States).

What did bother me was Breyer’s dissent. His argument rests on the idea that the court should rely on an “interest balancing” test in its evaluation of constitutional guarantees. Essentially, Bryer is arguing that if the court or the legislature finds a compelling interest in vacating a portion of the Constitution, it is wholly within their rights to do so. That of course, renders the Constitution meaningless. Scalia’s response to Breyer’s dissent: “A constitutional guarantee subject to future judges’ assessments of its usefulness is no constitutional guarantee at all. Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad.” If the people find a provision of the Constitution no longer workable, there is a means by which they can correct the Constitution: by amendment. In the absence of amendment, however, it is the legislature’s responsibility–and the court’s obligation–to protect and defend the Constitution as it written.

One final note: I find it, frankly, nearly impossible to imagine the founders agreeing with the dissent. David J. Schenck makes the point clearly on scotusblog.com,

In reading Justice Scalia’s opinion, there is an overwhelming theme that to interpret the Second Amendment as not protecting an individual right would gut the amendment of meaning and defy logic. It is, after all, the Second Amendment, not the two hundredth. This is not an obscure line buried among thousands of pages of text. It is inconceivable that the framers would have given it the priority they did, placing it ahead of so many other critical rights, if they only meant it to apply to militias as the dissenting justices suggest.

The arguments Justice Stevens marshals in his dissent are tortured and seem–at least to me–entirely a-historical. The Stevens dissent strikes me, for that reason, as slightly duplicitous. The Breyer dissent is the more honest argument. Breyer acknowledges that the intent of the founders is largely irrelevant in his analysis, whereas Stevens seems willing to twist history and logic to support his position.

The debate, after all, has never really been about what the founders meant, but rather if we cared what the founders meant. Either the Constitution constrains the government or it does not. Breyer’s position is that it does not. And that’s a position that I find deeply troubling.

Things to do in Denver?

Well, it appears that my prediction of a Hillary victory was incorrect. Obama seems to have secured the Democratic nomination. Barring some unexpected turn of events (like the appearance of the mythical “Whitey” video), the DNC will nominate Barack Obama for the office of President of The United States of America.

Much has been made of the contest between an African-American and a Woman, but little has been said about the real battle lines that this contest represented: hard-left vs. middle-left. 16 years ago, Bill Clinton moved the Democratic party to the middle. Obama promises to move the party to the left. Way left. Way, way left.

Way, way, way left.

And that will be his biggest problem in the general election. Obama is the farthest left of every other Senator. There is simply no other politician on the national stage who is farther from the center than Barack Hussein Obama. All of the controversies that will surround Obama in the coming months; his relationships with unrepentant former terrorists, his willingness to meet with dictators and terrorist sponsoring tyrants, his desire to bomb allies, his refusal to acknowledge progress in Iraq, his steadfast refusal to even consider listening to military commanders in the field before making far-reaching strategic war-time decisions, his relationship with the worst parts of the black segregationalist movement, and his seeming inability to muster any reasonably authentic display of pride in America all spring from the same well: his deeply progressive political ideology. Jeremiah Wright isn’t the problem for Obama, it’s the ideology that makes Wright possible.

To make matters worse, Obama is inexperienced as a politician. Compared to McCain, Obama’s lack of experience is comical. To combat that lack of experience, Obama will argue — as he has been — that he has better judgment. But when his history is littered with the likes of Ayers, Wright, and Rezko, when his major foreign policy decisions have ranged from the simply ludicrous: bomb Pakistan, to the simply wrong: the surge won’t work, to the simply awful: unconditional meetings with Iran and North Korea, his judgment seems to be rather powerfully flawed. All those lapses in judgment spring from the same well: his deeply progressive political ideology.

Obama needs to move to the center, and he needs to move quickly. To win the general election, Obama needs to win over independent and moderate voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. He needs to appeal to the exact same voters that voted for Bush over Kerry. And he needs to win them back. That bears repeating, because while it’s the line that Clinton has been singing to the superdelegates, it’s a line that hasn’t gotten much play in the major media. To win in the general election, Obama needs to win over the white suburban women who voted for Bush instead of Kerry.

Will making Hillary his VP help bring those voters over?

Or will those voters turn to a politician with decades of experience and a strong commitment to national defense? As Victor Davis Hansen put it, the Democrats have nominated the only candidate they had that could lose this election and the Republicans have nominated the only candidate they had that can win it.

Things to do in Denver?