Reading the News: The Civil War

So this week the White House chief of staff, in an apparent attempt to distract the nation from the fact that the president’s former campaign chairman had just been indicted for conspiracy against the United States, decided to speculate on the causes of the Civil War: namely, that the Civil War had arisen from a national failure to compromise. Oh my God, General Kelly, take a damn history class. Failing that, please read the books on this list.

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  • Property, by Valerie Martin. Among other things, this novel is a master class in inhabiting the voice of an unlikable character. Manon is a plantation owner’s wife who detests her slaves despite (and also because of) the fact that her husband treats them terribly. It can’t have been easy for Martin to write such an unsympathetic character, and Manon comes across as a real human being, if a terrible one. Why is Property on this particular list? Well, partly because Valerie Martin doesn’t get enough attention; but mostly because I think fiction can bring home the inhumanity of slavery in a way that a dispassionate history can’t.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Chances are you’ve already read this book — it was the big literary novel of 2016. But it’s an important book because Whitehead forces the reader to confront the real brutalities of slavery. Yes, it’s fiction; but let’s remember that Whitehead drew his novels’s scenes from actual recorded incidents. Every time I thought, oh, this one can’t be real, a little digging revealed that it was an actual thing that had happened.
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed. A brilliant, meticulously researched history of Sally Hemings and her children by Thomas Jefferson. Long, but every word is worth reading. It’s a chronicle of one family that again illuminates what a peculiar and dehumanizing institution slavery really was.
  • Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, by Robert V. Remini. And now we turn from the evil institution that Kelly thinks we should have been compromising over, to the man who came up with a lot of the compromises. Henry Clay, literally known as the “Great Pacificator” for his ingenuity in keeping the North and South together. A fascinating account of his life and career as well as a window into the tumultuous years before the Civil War; it’s more accessible than you think it is.
  • President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, by William Lee Miller. At last, a book that is actually about the Civil War: specifically about the battle that Lincoln waged in his own soul between pragmatism and idealism. A fascinating look at the politics and, yes, the compromises of the Civil War.

Reading the News: The Kennedys

That’s right, I’m studiously ignoring the elephant in the room to bring you five books that concern the Kennedy assassination. (If you do not already know, the president is eager to tell you that the Kennedy files were released this week on his watch. Pay no attention to the fact that this release was scheduled back in 1992; Donald J. Trump presided over their 2017 release and that is all that matters.) There’s no question that Americans have been fascinated by the assassination for years, and you can make an argument that there’s a straight line connecting the conspiracy theories that surround Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to today’s Birthers and fake news purveyors.

At any rate, I cannot resist an opportunity to recommend Adam Braver. (Please, people, read more Adam Braver.)

So here we go. Five books to read when considering the Kennedy assassination:

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  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw. If you want to start from the very beginning, start with this biography of JFK’s father, and concentrate on the way he raised his children. It gives you real insight into JFK’s character to learn more about where he came from.
  • President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves. There isn’t a lot of dirt here, but it is a closely detailed look at the Kennedy presidency, which is truly fascinating if you want to look past the mythology and learn more about what kind of president John F. Kennedy really was.
  • November 22, 1963, by Adam Braver. An impressionistic, fictional take on the day that Kennedy was shot, told from many different perspectives. The theme here is memory and history and their relationship. Brilliantly done. It’s a shame this book isn’t better known.
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo. A well-known fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, possibly DeLillo’s best novel. I confess I haven’t read it since grad school, but it strikes me that DeLillo’s conspiratorial sensibility is an amazingly good match for our current time.
  • Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson. OK, so this book isn’t actually about Kennedy. It is, however, about how Americans turn fallen presidents into cultural icons and so I think it speaks to the way we remember Kennedy today.

Reading the News: The Military

Well, it has been quite the week, hasn’t it? Look, you can argue that the whole debate over which presidents called Gold Star families and which ones didn’t and what did Trump say to the pregnant war widow has been an overblown distraction. And I get the argument, but ultimately I think this controversy is pretty significant. First, because it speaks to the president’s tendency to respond to criticism with a torrent of untruths and abuse (and also revealed the his chief of staff’s propensity for the same, which was extremely disappointing). This combined, with the press secretary’s announcement that it was “highly inappropriate” to argue with a four-star general, illuminates the current administration’s authoritarian leanings and should alarm everyone with an interest in the United States remaining a democratic republic.

So there’s that. But also, John Kelly has a point–a point that would have been more effective if he hadn’t tacked on a bunch of sanctimonious drivel about how women used to be sacred and a gratuitous and inaccurate attack on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, but a point nonetheless: the average American doesn’t know a ton about the military and doesn’t have a good feel for what happens when a soldier returns home, especially if the soldier is coming home for the last time. And so I offer these five reading suggestions.

  • Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel. I read this book when it was first publishedThank You for Your Service in 2013 and I was blown away. Thank You for Your Service is about what happens to a group of soldiers who spent fifteen months in Baghdad when they return to the United States. Finkel has amazing access and the subjects of his book trust him and he writes about them with great sensitivity. This book is a sequel, of sorts, to The Good Soldiers, which Finkel wrote about the same battalion when they were on duty in Iraq. (I haven’t read The Good Soldiers.) If you only read one book on this list, this should be the one.
  • Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Soldier's HeartThis is a memoir by a former professor of English at West Point. It’s an interesting account of a Harvard-educated politically liberal woman dealing with military hierarchy and learning about the ways her more conservative, bound-for-war students think about themselves and the classics of literature. I like it because I think it challenges stereotypes on both sides; I can’t think of anyone, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, who could read this and not see the military a little differently.
  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. RedeploymentA book of short stories about soldiers on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, by a former soldier who served in Iraq. I still wish Klay had written a memoir instead of a book of short stories, but this book still provides a window into the lives of those who are actually fighting the wars.
  • You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon. You Know When the Men Are GoneThis book is the reverse of the previous one: a collection of short stories about the families who are left behind when soldiers go to war. Fallon, no surprise, is a military wife, and she writes about the stresses and terrors of having your husband on the frontlines in another country very movingly.
  • This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. This Republic of SufferingFor most Americans today losing a child or a spouse in Iraq or Afghanistan is an abstract concept; we murmur our sympathy but it’s not really a part of the everyday world we inhabit. It was very different for Americans who lived during the Civil War, and in this book Faust writes about how civilians and former soldiers reconciled themselves to the horrible human cost of the war, and how they grappled with the deaths once the war was over. It’s instructive to think about a world in which war deaths are much, much more common than they are today, and perhaps makes it a little easier to imagine what it would feel like if it were your child or spouse who wasn’t coming home.

Reading the News: The First Amendment

The First Amendment has been in the news quite a bit this week, from the president’s bizarre idea to revoke NBC’s broadcasting license because he didn’t like what they said about him, to an Indiana legislator who actually proposed a bill to license journalists, to the president’s claim that we would all be saying “Merry Christmas” again because of his devotion to religious liberty.

So here are five books that have illuminated my thinking about the First Amendment:

  • Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry. This is a biography of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. But it is also the biography of a debate between John Winthrop — the Puritan who wanted to make the Massachusetts Bay colony a beacon Roger Williamsof Christianity — and Williams, an equally devout Christian who nonetheless believed that church and state should be completely separated. It was Williams’s ideas, Barry argues, that influenced the Founders’ thinking on religious freedom:

    Cultural commentators and anthropologists speak of the “myths” which inform and define a society. But it is no myth that the Puritans who founded Massachusetts came to build a Christian country, a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see. They believed themselves and this nation to be chosen and blessed by God. That belief is not myth but reality, and it has informed this nation’s identity ever since.
    But it is also not myth but reality that those Puritans fled England because they would not submit to forced prayer: they would not submit to the use of the Book of Common Prayer. They would not even sit silently as nonparticipants while others listened to prayers from it.
    And it is also not myth but reality that another informing principle runs like a great river through American history and culture. That principle was first articulated when Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments which defined the relationship between humanity and God. It matured when he further separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry “distinct from the government set up…. [S]uch governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.”

    Very much worth reading and considering if you’re interested in the roots of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

  • All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This can’t be an unfamiliar book to most people, but it was the firAll the President's Menst book I thought of when I saw Trump fulminating about broadcast licenses. Don’t you think Nixon would have liked to shut down the Washington Post in 1973? Do you think that his diehard supporters would have licensed Woodward and Bernstein? There are really good reasons why the government does not get involved in who is allowed to say what. (It’s worth noting, as well, that the Watergate story would be a mere footnote, if even that, if Woodward and Bernstein had not had the cooperation of anonymous sources.)
  • The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 1956, by Anne Applebaum. Granted, this book is immense and takes a while to get Iron Curtainthrough. But Applebaum really nails down the details of what it’s like to live in a society with no freedom, and the central philosophy of the oppressors that the government cannot be doing anything terrible because the government is always right is frighteningly close to what is being espoused by some Trump supporters today. This philosophy is exactly why the First Amendment was ratified in the first place.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. This is aParting the Waters magisterial work of history (with two sequels, which you should also read) about the Civil Rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. To read this is to understand not just why the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s needed to happen, but also the absolutely central role the First Amendment played in the protests.
  • Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. This is a wildly Ella Minnow Peaentertaining, unputdownable examination of a fictional totalitarian society, and a tribute to freedom of expression.


Reading the News: North Korea

There has been a great deal of saber-rattling about North Korea lately, and the presidential Twitter account certainly seems to be encouraging it. If you’re looking for resources to better understand the current crisis, here are some suggestions:

  • Brothers at War, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager, is a readable, comprehensive history of the conflict between North and South Korea, as well as the involvement of the United States.
  • Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, describes life in North Korea today. It’s drawn from interviews with defectors, and it is unputdownable. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
  • The Orphan-Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, is a fictional look at North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It’s important to keep in mind that this book is fiction; you can’t assume it’s an accurate portrayal of life in North Korea. But it’s one of the best books I know for helping me think about what life in a totalitarian regime really feels like.
  • Black Flags, by Joby Warrick, is about the rise of ISIS and may seem like an odd choice for a list of books about the crisis in North Korea. But since the president does seem to be enthusiastically sounding the trumpets of war, I think it’s important to look back at the mistakes that the U. S. government made in the Middle East under Bush and Obama that led to the emergence of ISIS. A second ISIS arising out of the ashes of Korea is something we should want to avoid at all costs.
  • Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, is the classic insider’s account of what happened when the Kennedy administration faced a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1962. Of course there is not a one-to-one relationship between the Cuban Missile Crisis and today’s North Korean situation, but I think it’s instructive to look back and consider how and why the Kennedy administration responded as it did.