It’s the holiday season again and time to be thinking about gifts for family, friends, even clients. What could be a better or more appropriate gift from an editor than a book?
I have three books in particular to recommend: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski; SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard; and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff. As I write this essay, I have completed The Fellowship and am nearly done with the other two.
From reading The Fellowship, I finally discovered why Lewis and Tolkien (especially) were such great fantasy writers, something I will never be. The change in education, especially what is taught at the university level, from their school days to mine is dramatic. They were literate in Greek and Latin and well grounded in mythology, especially Norse mythology, and religion. The strengths, weaknesses, and meandering paths that the lives of Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams took are fascinating.
SPQR (which stands for “The Senate and People of Rome”) is a well-presented, fascinating look at one of the foundations of Western civilization — ancient Rome. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of that history for a nonhistorian, but I was constantly surprised at what Mary Beard had to teach me and at how off-track my education of 50 years ago in this area was. If you want to understand and learn about one of the foundational pillars of Western civilization without being hampered by dense annotated academic writing, then SPQR is the place to start. (If you prefer a broader world view in survey style, then the best bet would be The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer, which can be followed by her books, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade and The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople. All three of Bauer’s books are excellent.)
Americans are fascinated by the Salem witch trials. The story has been told many different ways — in novels, histories, plays — and I have read several variations on the theme. I originally didn’t think there was room for yet another telling, but I was wrong. Schiff’s The Witches is one of the best nonfiction histories I have read on the invasion of Puritan Salem by the Devil through his witch emissaries. The Witches is a well-crafted story of this American moment.
Aside from those three recommendations, my acquisition of new titles to read never ends. Here is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I am reading or acquired and added to my to-be-read pile since the last On Today’s Bookshelf essay:
- Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling
- Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer
- The Story of England by Michael Wood
- Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling
- The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg
- Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter
- Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
- Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric by Veronica Buckley
- The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
- Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad by Brian A. Catlos
- The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J, Larson
- For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789 by Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon
- Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer
- It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches by Orin Hargraves
- The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama (volume 1 of 2)
- Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama (volume 2 of 2)
- Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright
- The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend by Christopher Gidlow
- Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler by Antony Sutton
- The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder by Abram de Swaan
- Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
- Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose
- The British Execution: 1500-1964 by Stephen Banks
- The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass
- Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 by Frank Dikötter
- Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger
- A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy Greenberg
- Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay
- The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry
- Archive 17 by Sam Eastland
- The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
- Pines, Wayward, and The Last Town by Blake Crouch (3 books)
- The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse
- The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
- Island Madness by Tim Binding
- Black Fly Season and By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt
- The Hidden Man by David Ellis
- Hell’s Foundations Quiver and The Sword of the South by David Weber
- A Call to Arms by David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope
For those of you who have young children or grandchildren, there are three educational toys I recommend for gift giving or for having around the house: Kids First Amusement Park Engineer Kit, Kids First Automobile Engineer Kit, and Kids First Aircraft Engineer Kit. These are designed for ages 3+ years (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the toys or the toys’ manufacturer.)
We bought these kits to have as projects for us and our granddaughters to do together when they visit. Each kit comes with a storybook. As you read the story to the child, the child is presented with instructions to build, for example, an airplane, to help the children in the story get to their next destination, where they will need to build yet another airplane (or automobile or amusement ride).
The Aircraft and Automobile kits each build 10 models; the Amusement Park kit builds 20 models. These are great teaching toys. And, because storage is important, each comes in a plastic storage container.
For additional book suggestions, take another look at past On Today’s Bookshelf essays.
Richard Adin, An American Editor