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A Stack of Books for the Season: Summer Reading List for 2017

  • Al Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Published Jun 05, 2017
A Stack of Books for the Season: Summer Reading List for 2017

David McCullough once told of Teddy Roosevelt during his time in the Dakota Territory and before his arrival on the world scene. Two thieves who had been on something of a crime spree in the territory had stolen Roosevelt’s rowboat, and he was determined to chase them down and arrest them. He chased the thieves for 40 miles of rough landscape, through deep snow and in constant danger of attack, and indeed brought them to justice. McCullough then tells the reader: “But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.”

Theodore Roosevelt was a very determined man and a (clearly) determined reader. Anyone who reads Tolstoy in the midst of a foot chase after robbers in the Badlands gets my vote for gold medalist in the reading competition. With the arrival of warm weather, most of us are able to turn to a stack of books that had to wait for summer. The following is my list of ten recommended books for summer reading. This list must be seen for what it is — a recommendation of ten books I am eager to recommend — books that I found thought-provoking and fun. My summer list tends, quite naturally, to reveal what I most enjoy reading in the season. As usual, the list is weighted towards history and historical biography. I have a big stack of fiction for the season as well. Those books, along with Anna Karenina, will have to wait for another list. Enjoy.

1. John Julius Norwich,Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016). By the time I read the subtitle of this book, I was already hooked. Why hadn’t anyone written a book like this before? It took John Julius Norwich, a skilled writer and historian, to bring these four great princes who dominated the sixteenth century together into one story. Perhaps at no other time in history did four rulers of this stature reign together, and their reigns and ambitions were constantly in conflict. Their personalities were massive, the political (and theological) stakes were never higher, and their stories are compelling. The cast of characters includes sultans and knights, multiple wives and warriors, a series of disastrous popes, and the reformer Martin Luther. Norwich, author of well-regarded books including Byzantium, summons the past and leaves the reader wanting to know even more.


When Suleiman succeeded to the Ottoman throne at the age of twenty-five, he was already an experienced ruler. At fifteen he had been appointed Governor of Caffa in the Crimea, a major trading post where he had remained for three years; subsequently his father, the aptly named Sultan Selim the Grim, had appointed hims Governor of Istanbul. But it had been an unhappy time: eight years during which Selim had instituted a reign of terror. He had been intelligent and cultivated enough — some of his verses are, we are told, among the loveliest in all Ottoman poetry — but he seemed to conceive of government solely in terms of executions. When he had dethroned (and subsequently murdered) his own father, Bayezit II, in 1512, his first act on his succession was to have his two young brothers and five orphan nephews strangled by the bowstring. Thus it was that, by the time of his succession, Suleiman was the only male member of this entire family left alive.

2. Tom Clavin, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Understandably, but regrettably, most Americans know what they think they know about the American West from movies and television. Furthermore, many of the early books written about Dodge City and figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were about as fictional as Gunsmoke. I grew up watching Gunsmoke with my grandfather, and Marshal Dillon was my hero. The good news is that the real story of the West is actually even more interesting, if also more complicated, than the stories Hollywood told. Tom Clavin is not an academic historian, but he is an accomplished writer and a former reporter for The New York Times. He knows how to chase down a story, and Dodge City is a great example of journalistic history. A few years ago, friends took me out to Melody Ranch, Gene Autry’s old movie set in the rural hills outside Los Angeles. I realized then that I was walking on the set where almost all of the westerns of my boyhood had filmed. They just changed the signs on the storefronts. I felt let down. Readers looking for a story that is bigger than life and still hard to pin down will not be let down by Dodge City.


There was no police force when things got out of hand. The nearest law enforcement was seventy-five miles to the north, in Hays City. And cowboys were not the only problem.  Buffalo City was renamed Dodge City  — it would not be a formally incorporated city for another three years — and was on the edge of the frontier, a place that for a variety of reasons drew thieves, drunks, deserters, guerrillas still trying to relive the looting and pillaging days of the Civil War, and others with a price on their heads. All this put Dodge City in the late summer of 1872 on the precipice of being a totally lawless town. It was inevitable that murder was one of the crimes committed…. Within a year fifteen men had been murdered, with the bodies being hauled up to the new cemetery, Boot Hill, for burial. It was into such lawless and dangerous surroundings that Bat Masterson, still a teenager, first arrived in Dodge City. Wyatt Earp would find this way there too, and eventually both young men would be given badges and a mandate to tame a town on the brink of violent chaos.

