David McCullough, who passed away last Sunday, encouraged the 1994 graduates of Union College in Schenectady, New York, with the following:
Read books. Try to understand the reason things happen, why they are as they are. If you see only the surface phenomena, then the world becomes extremely confusing, ever more unsettling. But if the reasons are understood there’s a kind of simplicity that emerges.
Four years later, he gave the graduates at the University of Massachusetts similar advice.
Read for pleasure. Read to enlarge your lives. Read history, read biography, learn from the lives of others. Read Marcus Aurelius and Yeats. Read Cervantes and soon; don’t wait until you’re past fifty as I did. Read Emerson and Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor and Langston Hughes….Whatever your life work, take it seriously and enjoy it.
In that spirit, each month my goal is to read five books from different genres that cover a variety of topics. I read in order to learn and to start conversations with those I encounter along the way. Here are the books I read in July 2022. If you click on the title, you’ll go to the longer post on More to Come. Enjoy!
The Lincoln Highway (2021), the third novel by Amor Towles, is a self-described “multilayered tale of misadventure and self-discovery.” Set in ten days in 1954, it begins when eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson returns from the juvenile work farm in Salina, Kansas, where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. Emmett and his precocious eight-year-old brother Billy set out on the road with the intention of going to California. But other characters quickly insert themselves and the small band ends up going in the opposite direction. Throughout the twists and turns, Towles explores how “evil can be offset by decency and kindness on any rung of the socio-economic ladder.” We learn how a single wrong turn on the highway of life can set you off course, but the misdirection doesn’t have to be forever. Finally, balancing accounts can be a messy business. Because Towles writes the final sentence in a chapter better than anyone, you are compelled to turn the page in this terrific read.
There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century (2021) is a remarkable memoir by foreign policy and national security expert Fiona Hill. This is her very personal story of growing up in England’s coal mining country as part of the wrong class, in the wrong region, with the wrong accent and nonetheless working her way through St. Andrews and Harvard to the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, and service in the White House. Hill uses her story as both backdrop and cautionary tale. Her upbringing in a region that was forgotten in the 1980s certainly shapes her worldview and her empathy for the forgotten areas in the U.S. and the U.K. Modern Russia, which she has spent most of her career closely studying, is another cautionary tale. “Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future,” she writes, “a harbinger of things to come if we can’t adjust course and heal our political polarization.” Finally, her time on the National Security Council led her to see that “In some respects the crises of 2020 would mark the final reckoning with the revolutionary reforms of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s.” In the book’s final section, Dr. Hill lays out the issues we face in straightforward language and then provides prescriptions for the sick patient because our left-behind citizens deserve better. We will all do better if we recognize that life is a team sport.
Carlos Lozada‘s What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era (2020) is the Trump book you didn’t know you needed to read. As the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post since 2015, Lozada read upwards of 150 works on “the Trump era” — a period “suffused with conflict, crudeness, and mistrust” — and then created this wide-ranging, sobering, at times funny, and always insightful work focused not so much on Donald J. Trump, but on how we see ourselves in this moment. He leads us on his literary journey through ten chapters, with titles such as See Some I.D., The Chaos Chronicles, and Russian Lit. In each he considers 10-15 books that address a common theme, helpfully identifying books that “challenge entrenched assumptions and shift our vantage points….” The most important “enable and ennoble a national reexamination … They are the books that show how our current conflicts fit into the nation’s story, that hold fast to the American tradition of always seeing ourselves anew.”
Holes (1998), a novel by Louis Sachar, takes the reader on a darkly humorous trip as Stanley Yelnats reckons with his cursed past and his misplaced present. Because of a curse put on his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather, Stanley always finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is how he ends up at Camp Green Lake digging very large holes, because the adults have told him it will build character. Of course, Camp Green Lake is not a camp. It is not green. It doesn’t have a lake. And the holes Stanley digs are not always literal. Written with pre-teens in mind, Holes has won the prestigious Newbery Medal. Two decades after its publication the book continues to delight pre-teens, teenagers, and adults alike. As I stayed up late reading, laughing out loud while appreciating the lessons about perseverance, companionship, and overcoming both cruelty and personal history that shine through in Holes, I was glad it came my way as a recommended choice for summer reading.
Hokusai Pop-Ups (2016) by Courtney Watson McCarthy, a paper engineer and graphic designer from New York, is a moveable book featuring the work of Japanese artist Hokusai. We discovered the book at Giverny, the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Hokusai Pop-Ups contains, of course, information on the artist but the scene stealers are McCarthy’s dazzling pop-ups of Hokusai’s art. The reader is told of his early apprenticeships where Hokusai learned woodblock printmaking, along with his frequent name changes (up to 30 over his lifetime) that often accompanied job and artistic shifts. Hokusai wanted to live well into his second century in order to master his craft. He did not quite make it, but his impact is nonetheless impressive, most especially on painters such as Monet and architects and designers in both Europe and the United States.
More to come…
I will have a fuller appreciation of David McCullough in next Monday’s post.