May 15, 2018

FROM THE ARCHIVES: WHAT I COULD HAVE READ DURING MY SUMMER VACATION :

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.

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.

[originally posted: 6/27/02]
Posted by at May 15, 2018 9:16 PM

  

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