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March 26, 2010

My Favorite Books
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently the new thing in the blogosphere is to list the ten books that most significantly influenced your world view. It sounds like sort of a fun exercise so here's an off the top of my head list, with the caveat that this is far from a collection of great books. I'm not going to pick any classics like Plato or Keynes or Clausewitz - that's too obvious. I'll just stick to those that when I read them, for better or worse, deeply influenced my world view and might be of interest to DA readers. 

1. The Walter Lafeber Category. Back when I was an undergraduate, I had the unique opportunity to take a course with the great diplomatic historian Walter Lafeber. Two of the books that he assigned us were Neil Sheehan's "Bright Shining Lie" and Ronald Steel's "American Century." As an impressionable 20 year old the influence they had on me at the time was seismic - I still think my general skepticism about the use of American military power is a direct result of reading Sheehan's sad tale of John Paul Vann. It's the one book that every single foreign policy-maker should read before they go into government service. It's probably my single favorite piece of non-fiction history. Steel's biography is magisterial; I don't think I've ever read a more fascinating overview of the 20th century than this book.

2. Barbara Tuchman, "The Guns of August." The book that most clearly sparked my love of history and in particular military history. I have no idea if historians believe that it holds up fifty years later, but it's a great read and an important cautionary tale for foreign policy practitioners (a recurrent theme in my selections).

3. The Politics of Hate Category. "Chain Reaction," Thomas Edsall; "The Politics of Rage," Dan Carter. I'm obsessed with late 60s American politics and these two books are a good part of the reason why. Edsall's book offers the most concise explanation of how the GOP used the two issues of race and taxes to promote their political agenda and Carter demonstrates the potency of George Wallace's conservative populist rhetoric, which has been imitated by countless Republican politicians. Like I said before there are better books about this era, but the criteria here is influence.

4. The Campaign History Category. "American Melodrama," and "What It Takes." I love campaign histories and these two are hands down the best. What it Takes is more than 1000 pages, I bought it one friday afternoon at Dupont Circle's Second Story Books and I read it in about a week.  It's the single best book I've ever read that really explains the unique psychological make-up of those who aspire to the nation's highest office. Melodrama is just the best campaign history of the most interesting election in American history.

5. The Hofstatder Category. "American Political Tradition" and "Age of Reform." These are both amazing books, but the first one offers such a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of America's most important political figures, presenting them as a set of complex individuals rather than engaging in hagiography. When I was writing my book it was the single best tool for getting inside the heads of my protagonists.

5. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I read this in high school and it convinced me that I should stick to writing non-fiction. Garcia Marquez is just a beautiful writer and every couple of years I pick this book up just to remind myself of the power of a writer with extraordinary imagination and ambition.

6. Lightning Military History Round. Alistair Horne, "A Savage War of Peace;" Russell Weigley, "The American Way of War," Anthony Beevor, "Stalingrad." I love military history and these are all great, but the latter is such a savage portrayal of the horrors of the Eastern Front that it really did end any romantic notion that I ever had of war after reading it.

7. The Obscure Lincoln Category  "The Radical and the Republican," James Oakes. This is a pretty minor Lincoln book, but it's a wonderful one and a great examination of the pragmatism that defined Lincoln's politics, not to mention a nuanced portrayal of the extraordinary Frederick Douglass. Reading this book - and understanding Lincoln in general - provides really important clues to the political philosophy of our current president.

8. The Shlocky Fiction Category. Everything James Ellroy ever wrote . . . but especially the Cold Six Thousand.

9. The Great Fiction Category. I'm embarrassingly not a huge fan of fiction, but I make an exception for Ernest Hemingway, "Catcher in the Rye" and especially Philip Roth. "American Pastoral" and "Human Stain" are my two favorites, especially the former, which is a grea, veiled history of the mythology of America during the Cold War (maybe that's why I like it!) . . . but the set piece in Human Stain about the Clinton impeachment. Classic!

10. "The History of Zionism," Walter Laquer. What can I say I have a thing for transformational European Jews, especially Ahad Ha'am.

Honorable Mention: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," William Shirer. "Lend Me Your Ears," William Safire. Anything by Mark Twain. Schlesinger's New Deal history. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."


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