From One Reader to Another: Books to End a Year’s Reading, or to Bring in a New Year

Al Mohler | President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Thursday, December 15, 2016

From One Reader to Another: Books to End a Year’s Reading, or to Bring in a New Year


Columnist Dave Barry got this one just right: “The problem with winter sports is that — follow me closely here — they generally take place in winter.” On the other hand, winter is a great season for reading. Herewith I offer some books I think are well worth your reading, whether warm or cold.

1. Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (Doubleday, 2016).

Winston Churchill’s exploits in the Boer War — and most crucially his courageous escape from capture as a prisoner of war — catapulted him to fame and set the platform for his emergence as a figure on the world stage. Candice Millard describes the young Churchill arriving in South Africa for one of the last wars of the British Empire and then traces the story of the pivotal events that would later make Winston Churchill one of the most famous men in the world. Along the way, Millard grants the reader of Hero of the Empire a rare glimpse of the late Victorian Age and a bridge to understanding the world as it changed with the dawn of the twentieth century. Candice Millard is a gifted writer with a keen eye for a great story and the ability to tell it in terms of an even larger story. Readers of her previous books Destiny of the Republic and River of Doubt (also excellent reading) will know exactly what to expect in Hero of the Empire.

Excerpt:

Churchill knew that the surest and quickest route to recognition, success, and perhaps, if he was lucky, fame was a military medal. It was “the swift road to promotion and advancement in every arm,” he wrote, “the glittering gateway to distinction.” Distinction, in turn, could be parlayed into political clout, opening a door onto the kind of public life that he longed for, and which he believed was his destiny. So while the military was not, for Churchill, and end in itself, it was certainly a very useful means to an end. What he needed was a battle, a serious battle, one that would be talked about, would be remembered, and, with a good dose of courage and a little showmanship on his part, might propel him to the forefront of the military stage. For that, he was willing to risk anything, even his life.

2. William F. Buckley, Jr., A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (Crown Forum, 2016).

Like Winston Churchill, William F. Buckley, Jr would experience and influence some of the most significant events of the twentieth century. The story of the emergence of conservatism in modern America cannot be told without reference to Buckley as one of the major intellectual figures, writers, and personalities of the age. Founder of National Review, Buckley also inhabited a social world of presidents, prime ministers, generals, authors, celebrities, and spies. Now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s own death, A Torch Kept Lit brings together more than 50 of Buckley’s eulogies (both written and spoken) of significant personalities and leaders of the last century. Edited by James Rosen, Buckley’s remembrances of the dead, whether his friends or foes, will be of great interest to the living.

Excerpt:

(From WFB’s eulogy in honor of John Kenneth Galbraith, the famous liberal Harvard economist with whom the conservative Buckley enjoyed decades of both friendship and heated debate. Buckley was famously able to enjoy friendships with his intellectual foes.)

I was one of the speakers at his huge 85th birthday party at the Boston Public Library. My four-minute talk was interrupted halfway through by the master of ceremonies. “Is there a doctor in the house?” The acoustics at the library were bad, and the next day I sent Galbraith the text of my talk. A week later I had his acknowledgement. It read: “Dear Bill, That was a very pleasant talk you gave about me. If I had known it would be so, I would not have instructed my friend to pretend, in the middle of your speech, to need the attention of a doctor.” Forget the whole thing, the getting and spending, and the Nobel nominations, and the economists’ tributes. What cannot be forgotten by those exposed to it is the amiable, generous, witty interventions of this man, with his singular wife and three remarkable sons, and that is why there are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone.

3. Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 (Viking, 2016).

This is history at its best, offering perspective from both the commanding heights and the details of everyday life. The nineteenth century  — what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the long nineteenth century” — witnessed the rise of Europe as the unrivaled world power, but it would end with the table set for Europe’s decline in the horrors of the twentieth century. Richard Evans, a Cambridge University historian best known for his magisterial history of the Third Reich, traces the story of 19th century Europe with a keen eye for the over-arching narrative and an amazing ability to offer details that enrich understanding. Evans is also bold to make historical judgments. Even when I disagree with those judgments, I appreciate a historian willing to make them and to risk argument. Politically, Evans is considerably to my left, but that is, in part, what made me so interested in this volume. Reading The Pursuit of Power was similar to my experience reading Hobsbawm’s three volumes covering the same era. I found Hobsbawm’s politics to be reprehensible but his telling of history to be compelling. Evans has written a truly compelling history of the nineteenth century.  So compelling, in fact, that he made me rethink many critical questions from the century. What more could you ask from a book?

