I spend all day in front of a computer screen. The last thing I want to do for pleasure is read on a Kindle or Nook. Joe Queenan nicely encapsulates the love of books in a Wall Street Journal article: "No matter what they may tell themselves, book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. A world where they do not hate their jobs, their spouses, their governments, their lives. A world where women do not constantly say things like 'Have a good one!' and 'Sounds like a plan!' A world where men do not wear belted shorts..." But however you enjoy reading, here's a relatively short list of books to buy for friends or ask Santa for.
One fad in historiography is that the Red Army primarily won World War II. Rick Atkinson is having none of it in his majestic Liberation Trilogy about the U.S. Army in Europe. An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle are the two completed works and they are the finest military history I've read in recent years. This is the way history should be written, the way that has been beaten our of three generations of professional historians. To give the Red Army its due, check out Thunder in the East by Evan Mawdsley and Ivan's War by Catherine Merridale. A terrific read about World War II in the Pacific is Evan Thomas' Sea of Thunder, about the greatest naval battle in history.
We're coming up on the centennial of the conflict that changed everything, World War I. The must-read here is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. Fussell, a World War II American combat infantryman, focuses on the British troops in the trenches of the Western Front and the things they carried, especially the literary influences that reached into the lowest ranks. This is one book every educated person should read: Deeply learned, highly moving, surprising and written with the attitude, as Fussell said, of "a pissed-off infantryman." Two others are both seminal and thrilling: Dreadnought and Castles of Steel by Robert Massie, about the battleship arms race and war.
We crow about putting computers in classrooms, as if this would make pupils into citizens. I've run across a few American histories the past couple of years that are remarkable in their scope, command of the material and literary excellence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe is subtitled, "The Transformation of America: 1815-1848." You will never look on this neglected period of our nation's development the same again, or on Andrew Jackson. Another book in this fine Oxford History of the United States is David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945. It is the best single-volume history of this critical period available and will, among other things, give you an entirely different view of the tragedy of Herbert Hoover, as well as the crucible that formed the strong nation we now would watch the Tea Party and their oligarch puppet-masters loot, vandalize and throw away.
Speaking of what every American should read: Taylor Branch's three-volume work on America in the Martin Luther King Jr. years: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge. Among other things, one will learn (or be reminded) that Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad had a home in Phoenix.
The most fascinating biography I've read this year is the magnificent George Frost Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis. Not only do we learn more about the brilliance and fey personality of the author of the Long Telegram from Moscow, but also the elements that put in place the Cold War and America's response. Colonel Roosevelt beautifully, poignantly, wraps up Edmund Morris' towering trilogy on T.R. Robert Caro. Read everything. His latest LBJ installment, The Passage of Power, is an equal to the other splendid volumes in this life's work.
Did I mention Robert Caro? Read The Power Broker, his Olympian biography of Robert Moses. Just read it, even if you don't know who Moses is or care about New York (indeed, especially if so). In addition to the book's many pleasures, you'll learn why most American cities have been so destroyed and made so dysfunctional over the past sixty-odd years. For your urban/sustainability jones, read James Howard Kunstler: The Geography of Nowhere, Home from Nowhere, The City in Mind and The Long Emergency. Even if you tire of his weekly column, these books, especially the first, are superb at explaining what's wrong with our built environment and how to fix it.
There is no shortage of books about the American revolution. I particularly recommend Washington's Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer. This stirring volume centers on the events leading up to the Battle of Trenton, which arguably saved the patriot cause, but goes much deeper into the era and some of its leading personalities.
On the economics front: Joseph Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Hedrick Smith's Who Stole the American Dream and Donald Barlett and James Steele's The Betrayal of the American Dream are essential reading if you want to understand how we got into this mess and how we can move out of it. David Cay Johnston's The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use 'Plain English' to Rob You Blind is the eye-opener we would expect from this Pultzer-winning reporter. We're usually having the wrong conversation, e.g. regulation vs. deregulation. As Johnston makes clear, there's always regulation. It's just that the oligarchy has captured it to further their quasi-monopolies and cartels.
As far as Phoenix goes, what can I recommend beyond my novels? There simply is no adequate history of the city (or the state). In the meantime, Andrew Ross' Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City is a fine substitute. The hysteria with which local mandarins greeted this book is a sign that he hit the target. The reader should know that Ross quotes me extensively. The Emerging Metropolis: Phoenix 1944-1973 by William Collins is the best Phoenix history we have so far. On water, I suggest: Cadillac Desert, rightly a classic, by Marc Reisner, A River No More: The Colorado River and the West by Philip Fradkin and (the more academic-dry) Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster. My friend Jack August has laid out important chapters of the winning of the Central Arizona Project with Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and the Hydropolitics of the American Southwest and Dividing Western Waters, the latter telling the critical but forgotten story of lawyer Mark Wilmer and the Arizona v. California court case (to which my mother committed a decade of her life).
I've spent the past several months on my new novel, The Night Detectives, so my fiction reading has been slim. Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? Are you pulling my pump-action shotgun? One thing is clear from these thrillers: Reacher is six-feet-five and big. I guess Lee Child went for the money. In reality, the Reacher books are uneven. If you read only one, pick Persuader. I'm thinking of reading John Dos Passos, one of the most lionized American novelists of the early 20th century and now all but forgotten. Sic transit gloria mundi.