3. Giles Milton, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat(Picador, 2016). Winston Churchill is remembered as perhaps the largest character on the landscape of the twentieth century, and he is most remembered for his courageous leadership of Britain and the entire free world during the dark years of World War II. Of course, he is also remembered for his brave and costly role in warning Britain and the West of the looming Nazi challenge when the leadership class was awash in dishonesty and denial. Less remembered is the fact that Churchill was an early proponent of mechanized warfare and saw the tank as the determinative land-based weapon. Even less known is his role in commissioning and supporting his unofficial “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” during the war. Churchill knew that the long battle against Hitler would have to be fought on every level, and that would mean sabotage, espionage, and innovation in deadly weaponry. The operation, referred to as “Baker Street” due to its location in London, was a directorate of the dark arts of war. The brilliant inventors of Baker Street would develop bombs and instruments that would prove crucial to the war effort, but were decidedly “ungentlemanly.” They used what they could find. At one point, looking to develop a delayed fuse for an important bomb, the inventors finally landed on a hard candy melting in liquid as the perfect delayed fuse. When the liquid threatened to dampen the fuse itself, they figured that a condom would serve as protection. Then the inventors bought up all the hard candy and condoms in a nearby English village, the locals assumed that a team of candy-chewing playboys had invaded. Actually, it was a team of inventors and technicians who would help Britain and the Allies to defeat the Nazis. Milton’s book will also remind readers that most characters found in fiction are based in a real life or lives. Those familiar with Ian Fleming’s character “Q” from the James Bond series will see that Fleming had plenty of inspiration from Winston Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.


“Before he left, Winston Churchill had requested that he collect one example of every weapon produced by the team. These were to be saved for the nation and given to the Imperial War Museum where they would be put on special display. Churchill was anxious that the efforts of Jefferis’s workforce should have some sort of public recognition. Macrae set to the task with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, handing over limpets, sticky bombs and any number of booby traps. But it was all to no avail. None of them went on display, and nor was there to be any mention of MD1 in the museum’s exhibits about the war. ‘We created an establishment which contributed more to the war effort than any other weapons design department,’ said Macrae. But it was an establishment so ungentlemanly in its outlook that it was to be for ever erased from history.'” 

4. Craig Shirley, Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980(Broadside Books, 2017). This is Craig Shirley’s fourth book on Ronald Reagan and his presidency, and probably the most unlikely. In Reagan Rising, he tells Reagan’s story from his razor-close loss to President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination to his landslide election as President of the United States in the 1980 election. But Shirley also tells the story of Reagan’s intellectual and political development — in many ways Reagan in 1980 was different from the Reagan of 1964 or 1976. Shirley also lays out the redefinition of the Republican Party and the transformation of the American political landscape. I worked as a teenage campaign volunteer in the 1976 Reagan campaign, responsible for enlisting South Florida high school students in the Reagan cause. It was in the course of that campaign that I met Ronald Reagan and saw him in unscripted moments before a campaign event as well as behind the podium. I knew then that Ronald Reagan was a man of ideas, passionately held. I knew the outlines of the story from 1976 to 1980, but Craig Shirley now offers the definitive narrative of those years in Reagan Rising. Readers will understand today’s political landscape far better after reading this book.


Running for president is never easy, and it was especially hard for Ronald Reagan, as he had not just the usual obstacles to overcome, but also those of the skeptics in his own party and a very hostile and malicious national media. He had a halfhearted attempt in 1968, ran full out in 1976, and even more so in 1980. But then, he was a fully formed American conservative. Many times, however, he heard from critics in the GOP establishment that he was ‘just an actor.’ But as he wisely said later, in the waning days of his presidency, after being asked if he’d learned anything in Hollywood that helped him to be a good president, ‘I’ve wondered how you could do this job and not be an actor.’ …. Reagan remains one of the most fascinating figures of history and the American presidency, in part because he was a constantly evolving individual. his worldview in 1964 was not his worldview in 1980. his conservatism had changed,  from simply being against the intrusions of government to the more positive advance of individual freedom.”

5. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History (Basic Books, 2017). There was more than one Russian revolution in 1917, of course, but we remember that year in Russia as the tumultuous and radical transformation of Russia from the autocracy of the Romanov dynasty to the dictatorship of the Communist Party. As Sean McMeekin reveals, it was a descent from one circle of hell into yet another. The centennial of the fall of the Romanov’s and the rise of the Soviet Union comes with the centennial of America’s entry into World War I and the birth of John F. Kennedy. It was a pivotal year from the old world into a new world. McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College. The Russian Revolution is the best history of the Bolshevik Revolution to emerge in recent decades, and McMeekin made skillful use of newly available archives to prove a major point missed by many others — that Imperial Germany largely funded Vladimir Lenin. The story of Russia in 1917 is riveting and important. The Russian Revolution: A New History is the best new work that tells that story and does not hide its bitter lessons.


