June 4, 2005


There's a tendency when folks put together lists of suggested summer reading to assume that readers don't want to have to think. So such lists usually have a lot of mindless thrillers and the like. It seems to me that a book can be mentally challenging but still be reasonably easy to read, in fact most of the best books are. So here's a list that won't strain your brain too much but that won't waste your time either.

These are the rough guidelines for the choices :

(1) It should be big. Five-hundred-pages-or-better big. You should be able to only take two books from the list and still have enough reading to get you through a week.

(2) It should be readable. No note-taking needed. Not a whole lot of names to remember. You should be able to pick it up and put it down again without having to reorient yourself. Most of all, you should enjoy it.

(3) Ideally it should be a book that you've been meaning to read but you've put off, probably because of its size. But now, when it's the only one, or one of the only ones, you have with you, you'll be "forced" to read it. At the same time, it should be good enough that you won't regret having brought it. No experiments.

So here are a few suggestions (with links to our reviews where applicable)(please add your own suggestions in the comments section) :

What it Takes : The Way to the White House (1992) (Richard Ben Cramer)
[A whopping 1051 pages, but you won't even notice. Available in a nice paperback edition.]
Mr. Cramer's account of the 1988 presidential campaign is an amalgam of both The Right Stuff and Moby Dick. It may be the quintessential book about America.

The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) (Robert Caro)
[1246 pages. Available in hardcover]
Mr. Caro writes biography in order to understand political power. He's in the middle of his acclaimed four volume Lyndon Johnson series, but for a
one volume masterpiece this one can't be bettered. Along with Mr. Cramer's book and All the King's Men it forms my personal triumvirate of great American political books.

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) (Albert Jay Nock? 1872-1945)
[Not 500 pages, but I never miss a chance to plug it. Hard to find, but looks to be available in paperback.]
An idiosyncratic thoroughly charming book by a conservative writing at a time when conservatism appeared dead.

The Last Hero (1990) (Peter Forbath)
[729 pages. Hard to find (though I have four copies and might be convinced to
send you one.)]
Maybe the best historical novel ever written, based on Henry Morton Stanley's expedition up the Congo to relieve the embattled Emin Pasha.

Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom () (Peter Guralnick)
[448 pages (Close enough). Available in paperback.]
There's no better music writer in America and no better book about American music. If you take this one, you'd better bring some Solomon Burke cds too. His Elvis bio is excellent too.

All the King's Men (1946) (Robert Penn Warren 1905-1989)
[531 pages. Available in a fairly cheap hardcover.]
You might have had to read it for a class and thus ended up hating it. But it is an amazing political fable of good intentions corrupted by political power.

The Pity of War : Explaining World War I (1998) (Niall Ferguson) (Grade: A+)
[608 pages. Available in Paperback.]
I'm especially partial to authors who argue against the conventional wisdom. Mr. Ferguson takes on nearly everything you think you know about WWI.

Falls the Shadow (1989) (Sharon Kay Penman)
[580 pages. Available in paperback.]
Churchill mentions Simon de Montfort as an early hero of democracy in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Ms Penman takes the ball and runs with it. Went to Spring Training one year with married friends. Players went on strike. The couple fought over who got to read the book all week.

The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (Michael R. Beschloss)
[Looks to be out of print.]
Though Mr. Beschloss is more impressed by the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis than I, this is a terrific, nearly novelistic, account of the utter hash that a drug-addled and sexually compromised JFK made of American Soviet relations.

The Conservative Mind : from Burke to Eliot (1953) (Russell Kirk 1918-94)
[Clocks in at 535 pages. Nice paperback edition available.]
Kirk is such a good writer that though the topic may appear dry you'll be captivated. Written in sections so if you find you're not particularly interested in one of the authors he's discussing, you can easily skip without losing anything.

Witness (1952) (Whittaker Chambers 1901-61)
[Roughly 800 pages. I'm not familiar with the edition that's available.]
Lost in the controversy between Hiss and Chambers, an understanding of which is central to comprehending mid-Century America, is the fact that Mr. Chambers was a great writer. This book is a psychodrama, a spy thriller, a courtroom story, and a testimony of faith all rolled into one.

