It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books. This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors). For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists. If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).
Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America.
For my twelfth birthday, my mother bought me a copy of The Federalist Papers. I still remember the imposing cover of this paperback book, with the bewigged James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton solemnly staring at the reader. On this first reading, I didn’t understand much of their arguments, but I suspect that wasn’t my mother’s point. Unfortunately, I never asked her.
My next confrontation with The Federalist Papers was in college when a professor assigned the entire book – no excerpts, no commentary, no background – just the book. It was the sixties and Madison, Jay and Hamilton epitomized what were soon to be derided as the Dead White Males. After reading it from cover-to-cover, I told my professor that their ideas, such as checks-and-balances and separation of powers, were commonplace. My professor just smiled enigmatically.
I belatedly realized his point: These thoughts are part of our common culture today largely because these three Dead White Males made them so.
When I next confronted The Federalist Papers in law school, my earlier skepticism had given way to grudging admiration. By then, it was clear that Madison, Jay and Hamilton were livelier fellows than their solemn portraits made them out to be. Madison was a nerd who somehow convinced the hottest eligible lady in town to marry him. Hamilton was the classic poor boy who started in life with less than nothing and wound up in the nation’s highest precincts. After Jay negotiated his eponymous treaty, he was strung in effigy throughout the nation. These fellows had interesting lives.
Finally, as a law professor, I realized the importance of The Federalist Papers: In the rush of current events, Madison, Hamilton and Jay got most of the big issues right and set the framework for much of the American political discourse which has followed over the generations. Of course, the Constitution has been amended in ways which make moot many of their arguments. We now have a Bill of Rights. The Fourteenth Amendment radically changes the relationship between the states and the federal government. Nevertheless, in many important ways, Madison, Jay and Hamilton were right on the money and all that has followed has been commentary on their initial insights.
Consider, for example, the most famous of The Federalist essays, Madison’s Number 10 on “factions,” what we today call “special interests.” Madison argues that, in the larger polity contemplated by the proposed Constitution, factions would have a more difficult time uniting among themselves. When there is “a greater variety of parties and interests,” he argued, it becomes “less probable that a majority of the whole” can “act in unison with each other.”
Commentators and political scientists have spilled much ink over the last century amplifying this theme. Our vocabulary today includes many terms – median voter, collective action problems, freeloading, logrolling – designed to understand what Madison first saw and celebrated: Assembling a diverse majority coalition is difficult; such a coalition can never be established permanently.
Madison’s insight explains much of what we see in national politics today. Barack Obama did an inspired job of assembling a winning coalition out of disparate interests: labor unions, high income liberals, minorities, moderate suburbanites. A year into his administration, that coalition is fraying from its inner tensions – exactly as Madison predicted. Had the presidential election gone the other way, President McCain would now be experiencing similar troubles managing his electoral coalition.
While I didn’t give my children their own copies of The Federalist Papers on their respective twelfth birthdays, there was always at least one copy in the house. I think my mother would have approved: On many of the big issues, Madison, Hamilton and Jay got it right.
Determining my favorite children’s book has taken particular urgency since the birth in June of my first grandchild, Wilson. High on the list of my grandfatherly responsibilities is organizing the books I read to Wilson’s mother and uncles at bedtimes long ago. I look forward to sharing these with my grandson in the years ahead.
Of the many wonderful books I read to my offspring, I have placed on the top of Wilson’s pile Wallace Tripp’s illustrated version of Casey at the Bat. If a classic book is one which retains its appeal over the years, Tripp’s Casey easily satisfies that test.
Tripp whimsically portrays the immortal Mudville nine as a collection of man-like animals in period clothes, playing baseball in the 1890s. Tripp similarly illustrates the opposing team, the crowd and the umpires as the characters one would expect at a turn-of-the-century baseball game — except that they are all delightful animals.
Tripp’s Casey is regal, an elegant, DiMaggio-like aristocrat of the baseball diamond. He just happens to be a bear. Similarly believable is the bovine umpire whom, after calling a strike, Casey graciously protects from the crowd’s wrath by “still[ing] the rising tumult.”
Of all of Tripp’s illustrated characters, my favorite is the “lulu” Flynn who “let drive a single, to the wonderment of all.” Tripp’s Flynn is a poodle whose sense of pride and surprise is palpable as he is miraculously “a-hugging third.”
Tripp’s version of Casey at the Bat was released in 1980 and has apparently not been republished since. It can, however, be found in bookstores and on the internet, and is definitely worth tracking down. There may be “no joy in Mudville,” but I promise many bedtime giggles from this clever version of an American classic.