Categories
Books Presidents

Ten Books

In the Filmspotting tradition of naming lists after what you know will be on everyone’s list so should be removed from consideration, I’m going to name this the To Kill A Mockingbird Memorial List of Ten Books That Have Stuck With Me For Some Reason. Acknowledging the usual disclaimers of making lists (it’s not binding, it could change tomorrow, etc.), here are ten titles I’d think of right away if someone asked for a great book recommendation.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
 by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Essential reading, for American citizens especially.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Ostensibly a compact history of the Titanic disaster, it reads like a thrilling and expertly written novel. Though dated, the prose is solid yet so smooth, steadily pressing the narrative on like the doomed steamer it documents. 

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Like Fellowship of the Ring, this book is really a stand-in for the sublime trilogy it begins, yet is also the best book in the saga. Most of what we know and love about TR comes from his presidential and post-POTUS years — the Bull Moose, the assassination survival, the Amazon pioneering — but the man who would do these things was forged in the 42 years before becoming president, which are chronicled in this book. He seized his days with unadulterated vim, relentlessly stacking his resume and making the rest of us look bad. I hope “Bully!” makes a comeback.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Haven’t read this since high school so perhaps my feelings will change with a reread, but this was my first exposure to media criticism and it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was shocking to read about how Sesame Street was ruining education and that our dependence on distracting technologies would doom us to a Huxleyan dystopia of dumbness. These were his (admittedly cranky) opinions, but they rang true to me. And their prescience was and continues to be sadly undeniable. 

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Hard to decide between this and Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?, but I went with the more recent read. Yancey profiles thirteen prominent figures who helped restore his crumbling faith, among them Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and Annie Dillard. As faith falls out of fashion, books like this remind me that religion can be richer and more reasonable than our culture of unbelief realizes.

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.” And: “Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.” And so on.

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
I probably wouldn’t have liked it when it came out in 1978, given that it was a mega-bestseller and cultural phenomenon. But its plainspoken style and challenging yet attainable standards on discipline and spiritual development were a revelation to me. Peck’s four pillars of discipline — dedication to truth, delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, balancing — are all noble and necessary goals for self-improvement I think about, and fail to achieve, often. And when they are paired with his perspectives on love and grace, it makes for a great roadmap for life. (Hat-tip to my sister for the initial recommendation.)

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose
I love a broad history as much as anybody, but I also enjoy when a writer takes an angle on something. In this case, it’s Ambrose profiling the oddly parallel lives of Crazy Horse and George Custer, which converge tragically and infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Like most other Ambrose books it’s a smooth read with an emphasis on good storytelling and capturing his subjects’ humanity. People who struggle with reading history would do well to start with anything by Ambrose.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Here’s where I admit that I have a strong bent toward irreverence in life generally, but in the arts specifically. Pious readers may frown upon this fantastical take on Jesus’s youth and adolescence, but I found it funny, humane, and ultimately honoring of the spirit of Jesus. Like an Anne Lamott book, Lamb walks the line between reverence and irreverence like Philippe Petit on a high-wire: effortlessly and therefore beautifully.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
First read in high school, then again in college. It was even better the second time around (which begat a critical essay for a U.S. history class). “On the Rainy River” remains of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. 

Categories
Books History Review

Courage Under Fire Hoses

EYESONTHEPRIZE

I just finished reading Hampton Sides’ Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., a recounting of the assassination of the famous civil rights leader through the perspectives of the people involved in the run-up to and aftermath of King’s slaying. I highly recommend this book for its extensive background on King’s assassin – the hermetic convict James Earl Ray – and its fast-moving report of the events in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Meanwhile, I have been watching the 1987 miniseries Eyes On The Prize, which chronicles the Civil Rights movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to the Selma-Montgomery marches. It tells a gripping narrative of key events in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in the South, through news footage and first-hand accounts by marchers, activists, politicians, and other figures involved in the struggle for freedom, for better or worse. It’s interesting learning about the development of the Civil Rights movement while reading about the MLK assassination, which in retrospect became the nadir of the movement and end of a transformational yet tumultuous chapter in civil rights history.

Watching the progression of the movement up close, via the documentary-style footage in Eyes On The Prize, has been fascinating and a bit distressing. The violence and unmitigated bigotry of the white communities that black citizens had to face every single step along the way never fails to bewilder me. Maybe it’s my modern bias speaking here, but only one generation in the past, fire hoses and attack dogs and police brutality and miscarriages of justice met anyone — mostly black freedom fighters but also sympathetic white activists — who sought equal protection under the law. That troubles me greatly.

Those freedom fighters needed a hefty load of courage to face that persecution and risk of death for the sake of the Cause. Men and women like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Minnijean Brown, Medgar Evers, James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and countless others risked life and limb (and often lost them) in an uphill battle for rights we take for granted today.

It makes me wonder what I as a white middle-class male would have believed or done if I were transported to 1960s Mississippi. Would I have linked arms in an anti-segregation march, or would I have been one of the townsfolk lining the street cursing out the marchers for upsetting the peace? More likely, I probably would have been in the middle — sympathizing with the pursuit of basic civil rights but not outwardly acting on or against that pursuit’s behalf. Moderation is key, the saying goes, but in this case it wouldn’t be enough. The people featured in Eyes On The Prize decided to fight for their lives and the lives of others but without resorting to violence, facing an opposition that was armed and very invested in keeping the status quo. Those men and women chose liberty over life. How many of us could make that choice?

I ask these questions because I’m trying to sort through them myself. I’ve written before about how the orthodoxies we have today may be considered antiquated or even pernicious to future generations looking back. With this in mind, I think it’s important not to judge previous times too harshly without fully understanding the context and realities within which they lived. Since what I know of the Civil Rights movement generally consists of the remnants of a few years of history courses, I hope I will continue to learn about it in order to better understand the struggle of the people it involved.