December 18, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
You’re reading the wrong books. Actually, maybe you’re okay but your friends or your kids need some help. Have no fear, I break from policy today to offer you some Advent reading advice in the final eight days before Christmas.
To begin with, I will presume that too many people who actually stop at this page and read this column are at least a trifle obsessed with politics and that whole bizarre universe. Please stop. Give no books by an “author” who has a radio talk show or is an elected official. Instead read history and economics with a healthy dose of a fiction mixed in.
I have greatly enjoyed Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain about the slow crushing of Eastern Europe after the war. It is an intimate, balanced, and remarkable explanation of how a society can be systematically transformed in the traumatic aftermath of the war and then slowly crushed. The minutiae and psychology of how that transformation is possible is fascinating.
Some of the best economics is historical, makes no assumptions about our own knowledge of jargon, and doesn’t use language designed to exclude us. Almost every year, I give at least one person Niall Ferguson’s brilliant The Ascent of Money. Ferguson is an engaging writer and has presented the book as a six part television series. There are wonderful explanation of the historical origins and development of major economic concepts like money, insurance, stock, bonds, banking, and home ownership. A brilliant book that is eminently readable ought to be the starting point for anyone seeking to understand the financial world at all.
At the end of the day, I think we all read too much non-fiction. There is some bias that tells us the thicker and more boring a book is, the more noble and valuable it must be. Hogwash. This sort of drivel makes both books and people more boring.
Good fiction includes books that tell a truth more clearly and compellingly than any non-fiction ever could. But good fiction can also be escapist, entertaining, or mind clearing. Read for enjoyment and you will enjoy reading.
The best writer of English prose of the 20th Century is P.G. Wodehouse. If you disagree you have simply never read him. His are the most amusing and charming books ever written and find their perfection with the stories about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. The best introduction is Carry On, Jeeves, the stories that introduce Jeeves to Bertie and us to the characters and their world. Start there and you’ll never stop.
Wodehouse’s writing is brilliant in the best way. You don’t sit back and admire it. Rather, it takes you in and envelops you without you noticing. Stephen Fry, a famous admirer, said “you just bask in its warmth and splendor.” Indeed you do and reading Wodehouse is an act in and of itself that makes life worth living. Read it and you will experience the healing power of the best fiction.
I have fourteen more suggestions but lacking in space we must move on to children. If there are children for whom you might buy a present, you wrong them if you don’t get them books. Reading can be cultivated at an early age and nothing is more valuable. To read is to explore the world we could never see, we meet people on a page we might never encounter in person, and gain experiences beyond our normal capacity.
Please branch out from movie and TV characters. Let their imaginations run rampant rather than skim movie plots. Start with Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner. Set and written in pre-war Germany, Emil is a 12 year old who has all his money stolen on the train and works to get it back with the help of a dozen new friends.
Substitute pigs and farms for Germany and kids and you have Walter Brooks’ Freddy the Detective about a porcine Sherlock Holmes. This too dates from the 1920s. Freddy learned to be a detective from reading Sherlock Holmes, as one might expect from a pig in upstate New York.
I reread both of these in the last two years and found them as pleasant now as I did when I was eleven. The same holds true, by the way, for Wind in the Willows or The Phantom Tollbooth. Classics don’t diminish as one ages.
I need to stop writing and you need to go buy some books.