Reading for pleasure was one of the things I missed most while in law school. Sure, I had time for occasional books, but most of my free time was spent reading cases. My last final was December 15th of 2008, so I've had a year to catch up. While I couldn't devote the full year to reading because I took the Arizona Bar in February and the California Bar in July, I did have time to eliminate some pent up demand. I'm not posting until after Christmas, and I thought you might be interested in a quick look at some of my favorite books from the last year.
I started the year with two books by Historian John Keegan. Intelligence During Warfare and the History of Warfare. This is a great pair of books. There are really two lessons. The first is that the guy with the best weapons, tactics and intelligence wins. That means that a small team of archers with chariots will defeat 500 guys with bronze swords. The next lesson is that every few hundred years hordes sweep down from the Asian Steps and wipe out civilization, so you had better make sure that you are the guy with the weapons, tactics and intelligence. The books also provide a great history of some key battles and are a fun read.
Master of the Senate is the third in Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson. This book concentrates on Johnson's unbelievable ability to control the US Senate despite a thin majority and little seniority. It also provides a lot of background on the major battles that the senate fought from the 1940s to the 1960s--with an emphasis on the civil rights movement and the attempts by Republicans to outlaw the Southern Democrat's techniques of preventing black Americans from voting.
Caro's first Johnson book--the Path to Power--is on the short list of books that have influenced me most. Of course, there's little in Johnson to admire. He was a chronic liar, womanizer and bad President. He botched Vietnam...and don't get me started on the War on Poverty. But books about fatally flawed people can serve as a great example--sometimes more so than books about the honest men who live normal lives.
Karnow's History of Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize and is a great companion to Master of the Senate. Most Americans would start a history of the Vietnam conflict in the mid 1950s...Karnow starts with Marie Antoinette. After all the story is French from Marie Antoinette until Dien Bien Phu. The book provides a great narrative of the first part of the war--meaning the Westmorland years. That's the "traditional" narrative, however in order to get a full understanding of the later half of the war, read Sorely's "A Better War."
My favorite History book is Modern Times by Paul Johnson. I read it in he early 1990s and re-read it this year. The book closely tracks my world view and may have actually played a substantial roll in creating my world view. The book is frankly pretty depressing--it covers the period from about 1918 to the mid 1990s--and it gives you a full understanding the carnage of the last century. However, it makes you realize how much peace and prosperity we enjoy now. I think the central thesis of the book is that if you take really smart people who are determined to make the world a better place and give them enough power...they will exterminate 120,000,000 people.
If Modern Times--at nearly 1,000 pages--is too much for you, check out Paul Johnson's "Heroes: From Alexander the Great to Churchill and De Gaul." This is a fun quick read. Johnson makes the book more interesting by discussing his Heroes in contemporaneous sets, so Elizabeth I is with Walter Raleigh, Mae West is with Marilyn Monroe, Thatcher and Reagan are with John Paul II. The pairings are a great device to show how heroes interact with each other and provide a vehicle to delve more deeply into specific time periods.
The great part about reading for pleasure is that you can read really light books and not worry about it. Simon Winchester is a Geologist who wrote The Map that Changed the World and Krakatoa. I recommend them both. Sure they are light, but they are fun and provide interesting little vignettes of history. I enjoy learning about geology, but Winchester also goes into the history of debtors prisons, the East India Company, the Pepper Trade, the history of coal mining and, of course plate tectonics, fossils and the essentials of geology--all while telling pretty compelling stories.
A great lesson of the books is that during each period, the science of geology was long settled--and completely wrong. Ours is not the first generation plagued by Group think, Anchor Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, Confirmation Bias and the desire for conformity. Be sure to read "Map" first.
Cass Sunstien is probably the most influential law professor writing today. He's done great work on regulatory theory and I relied on some of his work when I wrote my major paper--cost benefit analysis of Arsenic Remediation in drinking water--for law school. His book "Nudge" provides a great discussion of a theory that is now being called "Libertarian Paternalism." It's an interesting concept. Sunstien argues that there are certain policy choices that--for most of the populace--are better than others, so policy makers should make those choices the default choices. He provides an interesting analysis and examples. If you are in a job in which you help set policy, or you work in a regulatory environment, the book is a must read.
The original political parties were the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists. Although most of what the Federalists believed was put into the Constitution, the Federalist party quickly faded away. Federalist ideas would have faded away as well except for one man--Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. Marshall's term on the court long outlived the party appointing him, however, his control of the court allowed him to flesh out many of the fundamental details of our government structure. In What Kind of Nation, we get to see the epic battle between Jefferson--the first non-Federalist President--and Marshall. Here's an example one fundamental question. What happens when Congress passes a law that conflicts with the Constitution? Jefferson believed that states could simply not enforce--or nullify--such a law. Marshall took a round a bout way and decided that the Supreme Court should have that power. Our nation is fundamentally different than it would have been if Jefferson had prevailed.
Most early History of the United States follows the Founding Fathers from the Declaration of Independence to somewhere in the Adams Administration. That's a great period, but sometimes it's over covered. Very few people read about the second American Revolution when Andrew Jackson became the first popularly elected President. W. H. Brands' Life of Jackson is a great read because if covers a history that's both later and much further West than we usually read. Every school child learns about the slaughter of the Indians at Wounded Knee, but few learn of the slaughter BY the Indians at Fort Mims. Jackson was the Founders' worst fear--commonly born, popularly elected and not from Virginia. His election was more than a turning point. It was a fundamental transformation.
