Summer Reading — Books Fit for the Season, Part 1

Summer Reading — Books Fit for the Season, Part 1

Readers are a hopeful lot. Ask most serious readers what they intend to read over the next month, and you are likely to hear a considerable list. Books stack easily in more ways than one. The stack of books to be read beside the desk or reading chair is a statement of hope. No matter how busy we find ourselves to be, the books are there waiting.

That is why summer is a special season for reading. Finally, we can read some of those volumes we have been promising ourselves to read. Hopefully, the stack for summer reading includes some books to read for sheer enjoyment. The following is a list of ten books that, in my opinion, make for great summer reading. The list is heavily weighted in history, but the kind of history I first learned to enjoy as a boy — history that tells a story worth knowing about people and times that fascinate.

This year's list also proves that boys never grow up. Among the ten books I commend this year are books dealing with cowboys, Indians, gangsters, lawmen, trains, spies, and battles. Those looking for books on birds and romance should consult some other list.

1. Theodore Roosevelt and Daniel Ruddy, Theodore Roosevelt's History of the United States (New York: Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins).

Why didn't anyone think of this before? Daniel Ruddy went through the voluminous writings of Theodore Roosevelt and pulled out "TR's" magnificent work on the history of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt remains one of the most admired figures in American history, and for good reason. As Edmund Morris, his most gifted biographer, noted, TR was both an "impatient man of action" and "a multicultural Renaissance man." With the singular exception of Winston Churchill, no modern figure equals Teddy Roosevelt in both making and writing history.

Theodore Roosevelt's History of the United States displays TR in all his glory, learning, and sharp opinion. He never minces words. "Impartiality does not mean neutrality," Roosevelt insisted. "The best historian must of necessity take sides." Thomas Jefferson was "one of the most mischievous enemies of democracy." William McKinley "had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair." Jefferson Davis (with whom Roosevelt corresponded) was "an unhung traitor," while Robert E. Lee was a man of "dauntless courage and high leadership."

Throughout the book, the energy and power of Theodore Roosevelt shine and seduce. "I have no right to the title of Excellency," Roosevelt wrote. "I am simply Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States. I would rather be called Colonel than anything else." Anyone who can write, "I am simply Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States," is worth reading. There is not a dull page in this volume.

Excerpt:

One of the prime dangers of civilization has always been its tendency to cause the loss of virile fighting virtues, of the fighting edge. When men get too comfortable and lead too luxurious lives, there is always a danger lest the softness eat like an acid into their manliness of fiber. The barbarian, because of the very conditions of his life, is forced to keep and develop certain hardy qualities which the man of civilization tends to lose. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail. Oversentimentality, oversoftness, washiness, and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people.

2. Steven M. Gillon, The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After (New York: Basic Books)

Millions of words have been written on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and one might wonder if anything new remains to be said. The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After sets that question to rest. This is one of those books that reminds us just how little can be known of an event as it happened, and even for many years thereafter.

Steven Gillon is really writing about a dimension most others have overlooked, the first 24 hours Lyndon Johnson experienced as President of the United States. As Gillon reveals, that dimension is far more interesting than many of us might expect.

Gillon reveals a portrait of chaos and confusion in the aftermath of the shootings in Dallas that November day. The attention of almost all concerned was directed at John F. Kennedy, who had virtually no chance of survival after the horrendous damage inflicted by his assassin. While the medical team worked diligently to save the dying President, Vice President Lyndon Johnson waited in a small room at Parkland Hospital, cut off from virtually all communication. As Gillon makes clear, the Vice President had actually become President long before he was notified and a chain of command had been re-established. Thus, the nation's vulnerability at one of the most crucial moments of the Cold War was exponentially increased by confusion, Johnson's hesitancy, and the protective obsessions of the Kennedy White House.

The story is riveting and well-told. This is a book I found almost impossible to put down. Gillon deals with the political and historical contexts well, but, above all, he tells an important story.

Excerpt:

Technically, the powers of the presidency transferred to Johnson at 12:30 p.m. when the fatal third bullet shattered Kennedy's brain. But because of confusion at the hospital, the understandable grief of Kennedy's close advisers and friends, and LBJ's insecurities, the United States was without a functioning head of state for nearly forty minutes. During this time, LBJ had no contact with any advisers in Washington, or with any members of the Kennedy cabinet. What if the shooting has been part of a coordinated international conspiracy? For three-quarters of an hour the functioning commander in chief was sitting in a corner of a hospital emergency room, isolated from the levers of power.

3. Christian Wolmar, Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World (New York: Public Affairs/Perseus Books Group).

When I was a young boy, both of my grandfathers would take me to the venerable train station in Plant City, Florida, where I would stand mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and overwhelming power of trains. I was fascinated by every aspect of it, from the porters carting luggage to the screeching wheels of the engines and the blast of the whistle. Other than Christian songs, the earliest songs I learned to sing were about trains, and my heart raced when Frankie Carle and his orchestra played "The Wabash Cannonball" on my grandfather's record player.

