Twelve Influential Books (And a Few More Thrown In for Fun)

What if Everybody Squeezed the Cat?Since  I left Facebook about 18 months ago, I miss 99.5% of the silly contests, lists, and challenges that clog the social media world.  And even when I was on FB, I would occasionally take one of their lists – such as the five albums I’d most want on a desert island – and expand that into blog posts (as in album #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5).

But the other day, my sister Debbie put up a list of ten influential books in her life, and asked Candice to do the same.  The challenge was to come up with the list quickly.  Both Debbie and Candice had great lists, and that made me think about what my list would look like.

So…here is my off the cuff list of twelve books that I’ve read (and usually re-read, and re-read).  Since this is my blog, I’m not going to be bound by the FB convention of ten.  And, in fact, you’ll see I’ve thrown in a bonus book or two along the way. Through the years these works have influenced me to  various degrees.  And I present them in no particular order.

1.  If Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover – This 1960 book is the first I really remember reading as a child, and it has stuck with me now for some 55 years.  The premise is very easy to understand, and the illustration at the top shows it perfectly.  On the left page is a cute drawing of one kid doing something that probably – to him or her – looks perfectly harmless.  Such as squeezing the cat. Or making a splash in the sink. Or dropping tacks on the floor (one of my favorites).  Then, on the opposite page is an illustration that shows what would happen if everybody did that particular thing.  This book is still the reason I pick up garbage as I walk along the sidewalk and then invariably think, “This miscreant needs to read If Everybody Did.”

2.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs – Another book from the early 60s (1961 to be exact) where writer and activist Jacobs turns her fire on modernist city planning and architecture that turned its back on what made cities great. This is a terrific book for preservationists and those who love urban communities.  One of my great joys in life was when our son Andrew wrote his college essay on how Jane Jacobs changed his life.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark3.  All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – This classic 1946 novel about corrupt Southern populist Willie Stark is as fresh today as when Warren first put pen to paper. I re-read this about once a decade and am reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It was also turned into a great movie, starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark.  When told there is no political dirt on an opponent, Stark replies with the classic line, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud.  There’s always something.” Read Nixonland or Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein and you’ll see what Warren means.  Heck – and you just got two more great recommendations wrapped up in one selection!

4.  How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell – You just knew there would be a baseball book. The Bos’ first book of baseball essays, published in 1982, is still his best.  How can you not love a book where the first chapter is entitled, This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.

5.  Truman by David McCullough – David McCullough has many excellent histories and biographies, and I have read them all.  His John Adams ranks right up there, but I still give the edge to McCullough’s 1992 biography of a president who – until this massive work came out – was seen as an accident between the two titans of FDR and Dwight Eisenhower. That historians no longer view Truman in this light is due to McCullough’s scholarship and storytelling abilities.

6.  Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle – This is the one book that is on Candice’s list and mine.  Perhaps when you read the subtitle – The Story of a Marriage – you’ll understand why.  The jacket blurb describes it well:  “The story of a marriage of true minds and spirits–a brilliant writer’s tribute to lasting love.”  While I don’t always hit the mark personally, I am always blessed when I read L’Engle’s short but lovely book. L’Engle’s book Glimpses of Grace is also a favorite.  As one reviewer says, “she affirms the virtues of imagination, intuition, and intelligence.” No small feat these days.

7.  The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor – The eccentric yet incredibly talented Southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote best in the short story format. O’Connor’s stories are spiritual in a very unique way, and this work captures them all.  I’ll still pull it down on occasion and read A Good Man is Hard to Find or some other wonderful tale.  For those who want to delve deeper, check out The Habit of Being, a collection of O’Connor’s letters, and the hilarious Living With a Peacock from the 1961 Holiday magazine.  This latter article is the only one I’ll quote from extensively, because it ends on such an exquisite line:

Some people are genuinely affected by the sight of a peacock, even with his tail lowered, but do not care to admit it; others appear to be incensed by it. Perhaps they have the suspicion that the bird has formed some unfavorable opinion of them. The peacock himself is a careful and dignified investigator. Visitors to our place, instead of being barked at by dogs rushing from under the porch, are squalled at by peacocks whose blue necks and crested heads pop up from behind tufts of grass, peer out of bushes and crane downward from the roof of the house, where the bird has flown, perhaps for the view. One of mine stepped from under the shrubbery one day and came forward to inspect a carful of people who had driven up to buy a calf. An old man and five or six white-haired, barefooted children were piling out the back of the automobile as the bird approached. Catching sight of him, the children stopped in their tracks and stared, plainly hacked to find this superior figure blocking their path. There was silence as the bird re­garded them, his head drawn back at its most majestic angle, his folded train glittering behind him in the sunlight.

