Serious readers tend to read by season. A worthy book is ripe for the reading in any season, but winter seems to privilege the weightier volumes over those that seem to be more easily set aside for reading in a more opportune season. Summer is that season. Why? Vacation and a change in pace have something to do with the tenor of the season, but the traditional break in the academic calendar may mean even more. We all need a season for reading books that are not assigned.

These 10 books are by no means assigned. These are books that I found sufficiently interesting and compelling to merit my recommendation. Frustratingly, this list could easily be many times as long. I hope to recommend other good books along the way through the season, including some recent works in biography and fiction. My recommendations for summer reading are, as usual, drawn more from the stacks of nonfiction and history. That is my own idiosyncrasy. Given an unfettered opportunity to read an “unassigned” book, I most often turn to history. What am I looking for? I look eagerly for books that make me rethink something I think I know, learn about something I do not know, or surprise me by revealing just how much there is yet to know about an era, an issue, an event — a happening.

So, no assignments here — only recommendations.

1. Richard Rubin, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2013).

Not a single American veteran of World War I remains alive. But, a decade ago, this was not yet true. Richard Rubin had the brilliant idea to try to track down some of the last of the Doughboys, as the American troops in World War I were affectionately known. By the time Rubin was able to interview them, these veterans were, on average, 107 years old. The Last of the Doughboys is a true gift, drawn from Rubin’s conversations with some of the most interesting people you will ever meet on the printed page. And, with the last of these veterans now dead, this is the only place you will find their stories.

The first World War is receding in our national memory. And yet, the national consequences of this war were monumental and lasting. This war, more than any other, marks the divide between the modern world and the world it left behind. When the war started, most of the peoples of the earth were ruled by hereditary monarchs in the Age of Empire. When the war ended, the world was utterly changed. The veterans through whose lives Rubin tells the story of the war lives through this vast transformation, and even into the 21st century. The first man Rubin interviewed, Anthony Pierro, had been born in Forenza, Italy in February of 1896. As Rubin notes, in 1896 Grover Cleveland was President of the United States and the tallest building in the world was 18 stories tall. The Last of the Doughboysis a wonderful combination of biography and history. The story of the American involvement in World War I is told by those who had lived it, and who lived to tell the tale.


“Before the New age and the New Frontier and the New Deal, before Roy Rogers and John Wayne and Tom Mix, before Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, before the TVA and the TV and radio and Radio Flyer, before The Grapes of Wrath and Gone with the Wind and The Jazz Singer, before the CIA and the FBI and the WPA, before airlines and airmail and air conditioning, before JBJ and JFK and FDR, before the Space Shuttle and Sputnik and the Hindenburg and the Spirit of St. Louis, before the Greed Decade and the Me Decade and the Summer of Love and the Great Depression, … before Tupperware and the refrigerator and the automatic transmission and the aerosol can and the Band-Aid and nylon and the ballpoint pen and sliced bread, before the Iraq War and the Gulf War and the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the Korean War and the Second World War, there was the First World War, World War I, the great War, the War to End All Wars.”