Excerpt:

The outbreak of the First World War brought an end to a century of European hegemony over the rest of the world. Of course, this was not a sudden or unheralded development. Already before 1814, America had  been starting to outstrip Britain and Germany in economic terms. In the colonial empires, above all in India, the first stirrings were visible of the movements for freedom and independence that would reach fruition within a few decades. But by inaugurating a vast, global struggle lasting more than four years, the declarations of war issued in 1914 brought ruin upon Europe, destroying the sublime self-confidence that had sustained it for the better part of a century, hastening and strengthening the challenges issued to European dominance in other parts of the world.

4. J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper, 2016).

The title of this memoir might indicate a rather specialized work for a limited audience. To think of Hillbilly Elegy this way is to make a serious mistake. This memoir should be read by anyone who wants to understand the vast social changes taking place in America before our eyes, the breakdown of so many families, the absence of jobs and the evaporation of hope. J. D. Vance has written one of the most moving and powerful books of our times, and he writes with the most rare combination of personal experience and skilled observation. The book is well-written, so much so that readers will find it hard to put down. At the same time, you may at moments feel almost overwhelmed by Vance’s story and broken-hearted by the human pain so well described. There are wonderful moments of hope as well, and a cast of unforgettable characters. There is a good reason for the fact that this book has been on the bestseller lists this year. It belongs there, as both important and urgent. Read it, and be prepared to feel that reading in your heart as well as in your mind.

Excerpt:

It wasn’t my fault that until that day I had never heard the word “multiplication.” It wasn’t something I’d learned in school, and my family didn’t sit around and work on math problems. But to a little kid who wanted to do well in school, it was a crushing defeat. In my immature brain, I didn’t know the difference between intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot. I may not have known multiplication that day, but when I came home and told Pawpaw about my heartbreak, he turned it into triumph. I learned multiplication and division before dinner. And for two years after that, my grandfather and I would practice increasingly complex math once a week, with an ice cream reward for solid performance. I would beat myself up when I didn’t understand a concept, and storm off, defeated. but after I’d pout for a few minutes, Pawpaw was always ready to go again. Mom was never much of a math person, but she took me to the public library before I could read, got me a library card, showed me how to use it, and always made sure I had access to kids’ books at home. In other words, despite all the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.

5. Craig Nelson, Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness (Scribners, 2016).

A date that will live in infamy. So declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt, underlining the date of December 7, 1941 in the nation’s memory. Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl harbor in Hawaii was at once one of the most audacious and one of the most disastrous events of the twentieth century, Now, 75 years after that attack, we are in a better position to understand the unfolding events that brought America officially into World War II. There is more than a little urgency to this task, for the last witnesses of the attack, and of the war of which is was such an important part, are now passing from our midst. Craig Nelson wrote the best-seller Rocket Men and he now offers a new history of Pearl Harbor, timed for the 75th anniversary. The story of Pearl Harbor needed to be retold, and Craig Nelson tells it very well.

Excerpt:

Also in the air at that moment, twenty-two-year-old flying teacher Cornelia Fort was giving a lesson to a student pilot in an Interstate S-1A Cadet when she saw two planes headed their way, one on course to crash directly into them. She yanked the yoke and punched the throttle, furious at another hotdogging Army Air Corps pilot. She looked down to get his registration number so she could file a complaint, which was when she saw the red balls on the wings and knew that “the air was not the place for our little baby airplane.” She set down as fast as she could and ran into Andrews Flying Service, machine-gun bullets strafing the ground around her feet, yelling, “The Japs are attacking!” Everyone on the ground laughed at this silly woman.

6. Kati Marton, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

“How does an idealist turn into a willing participate in murder?” This is the central question in Kati Marton’s chilling account of Noel Field, one of the deadliest spies in the history of the Cold War. Marton tells the story very well, and from a most unique perspective. her Hungarian parents were prominent journalists whose lives intersected with Noel Field and who, rightfully, could claim to have been among his victims, spending years in a Communist prison, charged with spying for the United States. Like so many in the U.S. and Britain who became spies for the Soviet Union, Noel Field was born into a life of privilege. After graduating from Harvard University, Field was hired by the U.S. State Department. He was recruited by Josef Stalin’s NKVD and, most notoriously, was used by Stalin as a pretext for his infamous show trials by which he liquidated his political enemies — real or perceived. The most compelling dimension of the story was Field’s commitment to Communism until the end of his life, even long after he knew the truth about Stalin and when he had to know that his treason had sent so many human beings to both torture and death.