“Whut is thet thang?” one of the small boys asked finally in a sullen voice.

The old man had got out of the car and was gazing at the peacock with an astounded look of recognition. “I ain’t seen one of them since my grand­daddy’s day,” he said, respectfully re­moving his hat. “Folks used to have ‘em, but they don’t no more.”

“Whut is it?” the child asked again in the same tone he had used before.

“Churren,” the old man said, “that’s the king of the birds!”

The children received this informa­tion in silence. After a minute they climbed back into the car and con­tinued from there to stare at the pea­cock, their expressions annoyed, as if they disliked catching the old man in the truth.

8.  Good to Great by James C. Collins – I usually have a management handbook somewhere in my reading pile, but the one I return to year after year is Jim Collins’ 2001 classic Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. When you hear me talk about confronting the brutal facts or the flywheel effect, you’ll know I’m quoting Collins.

9. The Edmund Morris trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt – These are three books, but since it is my blog post I’m counting them as one.  This massive work, beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, followed by Theodore Rex, and ending with Colonel Roosevelt is a biographical tour de force. The middle volume, when Roosevelt sat astride the world as president, is probably my favorite, but that is only at the margins.  You should read them all.

10.  Lincoln’s Greatest Speech by Ronald C. White, Jr. – I’m going to end with my own Civil War trilogy, beginning with a little known book on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  This is a book that historian David Herbert Donald has called both “learned and accessible,” and I agree.

11.  Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills – This winner of the Pulitzer Prize is better known that White’s book, and the speech it covers is more famous.  This is such a  great book that speaks to the power of words.  Highly recommended.

12.  Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson – Still the best single volume history of the Civil War, now more than 25 years after it was published, Battle Cry of Freedom is still incredibly popular.  A recent interview with the author explains why:

The book’s popularity is not hard to explain. McPherson miraculously manages between to recount the origins of the war and its progress in virtually every theater of fighting through its entire four years, explain the political maelstrom that engulfed both the North and South, touch on heartbreaking stories of individual warriors, follow the machinations of government officials, and describe the military, cultural, and social consequences of the greatest cataclysm in American history, all while carrying the reader along within a brisk and vivid narrative.

Last Best League13.  SUMMER READING LIST BONUS:  The Last Best League by Jim Collins – No, this is not the same Jim Collins of Good to Great.  This Collins is the former editor of Yankee magazine.  His Last Best League is a wonderful, loving tribute to the Cape Cod Baseball League – with its small towns and wooden bats – and the book is a delight to read on a summer night…or as you prepare for the playoffs.  I recommend reading this book and watching the movie Bull Durham (Best baseball movie ever. Period.) during the same month.  You’ll never want to talk about football again.

So there you have it.  A (rather) quick grab-bag of reads.  I hope you find something to enjoy.

More to come…


Summer Reading

The Orioles Bird at a game at Camden Yards

The Orioles Bird at a game at Camden Yards

An email from the partner of a friend who shall remain nameless showed up in my home email in-box recently with a list of books on his table ready for his summer reading.  There were a lot of very serious titles – some of which I’ve read and many of which I’ve missed – but the one that caught my eye was War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges.  Now I’ve read that book, and I don’t consider it light reading.  In fact, it is pretty depressing.  For while Hedges calls for humility, love, and compassion as the only chance for the human race, he writes of the addiction of war and its unifying force.  When you read this, our chances seem pretty slim.

But that’s NOT why I’m writing about Summer Reading Lists.  There are 9 other months of the year to read books like War is a Force…  Summer reading is different.  Here are three books (two on baseball; one only tangentially on architecture but really on love) I think are great for summer reading.