Anyone who outgrows a love for trains needs to re-examine his life. Regrettably, my generation may be among the last to grow up in a culture marked by the centrality of the railroads to American life. The story of the trains and railroads is essential to the modern world, as Christian Wolmar makes clear in Blood, Iron, and Gold.

Wolmar, a British historian with a special interest in railroads and trains, offers readers a tour of railroad history — a story that spans roughly 200 years. While the narrative is not as thrilling as the story of an assassination or Indian raid, it is well told and detailed. Wolmar understands that the railroads changed history, altered the face of war, transformed cities, opened continents, and touched countless lives. Blood, Iron, and Gold tells a story that needs to be told.

Excerpt:

By the final quarter of the nineteenth century, railways were well established throughout the world. The sight of a steam locomotive puffing across the countryside had become commonplace, not only in towns and on the major routes between them, but also in more remote regions penetrated by the burgeoning number of branch lines. In 1880 there were 280,000 miles of railway, and that figure would rise to nearly 500,000 by the end of the century, Across the world, railways were growing at the rate of 10,000 miles per year, and they would continue to do so until the outbreak of World War I. This is the period when the railways were in their heyday, spreading everywhere with the misguided confidence that the railway age would define the twentieth century as it has the nineteenth.

4. Nathaniel Philbrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn (New York, Viking Books).

George Armstrong Custer will forever be identified in death with the famous ‘Last Stand' that marked his demise, along with the deaths of the soldiers under his command. To twenty-first century Americans, the tale of Custer and his legendary battle with Sitting Bull , the Sioux, and the Cheyenne seems distant and quaint. But, as Nathaniel Philbrick explains, for Americans alive when it happened, the massacre of Custer and his troops was nothing less than a national crisis.

Philbrick is a seasoned historian with a rare ability to tell a story well. Readers of his works In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower know of his gifts. In The Last Stand, Philbrick turns to George Armstrong Custer, a man he knows is often "more a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure, an icon instead of a man."

Philbrick presents Custer the man in all his glory, arrogance, charisma, and sheer ability to deny reality. But, importantly enough, Philbrick does not limit the story to Custer. He takes his reader into the times, and into the struggles of the Native American tribes fighting for their survival and way of life. As he makes clear, the Battle of Little Bighorn spelled the end, not only of George Armstrong Custer, but of the Sioux and the Cheyenne as well. They won on that battlefield, but the battle also precipitated the events that cost them their freedom.

Excerpt:

Custer and Sitting Bull were both great warriors. But Sitting Bull was something more. He was a leader, a prophet, and a politician. He was also convinced that he alone had his people's welfare in view, a conviction that inevitably exasperated those Lakota attempting to meet the challenges of reservation life in their own way. As Bull Head shouted at Sitting Bull in his final moments, "You have no ears, you wouldn't listen!" This, according to Kate Bighead, was the same sentiment the two southern Cheyenne women expressed on Last Stand Hill when they pierced Custer's eardrums with an awl.

5. Max Hastings, Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).

Destiny requires a Churchill volume on this list. As I write, a bust of Sir Winston watches me from across my desk, and hundreds of books by and about Winston Churchill are in my collection. Few have been more eagerly anticipated as Sir Max Hastings' Winston's War. Hastings is one of the greatest military historians alive today, and he is a historian with a very clear point of view. When it comes to Winston Churchill, Max Hastings understands that he is dealing with a larger-than-life character, whose virtues and faults both outweigh those of most other mortals.

The argument of Winston's War is simple, clear, and controversial. Hastings understands (rightly I think) that Winston Churchill was the indispensable man of history in 1940, but a military strategist of potential disaster by the end of the war. In other words, World War II would almost surely have been lost had Winston Churchill not arrived as Prime Minister in 1940. But, at the same time, the war might well have been lost if Churchill had established the military strategy for the second half of the war.

Winston's War is a rich and lengthy book that tells the entire history of World War II through the lens of Winston Churchill's leadership and personal role in history. Hastings explains the political crises, the military situations, and the vulnerability of Britain. He also understands what Churchill understood — that the end of the war also meant the eclipse of Britain by the United States. What most others did not understand — but Churchill did — was that World War II would be followed immediately by the Cold War. Readers of Max Hastings other works on World War II, Armageddon, Overlord, and Retribution, know what to expect with Winston's War. Those who start with Winston's War will want to read the other books as well.

Excerpt:

He was one of the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs whom the world has ever known. Familiarity with his speeches, conversation and the fabulous anecdotage about his wartime doings does nothing to diminish our capacity to be moved to awe, tears and laughter by the sustained magnificence of his performance. He was the largest human being ever to occupy his office. If his leadership through the Second World War was imperfect, it is certain that no other British ruler in history has matched his direction of the nation in peril or, please God, is ever likely to find herself in circumstances to surpass it.

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