I enjoyed Brand's Jackson so much that I had to read the spin off. Jackson was tangentially involved in creating Texas--Sam Houston was from Tennessee and fought with Jackson--and Brands chronicles the history of Texas in Lone Star Nation. What a great story...and frankly, one that I didn't know. Sure, we've all heard of the Alamo, but the history of Texas is much more than the Alamo. The brutality of the 19th century is amazing (nothing compared to the 20th, of course, but amazing none the less.) The History shows how one or two people can make a huge difference in the flow of History. Yet the story seems so random. It's an interesting combination.
If after reading Brand's history of Texas, you still don't understand what it means to be a Texan, read Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. This is an unbelievable story of a Navy SEAL team that gets dropped into what turns out to be a Taliban stronghold--four SEALs against 140 Taliban fighters and it isn't pretty. Luttrell flashes back to his SEAL training and then flashes further back to a lifetime of training; he had always wanted to be a SEAL. The book will bring a few tears to your eyes. It's also patriotic to the point of being jingoistic. Luttrell doesn't hide the fact that he respects President Bush, fights for his country, would die for his friends and doesn't want to screw up and embarrass the great state of Texas. Unlike Jarhead--which I also enjoyed--Luttrell's story is the John Wayne version of the Global War On Terror. Jarhead was a good book, but a lousy movie; Lone Survivor was a great book and I believe it will be a great movie.
Huey Long was the closest thing to a dictator that our nation has produced and like most of the Dictators of the 20th century, he came from the left. Kingfish tells the story of what happens when someone who is truly corrupt takes over a state. It's really unbelievable. The story also reveals some remarkable policy transformations. Long wanted the federal government to pay college tuition for the poor--the idea was so outrageous that he couldn't even get a second in the US Senate--after all, taxing some people and spending the money on other people was pure redistribution, and obviously Constitutional. How quaint.
Goodbye Darkness--William Manchester's account of his service as Marine in the Pacific--was the book I most enjoyed this year. All history buffs are familiar with Manchester's work and his biographies of MacArthur and Churchill are must reads. While he only managed to finish two of three volumes of his Churchill trilogy--The Last Lion and Alone--I think the series still stands as the definitive Churchill. Manchester's account of his own experience in the Pacific is gripping. I know that sounds trite (in fact, the word "gripping" is used in one of the blurbs on the back) but I can't think of a better term. The book grabs you and doesn't let you go until you have finished it.
I also enjoyed Manchester's "A World Lit Only by Fire." This book is actually two books, in the first, Manchester provides an overview of European history from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. What's shocking is that there's nearly 1,000 years in which mankind makes no advances--life is truly nasty, brutish and short. He then provides a great overview of the Renaissance followed by the second book which is an interesting account of the Magellan's circumnavigation of the Earth.
I don’t read much fiction, but friends recommended a couple “mid life crisis books” Replay by Grimwood is a great book for men in their 40s. The first line is great: “Jeff Winston was talking on the phone with his wife when he died…” The protagonist then relives his life from age 18 to 43…at which point, he promptly dies a again. The choices he makes and the consequences of those choices make for a great story.
All the reviews so far have been positive. That's because if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. One book that was disappointing but I did manage to finish was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The story was interesting, but the philosophy was really lame. Maybe the new age philosophy was relevant in the early 1970s, but I think it only succeeds in showing how lame the 1970s really were.
One book that I really enjoyed was Theodore Rex--Edmund Morris's sequel to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. "Rise" was better and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, Morris followed up "Rise" with "Dutch"which was a disastrous biography of Ronald Reagan. Theodore Rex takes up where "Rise" ended--McKinley is pronounced dead and Teddy is President. The book tracks Roosevelt's Presidency, but unfortunately ends when the term ends, so we don't learn about Roosevelt's disappointment with Taft, or the rise of Wilson.
In "The Tipping Point" Malcolm Gladwell uses the theory of how viruses spread to explain how social phenomena reach a critical mass and then explode onto the rest of society. He uses the terms "connectors", "mavens" and "salesmen" to describe how it only takes a few people in clearly defined roles to ignite a firestorm. The "connectors" are networkers. They seem to know everyone. The "Mavens" are information junkies who have an expertise in the area you want to promote; they serve as cue givers to those who don't follow the issue closely. The salesmen have a talent for persuading others and work as transmitters of the "virus" that you are trying to spread. If you want to affect public policy, fashion or opinion, you need to be aware of how this process works and be able to identify and motivate the connectors, mavens and salesmen who affect the issue. Interestingly, blogging allows the connectors, mavens and salesmen to be the same person. If you are an Espresso Pundit fan, you know that I'm already, you know, taking advantage of that fact.
Next year I'm switching gears. I'm planning to build a law firm, so instead of focusing almost exclusively on history and biography, I'm going to get back to my Accounting roots and concentrate on some business and sales strategies. I think it will be frefreshing change and I'm looking forward to it. I'm getting a head start, so I just finished the Ultimate Sales Machine by Chel Holmes. It's a practical guide to networking and sales that I found quite usefull. Books like this are full of tips that in retrospect seem so obvious that we forget that we never would have figured them out on our own. So I read it with highlighter in hand--I guess it's full circle to the law school days.
Still in the business mode, I'm currently reading "Ahead of the Curve" about a journalist who attends Harvard Business School. So far it's a fun read I always enjoy stories about reporters who are introduced to so called "numbers." In addition to being an interesting story, the book provides an inside peek at life in the Harvard MBA program. That's a path I tried to take but didn't make it. I was rejected by Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, that was in the mid 1980s and I was straight out of college, so my resume was pretty lite. I thought I might be able to bluff them with my 99th percentile GMAT, but apparently the other applicants had better grades, comparable GMATs and had served as US Ambassador to France.
Well that's it. Next year I'll shoot for 20 or 25 more books, this time with a business emphasis--and if you know any good lawyers who are looking for work, let me know.