Monday, March 30, 2015

Reading Recommendations

I was recently perusing a blog written by a friend giving recommendations for how to fit reading into our busy schedules. Modern advances in electronic devices have made it possible for us to read books in a variety of ways and places. This is to our advantage because as life gets busier, time for reading becomes scarcer and we must seek out creative ways to fit reading into our schedules. The old adage, of uncertain origin, that, “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them” still holds true. My blogger friend gave a variety of recommendations for reading material, but to my disappointment, they were almost entirely works of fiction. As a genre I consider fiction to be reading about things that are not, nor ever were, nor ever will be. With time becoming so precious that we must seek out innovative ways to work reading into our lives, should we not focus on making sure that the time spent with our books is time well spent? I prefer to think that we should read “of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come”*. This way when we finish a book we are left with something when we are done. We have gained knowledge rather than simply entertained ourselves. Perhaps some do not read non-fiction because it sounds like a class assignment. Perhaps they are kept from good non-fiction because they know not where to find it. As a counterpoint to my friend’s recommendations I would like to provide my own list of recommendations for non-fiction reading. Maybe my friend will see this list and find it interesting.

In no particular order:

“The Journals of Lewis and Clark”, Bernard Augustine DeVoto, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, E. J. Carter. 1814. This is a difficult book to read because it is recorded just as the original authors recorded their journals, with spelling, grammar, punctuation, verbiage, colloquialisms and capitalization – or lack thereof - intact. However, it is worth the price to be able to see North America in its virgin state and discover it anew with Lewis & Clark. While I read this in hard copy, it actually may be more accessible in audio book form.

“The Guns of August”, Barbara Tuchman, 1962. This book is the winner of the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and is an outstanding book. One might wonder how a book about just the first month of fighting in the First World War could be interesting, when the war dragged on for 4 more years. Reading this book establishes the answer.

“Bible and Sword”, Barbara Tuchman, 1984. The Middle East is never far from view in current events. Reading this book helps one understand why the region is so utterly and completely messed up. Sadly, comprehending this book also reveals how extraordinarily difficult it will be to unravel this Gordian Knot of politics, religion and enmity.

“The Zimmerman Telegram”, Barbara Tuchman, 1958. This book reads like a modern detective novel, with the added bonus that it is not a novel. It is a very quick read which reveals one of the causes that drew the United States into the War to End All Wars.

“Benjamin Franklin, An American Life”, Walter Isaacson, 2003. I listened to the audio CD version, though I confess to ripping it to MP3 for convenience. A very informative account of a truly amazing man and patriot. His life was full of fantastic accomplishments, though I feel he had quite a sad family life.

“The March of Folly”, Barbara Tuchman, 1984. An interesting book in that it does not follow a single event or plot element. Rather, by example, it illustrates how governments manage to work against their own self-interests.

“Massacre at Mountain Meadows. An American Tragedy”, 2011. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., Glen M. Leonard. I work at a research center and I've read some scholarly research in my time, but nothing approaches this for being authoritative.  I don't think a paragraph goes by in this book but there are 3 or more references.  To wit, the book is 430 pages, but of that, 200 pages is acknowledgements, notes and references.  It is an unbelievably well researched book.  If you want to know what happened in this tragic incident, this is the book to get. At first it's just an interesting look into life in Utah circa 1857.  But it builds to its heart pounding and heart wrenching conclusion.  From the beginning you know how the story ends, but you still feel amazed - and sickened - when it does.

“Inferno. The World at War. 1939-1945”, Max Hastings, 2011. An excellent book on what was really the sequel to World War I.

“D-Day. June 6, 1944”, Stephen Ambrose, 1994. You don’t need to see “Saving Private Ryan”. Why settle for docu-drama or historical fiction when you can have the whole, unvarnished truth. Read this book.

“Over the Edge of the World”, Laurence Bergreen, 2003. An amazing account of the circumnavigation of the earth. You thought Magellan did that, when, in fact, he died before the journey ended.  Just wait until the end of the book when you learn that this was the voyage where they learned about the need for an international date line.

“Mayflower”, Nathaniel Philbrick, 2006. An excellent account of the first pilgrims who arrived in North America and their interactions with the Native Americans.  I listened to this as an audio-book and highly recommend it.  There are many Native American names to stumble over and listening avoids that hurdle to finishing the book.  Have you heard of King Philip’s war? Did you know King Philip was a Native American?  I didn’t think so.

“The Big Short”, Michael Lewis, 2010. This book should be required reading in congress and every high school. It is a relatively accessible explanation of the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.  While written to focus on a few individuals who saw the meltdown coming (hence the title), the description of the state of affairs on Wall Street is jaw-droppingly appalling.  It makes me ashamed that our country allows this to happen unchecked, and disgusted that people would want to operate in such opposition to the interests of society.

“Into Thin Air”, Jon Krakauer, 1997. A gripping account of a tragic confluence of circumstances on Mt Everest.  At times I felt that the author got carried away with superlatives, but overall a good read.

