Despite a busy fall schedule of work and travel, I’ve managed to finish several books that have sat on my bookshelf for various periods of time. Some are hot off the press, others have been waiting for me to pick them up for more months than I care to admit. All were worth reading, and two were terrific finds. So here are a few thoughts on a season’s worth of reading – beginning with the one I finished earlier this week, and working backwards from there.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. This new work on the Middle East of World War I falls in the “terrific finds” category. Obviously much has been written about the exploits of T.E. Lawrence – the famous “Lawrence of Arabia.” In this book, however, the veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson weaves in Lawrence’s story with those of three spies from the era (German Curt Prüfer, American – and Standard Oil employee – William Yale, and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn) to create a complex yet highly readable account of the miscalculations, deceit, and – most of all – hubris that led to decisions by the Allies that haunt the region today. Anderson knows war and doesn’t sugarcoat the awful impact on everyone involved. He also calls a spade a spade when it comes to the reasons for WWI (petty arguments among Europe’s ruling classes – who were often kin), the imperial designs of all the major participants, and Woodrow Wilson’s naive approach to dealing with the Allies and the complex history of the Middle East (“…the American president’s almost comic fondness for tidy enumerated lists…”). One especially illustrative comment comes near the end of the book, when Anderson is discussing a top-secret report sent to U.S. military intelligence from Middle East attaché William Yale. Anderson writes, “With that dispatch he was establishing a tradition of fundamentally misreading the situation in the Middle East that his successors in the American military intelligence community would rigorously maintain for the next ninety-five years.”
Lawrence in Arabia is informative, thoughtful, illuminating, and a real page turner. Not a bad combination.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan. I’ll admit that I bought this book simply because I think Timothy Egan is one of the smartest voices writing today in the New York Times. I enjoy the fact that he is not part of the Boston-to-New York-to-Washington chattering class and provides that paper with its only regular western voice. But I’ve also found several of his other books – especially The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl and The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America – to be wonderful reads about topics that are not often explored in modern American writing. So even though this 2012 book about a Northwest photographer’s obsession with Native Americans wasn’t what I was looking for when I found it at our independent bookstore Politics and Prose, I bought it solely on my admiration for Egan’s work.
The story of Edward Curtis’ rise from poverty to the top of Seattle society, to – at great personal sacrifice – the nation’s chronicler of a fast vanishing Native American life, is fascinating in Egan’s expert hands. Take a few minutes to look at the iconic photographs of Native Americans from the turn of the 20th century, and you’ll instantly recognize the at once proud and haunting images that are well-known – even if the photographer is not. But as Egan shows, Edward Curtis was so much more than the “Annie Leibovitz of his time.” At age 32 he gave up his lucrative career to capture the old ways of the Native Americans in photographs, audio recordings, and film (making the first narrative documentary film.) This short biography tells it all – the heights found through the backing of Teddy Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, the amazing feats of mountaineering and travel to locate the tribes in their native lands, the never-ending fight with the “experts” who disparaged his work for many years, and the perpetual state of being on the edge of bankruptcy. When the 20th volume in his masterwork was published in 1930, it was virtually ignored. But now, a century later, Curtis’ reputation is intact and rising. Timothy Egan’s most recent work helps ensure that this very positive state of affairs continues into the future.
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Started the Civil War by Tony Horwitz. John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry set in motion events that reverberate today. Master story-teller Tony Horwitz captures the events and the man behind them in this 2011 book that has been sitting on my side table for over a year. I’m glad I finally found the time to reconnect with this turning point in American history that has few equals.
John Brown was a troubled soul willing to die for his beliefs. Horwitz paints in the background of Brown’s Calvinist upbringing, his joining the fray in Bleeding Kansas, and his gathering of a small band of idealists to attack the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry from where he hoped to lead a slave uprising.
This is a riveting story, which Horwitz handles with his usual skill. I appreciated the lengthy “Immortal Raiders” epilogue, where the author lays out the multiple effects of the raid, from the 1860 presidential election, to Lincoln’s presidency, to the town of Harpers Ferry itself.
For fans of Confederates in the Attic, I think you’ll enjoy Horwitz’s next entry into the Civil War.
Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War by Richard Moe. Full disclosure: I worked with Richard Moe for 16 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I have always appreciated Dick’s political knowledge and his style as a writer, so I am not an unbiased reader.
In his most recent book, Moe looks at one of the most consequential presidential races in history, the 1940 election which took place at the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term amidst the backdrop of war in Europe and Asia. There’s much to like here for the lover of politics and history. The story of the Chicago convention is riveting, especially in comparison to the made-for-TV staged political conventions of today. Roosevelt never made an appearance in Chicago (can you imagine a candidate today not attending his or her own nominating convention?) but he was still pulling strings – and remaining opaque as to his true desires – throughout it all. Then Roosevelt’s involvement in the selection of the Vice Presidential candidate – which was seen as the purview of the delegates – continued the break with tradition that exemplified this entire election.
Dick Moe returned to his love of politics and history in this work, and we’re all the beneficiary. Recommended.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In the late summer/early fall, I began this amazing 2011 book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow takes Kahneman’s groundbreaking research over several decades and brings it together in this tour of how our minds work.
There is so much here to absorb that it is impossible to do this book justice in a couple of paragraphs. Kahneman begins by explaining our two systems for thinking – one fast, highly intuitive, and emotional, and the other slower and more logical. Of course we use the first system for most of our decisions, and Kahneman demonstrates again and again how our unwillingness to push ourselves to the more systematic – but harder – system of thinking drives bad decisions. As just one example, he shows how when faced with a difficult question, we’ll often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.
Yet another section of the book explores “our confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.” In example after example and test after test, Kahneman explores this facet of the human condition.
There is so much here to challenge what you think you know. As the New York Times book review said, ” It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching….”
Just read the book – you’ll thank me for it later.
So what’s next? Well, I’m on to Witold Rybczynski’s new book How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit. Yes, I heard him speak at Politics and Prose (support your local independent bookstore!) and have always enjoyed his work.
More to come…