Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman/writer of the 20th – or perhaps any – Century. Over his long life he made serious money as a writer, won the Nobel Prize for his life’s work as a writer and was also a serious reader.
Winston once said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them with your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate, be your acquaintances.”
Such a quote is a good jumping off point to praise some of the books of this year that I enjoyed – and perhaps you will, too.
First…Churchill. The book is The Last Lion – Defender of the Realm the last of three volumes – the first two by William Manchester – that constitute a mini-library of the remarkable life of the great Englishman. Knowing he was dying, Manchester asked reporter Paul Reid to finish his magnum opus. It was sure to be an impossible job, but I must say Reid does a fine job of closing the Churchill ring. One can nitpick the style or the focus and some critics have hit the length – over 1,000 pages – but Reid has done justice to Manchester’s Lion. The book covers Churchill during the war and to the end of his life. If, like me, you continue to be fascinated by the bigger than life, flawed, funny, tender, petulant, brilliant Churchill you’ll need to tackle the book. You can build up the upper body just by holding it. The workout is worth it.
The quote – “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” is attributed to Harry Truman, another prolific reader. Such is the case for me with a book, not new but published in 2009, entitled England’s Last War Against France. Author Colin Smith tells the story of the bloody, far flung war between Churchill’s British Empire and Nazi-friendly Vichy France from 1940-1942. It is a remarkable story now mostly forgotten.
Public opinion research tells us that most Americans cannot name a single member of the United States Supreme Court. John Roberts, the chief justice and best known member of the court, was identified by only 20% of Americans in one survey during 2012. That amazing and disturbing fact makes Jeffrey Toobin’s book – The Oath – on the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration all the more valuable. The title refers to the botched presidential oath Roberts administered to Obama in 2008 and that story is a fine point of departure for Toobin to take us into the inner workings of the third branch. Reading this book will give you reason to believe that knowing the nine justices and understanding how politics and background drives the court even more important than worrying over the fiscal cliff.
For pure power of good writing and enormous grasp of history, culture and literature, treat yourself to a copy of the late Christopher Hitchens‘ collection of essays Arguably. You don’t have to like Hitchens’ politics or approve of his views on religion to be astounded at his range and writing. This is kind of book you can pick up for a few minutes, lose yourself, put down and then discover again and again. Remarkable stuff.
John Lewis Gaddis’ brilliant life of diplomat, writer and big thinker George F. Kennan won the 2012 Pulitzer for biography. It deserves the medal. You’ll come away from reading about Kennan’s life wondering why we aren’t producing such public servants today or, if we are, why they are never heard from.
As Winston said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will…let them be your friends.” It was a good year for friends.