Excerpt:

Field was not one of Stalin’s master spies. He lacked both the steel and the polished performance of Kim Philby or Alger Hiss. Field’s betrayals nonetheless led hundreds to the gallows and destroyed scores of lives. Above all, however, Noel Field’s story reveals his master’s boundless cruelty and disregard for human life — including the life of his own faithful. Like thousands of others, Field was used — then, having served his purpose, he was discarded. Communism tempted many of Field’s generation. Most, having observed the chasm between the promise and the brutal reality, eventually moderated or abandoned their early zeal. Not Noel Field. Through the dream of a triumphant working class soured and turned murderous, he stayed locked to his faith. He did not die a martyr in battle, but eventually he embraced a form of the martyrdom of innocents — his own among them — because that is what his master, Stalin, ordered.

7. Peter Cozzens, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (Knopf, 2016).

“I remember that the white men were coming to fight us and take away our land, and I thought it was not right. We are humans too and God created us all alike, and I was going to do the best I could to defend my nation. So I started on the warpath when I was sixteen years old.” Those are the words of Fire Thunder, a Cheyenne warrior, looking back on the Indian wars that, arguably, remain the longest series of armed conflicts in the nation’s history. Peter Cozzens was a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department for three decades. Since then, he has become an authority on the American West, writing several well regarded histories. Now, he tells the story of the Indian wars in The Earth is Weeping. These wars led to the transformation of the nation and the true opening of the West. They also led to the destruction of the way of life that had been known by Native Americans for centuries. Recounting these wars is no small task, and understanding the meaning of these wars is even more difficult. The Earth is Weeping is, as yet, the single best narrative of this period of American history. This is indeed an epic story. It is also an important story, and one that every American bears a moral responsibility to know.

Excerpt:

Those times seemed but a distant memory. In fact, the transformation of the Lakota world, and of the Indian West, had come in the blink of an eye. Less than a generation had passed since Red Cloud had won his war on the Bozeman Trail forts but then gradually lost the peace. The Lakotas had held the Crow lands they had conquered for less than a decade. it has been just fifteen years since the great but ultimately Pyrrhic Indian victory at Little Big Horn. Now nothing remained. The Lakotas, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, the Nez Perces, the Utes, and Modocs, the Apaches, and even some Texas-hating Kiowas and Comanches had tried to co-exist with the white man, but he would not be peaceably contained. Tribes had divided bitterly over the issue of war or peace. The Indians who had gone to war against the government had usually done so reluctantly, and they had lost their land and their way of life anyway.

8. Kenneth L.  Woodward, Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (Convergent, 2016).

Back when it really mattered, Kenneth L. Woodward served for almost four decades as religion editor for Newsweek magazine. This was when the newsweeklies, Time and Newsweek, mattered a very great deal. These magazines stood at the center of the nation’s political and cultural life, and Woodward had a central role in interpreting, reporting, explaining, and covering religion in America — at the very time that much of American religion was being transformed. Religion was not a driving interest for many in the nation’s elite, but Newsweek’s editors came to understand that the magazine should not fail to cover the beliefs, churches, and movements that defined the meaning of life for millions of Americans. Kenneth Woodward would be assigned to tell that story and to get the story told. He did both. In Getting Religion, he reviews the intersection of faith, politics, and culture over the last half-century. He tells the story of his own Catholic boyhood and then unfolds the headlines that revealed the vast reshaping of religion in America, from the rise of secular worldviews and alternative religions in the 1960s to the “Year of the Evangelical” in 1976. He also brings his observations up to date, and revealingly so. Those of us who lived much of this history, and those who came after, will find this book to be a powerful catalyst for reflection.

