Francis Bacon famously wrote, "Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Four centuries later, that's good to remember: Some books (one in particular) should be treated reverently, but others have specific uses.
Some are good as quick-response tools for situations bound to arise. Mathew Staver's Eternal Vigilance: Knowing and Protecting Your Religious Freedom (Broadman & Holman, 2005) is a thorough handbook on how to stave off aggressive secularists. Olaf Gersemann's Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality (Cato, 2004) has the answers when folks on the left say America should adopt European semi-socialism; his hard look at the slouching German, French, and Italian economies should help free-market advocates to stand tall.
Other books are flawed but provide useful data. For example, Jim Powell doesn't grasp how fighting terrorism requires a proactive foreign policy, but he offers a valid historical critique in Wilson's War: How Woodrow Wilson's Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin & World War II (Crown Forum, 2005).
Other books display elegant writing. Mark Helprin displays his evocative fiction in The Pacific, and Other Stories (Penguin, 2004), and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz presents new poems in Second Space (HarperCollins, 2004). Justice Antonin Scalia's logical and passionate questioning of judicial trendiness is on display in Scalia Dissents: Writings of the Supreme Court's Wittiest, Most Outspoken Jurist (Regnery, 2004; Kevin A. Ring, ed.).
Multi-authored books are often the most uneven, but they are often worth wading through if you trust the editor. Fool's Gold? (Crossway, 2005; John MacArthur, general editor) is certainly worth a look, and several of the essays critiquing some current theological and cultural trends are golden. Phil Johnson's concerning the "New Perspective on Paul" is a great introduction to that debate, and critiques of the Christian men's movement and contemporary worship music are also helpful.
Some works keep us from being manic-depressive. If you're feeling irrationally exuberant about geopolitical developments and need a dose of realism, read Robert Spencer, ed., The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims (Prometheus, 2004) or Graham Allison's Nuclear Terrorism (Times Books, 2004), which explains how terrorists could kill many more than 3,000 Americans. If you're feeling chipper about social trends, read Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future (Regnery, 2005), 21-year-old Ben Shapiro's factual counterpart to Tom Wolfe's latest fiction; throughout the land real-life Charlotte Simmonses find themselves in pornographic environments.
But if you're feeling pessimistic, read Leigh Montville's Why Not Us? The 86-year Journey of the Boston Red Sox Fans from Unparalleled Suffering to the Promised Land of the 2004 World Series (Public Affairs). Seriously, though, Michael Novak's The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable (Basic, 2004) argues the case for its hopeful subtitle, and Stephen Mansfield's The Faith of the American Soldier (Penguin, 2005) boosts confidence in those who defend us when civilizations do clash.
The real reason for optimism is that this world is not the product of chance but the work of an intelligent designer, as Lee Strobel points out in The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God (Zondervan, 2004). That the intelligent designer is a personal God gives us confidence, and we need that confidence especially when a crisis occurs. Deborah Howard's Sunsets: Reflections for Life's Final Journey (Crossway, 2005) movingly shows the importance of developing that confidence before the ultimate crisis, death, looms.
Sunsets is a terrific book to give to the non-Christian elderly or to those who have suddenly learned that their lives will be shorter than they expected, and it's complemented by another new Crossway book, Beyond the Shadowlands. In it Wayne Martindale ably shows how C.S. Lewis did not see heaven as boring or as a place dominated by harps and crowns, or hell as just a state of mind or a place "where all the interesting people will be." Lewis saw heaven as a place where we will be constantly surprised by interesting people and also by joy.