I love to prod people to read great books.
In May, a book on Lincoln and his cabinet helped me believe in a dignified end to the Obama-Clinton rivalry. In October, I implored all of you on HuffPost to read more about America's inexcusable nosedive into state-sanctioned torture.
So it took minimal cajoling to get me to accept a recent invitation to compile a reading list for a site called Flashlight Worthy. My list -- complete with pretty pictures of the recommended books -- just went up on their site. As is my habit with things I'm not getting paid for, I spent a lot of time and energy on the list. So I figured I'd also share it here.
I hope you find something new to read. Better yet, I hope you've already read these excellent books. Please feel free to use the comments section to add your own recommendations. I'm always looking for a great book.
Facing Unpleasant Facts (And Fictions)
a list by David Quigg
I became a stay-at-home dad after writing a novel and spending nine good years as a reporter. With diapers to change and a newfound passion for photography, I imagined I was done with writing. The itch to write hit again in 2004. But what I wanted to write -- that our president was incompetent and unworthy of his own party's nomination -- didn't seem kosher for a guy who'd covered politics and might want to do so again. So I stayed silent and (nominally) objective. The Bush/Cheney re-election left me despondent. Civically, I went numb.
These are some of the books that coaxed me out of numbness. There's a vitality that flows from "facing unpleasant facts," to borrow the Orwell phrase that inspired this list. By facing facts, I started acting like a citizen again. I stopped caring whether honest, blunt writing might spoil any chance of returning to a newspaper job. Of the many books I've leaned on during this first year of blogging, these are ones that seem most important to read or re-read now.
"Facing unpleasant facts" sounds like a miserable way to spend one's time. Ultimately, though, it's exhilarating. Because it's the first step toward meaningful patriotism. Try it. You can handle it -- especially if you're reading great books like these.
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
by Robert A. Caro
Tucked inside this historical masterpiece is a particularly unpleasant fact, a story that anyone who's ever blogged or posted a comment should know. It's the story of economist Leland Olds. In the days before America banned child labor, Olds wrote a fierce series of articles decrying the brutality of unrestrained capitalism. By the time LBJ joined the Senate, Olds was a respected federal appointee. Caro documents LBJ's raw cynicism as he used Olds' long-ago writings to smear him as a communist. Repugnant stuff. But essential knowledge for anyone who imagines they'll never have to answer for the words they post on the Web.
The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals
by Jane Mayer
If I could hypnotize Oprah, I'd get her to slap her book-club sticker on The Dark Side. Every American should read this brilliant, meticulous book. It will shame you, but it will also make you proud. Some heroic Americans -- including Bush Administration insiders -- fought back against legalized torture and other affronts to our founding fathers.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
by Joseph J. Ellis
I put this book on THIS list because it inadvertently taught me why America's mission in Iraq was doomed from the start. For our own country, there was no shortcut to 1776. No foreign army -- no matter how well-intentioned -- could have pushed us to successful independence any faster. Washington wasn't ready to be Washington yet. Jefferson wasn't ready to be Jefferson yet. Virginians and Pennsylvanians didn't even think of themselves as "Americans" yet. If you think of U.S.-style democracy as inevitable, this book offers a stark set of lessons.
The Forever War
by Dexter Filkins
Most of my old newspaper colleagues notice bylines. I almost never did. But after 9/11, I read such a brilliant story about our new war in Afghanistan that I flipped back to see who had written it. The byline? Dexter Filkins. A few days later, another astonishingly good story. Byline? Filkins again. I stopped my executive editor in the newsroom, waved a copy of the paper at him, and said, "We need to run everything this guy writes." I'd never done that. This book, which covers Afghanistan and Iraq, manages to surpass the blend of compassion, guts, precision, and eloquence I count on from Filkins.
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer
A counterinsurgency expert recommended this to me. The book shook me up and made it impossible to keep thinking of Iraq in purely strategic, purely tactical, or purely American terms. George Packer introduces the reader to so many people so memorably -- Iraqis and Americans, civilians and soldiers. It's sobering as can be. Because these are the people we'd need to be able to look in the face if we sprinted out of Iraq. They're also the people we'd need to be able to look in the face we stayed and stayed and stayed. This book bolsters our collective conscience as we cope with the damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don't legacy of Bush's war.
The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart
Whether you're a blogger, a senator, or a guy running his mouth at the corner bar, it's hard to resist generalizing. I can sit here in Seattle, read two articles, and start typing away confidently about what people in Kabul or Basra or Gaza want. The best antidote I've found is this book. The author walks across Afghanistan. Walks! Across Afghanistan! Experiencing the vast differences that exist between villagers who live short distances apart, I grasped an unpleasant fact that I should have known intuitively: We can't say "what Afghans want" any more than we can say what Texans want or what Midwesterners want.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
by Steve Coll
Sunday's Washington Post quoted America's new envoy as saying Afghanistan is "much tougher than Iraq." That assessment couldn't surprise anyone who reads this exhaustively reported book. Outsiders have a miserable track record in Afghanistan. We should hold victory parades for our returning troops if we can extricate ourselves without suffering the same bled-dry fate as the Soviet Union once did. The crowd that likes to shriek "white flag of surrender!" should have the guts to read this book.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
Here's how good this novel is. I finished the English version last week and immediately started in on the Spanish version. At first, this book seems only to be an enthralling portrait of a nerdy immigrant kid. But, as Diaz told a Slate interviewer, his novel "is all about the dangers of dictatorship." Diaz recreates the quotidian terrors of Dominican life during the Trujillo regime.
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Why put fiction on a list like this? Simple. Fiction, in its own way, is best at helping us face unpleasant facts. In this potent, engrossing book, Amis evokes Stalin's Soviet police state. Reading it left me feeling more urgent than ever about the need to treasure and preserve our liberties.
Huffington Post blogger David Quigg lives in Seattle. Click here to visit the blog where he's gradually posting his entire first novel. Click here for an archive of his previous HuffPost work. And finally, as now required by law, his Twitter feed.