Parting the Waters : America in the King Years (1989) (Taylor Branch)
[1064 pages. Available in paperback.]
America has no greater tale to tell than that of the successful and largely peaceful struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. Mr. Branch tells it well.

A Man In Full (1998) (Tom Wolfe 1931-)
[727 pages. Available in Hardcover.]
One assumes everyone has read The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, but the mixed reviews on this one seem to have turned many folks off. Don't be one of them. It's a terrific satirical social novel that offers a sweeping panorama of America in the 90s.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988) (Timothy Ferris)
[495 pages (so sue me). Available in a nice paperback.]
Mr. Ferris is one of the best popular science writers going--take it from someone who hates science. His history of Cosmology is a thrilling intellectual adventure.

Tai-Pan (James Clavell)
[730 pages. Available in a mass market paperback that might not be ideal for older eyes.
King Rat, Shogun and Noble House are excellent also, but Tai-pan is my favorite. A great anti-anti-colonial novel.

The Russian Revolution (1991) (Richard Pipes)
[944 pages. Available in paperback.]
As Daniel Pipes is to the war on terror, so his Dad was to the Cold War. He was the scourge of fuzzy thinking about the Soviet Union and this great history of the Revolution--from showing why it was not necessary to showing Lenin to be the father of the Terror--is unparalleled.

How Green Was My Valley (1939)(Richard Llewellyn 1906-1983)
[512 pages. Available in paperback.]
Heartbreaking look back at life in a dying Welsh mining village. You won't want it to end and won't ever forget it.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) (Rick Perlstein 1969-)
[671 pages. Available in Hardcover]
The book's worth buying just for the cover. Mr. Perlstein, though a self described "European-style Social Democrat", gives a fair and wonderfully readable account of the rise of grassroots conservatism, culminating in the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater.

Lindbergh (1998) (A. Scott Berg)
[628 pages. Available in paperback.]
All any of us remember is that he flew, he lost a child and he was a Nazi. The last is untrue. The first is far more remarkable than we realize any more. The second is heartbreaking.

And the Band Played On (1987) (Randy Shilts)
[672 pages. Available in paperback.]
Fairly even-handed history of the early years of the AIDs crisis, by one of its victims.

Modern Times : The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Paul Johnson)
[880 pages. Available in paperback.]
Takes on the convential wisdom decade by decade.

Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (1992)(Joseph Mitchell? 1908-96)
[716 pages. Available in paperback.]
Mr. Mitchell was later to become a staple of fiction himself, as the writer's-blocked old fellow wandering the halls of the New Yorker, but before his pen went dry he wrote some of the best essays--mostly about New York City and its characters--that you'll ever read.

The New Dealers' War: FDR and the War Within World War II (2001) (Thomas Fleming) (624 pages) (available in paperback) Mr. Fleming offers a devastating portrayal of FDR's mishandling of the war, from underestimating the capacity of the Japanese prior to Pearl Harbor to impulsively demanding unconditional surrender from Germany to completely misapprehending the nature of Stalin.

A Better War : The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (1999) (Lewis Sorley 1934-)
[528 pages. Available in Hardcover.]
It's a major rethinking of whether even if we weren't going to "win the Vietnam War we might have at least salvaged South Vietnam and our honor.

The Great Bridge : The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972)(David McCullough 1933-)? (Grade: A+)
[640 pages. Available in a very nice Hardcover edition.]
Remarkable story about the building of an engineering marvel that the rest of the skyline eventually dwarfed, but never diminished.

Dune? (1965)(Frank Herbert? 1920-1986)?? (Grade: A+)
[528 pages.
Available in Hardcover.]
An intensely political science fiction novel. I never liked any of the sequels, but this first is terrific and stands alone quite nicely.

Ulysses S. Grant : Soldier & President (1997) (Geoffrey Perret)
[560 pages. Available in paperback.]
Mr. Perret, who writes wonderfully, challenges the caricatures of Grant and refurbishes his tarnished reputation.

Independent People (1946)(Halldor Laxness 1902-98) (Grade: A+)
[480 pages. Available in Hardcover in an excellent translation.]
If you pick this one, take two more. But if you're willing to trust me, it's just an amazing book, in which an Icelandic sheepherder becomes an "epic" hero.

Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1994) (Gerald Posner)
[600 pages. Available in paperback.]
One of the great feats of debunking as Mr. Posner just shreds every last bit of the JFK conspiracy theories.

And a few more for the slightly more adventuresome palate :
Don Quijote (Part 1--1605, Part 2--1615)(Miquel de Cervantes?1547-1616)(translated by Burton Raffel)? (Grade: A+)
[Available in a Norton Critical edition paperback.]
For years, you'd start this book with every intention of reading it but be defeated by the translation. That all changed with Burton Raffel's masterful work. It's now very accessible and quite wonderful.

Possession: A Romance (1990)(A.S. [Antonia Susan] Byatt? 1936-) (Grade: A+)
[608 pages. Available in a nice Modern Library hardcover.]
A seeming chick book that none of the women I've recommended it to have much liked--just a good literary mystery.

With Fire and Sword (1899) (Henryk Sienkiewicz 1846-1916)
[1135 pages. Hard to find and it's imperative to get the Kuniczak translation (not Curtin)]
The Polish names can make for tough sledding, but once you get into it you'll fly. Sienkiewicz won the Nobel prize and richly deserved it. You might want to start with Quo Vadis?? (1896)(Grade: A+) instead.

And, for teens, see :
Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

N.B. : Wild Weasel says he's had uniformly good experiences shopping for used copies of books at ABE.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2005 12:00 AM

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Very well written book covering the history, development and current day state of modern day science. Fascinating reading.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

To WW2 what War and Peace was to the Napoleanic wars.

A neglected masterpiece if there ever was one.

Triumph of the West by J M Roberts

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Taken together, offer a convincing thesis of why Western civilisation rules the world today.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at May 29, 2005 11:05 AM

Guns Germs & Steel is insipid:


But the Grossman is awesome.

Posted by: oj at May 29, 2005 11:23 AM

Mr. McCullough's 'The Path Between the Seas' about the Panama Canal was also fascinating.

Posted by: Noel at May 29, 2005 11:47 AM

Thanks for giving me Power Broker, by the way. I'm reading it now and it's a lot of fun. If you're like me and unfamiliar with the layout of New York City and its surrounding environs it helps to have a map handy.

Posted by: Governor Breck at May 29, 2005 11:49 AM

Thanks to OJ (who can on occasion manage to send out a book if given the proper two-year heads-up) I'm reading Russell Kirk's Roots of American Order and much enjoying it.

Modern Times is simply excellent reading, especially for any person of generally conservative disposition. I regularly re-read portions of it just for fun.

Winston Churchill's World War II memoirs are excellent but clock in at some 3,000 pages for all six books. Still, I think we're very lucky to have such a detailed record from one of the war's principal actors. Do yourself a favor and at least read the first half of The Gathering Storm, just for the light it throws on the follies of appeasement.

Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence is another great historical read, but there will be a lot of names to remember, which as OJ suggests may make it a poor read for the summer months.

I haven't yet read The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, but I have a copy at home and this passage about the death of the Romanovs strikes me as remarkable:

In view of the tens of thousands of lives which the Cheka would claim in the years that followed the Ekaterinburg tragedy, and the millions killed by its successors, the death at its hands of eleven prisoners hardly qualifies as an event of extraordinary magnitude. And yet, there is a deep symbolic meaning to the massacre of the ex-Tsar, his family, and staff. Just as liberty has its great historic days -- the battles of Lexington and Concord, the storming of the Bastille -- so does totalitarianism. The manner in which the massacre was prepared and carried out, at first denied and then justified, has something uniquely odious about it, something that radically distinguishes it from previous acts of regicide and brands it as a prelude to twentieth-century mass murder.

To begin with, it was unnecessary. The Romanovs had willingly, indeed happily, withdrawn from active politics and submitted to every demand of their Bolshevik captors. True, they were not averse to being abducted and brought to freedom, but hope of escape from imprisonment, especially imprisonment imposed without charges or trial, hardly qualifies as the "criminal design" that it was designated by the Ekaterinburg Bolsheviks to justify the execution. [...]

