What’s on your night table? This question, a staple of author interviews, annoys me for three reasons.
The first two are admittedly small: I don’t read in bed, so there is no book anywhere near it. I also read mostly electronic books these days, because my Kindle’s willingness to adjust fonts and backlight is a blessing to old, tired eyes.
The third reason is much more personal: Nobody ever asks me.
There is, of course, a chance I’ll be forgiving when the New York Times finally calls for an interview. But realistically, it’s a tiny chance—so why wait to share my reading list?
Here are four of my recent favorites:
A History of the American People by Paul Johnson.
I can tell it’s long without looking at the number of pages because I keep reading and reading without budging the Kindle’s percent-read meter. That’s OK, because what I’m reading is wonderful. I’m familiar with Johnson from his Birth of the Modern and Modern Times, both brilliant illuminations of events and insights that shaped the world we know. Now I’m learning more than I ever knew about how America the place became America the society and nation. Johnson shows the pilgrims, settlers and Founding Fathers as real people with real and sometimes terrible foibles, but he also shows why we should be deeply appreciative of their sacrifices and accomplishments. His perspective is particularly valuable because he’s British. His Oxford education barely skimmed the wayward colonies. We should be thankful for Johnson’s diligence in learning our history and for his generosity in sharing his lessons.
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges.
I like to read books by super-smart people without trying predetermine whether I agree with them. So I’ll happily read a British conservative like Johnson and an American progressive like Hedges—and I’m pleased to report that I learned a lot from both. Hedges is a former New York Times reporter who covered wars on various continents until he plummeted out of favor when he publicly predicted that the Iraq War would become an expensive and bottomless sinkhole. He turned out to be correct, but the effect on Americans seemed more depressing than infuriating. What happened to outrage? Hedges argues that it’s still with us, but it’s no longer channeled effectively thanks to the collapse of the long-time liberal coalition of journalists, educators, legal activists and others who could be sparked into action by calls to conscience. Most of these folks are too well-off, too self-absorbed or simply too cynical these days even to make much noise. I don’t share all of Hedges’ views, but I soaked up his detailed history of social movements that changed the country and his explanation of the political mechanisms that transformed once-radical ideas into bedrock institutions such as Social Security and the progressive income tax. My only qualm about the book: Hedges is pretty gloomy about the future. I wish I were smart enough to argue that he’s wrong.
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek.
I’m just the right age to be fascinated by President Kennedy, so I’ve read a good deal about his life and times. Most of it falls into one of two categories: blistering expose or hagiography. Dallek, a noted presidential historian, bridges the gap by showing that Kennedy was indeed a reckless playboy who exploited his father’s wealth, but he was also a sincere patriot who brought exceptional intelligence and skill to the Oval Office at a crucial time. He could be startlingly ruthless, but usually while aiming for good ends. What I learned and liked best about Kennedy was his uncanny ability to distill complex problems of international relations and economics to a few simple but sharp questions. It’s no coincidence that Kennedy seriously considered journalism as a career alternative to politics. It's hard to imagine he wouldn't have been brilliant at it.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid.
I’ve read just about everything by Manchester, including the first two volumes of his planned Churchill trilogy. I’ve also read just about everything by Paul Reid, which puts me in slightly more select company. Paul and I worked together as feature writers at the Palm Beach Post. He met Manchester when he wrote a story about the author’s reunion with some old Marine buddies. They struck up a friendship, which led to collaboration and eventually to Paul being chosen to complete the final Churchill book after Manchester’s death in 2004. It would be a daunting assignment for any writer, not only because Manchester was a master of words and detail but because the basic story of Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War is so well known. It took Paul eight years to get the job done, and he did it astoundingly well. I learned a great deal about Churchill, but I also got a real feel for what it was like to live through those most challenging times.