50 Politics Classics: The Greatest Books Distilled, by Tom Butler-Bowdon
At first when I read this book and saw some of the books that were included, I was pretty irritated because they are not classics in the sense of being good books that are worth copying. Nevertheless, the author includes such a diverse and even contradictory set of books that it is obvious that the author’s own views are not governing the books included but that the author is seeking to provide a list of influential books that have mostly stood the test of time and that at least motivate the political worldviews of others whether or not the writer or reader will in fact agree with the points of view expressed in the books. And looking at the book that way, as an attempt to provide as broad a possible an understanding of political works from theorists as well as politicians themselves, I was able to enjoy the book and use it as a source for potential further reading rather than to be irritated that it included so many books that have done such harm to humanity through attempts at putting misguided ideals into practice that fail to account for the realities of human existence.
This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and it discusses in some detail 50 books that the author views as political classics along with more brief discussions of 50 additional books (including Bastiat’s fantastic “The Law”) that the author recommends for reading. After an introduction the author moves into a collection that is alphabetically organized by author where each entry is included with its date of publication, title, some quotes, a one-paragraph summary, other books like it in the collection, as well as a larger summary of the work that is usually around 4 pages long or even more. The works included here are very broad in scope, beginning with a posthumous collection of essays by Lord Acton and then moving on through Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals to Arendt’s writing on the origins of totalitarianism, Berlin’s thoughts on liberty, Clausewitz’s On War, Hayek’s Road To Serfdom, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, John Stuart Mill’s feminist writings, Mencius’ essays, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The book even includes the autobiography of Margaret Thatcher and Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, only adding to its complexity. Suffice it to say that everyone will find something to like here but hardly anyone will think all of these books worth reading and appreciating.
That is not to say that this book is by any means a perfect one. The author clearly approaches politics and political science and political philosophy from the point of view of someone who looks at political matters rather than moral ones. It is hard to get a sense of the author’s trustworthiness given the way that he talks up every one of these books as a classic even in a collection that includes works as diverse as libertarian classics and communist and socialist foundational works. One of the pleasures in reading a book like this one is to see what books should have been included on the list and which books one has already read. Since this book provides a wide variety of books to read, it also allows the reader to find a few books one might want to read in the future, as it did for me, and this is definitely something worth appreciating as well. Reading a book to read more books sounds very Nathanish, if you ask me. So, even if the author’s criteria of what is a classic is a bit dodgy and the author’s opinions are a bit untrustworthy, this book is still useful as a resource for those readers who are interested in political classics.