In July 1918 [the Revolution was] sinking to the nadir of its fortunes, under attack from all sides and abandoned by many of its supporters. To cement its deserting following it needed blood. [...]

Like the protagonists in Dostoevsky's Possessed, the Bolsheviks had to spill blood to bind their wavering adherents with a bond of collective guilt. The more innocent victims the Bolshevik Party had on its conscience, the more the Bolshevik rank and file had to realize that there was no retreating, no faltering, no compromising [...] The Ekaterinburg massacre marked the beginning of the "Red Terror," formally inaugurated six weeks later, many of whose victims would consist of hostages executed, not because they had committed crimes, but because, in Trotsky's words, their death "was needed."

When a government arrogates to itself the power to kill people, not because of what they had done or even might do, but because their death is "needed," we are entering an entirely new moral realm. Here lies the symbolic significance of the events that occurred in Ekaterinburg in the night of July 16-17. The massacre, by secret order of the government, of a family that for all its Imperial background was remarkably commonplace, guilty of nothing, desiring only to be allowed to live in peace, carried mankind for the first time across the threshold of deliberate genocide. The same reasoning that had led the Bolsheviks to condemn them to death would later be applied in Russia and elsewhere to millions of nameless beings who happened to stand in the way of one or another design for a new world order.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 29, 2005 12:30 PM


I'd agree with the need for a sceptical eye and there was plenty in GGS to roll your eyes at.

However Diamond does raise good points in noting how Europe's favourable geographical and environmental position aided in its' self-development as opposed to the dense jungle, diseases and north-south axis of Africa.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at May 29, 2005 12:53 PM

I don't think it's possible for a book to be 'hard to find' in the internet era. Barnes & Noble has never let me down with the 'Used & Out-of-Print' section of their webpage...

Crime & Punishment is big, readable, and immensely enjoyable.

Posted by: b at May 29, 2005 1:18 PM

Look to www.fetchbooks.info (note, .info, not .com) for a wonderful meta-search site for new and used books. Searches dozens (?) of vendors include ABE, B&N, Amazon, half.com, etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: Vic Havens at May 29, 2005 1:48 PM

'Pillars of the Earth' by Ken Follett. Never read any of his spy novels, but if you love medieval cathedrals (as I do) this page-turner plot-driven novel of the building of a cathedral is a great summer read. You'll learn a lot about the engineering of building these massive buildings as well.

'Blue Latitudes' by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz traces Cook's journeys in alternating chapters describing Cook's experience in a certain location, then describing that location today. If you knew nothing about Captain Cook, you will come away amazed at the man. Akin to the 'The Right Stuff', except that Cook was gone for years with no contact with a Houston central command.

I think these books satisfy the Judd criteria for a summer read.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at May 29, 2005 2:34 PM

Every time I'm about ready to slap you, you make me want to kiss you, Judd.

Don Quixote. I'm reading it and finding allegory after allegory about the kind of soul-deadening reality-ignoring that passes for "conservatism" these days, but--such is great literature--I grant that others might read it differently...

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at May 29, 2005 3:24 PM

It's summer all the time here.

Ever since reading 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' I have wanted to read more by Laurie Lee. On Tuesday I've been called for jury duty, and I'm taking 'Cider with Rosie,' which is short.

My next two big books will be Robert W. Ross, 'So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews.' 374 pages, pb


Mark Roseman, 'A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany.' 491 pages, pb

For those not skert of evolution, Adrienne Mayor, 'The First Fossil Hunters,' is an eyeopener on several fronts. Who knew the Greeks painted dinosaurs on their kraters?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 29, 2005 3:41 PM

Don Quixote. I'm reading it and finding allegory after allegory about the kind of soul-deadening reality-ignoring that passes for "conservatism" these days

Boy, that freedom thing sweeping the Middle East doesn't dent you guys much, huh?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 29, 2005 3:46 PM

PS On the flip side, here's another enthusiastic two-thumbs up for your Goldwater book. Loved it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 29, 2005 3:47 PM

Steven Hayward's The Age of Reagan: Volume I is actually more of a great, conservative look at American history from 1964 to 1980 than a history of the Gipper. There are lots of names of course, but most people will know virtually all of the players already.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at May 29, 2005 3:56 PM


Wait until you get to the end when he's "cured"--the life-hating acceptance of reality is indicted.

