On April 12, 1959, John F. Kennedy famously claimed that the Chinese word for crisis consists of the characters for two words, “danger” and “opportunity.” That Kennedy’s claim is not true has done little to stop this concept from being advanced by many western leaders and should be recognized for its rhetorical and ideological import regardless of its technical veracity. While technically untrue, the expression captures an essential, deeper truth that during moments of crisis there are dangers and opportunities.
Today, the United States is in a moment of historical and unprecedented crisis. The danger is real, particularly for older Americans in their 70s and 80s. According to NPR, all 50 states in the U.S. have reported cases of the Covid-19 virus, popularly referred to as the novel Coronavirus. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, has instituted a statewide lockdown. Like the virus itself, such sweeping protections are spreading elsewhere in the United States; NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio is considering ordering New York City’s 8.6 million residents to shelter in place as well. Given this moment of crisis, citizens of other communities are urged to prepare in advance for the possibility of similar lockdowns, quarantines, or mandates to shelter-in-place. Families should first make sure they have adequate emergency supplies – FEMA has excellent resources available for realistic emergency preparations: https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/7877
Once these preparations are complete, however, comes the realization that lockdowns and quarantines are incredibly boring. In households free of infection, the crisis of boredom will be felt more acutely than the crisis of the virus itself. And herein lies the opportunity. These moments of isolation grant the chance to drink deeply from the cup of understanding and sharpen ideological rhetoric. To this end, those seeking to take advantage of the opportunity within this crisis may find the following books helpful. Each has been carefully selected for its foundational contributions to conservative thought.
The first book recommended is the Christian Bible. While the United States has a proud history of secular governance and a tradition of “separation of church and state,” the Christian Bible inarguably helped shape the thinking of most, if not all, of the founding fathers in the writing of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. With an average page length of 1200 pages depending on the version, the Christian Bible will require approximately 53 hours for the average reader. For those who primarily draw their biblical scholarship from church services and Sunday school, however, be forewarned: the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of graphic stories featuring prostitution, incest, dismemberment, women being raped to death, and good-old-fashioned murder. So while the Bible remains a great book to read aloud to the family, parents are encouraged to consider whether a specific passage is age-appropriate for their children.
The second book recommended is Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, 5th Edition. At 703 pages, Sowell’s book provides a brilliant introduction to economics and will require approximately 12 hours for the average reader. While free of overtly partisan ideology, Basic Economics provides a plain language defense of free-market principles that is free of complex charts or formulas. Far from being “dumbed down,” this book is highly useful in providing conversational references in support of individual freedom and against collectivist ideologies such as Democratic Socialism and Communism. While this book does not contain content inappropriate for children, parents may find its content too dry for young learners.
The third book recommended is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1. At 704 pages, The Gulag Archipelago will require approximately 14 hours for the average reader. The book details a harrowing collection of first and second-hand accounts of criminal justice and the soviet secret police in the USSR. This groundbreaking work, for which its author was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, brings to light the inevitable link between collectivism and blood-thirsty totalitarianism. Due to its overt descriptions of terror, murder, and torture, this book is not appropriate for children under the age of 16.
The fourth and final book recommended is Ayn Rand’s controversial Atlas Shrugged. While critics of the book often focus on Rand’s overt atheism and her strange attitudes toward sex, some of which spill over into the novel itself, her defense of capitalism and individualism remain among the foremost defenses in the world. As Paul Ryan stated in 2009, “Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.” At a massive 1168 pages, Atlas Shrugged will require on average 43 hours to read. Like the trains that feature heavily in the book’s setting, the book’s first act chugs slowly as it gets started but begins to build up narrative speed in its second and third acts. While the novel does contain overt sexual references, including some non-consensual sex acts, these descriptions are not pornographic. Atlas Shrugged is appropriate for mature high-school readers but the sex scenes should be skipped if reading aloud to elementary-aged children.
Taken together, these four books will provide 122 hours of education and entertainment. In this moment of crisis, citizens should see these quarantines, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place mandates as opportunities to sharpen their thinking and improve their arguments in support of faith, family, and freedom by reading one or all of these foundational books. Reading these books will help assure our communities emerge from this historic crisis not only healthier but wiser as well.