What’s in your library? Post a comment or drop me a note to let me what you’ve been reading.
David McCullough (1993)
President Truman still looms over world affairs, between dropping the only atomic bombs and creating global alliances like the United Nations. At the same time, he was a man of his era, from drinking on the job to using racial slurs. He also has the ignominious distinction of being a machine politician, owing his political career to party bosses.
Truman is a comprehensive biography of his life, from birth, through his many careers including farming and selling men’s shirts, the army, and ultimately the presidency. David McCullough’s writing is easy to access, provides appropriate background material, and ultimately presents a compelling portrait where the man’s fundamental decency and honesty shines through.
My take: A must read for anyone interested in the man or the era. Though Truman was president less than 70 years ago, he might as well be from a different time entirely.
Order Truman from Amazon…
The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (A Proposal in Natural Philosophy)
Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin (2014)
Physicists don’t like to admit it, but the latest theories don’t treat time and the universe itself in anything resembling how we actually experience it. In the real world, time only moves in one direction and there is only one world. In the world of physics, however, both are considered merely accidents.
The Singular Universe and The Reality of Time puts forward a different view: There is only one universe, time only travels in one direction, and those two facts are essential to improving our understanding of physics. The authors argue that time effects everything, including the laws of physics themselves.
My take: Not an easy read, but truly mind bending, completely turning the assumptions of modern physics around. If I had to place a bet, physicists a hundred years from now will look back at Unger and Smolin’s theory as the foundational work in a new science.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcom Gladwell (2002)
The social media landscape is filled with viral memes and videos, but the phenomenon of going viral predates the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. From the editor, “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.”
Malcolm Gladwell certainly covers a lot of ground, from the old mail order CD subscription services to crime and even suicide rates, uncovering the underlying features of these trends and their impact on the world.
My take: A truly excellent book. Gladwell distills very complex topics into entertaining, illuminating stories and is a master at connecting disparate areas of information into a coherent whole. A must read for anyone interested in how trends shape our world.
The Believing Brain
Michael Shermer (2012)
An absolute must-read for anyone interested in learning more about why we believe the things we do, often without evidence or reason.
Consider this: It wasn’t until Galileo that humanity began conducting formal experiments to test their beliefs. That’s thousands of years of human experience based on pure belief, plus trial and error.
My take: Required reading to learn about how we are wired and where our wiring comes from.
The War that Ended Peace
Margaret MacMillan (2014)
The more things change, the more they stay the same: In the lead-up to World War I, Europe hadn’t been engaged in an all out war since Napoleon and many experts thought a long, hard war was impossible. At the same time, steps were being taken that made war inevitable.
MacMillan covers a lot of ground, providing background information on the politics of the major countries involved from Britain to Germany, and short biographies of the major players, but the book is accessible to readers (like myself) who aren’t experts on the period.
My take: Excellent reading for anyone interesting in understanding how the unthinkable can and will happen, how personalities and relationships influence politics, and how staggeringly wrong the experts often are.
Napoleon: A Life
Andrew Roberts (2015)
Napoleon needs no introduction, but his legacy could likely use a little more well-rounded presentation than the usual depiction of a tyrant with a complex about his small stature.
In reality, Napoleon was a very complicated man. He considered himself a child of the Enlightenment and a champion of values like freedom and liberty. He was also an Emperor and an autocrat that believed he should rule the known world.
How could both sides live in one person? Roberts explores the strange dynamics that drove Napoleon’s life, from a deep seated desire to create a better future for the people of France, to the reality of living in a country surrounded by implacable internal and external enemies.
My take: Truly epic in scope, but easy to read. Full of detail, but not overwhelming. A compelling portrait of one of history’s most compelling players.
Ron Chernow (2018)
Until recently, Ulysses S. Grant didn’t get much credit. They taught us he was the drunk general that won the Civil War and then a corrupt President, but the truth couldn’t be more remarkable.
Grant was indisputably the greatest military mind since Napoleon, revolutionizing military logistics and strategy while commanding the largest army the world had ever seen. He was also a crusader for equal rights who crushed the original KKK.
These accomplishments would rank him among the very best and brightest the United States ever produced, but Grant’s story might even be more remarkable: Just a few years before the Civil War he was so poor he was selling firewood on street corners to get by. Only in America, as they say.
My take: Ron Chernow is my favorite biographer, and Grant doesn’t disappoint. It’s a truly amazing read.