“The crazy twists and turns of the Russian Revolution should give us pause in drawing pat historical lessons from it. Far form an eschatological ‘class struggle’ borne along irresistibly by the Marxist dialectic, the events of 1917 were filled with might-have-beens and missed chances. The most critical mistake of the tsarist government was the decision to go to war in 1914, a decision warmly applauded by Russian liberals and pan-Slavists but lamented by conservative monarchists. For this reason, it is hard to fault Nicholas II for refusing to take liberal advice during the war, to surrender power to ambitious politicians who had already shown poor judgment. Strange as it may seem to modern sensibilities that the tsar preferred the counsel of the peasant faith healer Rasputin to that of the elected Duma leaders such as Rodzianko, the fact is that, had he listened to Rasputin instead of Rodzianko in 1914, he might have died peacefully on his throne instead of being butchered by the Bolsheviks in Huy 1918.”

6. David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon and Schuster, 2017). Just write it down: Everything written by David McCullough deserves a place on your reading list. In The American Spirit, McCullough brings together fourteen speeches and addresses he delivered between 1989 and 2016, and each is an experience unto itself. The first address, “Simon Willard’s Clock,” was delivered to a Joint Session of Congress. The last, “A Building Like No Other,” was delivered to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. David McCullough is a rare combination of historian and orator. The only thing better than reading one of his addresses (or books) is hearing it. He loves this country and he loves its stories, but he is also a historian who understands that the stories must be told well, and honestly. The American Spirit reveals a deep reverence for the institutions and values of democratic self-government. Those who doubt the power of a spoken address to move a modern audience need only to read this book. I hope they will.


The lessons of history are manifold. Nothing happens in isolation. Everything that happens has consequences. We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are all beneficiaries of those who  went before us — who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, and who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit. An astute observer of old wrote that history is philosophy taught with examples. Harry Truman liked to say that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. From history we learn that sooner is not necessarily better than later . . . that what we don’t know can often hurt us and badly . . . and that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.  A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is too much in our time. To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions.”

7. Daniel Mark Epstein, The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House(Ballentine Books, 2017). How many Americans know that Benjamin Franklin had an acknowledged illegitimate son, who served as royal Governor of New Jersey and remained a loyalist to the end, dying in London, estranged from his father, one of the most famous of the American Founding Fathers? Too few. As you do already know, truth is so often stranger than fiction. In 1776, Ben Franklin, already one of the most famous of Americans, would loom ever larger as an American patriot. That same year, his son, William Franklin, would be arrested for treason. Given their opposing commitments in the Revolutionary War, the likely question was which would hang for treason, father or son? Any story like this — epic in scale and yet personal in scope — requires a careful telling. Daniel Mark Epstein tells the a story of Ben and William Franklin with care and pathos. Along the way readers will gain insight into the larger canvas of the American Revolution and the emerging shape of the British Empire. The story of William Franklin is undeniably tragic, but it is also fascinating.


Benjamin would have liked to see his son follow him in the printer’s trade, but the boy declined. If he could not go to sea, he was hell-bent on being a soldier, and in no time he proved he was good at it. At sixteen he enlisted in the king’s army; by eighteen he had distinguished himself, having risen to the rank of captain during King George’s War. In the seemingly endless war with France, the enemy and her allies (various Indian tribes) engages in gruesome raids upon the settlements of the New England borders, and in battles on the high seas. French-led Indians burned Saratoga in 1745 and murdered trappers and British patrols in Albany in 1746. William marched north to Albany and wintered there with his company under severe and dangerous conditions, with rusted guns, spoiled beef, and cutlasses so soft they would bend and stay bent like wax. Sixteen British soldiers were killed in a single Indian ambush. While dozens deserted, William Franklin stood his ground, and he volunteered to join a march on French forces at Saratoga. He came home briefly in May 1747, as a captain charged with hunting down deserters and hauling them back to camp. Captain Franklin, seventeen years old, discharged his duty with a zeal and efficiency his father admired.”

8. Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom(Penguin Press, 2017). Elegantly written and powerfully told, Churchill and Orwell is the story of two men who, while extremely different in background, temperament, fame, and fortune, are rightly joined together as among the greatest defenders of freedom in modern times. Thomas E. Ricks, author of The Generals, recognizes that Churchill and Orwell are, in the traditional sense of biography, a mismatched pair. Churchill was born to the British aristocracy and was catapulted to fame at a very young age. From his early twenties until his death, there is hardly a day in Churchill’s life that was not documented in some way. Not so for George Orwell. Eric Arthur Blair, who took the pen name George Orwell, was born in India and grew up in Britain in the hardships of the working class. They were politically opposed on many questions, but to focus on their political differences is to miss the story that Thomas Ricks tells — the story of two men, each gifted with a powerful command of the English language, who would in their own way fight the great war against tyranny in the twentieth century. Orwell and Churchill would become two of the most powerful enemies of both fascism and communism in their times. Readers of Churchill and Orwell will be reminded of the truth that ideas have lasting consequences indeed. The inheritors of freedom in our day are deeply indebted to both.


When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter. Then they acted on their beliefs. They faced a genuinely apocalyptic situation, in which their way of life was threatened with extinction. Many people around them expected evil to triumph and sought to make their peace with it. These two did not. They responded with courage and clear-sightedness. If there is anything we can take away from them, it is the wisdom of employing this two-step process, especially in times of mind-bending crisis: Work diligently to discern the facts of the matter, and then use your principles to respond. . . . We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst. Most of us, when confronted with a crisis, do not dive into the matter. Rather, we practice avoidance.”

9. Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War(Random House, 2017).  Part of this story is fairly well known — that in the darkest days of World War II and the Nazi threat, London became Europe’s headquarters for freedom. Heads of state and national leaders of various stripes all headed to London, hoping to enlist others in the cause of liberty for their nations and the defeat of Hitler. Less known are the unmatched personal stories within this larger story. Lynne Olson, author of one best-selling book about London in the war, Citizens of London, now gives us another compelling read. The chapters read like spy thrillers, which several are. The cast of characters she narrates is vast and variegated, from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, brave but infuriating to her hosts, to Norway’s King Haakon VII, tragically proved right in his warnings of the Nazi menace. There are many more, with their stories. Last Hope Island revises our memory of World War II and how a unified Allied front came to be headquartered in London, a beacon of freedom —  and a last hope indeed — for much of Europe.


In the predawn hours of May 10, 1940, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands gently shook her daughter awake. ‘They have come,’ she told Princess Juliana. This time, the early morning invaders arrived from the air. They dropped by the thousands over bright green polders and fields ablaze with red and yellow tulips, over steeples and windmills, over orange-tiled roofs of peaceful Holland. Awakened by the roar of aircraft overhead, the Dutch, many still in nightgowns and pajamas, poured form their homes and peered upward. While milkmen distributed their wares door-to-door and housewives headed to market, german parachutists were landing in country gardens and city streets. To some of the children looking on, it seemed like a fascinating new game. Queen Wilhelmina knew otherwise. Like King Haakon, she had been warning her government for years of the growing danger of Hitler and Germany, but, as in Norway, government officials paid no heed to their monarch.

10. Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilke, The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign(Simon and Schuster, 2017). I fully expected that the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth on May 29, 1917 would mean the release of at least one major new biography of America’s 35th president. Surprisingly, that was not the case. Furthermore, most of the more recent books on Kennedy and his administration have been disappointments. The best books are at least a decade old by now. In The Road to Camelot, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilke offer something different than a personal biography of Kennedy. They give us the biography of a presidential campaign, indeed, of what may well be called the first modern presidential campaign. Both of the authors were longtime reporters at The Boston Globe, and they have worked this story thoroughly. They remind us of Kennedy’s effort to gain the vice presidential nomination in 1956, but trace his determination to win the White House to at least 1955. An undistinguished legislator, Kennedy put himself forward as a presidential candidate and as the vanguard of a new generation. Oliphant and Wilke trace the political strategies and alliances that led to Kennedy’s capture of the Democratic nomination and his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Kennedy’s victory in 1960 was by no means a sure thing. Had the political winds blown even slightly differently between 1956 and 1960, JFK’s political career might have ended in the Senate. It didn’t, of course, and The Road to Camelot is the best telling yet of John F. Kennedy’s road to the White House and the emergence of the modern media-driven presidency.


One reason Kennedy decided to move forward is that it was the only direction his fortunes could go. In the mid-1950s he was not a consequential figure in national politics. Even after nearly a decade in Congress he was considered more of a socialite and a war hero than a political leader. He had no developed philosophy or ideology, and his Senate contemporaries considered him an indifferent Democrat with occasionally independent tendencies. He was not involved prominently in any great cause or issue, and enjoyed no real standing inside the Senate. He was not even the undisputed master of politics in his home state. He was nowhere near the top of any list of Democrats to watch. When assessing him as a politician, the word commentators used most frequently was potential, not power.


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Publication date: June 5, 2017