My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…

DJB

Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!