Ten Books for Eager Reading — The 2014 Summer Reading List
- Al Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2014 27 May
G.K. Chesterton once wisely remarked that “there is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read.” It may be true that readers can be divided into these two categories — those who are eager to read a book and those who just want a book to read. These two types of readers experience a book and the art of reading very differently. My summer reading list is for the first sort of reader. These are books that are both interesting and intelligent. They belong in an intelligent reader’s list of reading for the summer season.
This list reflects the kind of reading choices I make for a season like summer, when I can devote some time to reading that is not dedicated to some larger writing or research project. There is also an unapologetic tilt toward a reading list for men in this list. These are books that are likely to keep a man reading, and with Father’s Day close at hand, perhaps some readers will decide to honor dad with a book or two.
One last note: Several of these books are thoughtful accounts of battle, military history, and modern espionage. They will be profitably read through the lens of an intelligent Christian worldview, though the books themselves are often not written from such a worldview. The world needs more careful Christian readers, who can read honestly, reflectively, thoughtfully, eagerly, and well.
1. Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (Morrow, 2014).
The Nuremberg Trials were intended to bring those most responsible for the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust before a court of civilized justice. Adolf Hitler and some of the most senior Nazis escaped the court of human justice, but more than 20 senior leaders of Nazi Germany stood trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The most significant trials were held between November of 1945 and the following October. In the end, twelve death sentences were handed down against those who were found most responsible for crimes against humanity. By the time of the hangings, Martin Bormann was already dead. Hermann Goring had committed suicide just hours before the executions.
But a largely unknown story within that well-known account concerns Rev. Henry Gerecke, a U.S. Army chaplain assigned to the prisoners throughout the trial, and eventually to the condemned. The Missouri-Synod Lutheran minister found himself face to face with those who had plotted the extermination of 6 million Jews and had brought the world to the horrors of a global war. Henry Gerecke also faced the deepest theological and pastoral questions imaginable. Ultimately, he had to determine just how much he believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every Christian reader will face the same questions in this gripping account by Tim Townsend, a former religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“For Gerecke, the decision to accept the assignment wasn’t easy. He wondered how a preacher from St. Louis could make any impression on the disciples of Adolf Hitler. Would his considerable faith in the core principles of Christianity sustain him as he ministered to monsters? During his months stationed in Munich after the war, Gerecke had taken several trips to Dachau. He’d seen the raw aftermath of the Holocaust. He’d touched the inside of the camp’s walls, and his hands had come away smeared with blood. The U.S. Army was asking one of its chaplains to kneel down with the architects of the Holocaust and calm their spirits as they answered for their crimes in front of the world. With those images of Dachau fresh in his memory, Gerecke had to decide if he could share his faith, the thing he held most dear in life, with the men who had given the orders to construct such a place.”
2. Steven Parissien, The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2013).
“Complete” histories rarely ever are, but this history of the motor car is sweeping in scope and rich in details. Parissien fills in the gaps and corrects many falsehoods about the history of the automobile. One of the most significant aspects of his book is the attention given to the history of the motor car outside the United States. The book is filled with narrative, biography, mechanics, and terriffic anecdotes — such as the fact that at Henry Ford’s funeral, the hearse was a Packard. “Someone had clearly blundered.” Likewise, disaster was averted when in 1965 Rolls Royce changed the name of its new model from the “Silver Mist” to the “Silver Shadow.” As Parissien explains, “Rolls discovered that Mist was German for manure.” Good call to change that name. Parissien also traces the larger-than-life personalities who made the automobile what it is today, including the tinkerers, the visionaries, the technicians, and the “money men” who turned an invention into a way of life.
“Henry Ford left his vast automotive empire to be administered by the Ford Motor Company’s board , then still dominated by the Ford family. Notoriously frugal and miserly, Henry also left his heirs a cash windfall of $26.5 million, which he had kept hidden for decades in a private bank account. Yet in his pockets on the day he died were found not the prized possessions of the world’s most famous industrial magnate, but, as historian Robert Lacey has observed, ‘the paraphernalia of a little boy;’ a comb, a penknife, and a simple Jew’s harp.”
