I read books this year! Plural! When I was a kid my mom would have to beg me to go outside and stop reading but over the last few years I hardly read any books because apparently I was too busy with Vanity Fair and the internet. Well this year I continued to read Vanity Fair as well as half of the internet but I squeezed in some sick-ass books that I’d like to brag about/convince you to read. I’ll divide them into sections – The Civil War, Titanic, Fiction, and History (when you see my Titanic section you’ll understand why it’s not lumped into History).
The Civil War
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin – That’s right, I saw the movie Lincoln and was like jeez, guess I should finally read that book that my mom and brother read years ago before it was cool. I’m such a follower, it’s disgusting. This book is HUGE and I read it on the treadmill when I went to the gym so it took me months to get through but I really loved it. You will feel like you know Lincoln and his contemporaries personally and you really understand the time they lived in. History feels less distant and its people become more recognizable as people you might know.
April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik – I read this after Team of Rivals because I had Civil War fever (rheumatic fever? TB?). This is a fantastic book and much shorter. I read it while camping in Spring Mill State Park and I could hardly put it down. But then I did, to go look at trees and stuff. This is a good book for Civil War buffs and newbs alike because it’s richly detailed but not so bogged down in battle specifics like some other books that a casual reader would get bored. No getting bored with this book! It’s not allowed!
Here comes the biggest section of this post.
The Loss of the S.S. Titanic by Lawrence Beesley – If you don’t give a flying fuck about the Titanic, you should still read this book. This the best book about Titanic I’ve ever read and one of the most insightful, gripping books I’ve ever devoured in one sitting (I think it took about six hours?) Lawrence Beesley was a curious, intelligent, analytical second-class passenger aboard Titanic who wrote this account of his voyage only a couple weeks after the sinking. His writing is strikingly modern so you never feel like you’re reading a relic of the past, you feel like you’re reading about the Titanic that sank two weeks ago. This isn’t the book to read to get the hard facts – he’s just one guy so he’s wrong about some things (he swears the Titanic sank intact, which was the prevailing theory until her wreckage was discovered in the 80s) but it’s breathlessly interesting all the way through because it’s so present, detailed, and of course the story itself is inherently dramatic and terrifying. I read this book during a flight back from China – we got to sit in first class for free because my aunt is a flight attendant and everyone else was asleep as I just ripped through this book. I was definitely struck by the fact that aboard this giant plane crossing half the world in one bound, sipping a free glass of port in a comfy chair, I was aboard the modern counterpart of the Titanic while reading about the destruction of the first.
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord – I bought a vintage copy from 1952 that I’m absolutely in love with. This the classic Titanic book. If you want to know exactly what happened the night of the sinking, read it.
Titanic in Photographs by Daniel Klistorner – A great book if you want to pore over hundreds of original photographs of the Titanic. She’s beautiful.
RMS Titanic Owner’s Workshop Manual by David F. Hutchings and Richard de Kerbrech – This one’s only for nerds. It goes through the inner workings of the ship, replete with deck plans and illustrations of machinery. That’s exactly what I wanted but you’d have to be a big dork to enjoy this one.
In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of the American Indians by Jake Page – I’ve read a lot of books about Native Americans but I learned a lot from this one. It’s slightly academic and dry as opposed to fun and personal – partly because he talks a lot about times and places without a lot of historical record. For that reason it gets a little more fun as you get into more recorded history, though the first half of the book is where I found the most surprises – and where I learned about Megatherium for the first time, who is now my favorite extinct 4,000 pound ground sloth.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – I read this in high school and reread it in anticipation of going to the Field Museum’s exhibit on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the Columbian Exposition). The chapters alternate between the story of Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to find victims and obscure his crimes. My mom skipped all the serial killer chapters and still really enjoyed the book and personally my favorite part is also the details of putting together the fair. You will be blown away by the immense undertaking that this history-making fair turned out to be. One-third of the American population attended the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and 120 years later, most people outside of Chicago have never even heard of it. If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and check it out.
I normally don’t read very much fiction so I’m pretty proud of myself this year!
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A classic piece of dystopian future fiction, this story follows a woman tasked to bear children for a new, oppressive regime in what formerly was the United States. The first twenty pages or so were a little hard to get into because Atwood lets you pick up what’s going on piece by piece rather than lay out the whole world for you immediately so I’d recommend giving yourself at least an hour to read so you can get into the narrative. I read about a 150 pages of it in one sitting yesterday at the park and I never got bored.
World War Z by Max Brooks – Each chapter of this book serves as an individual account of the Zombie War, either how it came to be, how it played out, or how it was eventually resolved. I found a few of the chapters a little hokey and unrealistic but most of them are a fascinating look at the possibilities that could go down if we ever did face a zombie outbreak. I love zombie movies but I’m generally uninterested in the gore and footage of zombies eating people’s faces off – what I like is the breakdown of structure. What happens to the government? How do people react? Is there anarchy? Do people stick together, or fend for themselves? This book tries to explore a lot of those questions and it’s a quick, fun read.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This is a classic (and the inspiration for Apocalypse Now) and I found it alternately interesting and boring. It’s well-written and sometimes compelling, but sometimes I got bored at a relative lack of action. There’s also a lot of creepy late 1800s racism. I wouldn’t not recommend it (and I’m sure people who have read it can school me on it) but it’s not my #1 book of the year.
So that’s it! You probably got a strong feeling for my general range of interests but I hope I inspired you to read one of these darling books. Have any recommendations for me? 🙂