Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind is a catalog of the thoughts of men, both British and American, whom Kirk regarded as eminent (albeit sometimes obscure) conservatives. They range in historical sequence from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) to contemporary scholars. Although this book is not an instruction manual for conservative politicians and activists, it will provide conservatives with both a clear understanding of conservatism's basic principles and a cogent defense of those principles. One of the major insights that this book offered was the central role of religion in society: Revealed religion is the source of Western morality; law was created to enforce that morality; the state enforces the law, so the state is an instrument of religion. Another insight was the hubris of nineteenth and twentieth century reformers, who thought that they could legislate happiness and freedom, but who instead created industrial slums and domineering central governments. The overall tone of the work is pessimistic, often despairing: the repeated theme is that from an idyllic, aristocratic, agricultural society united under Christianity the world has decayed to a lonely, atomized, atheistic, cold-blooded industrial society. In the face of such decline, the conservative can only try to salvage or resurrect bits of traditional society -- manners, customs, faith in Providence, etc. Again, the book is of limited practical value: The author's aim is merely to define conservatism, which he does explicitly only in chapter one. He offers neither explicit criteria for distinguishing desirable from undesirable change, nor strategies for forestalling the latter. The book is difficult both because Kirk provides no biographical information about his subjects and because he assumes a detailed knowledge of history. The author's style is literary rather than academic. When he outlines another author's work, it's not always clear where the summary ceases and Kirk's comments begin. Despite these shortcomings, no one should call himself a conservative until he has read this book and understands the principles that he's defending.
As a Conservative, this book was a huge inspiration. It describes the struggles, defeats, and victories of those brave souls that have sought to maintain order and stabilizing constancy in a world seduced by innovation and progress. It also gives one increased confidence in knowing that Conservatism has and does provide the insightfulness and practicality for governing since it appreciates and accepts human nature as it is (as opposed to governing using fashionable theories of how humans can or ought to be). The book can be difficult to read at points due to the detachment from events described. But even those points are not without insights and inspiration for the modern Conservative reader. In my opinion, the last 150 pages or so were the best as they dealt with 20th century Conservatism in America. This book is an absolute must read for anyone wishing to understand and appreciate the Conservative Heritage.