3. Steven Pressfield, The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War (Sentinel, Penguin Group, 2014).
The choice Israel faced in 1967 was clear — fight and win or cease to exist as a nation. A confederation of Arab nations had decided to eliminate Israel and the small Jewish nation was vastly outnumbered, outgunned, and out equipped. Europe had basically abandoned Israel, and the nation faced the very real possibility of extinction. Against all odds, and with Arab troops, planes, and tanks massed for attack right on Israel’s borders, the Israeli Defense Forces launched an audacious surprise attack. What followed was six days of total war, ending in a massive and comprehensive victory for Israel. The tiny nation, threatened with annihilation, vanquished its enemies in a series of battles, mostly on the ground, that reminded the Jewish people of the victory of David over Goliath. Steven Pressfield, a veteran novelist, provides an absolutely riveting first-hand account of the war. The book is a unique experiment in “hybrid history,” based on first-person accounts and documentary records. The most authoritative account of the Six Days War is Six Days of War by Michael Oren, a man who was raised as an American boy in the United States, but would later become Israel’s ambassador to the United States. I highly recommend Oren’s book as well.The Lion’s Gate now joins that volume as a front-row account — and this makes for spellbinding reading.
“The state of Israel is the size of New Jersey. The combined landmass of its twenty Arab enemy states is more than a million square miles larger than the rest of the United States. In 1967, the population of Israel was 2.7 million. Many were immigrants recently evicted from Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These newcomers possessed few skills that could be used in the defense of the nation. Most could not even speak Hebrew. The state of Israel existed within a sea of 122 million Arabs, outnumbered by more than forty to one.”
4. Winston Groom, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (National Geographic, 2013).
Winston Groom is best known as the author ofForrest Gump, but he is also an accomplished writer of non-fiction. The Aviators is a prime example. While much attention has been given to the achievements of the Wright brothers and the early pioneers of flight, it was the next generation that made aviation what it is today. The three great American pioneers of that era were Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindburgh. While Lindburgh is known to most historically aware Americans, Rickenbacker and Doolittle are less so. Groom gives this trio the attention they deserve, but his greatest accomplishment is the way he weaves the stories into one narrative of the transformation of aviation from a fascinating invention to a mainstay of American life. There is a lot more to this story than most Americans imagine, and World War II lands in the middle of the narrative. This is a riveting tale, well told.
“When Eddie was thirteen his father died. Newspaper accounts say William Rickenbacher succumbed several weeks after being struck on the head by a blunt instrument during a fight with a fellow worker at a construction site in Columbus. The night of the funeral Eddie couldn’t sleep and went into the kitchen, where he found his mother with her head in her hands, crying. Sitting beside his mother (in his father’s chair, he suddenly realized), Eddie promised that he would abandon his wild behavior and be a burden to her no longer. True to his word, next morning instead of going to school he went out and found a job. He would have been in the seventh grade, but instead Eddie Rickenbacher found employment in the twelve-hour night shift of the Federal Glass Company, marching freshly blown glass tumblers to the tempering ovens for three dollars and fifty cents a week. Working twelve hours a shift six days a week was not only disagreeable for a thirteen-year-old but also deadly. One night he quit mid-shift, but by seven the same morning he had found another job in a steel-casting company for twice the pay. Three months later he found work capping bottles for a brewery, while setting pins at a bowling alley on the side. In time, the hops used in brewing gave him headaches, and so his next employment found Eddie working in a stone yard. After a few months of cutting marble he became so proficient that he cut a limestone for his own father’s grave, an accomplishment that he remained proud of all his life.”
5. Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (HarperCollins, 2014).
Robert E. Lee is among the few figures of history for whom the words life and legacy are completely intertwined. Biographies of such figures generally fall into one of two categories — hagiography or revisionism. Few seem able to land between these two extremes. This is what makes Michael Korda’s massive new biography of Robert E. Lee so promising. Korda is a British military historian, and he writes as one who has extensive Continental experience as well. He was a participant in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Thus, he was not born with Robert E. Lee looming as an historical figure.. He currently resides in America, however, and he has already written major biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight David Eisenhower. With Clouds of Glory, he adds Robert E. Lee to that list.
“It seldom happens in history that one man comes not only to embody but to glorify a defeated cause. More exceptionally still, Robert E. Lee would become a national,not just a Southern hero: A U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine of the George Washington class would be named after him; his face would appear on a U.S. thirty-cent postage stamp. A U.S. Army tank (the M3 Less, very popular with the British Army in the Western Desert of North Africa in 1941 and 1942) would be named after him; and his American citizenship would be posthumously restored to him by President Gerald Ford in 1975. It is hard to think of any other general who had fought against his own country being so completely reintegrated into national life, or so universally admired even by those who have little or no sympathy toward the cause for which he fought. This process began almost immediately after the surrender.”
