Book Review: The Conservative Bookshelf

The Conservative Bookshelf, by Chilton Williamson, Jr

There are some books that contain within them certain assumptions that may not be shared by the book’s likely reading audience. Such is the case with this particular book. The author of this particular naval-gazing and highly idiosyncratic and partisan collection of books spends much of this book engaging in internecine conflicts with various other wings of the conservative movement, seeking to claim that only those he considers paleoconservatives are “true” conservatives in a manner that seems to consider political ideology to be an aspect of true faith, rather than viewing political positions as the outgrowth of the repercussions of one’s belief system as a whole. For all of the author’s hatred of ideology, this book is strongly ideological in ways that are often hypocritical and self-serving. The author, for example, continually praises the lost cause of the defeated South, and fails to see how the racial and social problems the author decries are in many ways the straightforward result of generations of oppression that the author sees no need to address or even recognize. All of what the author demands for himself, and presumably others of his kind, like a respect for family and property, as well as social and political liberty, the author sees as particular and not universal rights. Straightforwardly seeking to roll back women’s suffrage under the rubric of one family, one male head of household vote, the author demonstrates himself to be an unabashed reactionary fan of a particularist version of freedoms and rights based on race, class, and gender status. In the author’s mind, the rights and freedoms we hold dear as Americans, and are willing to fight for, are not rights that the rest of the world is ready for, although the author appears not to have any particular test in mind by which those he considers unworthy of freedom and honor would be able to demonstrate themselves worthy. The political order of the kind desired by the author, and practiced by the self-professed master class of the antebellum South, is a school for civilization from which no one is ever permitted to graduate.

In terms of its contents, the book is best when the author ceases his repetitive diatribes against the modern world and almost everything after Abraham Lincoln and actually quotes from many of the fifty books included here. The author places a total of 50 works into a series of categories: religion, politics, society, economics, the prophetic artist, and the present day and then ranks them in his own preference within those categories. The end result is a set of books that range from the obvious (the Bible, C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, Augustine’s City of God, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Cicero’s The Republic, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the Federalist papers, de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, the Education of Henry Adams, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, to give a few examples) to books that even well-read Conservatives are likely to have never heard of it (The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, Revolution From The Middle, by Samuel Francis, or Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State). Besides the list of books, which itself includes some very worthwhile quotes [1] of the books that are being honored to be among the author’s top 50, some of which are not in print and are exceedingly difficult to find, the author also uses the nominations as a way of discussing the entire body of work of the author, making this a recommendation for somewhat more than 50 books when all of the subsidiary recommendations are taken into account.

Besides sharing an appreciation for books reading with the author, there are at least a few aspects of this book that are worthwhile to discuss. One of them is the general unprofitability of wrangling over words and definitions. When an author does not use the plain sense of a word, in the way that is commonly understood, or seeks to present himself as a self-appointed gatekeeper to how a given word is to be used, he moves from a fellow partner in the great conversations of ideas and opinions and seeks to become a judge of others by his own personal standards. When an author has a worldview that is as two-faced and hypocritical as the author’s, where the somewhat hyperbolic and paranoid view of the wickedness of the federal government is merely the same sort of domination and tyranny that the author himself endorses towards women and social and ethnic minorities, his placing of himself on a pedestal to look down upon others is particularly unwelcome. However, despite the unsavory and unpleasant nature of the author’s political and historical worldview, and his clear absence of the universal desire to edify mankind irrespective of the particulars that often lamentably divide us, the reader of this book can at least appreciate the author’s honesty, which is due to the fact that he appears to think he is talking to those who agree with him and so he drops the guard of polite fiction that he would adopt in speaking with outsiders and shows the reader what he truly believes, and shows how ignoble a fierce and temperamental resistance to change is when it is sheer mulish and obstinate stubbornness devoid of the right principles, rightly applied, that one ought to be stubborn in proclaiming and maintaining. It is not the pleasure one would wish out of a book about books, but one must take such enjoyment as one finds.

[1] See, for example:

“Has such been the fate of the centuries which have proceeded our own? And has man always inhabited a world like the present, where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law; where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and where nothing seems to be any longer forbidden or allowed, honorable or shameful, false or true?” – Alexis de Tocqueville (p.126)

“I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – T.S. Eliot (p. 224-225)

“This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot—throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?” – Edward Abbey (p. 258)

“The republic passes over into empire when political activity is no longer directed toward enhancement of a particular people, but has become a mechanism for managing them for the benefit of their rulers. That is to say, an empire’s political behavior reflects management needs, reflects the interests of maintaining government itself, reflects the desires of those who happen to be in control of its machinery of administration, rather than the personality and the will of the nation being governed. The government of an empire is abstract, manipulative, a government of, by, and for the government, not of, by, and for the people. Power flows downward rather than upward.” – Clyde N. Wilson (p.288)

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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