Conservatives often seem to resist reading fiction, preferring fact-laden books on history, philosophy, or economics. Similarly, conservatives are more likely to recommend the latest book by Mark Levin or Ann Coulter, or a philosophical evergreen by Thomas Sowell or Milton Friedman, than a work of fiction.
Yet fiction can be a powerful tool in advancing ideas, as the left well understands. Fiction can entertain and outrage, trigger sympathy or revulsion, provoke pity or pride, thus allowing the political or moral point to be absorbed by the reader indirectly.
To that end, this writer humbly submits ten books that can be read and enjoyed by a conservative looking for wisdom conveyed in a different form from nonfiction. These books can be recommended to an apolitical person who resists an overtly political screed. Or they can be part of a homeschooling curriculum for a bright high school student (though some have decidedly mature themes, as noted).
The list of books is eclectic, featuring both social and economic themes and both American and European authors. In an effort to be accessible, the roster is limited to "modern" (post-19th century) novels.
With the prologue established, the list follows. Let the brickbats fly!
1984 by George Orwell
George Orwell's 1984 is a dystopian novel focusing on an individual living in "Oceania," a socialist society comprising the present-day nations of England and the Americas. Oceania is characterized by perpetual war; government surveillance; and the "thought police," who persecute "thoughtcrime."
The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the "Ministry of Truth," which is engaged in the practice of constantly editing history to conform to the current party line. People and places are changed, erased, or added as needed.
Although 1984 was intended as an indictment of totalitarianism, especially the USSR under Stalin, the novel today can be seen as a reflection of the current regime of political correctness in the popular media and academia.
The erasing of America's past, renaming of holidays, and defacing and elimination of statues can all be seen as an effort to conform America's history to the Progressive party line, in a manner similar to that foreseen by Orwell.
This is how Orwell described it:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand's magnum opus, published in 1957, has influenced more conservatives and libertarians than any other novel, from the Alt-Right Milo Yiannopoulos to the establishment Republican Paul Ryan.
While the book's atheism and materialism are off-putting to many on the right, the novel celebrates the power of the individual in human achievement, the morality of capitalism, and the centrality of the entrepreneur. These are many of the themes covered in Human Action, the treatise on economics by acclaimed economist Ludwig von Mises. But Ayn Rand's book gives flesh and blood to the Misesian themes, presenting an exciting narrative with colorful characters and exuberance. In addition, the book seems to have particular appeal to younger readers.
It appears from recent surveys that our millennials have been infected with the virus of socialism. Atlas Shrugged is the ideal antidote.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Long before Black Lives Matter and "Hands up, don't shoot," Tom Wolfe illuminated the reality of racial politics in the liberal big city.
His 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, revolves around a young, wealthy investment banker named Sherman McCoy, self-described "Master of the Universe," who accidentally enters the South Bronx at night while driving to Manhattan. Lost and disoriented, McCoy is involved in an accident with a young black man, which leads to criminal charges. But this isn't an ordinary hit-and-run case. A liberal New York prosecutor seizes on the McCoy case for his own political ends. Whether McCoy is actually guilty or not quickly becomes irrelevant – all that matters is that he a white defendant against a black victim. The novel skillfully demonstrates how the interplay of the zealous prosecutor, radical black activists, and a biased media culminate in a state of hysteria where facts become meaningless.
Thirty years later, Wolfe's take on America's racial politics remains prescient. In both the Trayvon Martin case in 2012 and the Ferguson-Michael Brown case in 2014, we saw the same interplay of forces at work: the radical activists, the cowardly and scheming politicians, and the narrative-driven media.
Bonfire helps to make sense of it all.
Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail
Camp of the Saints was published in 1973 and quickly disappeared into obscurity. Its premise seemed too far-fetched: prompted by charitable overtures from Belgium, an armada of a million starving third-world immigrants sets sail from India, headed for Europe. The armada arrives on the shores of the French Riviera, and chaos ensues. The title of the book comes from the Book of Revelation, describing the apocalypse.
The focus of Raspail's novel is less on the advancing immigrant armada than on the various ineffectual responses of the French intelligentsia, media, and clergy. (One of the voices in support of the advancing multitude is a left-wing Latin-American pope!)
What appeared far-fetched in 1973 is coming to pass in Europe today: the introduction of a million migrants into Europe, courtesy of Angela Merkel (and with the blessing of the pope) coupled with a demographic collapse that even Raispal could not envision. The book, which had languished in obscurity, returned to the French bestseller list in 2011.
In an insightful analysis in The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson observed:
At the heart of the novel is a moral question: Is the West willing to defend itself? Denounced upon publication four decades ago as a racist, xenophobic fantasy, Raspail's book now seems vaguely prophetic – not because of what it tells us about refugees from the Third World but because of what it reveals about European civilization.
The book is uncomfortable, often painful, to read. It needs to be read anyway.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Written more than seven decades ago, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon stands as one of the most penetrating denunciations of totalitarianism ever written. The book tells the story of Rubashov, a veteran of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, who is imprisoned and tried for treason by the regime he helped to create. The book is based on the infamous Moscow "show trials" of the 1930s in which Stalin purged many of the old Bolsheviks on trumped up charges obtained through manipulations and induced confessions.
The show trials were bad enough. Worse still was the fact that many intellectuals in the West defended them, including New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.
The Times continues to whitewash Soviet atrocities to this day. Recently, the Times put together a collection of nostalgic remembrances about communism as part of a series called "Red Century," exploring the legacy of communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution. Many of the articles sounded as if they were concocted in the old Soviet propaganda ministry. In one piece, for example, we learn that "women had better sex under socialism." In another, we discover that the USSR was a global pioneer in conservation. In a third essay, fondly titled "When Communism Inspired Americans," the Times recalls that "at that time, in this place, the Marxist vision of world solidarity as translated by the Communist Party induced in the most ordinary of men and women a sense of one's own humanity that ran deep, made life feel large; large and clarified."