6. Phillip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade(HarperOne, 2014).
This year marks the century mark for the start of the great conflagration that reshaped the world as we know it today, World War I. The anniversary has unleashed a torrent of books, but this one stands out for the uniqueness of its approach. Phillip Jenkins, a well-established historian, puts the war into its religious context, demonstrating the fact that secular histories miss much of the story. Jenkins, who teaches at Baylor University, points to the profoundlyunsecular nature of the world in 1914. The European nations considered themselves Christian in identity and their cause to be the Christian cause. Add the various influences of national Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Muslim faith of the Ottoman Empire and you find a recipe for holy war — and this is precisely the story that Phillip Jenkins tells so well.
“Religious themes resonated powerfully with ordinary people. The war took place in a world in which religious faith was still the norm, even in advanced and industrialized nations, and even more so in mainly rural and peasant societies. Religious language and assumptions were omnipresent, on the home front and at the front lines, as part of the air that people breathed. All those religious interpretations, all that willingness to believe tales of angels and apparitions, did not spring into life overnight in August 1914. Rather, they were deeply embedded in prewar culture, to a degree that must challenge familiar assumptions about the impact of the Enlightenment and scientific ideas on ordinary Europeans. And the experience of war greatly intensified perceptions of the religious dimension, in an age when death was such a familiar fact, when so mush effort was devoted to analyzing the vagaries of providence and fate.”
7. Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown Publishers, 2014).
The world of spies and espionage has been a staple of fiction for centuries now. The real world inhabited by spies is something often very different. Kai Bird takes us into that world in The Good Spy, his telling of the story of Robert Ames — and his introduction to the dark world of modern espionage. Kai Bird is in a unique position to write this book. As a boy, he knew Robert Ames as one of his father’s coworkers at the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He thought that Bob Ames was a foreign service officer, like his own father. Later, he found out that Ames was an American spy. But Robert Ames was not just any spy, he was a crucial link between the U.S. and the Arab world as the age of terror began. Ames. along with 62 others, was killed in the suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983. He left behind a wife and six young children. His story is the story of modern spycraft, the story of the emergence of Islamic terrorism, and the morality tale that emerges when the horrible but necessary work of spies comes to light. This book is not for those looking for a romantic spy tale. That belongs on the fiction shelf. This book is for those who want to know the story of Robert Ames, a man who really did his best to be The Good Spy.
“Eleven-year-old Kevin had a hard time comprehending what was happening. He walked downstairs to the family’s small study and sat in his father’s rocking chair. He sat there for the longest time, just rocking back and forth. Unconsciously, as he rocked, he gripped one handle so tightly that his thumbnail wore a deep groove into the wood. One of the children had called their mother at the phone number she’d left for them. When Yvonne got the call, she knew. She rushed home and walked into the house in tears. She remembers little. it was all a blur…. The children were devastated–and also shocked to learn that their father had worked for the CIA and not the State Department. They felt both a sense of wonder and disbelief. Their father had lied to them all these years–but at the same time they felt a certain pride in what they were beginning to learn about what he’d done.”
8. John C. McManus, The Dead and Those About to Die — D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach (NAL Caliber, Penguin Group, 2014).
June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. While the memories of World War I and the Civil War recede into the nation’s corporate memory, thousands of veterans of D-Day are alive today. Most are age 90 or more, and few are likely to be alive to be honored on the 80th anniversary. Their stories deserve to be told, for they lived and fought through what remains the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. History and destiny hinged on that single day. At the center of that epic day’s battle, and the days that followed, was The Big Red One, the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division. That division’s story on D-Day and what followed is told by John C. McManus in The Dead and Those About to Die. The book’s title comes from Colonel George Taylor, who commanded the division’s lead assault regiment. He told his men to move and to get off Omaha beach: “Only two kinds of people are going to be on this beach,” he shouted, ” the dead and those about to die.”