Posted by: oj at May 29, 2005 4:15 PM

How Green Was My Valley ~
Heartbreaking look back at life in a dying Welsh mining village. You won't want it to end and won't ever forget it.

How true.
I read it when I was thirteen, and I still think about it.

Your thoughts about Dune are exactly the same as mine.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at May 29, 2005 4:18 PM

Blue Latitudes is his least, but still worth reading:


Posted by: oj at May 29, 2005 4:20 PM

That book meme that was going around the internet has convinced me that it's time for a rereading of Evelyn Waugh's "Sword of Honor" trilogy.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at May 29, 2005 5:46 PM

I second the endorsement of The Power Broker. I read the Johnson bios and picked this up on the strength of those books alone. Its worth the read.

Posted by: Bradley Cooke at May 29, 2005 6:12 PM


No one was ever more scathing about the war:


Posted by: oj at May 29, 2005 7:15 PM

How about Tim Power's Declare, which takes the incidents in Philby's life related by Knightley
& Page; creates a hero to his antihero, and weaves a supernatural explanation for the rise
of the Soviet Union; rising out of the Middle
East, in a matter of speaking.

Posted by: narciso at May 29, 2005 9:16 PM

"Every time I'm about ready to slap you, you make me want to kiss you, Judd.":

Send those two on a man-date -- to a soccer game.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 29, 2005 11:20 PM

"Sarum" by Edward Rutherford (1987, Crown Pub. 897 pages). Rutherford follows five families from prehistoric England to about 1980.

Note to Fred: If you liked "Pillars of Earth" you will probably like this one too. Much of the middle of the book is centered around the building of Salisbury Cathedral (which I've visited and is magnificent).

Posted by: Bartman at May 30, 2005 8:40 AM

Qixote is really entertaining. I read the Gutenberg e-book version. I've read many, many classics on my Palm Pilot (and now my Pocket PC) from the Gutenburg.

Just re-read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange land (which I hadn't read since high school). That would be a good beach read that meets Orrin's pre-reqs. As does Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (which I hear is being made into a movie).

Posted by: ted welter at May 30, 2005 9:09 AM

Another one: Flannery O'Conner: The Complete Short Stories. Most of the stories can be read in under an hour, and they really pack a punch, especially if you dip in and out of the book.

Posted by: ted welter at May 30, 2005 9:12 AM

I plan on reading the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography followed by the Mahabharata in the original Sanskrit, which I'm teaching myself at the moment.

Posted by: carter at May 31, 2005 12:13 AM

You'll enjoy the Mahabharata, especially in the Sanskrit, but I'll say no more lest I ruin it for you.

Posted by: Patrick H at May 31, 2005 1:35 AM

I'm still working on last years list...

To which I might add:

Wealth and Poverty Among Nations (Why and how some nations grow rich, whilst others do not)

The Fatal Shore (The history of Australia and the convict transport).

No, I can't remember either author, and am not at home.

Also, Love, Poverty and War by Christopher Hitchens. No matter your take on his politics, the man can write.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at May 31, 2005 7:44 AM

David S. Landes

Robert Hughes

Fatal Shore is especially good.

Posted by: oj at May 31, 2005 8:44 AM

I am reading 'Fatal Shore' -- it meets Orrin's criteria for being absorbable in short snatches -- in bits as I wait for my lackadaisical ISP to connect me to the Brothers Judd.

I got a colleague in trouble on her vacation thanks to Hughes. His book about Catalonia included mention of a small museum in Barcelona of defecating peasants that Catalonians put in their Christmas creches.

I asked my friend to pick one up for my creche. When she asked her hosts about it, they nearly threw her out of the house.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 31, 2005 3:35 PM

"Fossil Legends of the First Americans" by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton 2005) collects Native American fossil discoveries and interpretations from more than 45 tribes in the western hemisphere, from before Columbus to the present.

Posted by: Bindi at June 25, 2005 1:45 PM
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