Excerpt:

None of Newsweek‘s top editors was noticeably religious. Religion (let alone theology) was not the sort of subject they were likely to discuss over dinner in Manhattan or on weekends in the Hamptons. Fortunately, the editor of Newsweek was hell-bent on beating Time at its own game. Oz, as everyone called Osborn Elliott, had been business editor at Time and was the man who had convinced Washington Post editor Phil Graham to buy Newsweek in 1961. Oz exuded the confidence of a well-bred Protestant patrician: more than any of his successors, he was open to Monday morning second-guessing from the staff. If one of us proposed a story on a subject Oz knew nothing about — and religion, God knows, was high on that list — his reflex attitude was “Go ahead, that’s what I hired you for.”

9. William McDonald, editor, The New York Times Book of the Dead (The Black Dog and Leventhal/Hachette, 2016).

Margalit Fox, one of the team of obituary writers for The New York Times, once wrote: “For my colleagues and me, the world cleaves, portmanteau-style, into two neat compartments: the dead and the pre-dead. In the singular view of human existence that we obituary writers come to hold, it is the only truly meaningful taxonomy.” In 2014 she reported that The Times then had 1,700 obituaries written in advance, ready for that date in the future when the “pre-dead” become the dead.

All this underlines that The New York Times takes obituaries with great seriousness. I devoured this book, reading all 320 or so obituaries one by one until I had read from Benjamin Disraeli (December 21, 1804 – April 19, 1881) to Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016). The New York Times Book of the Dead is a carefully curated collection of some of the most interesting and noteworthy obituaries, dating back almost to the paper’s first issue, on September 18, 1851. Edited by William McDonald, the paper’s obituary editor, the book is divided by theme. Reading this collection is like rewinding history and reading the obituaries, published in the immediate aftermath of death, offers an incredibly fresh account of the great, the near-great, the formerly great, and the greatly evil. They all appear in these pages. The print edition also includes a flash drive with digital obituaries for another 10,000 of the formerly “pre-dead.”

Excerpt:

[The obituary for Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889 – April 30, 1945) was published immediately as his death was announced and before some basic facts were known, including the truth that Hitler had committed suicide along with his wife, Eva Braun. The remaining leadership of Nazi Germany accepted unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945.]

London — Adolf Hitler died this afternoon, the Hamburg radio announced tonight, and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, proclaiming himself the new Fuehrer by Hitler’s appointment, said that the war would continue. Crowning days of rumor about Hitler’s death and whereabouts, the Hamburg radio said that he had fallen in the battle of Berlin at his command post in the Chancellery. Early this evening Germans were told that an important announcement would be broadcast tonight. There was no hint of what was coming. The stand-by announcement was repeated at 9:40 p.m. A few minutes later the announcer said: “Achtung! Achtung! In a few minutes you will hear a serious and important message for the German people.” Then the news was given to the Germans and the world after the playing of the slow movement from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, commemorating Wagner’s death. Appealing to the German people for help, order and discipline, Doenitz eulogized Hitler as the hero of a lifetime of service to the nation. “It is my first task,” Doenitz added, “to save Germany from destruction from the advancing Bolshevist enemy. For this aim alone the military struggle continues.”

10. H. W. Brands, The General and the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War (Doubleday, 2016).

Americans reveal a great interest in World War II but a declining interest in almost anything that comes thereafter. That needs to be corrected. The world as we know it today cannot be explained or understood apart from the Cold War and its entanglements, including war on the Korean peninsula. The Cold War was driven by opposing worldviews as represented by Communism in China and the Soviet Union, on one side, and the United States, on the other. But there were also rival visions and worldviews evident within the top echelons of leadership in the West. There is probably no greater example of this clash of worldviews than in the collision of President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur. In The General and the President, H. W. Brands tells the story of their conflict, but going beyond the conventional telling of the tale as a mere clash of titanic personalities, Brands allows readers to understand how differently these two men saw the world and the conflict with Communism. Even today, their clash of both personalities and worldviews continues to shape American foreign affairs and military strategy.

Excerpt:

The result was immediate clamor.  No one could recall a time when the President of the United States and his commanding general had been so publicly at odds over a critical matter of policy. Editorial pages sizzled with opinions on what this meant for American policy and for future relations between the president and the general. Truman and MacArthur, for their own separate reasons, initially refused to say who had directed MacArthur to withdraw the message. Truman didn’t want to reveal that he couldn’t rely on his own secretary of defense, and MacArthur didn’t want to admit that he had been reprimanded by the president.

I share these titles as one reader to others. Books are almost always read alone, but they are seldom truly enjoyed alone.


I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at [email protected]

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Publication date: December 15, 2016

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