“Thus, every Big Red One soldier who was at Omaha beach paid for that valuable soil in one fashion or another–some with their lives, some with physical wounds, some with the loss of legs, arms, eyes, or the infliction of some other disability, some with their mental or emotional well-being, many simply with the survivor’s guilt that comes from living while close comrades did not. Many like [Captain Joe] Dawson, searched for meaning in the midst of such unspeakable tragedy. ‘This war has been unbelievably personal,’ he wrote to his family a few weeks after D-Day. ‘What little satisfaction gained from it has been the belief that it was all worthwhile and that this was shared by all our loved ones and those who represent our nation in society and government alike.’ Though the victory at Omaha beach was staggering in its cost, Dawson and the thousands of other survivors could take solace in the fact that it was among the most significant of World War II. Don Whitehead succinctly wrote that it ‘turned the key that unlocked the door to victory in Europe.‘”
9. James Webb, I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
James Webb served as a U.S. Marine officer before joining the Reagan administration as Assistant Secretary of Defense. He later served as Secretary of the Navy. In 2006, he was elected to the United States Senate. Elected as a Democrat, he chose to serve only one term in office. I Heard My Country Calling is a memoir, and a powerful example of that literary form. This tale of patriotism and service to country begins with Webb as a young boy, revering, loving, and fearing his Air Force officer father (akin to Pat Conroy’s depiction of his Navy officer father in The Great Santini). Webb was drawn to military service himself, eventually graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and becoming a Marine Corps officer. He writes of his boyhood on military bases, of his time as a boy in England, and, most importantly, of his experience as an officer in the Vietnam War. His account of the American withdrawal from that war is heartbreaking, but his elevation of service to country is very moving. One key insight gained from this memoir is the distance between the Americans who grow up in a military family and those who do not. Reading this book will at least erase a small bit of that distance.
“On Saturday mornings we would have military-style inspections, standing at parade rest in front of our chests of drawers, our bedroom so filled with beds that it was difficult to maneuver around them, much less create a semblance of military order. When my dad walked into the room we were supposed to snap into the position of attention and report the room ready for inspection. Sometimes, not ready for the drill, my socks not yet rolled or my underwear not yet folded in the drawer, I would begin to argue as he walked into the room. ‘Dad–’ ‘Come to attention when you talk to me,’ he would say officiously, checking out the arrangement of socks and underwear in the dresser drawer. ‘And don’t call me Dad. I’m Captain Webb. And you’re a corporal.‘”
10. Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, 2014).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is experiencing something of a renaissance in interest and influence in recent years. A biography by Eric Metaxas reached the best-seller lists and various other projects have drawn ample attention. Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, now arrives with Strange Glory, a massive and important biography of Bonhoeffer. Serious readers will welcome this book. Of all the books on this list, this one is likely to have the most lasting influence. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive or substantial biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer arriving in this generation. Marsh, who also directs the Project on Lived Theology at the university, has written a compelling account of one of the twentieth century’s most compelling figures. It is not to be missed. Bonhoeffer was a man of contradictions. He was a man of tremendous personal courage and moral force. His defiance of Naziism cost him his life. Offered continued safety in America, he insisted on returning to his people. He was also prophet of a Christian ecclesiology that was hammered out in the crucible of horrifying times. It is no wonder that so many Christians, especially young Christians, find him so fascinating and admirable. But Bonhoeffer was also the architect of what he called a “religionless Christianity.” He was part neo-orthodox, part Protestant liberal, part simple biblicist — and there are many other parts to be discovered. Marsh does not try to make Bonhoeffer appear more orthodox and evangelical than he surely was. Nor does he present him as any less courageous than he surely was. This is a complex book about a complex man. It is an important contribution to both history and theology. It is also a narrative of remarkable power.
“Was Bonhoeffer overthinking what should be a direct ethical mandate–destroying an evil regime to stop a genocide? As a Lutheran pastor, Bonhoeffer would have to navigate perilous (or at least, unfamiliar) theological terrain in order to reach the conclusion that permitted tyrrannicide. In the face of Hitler’s atrocities, the way of nonviolence would itself bring an inevitable guilt, for allowing injustices to be ‘uncontested’ was to allow the loss of innocent life. And so sin–whether through action or inaction–was a certainty. In this connection it was useful to remember Luther’s understanding of the working of grace. Humankind, despite its best efforts, was inevitable engulfed by sin, from which Christ’s death on the cross offered the only redemption. It was for this reason–not out of perversity, as many Catholic critics would claim–that the father of the Reformation had reasoned that the Christian must sometimes ‘sin boldly.’ His counsel was not an incitement to wantonness but rather a heightened awareness that only Christ saves. Bonhoeffer did not try to resolve the paradox by assuming moral innocence, but accepted the paradox by incurring the guilt born out of responsible action.”
Enjoy summer reading that matters — and please share your own favorites with me.
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Publication date: May 27, 2014