When I recently saw my friends the Quattlebaums in Andover (I met them a couple of years ago on the wonderful National Trust Black Sea cruise we took on the Sea Cloud), it reminded me of two books on baseball that I’d recommend to anyone.  The first is a new book in 2008 – Anatomy of Baseball – a compilation of essays edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner.  As a compilation, the writing here is uneven, but at its best it is great.  The single essay “Oriole Magic” by Elizabeth Bobrick – where a Ph.D. classics student in 1979 discovers that baseball writers are the best in the world and baseball is a sport that endlessly fascinates – is worth the price of the book alone.  Just a couple of examples will have to do.

In her first ever foray into the Sports section of the Baltimore Evening Sun (to avoid studying), Bobrick stumbles across two articles by a writer named Terry Pluto and immediately thinks of the Greek god of wealth and the underworld.  She writes of his second article:

“A rainstorm had forced the game (in Cleveland) to be called, and a melee ensued, during which the home fans tore up the stadium while being chased through mud by the police.  Both constabulary and quarry slipped and fell a good deal.  Pluto said the scene, one ‘worthy of the Keystone Kops,’ played out against a dramatic backdrop:  ‘The sky was filled with lightning.  The rain came down in torrents and Noah could be heard in the background pounding the last few nails into his ark.’

I had never seen reporting like this:  a description of the weather apparently lifted from a Gothic novel followed by an allusion to the Book of Genesis, all in order to take a swipe at the Cleveland fans’ wild behavior and their police force’s ineptitude.  I admired the boldness of the mix, and the broad brushstroke delivery.”

Later in the essay, she quotes Tom Callahan of the Washington Star, whose “sentence structure reminded me of Cicero’s.”  With the O’s one game away from winning the series, Bobrick quotes Callahan and then adds her take on the sentence:

“‘Earl Weaver loudly says HE is to be the star of the Baltimore Orioles, a plain fact that amuses the players at the brink of the World Championship; which annoys them occasionally; which hurts their feelings frequently; which helped them to the brink of the championship undeniably.’  Behold, a one-sentence illustration of what adverbs can do when a professional strikes the keys.”

The book also has great essays on first gloves, a Frank Deford piece on baseball caps, and much more.

The second baseball book that my visit with the Quattlebaums brought to mind is Jim Collins’ wonderful The Last Best League about the Cape Cod Wooden Bat League.  I was reading this book on the Sea Cloud when I met them the first time, and it is simply one of the best baseball books ever.  So imagine my surprise when Ed Quattlebaum tells me that one of his sons is mentioned in the book – the player nicknamed “GQ” because he looks so preppy.  (These wonderful people do teach at Andover!)  And those of you who know me know of my love for our own college wooden bat league here in Maryland – the Cal Ripkin, Sr. Collegiate Baseball League.  I love our new Nationals stadium and it is great having MLB baseball back in Washington, but few things top the pleasure of sitting with 500-700 other fans right on top of the action on a beautiful summer night and cheering for the Bethesda Big Train or the Silver Spring Thunderbolts.  The season just ended, but it was another great one.  If you want to catch the flavor before 2009, read The Last Best League.

Now, for those of you who just can’t abide baseball, you might check out Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.  I’m not a big reader of fiction, but this historical novel based on the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick (the wife of one of his clients in Oak Park) really surprises.  It is hard to put down…and that’s all I’ll say about it.

Now I don’t want you to think I’m being totally frivilous during the summer…I did read Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope  and I’m halfway through Dreams From My Fatherbut really…there will be 9 months out of the year for serious reading.  But come to think of it, what can be more serious than when Elizabeth Bobrick writes that “none of the Birds impressed me so much as first baseman and switch-hitter Eddie Murray.  With the intuitive grasp of an idiot savant, I was drawn to this future Hall of Famer…who was later described as someone who ‘tossed around words like they were $100 bills.'”  In describing how baseball – and Murray – helped lift her from depression, she writes:

“After the ’83 Series, Eddie Murray had uttered a phrase of Roman simplicity and elegance:  ‘Our strength is just being ourselves.’  I taped that sentence over my desk.  I had succeeded in being myself, a self that no longer filled me with the despair I had felt in 1979.”

More to come…