None of these insipid pieces can survive a single reading of Darkness at Noon.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
Audaciously written from the point of view of an innocent Christian schoolgirl, I Am Charlotte Simmons is a searing indictment of the decadence of modern academia.
The protagonist, Charlotte Simmons, is an attractive and intelligent but naïve freshman from a small town in North Carolina. Charlotte receives a scholarship to "DuPont University," an Ivy League school on the "other side" of the mountains, both literally and figuratively. Back home, this is front page news. She is ready to go off and live "the life of the mind" at DuPont.
But Charlotte's experiences at this elite institution turn out to be considerably different from what she expected. She discovers, to her shock, that at DuPont, academic achievement takes second place to sexual conquest. The novel explores who Charlotte Simmons is and what she becomes.
Wolfe, a master social satirist, takes on the modern university experience – the random hookups, drug use, identity politics, and jock-worship. His depiction is uncompromising – the language and sex scenes are very frank.
Though written in 2004, the book already seems dated in some respects – "safe spaces," Antifa, and transgender bathrooms were still to come. But Charlotte Simmons's enduring value is showing how the sex-soaked culture of the Ivy League college – it was based on Wolfe's interviews with students at North Carolina, Florida, Penn, Duke, and Stanford – devalues rather than liberates women.
Last of the Breed by Louis L'Amour
Louis L'Amour was known primarily as a writer of westerns, but Last of the Breed is a Cold War novel, with a heavy dose of masculine survivalism. Its inclusion on this list may surprise some: it is a boy's adventure story, not an intellectual tour de force, but it's just the kind of book we desperately need today.
Last of the Breed tells the story of Joe Makatozi, an Air Force major, whose aircraft is forced down in the Soviet Union. Makatozi is an Indian, part Sioux, part Cherokee.
The Soviet interrogator seeks to exploit his "Native American victim status," but Makatozi will have none of it.
A proud Indian, a proud American, "Mack" escapes from the prison camp and heads toward America through the Bering Strait (much as his ancestors did thousands of years ago). In order to escape, however, he needs to fend off his Soviet pursuers and survive the harsh Siberian terrain.
Critic John J. Miller noted in National Review:
Moral ambiguity didn't interest L'Amour. He had a clear sense of right and wrong: People should build rather than destroy, protect the innocent and vulnerable, and recognize that law and order can descend into chaos and barbarism with savage swiftness. L'Amour also didn't write sex scenes, which made him a bit of an outlier among the popular novelists of his time. He called sex "a leisure activity" and said he had more important things to write about.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich deals with the struggle for survival in a Soviet prison camp in the 1950s, part of the vast infrastructure of such camps known as the Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn had firsthand experience in the Siberian Gulag and movingly writes of the various prisoners and their predicaments. In the Gulag, the protagonist encounters a cross-section of Russian society, and, indeed, the novel is allegorical – the whole of Stalinist Russia was a vast prison camp with no escape. Ivan's struggle was the struggle of every oppressed victim of Communist tyranny.
Chilton Williamson, noted author and critic, wrote of Ivan Denisovitch that the novel is "a testimony to the essential unmalleability of human nature by a political system whose professed raison d'être is to alter not only human behavior but humanity itself."
America's storytellers, particularly in Hollywood, depict Nazism as the sole or preeminent evil of the 20th century. A record of 100 million corpses suggests otherwise.
State of Fear by Michael Crichton
In 2005, Michael Crichton, author of sci-fi classics The Andromeda Strain andJurassic Park, produced a thriller in which the evildoers are radical environmentalists.
The theme of Crichton's adventure is that the widespread fear of catastrophic global warming is baseless. As one his characters puts it, "[l]ike the belief in witchcraft, it's an extraordinary delusion – a global fantasy worthy of the Middle Ages."
Though it's a work of fiction, State of Fear backs its assertions with scientific evidence and an impressive bibliography.
But while the book on the surface deals with global warming, it is really about something deeper: the assumption that man has the knowledge to predict the future with precision. It's the illusion upon which all central planning is built, including the "climate modeling" that serves as the basis of Al Gore's fantasies. "I prefer true but imperfect knowledge," the great economist Friedrich Hayek once said, "to a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false."
Crichton considered himself a political agnostic. And while he thought climate research was impressive, it was simply not good enough to justify radically transforming energy policy. "I never thought the idea that you can't predict the future would be controversial," Crichton said, echoing Hayek.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq
Submission is set in the near future – 2022 – in a France that has elected a Muslim president who governs in coalition with the Socialist Party. The theme is the ascent of political Islam in Europe and the crumbling of an increasingly secular West.
The novel's protagonist is a symbol of the decadence of western Europe: sex-obsessed, materialistic, bored, lacking religious faith.
Houellebecq's frank depiction of Islam is uncompromising. As reviewer Jane Clark Sharl has noted:
There are no platitudes here of Islam as a partner-religion with Christianity, Islam as a force for unity, or Islam as a spiritualized arm of progressivism. Mr. Houellebecq describes Islam as it actually is: male-centric to the point of chauvinism, aggressive, political, dominant. He has no compunction about including all the doctrines of Islam, including those most distasteful to the contemporary elite. Despite repeated insistence otherwise, the Islam in Submission is not satirical; it is historically and ideologically accurate.
Christian conservatives may find this book a tough read – the sex scenes are graphic, and it is definitely written for a mature audience. But it's a story that needs to be told.
The late Andrew Breitbart famously observed that "culture is downstream from politics." Good storytelling is the way we advance the cultural narrative. Conservatives ignore this to their peril.