“A Night to Remember”, Walter Lloyd, 1955. A quick read, this book is a very factual and not romanticized account of the sinking of the Titanic. I'm glad I read it. I feel I have a much better understanding of the tragic event. I also understand better the times in which it happened, which, in part, contributed to the disaster. It was published in 1955 when the author still had access to survivors of the accident for first-hand accounts.

“Unbroken”, Laura Hillenbrand, 2010. If you have not heard of this book, get someone to help you lift the rock under which you live.  Many things could be said about this book, but what came across to me was the depth of human suffering that can be endured, and escaped, though not unscathed. I have new appreciation for the human capacity for cruelty as well as endurance and forgiveness.

“The Professor and the Madman”, Simon Winchester, 1999. A fascinating account of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. If you like the Oxford comma, you’ll love the account of the dictionary. No really. It’s a book about a dictionary and it really is interesting.

“Endurance”, Alfred Lansing, 1959. This is another book that illustrates the amount of suffering a human can pass through while retaining their mental faculties.  It is an exciting adventure story that is as astonishing as it is true. It’s one of those “can’t put it down” books. There are many accounts of this expedition. I recommend Lansing’s account.

“Lawrence in Arabia”, Scott Anderson, 2013. A very good account of T. E. Lawrence's contributions to the war effort in the Middle East during WWI, but also a good account of how imperialism really fouled up the Middle East. It may have happened anyway, but Britain, France and the US guaranteed and even hastened it. A side lesson that I took away was how much can be accomplish in life in a short time. Read this book, then understand that everything in this book Laurence accomplished by age 30.

“Destiny of the Republic”, Candice Millard, 2011. A well written book covering a topic that is not well known to Americans. It begs the question, "What could have been?", had an intelligent man, without huge political ambition, elected almost accidentally, been allowed to serve out his term. It also illustrates the depths of depravity plumbed by those motivated only by self-aggrandizement. An excellent read.

“Operation Mincemeat”, Ben Mcintyre, 2010. A very enjoyable book about one particularly interesting intelligence operation in WWII. An excellent read which illustrates the detail that is required for a truly successful intelligence operation to work.

“The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks”, Rebecca Skloot, 2010. This is another book that I was glad I listened to as an audio book.  There was a lot of Southern, African-American, language in this book that was brought out in the audio version that I think might not have been communicated as well in print. This is a remarkable account of how African Americans were treated in the 1950’s.

“Shot all to H**l” (title edited for sensitive readers). Mark Lee Gardner, 2014. This is an account of the last major job pulled off by Jesse James and his gang.  It’s a quick read and you learn much more about the man you knew previously only by name.

“Lost in Shangri-La”, Mitchell Zuckoff, 2011. This is a very good book about a harrowing ordeal that you likely didn’t even know happened during WWII. Yet there is video of it on YouTube now! I find it amazing that aboriginal tribes could survive so long into the 20th century undetected by the outside world. The ingenuity required for escape from this inaccessible, primitive valley was remarkable.

“Twelve Years a Slave”, Solomon Northrop, 1853. That’s right. Not the movie, but the book. I did not watch the movie, nor do I intend to. This book was sufficient to reveal to me the depths of man’s inhumanity toward man.  We live today with the echos of this kind of ill treatment of our fellow man.

“The Gathering Storm”, Winston Churchill, 1948. I just finished this book and Churchill’s prose is amazing.  It is no wonder he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, in part due to this book. I consider it a classic that should be required reading in government and in schools. Who would not want to learn the lessons of WWI and WWII from those who were best acquainted with them?

I have many other recommendations, but I’ll stop here for now. Some might criticize me for not allowing for any reading of fiction.  That is not so. I read fiction, but when I do, I choose very, very carefully.  So the following are my recommendations for fictional works.

“Pilgrim’s Progress”, John Bunyan, 1678. That’s right – 1678. This book has been in continual print longer than any book in the English Language. Sure, they read this book in “Little Women”, but have you read it?  I didn’t think so. Is it a good book? Meh.  But we don’t always read books because they are the best book we’ll ever read. You will be a more educated person for having read this book. You will also know where the term “Vanity Fair” comes from. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not a 17th century fashion magazine.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852. This is fiction, but it reads like fact. Slavery was the worst. I cannot emphasize enough how many problems I think we have brought upon ourselves through this “peculiar institution”.

“Frankenstein”, Marry Shelley, 1818.  This book is not the horror story you’re thinking of.  It is considered a classic for a reason. It is a very dark book, but not full of gratuitous violence. The creature in this book is actually a thinking, reasoning, intelligent being.  It becomes very understandable why he becomes a “monster”.

“Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc”, Mark Twain, 1896. This book should be considered historical fiction.  However, I consider it very educational about a historical person people know little about beyond her name.  I highly recommend it.

You may note that some of these books are old enough to be in the public domain. I should point out that there are a number of free, public domain audio books available through

Those are my recommendations. I hope you will find this list helpful in broadening your reading horizons and as you consider what you will gain from the next book you select for reading – whatever the format.

- Glen

*Not my words. Reference available on request.

No comments: