Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 22, 2004
POP CULTURE/HISTORY/BASEBALL, etc...: More From the Book Shelf

Following up on the Crank’s list of his favorite books, I thought I’d make a similar list. It turns out this is pretty hard to do – I’ve read, either by assignment or by choice, so many books over the years, that it’s not easy to remember them all and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few big ones. Very unsurprisingly, since the Crank and I have read many of the same books, there’s a lot of overlap between our lists; what may be more interesting is the differences (I think I read a little more history and war-related books, a little less baseball and politics). I tried to stick by the “one book per author” rule, yet I organized my list differently:

10. Stephen Pressfield, Gates of Fire: This historical novel of the battle of Thermopylae is a gripping story of war and ancient Sparta. Strangely, its author is best known for also writing The Legend of Bagger Vance. For more, I discussed this book and Thermopylae here.

9. Charles Palliser, The Quincunx: This neo-Dickensian novel, which I picked up, appropriately enough, in London, is one of the more fiendish books I’ve ever read. The plot about five families fighting over a disputed will is frighteningly intricate and complicated and it was really only when I came to the end of the 1,200 page book that I realized I should’ve been paying closer attention, since the central mystery is not explicitly resolved and the narrator doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. That said, it’s a great puzzle and a very well-written book, highly evocative of 19th century London.

8. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: This is one of those “classic” books they have you read in high school which actually is a classic.

7. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange: This is probably the hardest book to read I’ve ever made it through. As you know if you’ve seen the Stanley Kubrick movie, the narrator here speaks a form of broken, futuristic slang which highly resembles, but isn’t quite, modern English. Once you get used to it, though, the book flies along. Many works of art have tried to argue that the only thing worse than criminal violence is the authoritarian government response it can engender - this is the most creative and thought-provoking such effort.

6. Tom Clancy, Patriot Games: Growing up, I loved reading Tom Clancy and devoured his books religiously. The first five or so were classic (the later ones have since seriously declined in quality - either that or I’m getting older and more critical). Anyway, this was the first one I read and, while it might not be Clancy’s best, it is the one which first piqued my interest in our national security establishment as well as in Northern Ireland.

5. Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal: The best thriller I’ve ever read. Knowing your history, you’re pretty sure Charles de Gaulle isn’t going to be assassinated, but you almost doubt it at some points.

4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I take the convenient view that this is one long book, rather than three, but I otherwise agree with the Crank’s sentiments on this one.

3. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities: Again, see the Crank’s comments. Wolfe has a very colorful writing style all his own. The Right Stuff and, to a lesser degree, A Man in Full are also well worth a read. For extra points, I also once read Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood, about how such a great book became such a bad film.

2. Herman Wouk, The Winds of War/War and Remembrance: These are two books, but one story. Taken together, these two capture the sweep and epic human drama of World War II better than anything I’ve ever read. From Pearl Harbor to the Russian front to graphic and terrifying scenes of the Holocaust, Wouk, through the eyes of an American naval family, captures the horrors and costs of the bloody conflagration, but also evokes the sense of romance and importance that one must have felt living through such great and terrible days. I read these when I was fairly young, but I think anyone would be moved by this World War II epic. In the 1980’s, these became two of the last great TV mini-series, each starring Robert Mitchum in the lead role.

1. Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels: The best war novel I’ve ever read is also the best novel I’ve ever read, period. The Battle of Gettysburg comes alive here like nowhere else. This book is unique in that it appeals to everyone from the anti-war reader to the Civil War buff. You get the sense here that war is wasteful, sickening and awful, yet important, not altogether pointless and sometimes even heroic. Historical figures comes alive, grand strategy mixes with intimate drama and you feel like you are right there on the fields of Pennsylvania in July 1863 - an unrivalled achievement.

Runners-up (in no particular order):
LITERATURE: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Bleak House (“The one great principle of English law is to make business for itself”) and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Hamlet and MacBeth by Shakespeare, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Animal Farm by George Orwell (yes, I never read 1984), The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

MODERN FICTION: Fatherland by Robert Harris, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, The Firm by John Grisham (still his best), The Godfather by Mario Puzo (I heard they made this one into a movie), An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (his best, also adapted into a small independent film, I hear), Absolute Power by David Baldacci (far better than the Clint Eastwood film) and The Shining by Stephen King (his best, although I’m also partial to The Stand).

10. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: Not all great books are pleasant ones. This account of the incomprehensibly wanton slaughter by the Japanese Army in the Chinese city of Nanking might be the most graphic book I’ve ever read. To read it is to be sickened by atrocities that defy understanding and which require a reckoning. An odd glimpse of humanity in the book comes from the unlikely story of a German Nazi in Nanking (the “Oskar Schindler of China”) who sheltered the traumatized Chinese and publicized their plight.

9. Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem: Friedman’s folksy writing style is easily mocked, but this is a highly readable and classic bit of reporting on the Middle East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. There is a lot of wisdom here.

8. Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers: This real-life account of a daring American attempt to rescue Allied prisoners from a brutal Japanese prison camp in the Philippines is a great World War II story and would make a great movie. I think I literally read it in a day.

7. Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: I agree with the Crank’s take on this one. Bowden is an excellent and adventurous writer; his Killing Pablo is also a great read. He is also a very good speaker – I was lucky enough to see him speak just yesterday in Washington regarding his recent noteworthy article on the art and ethics of interrogation.

6. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract: This is tops for the Crank, but also ranks highly with me. James’ annual abstracts were very enjoyable, but this is definitely his masterpiece. James is synonymous with his unmatched ability to simplify and elucidate the world of statistics, but it is the historical writing and reporting that makes this a lasting classic. The history of the game comes alive in statistics here, but more importantly in stories, jokes, observations, arguments and anecdotes. A great book for any baseball fan, however casual.

5. James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers: A great book on a number of levels – a profile of each of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, a gripping, vivid account of the bloody Pacific battle and an attempt to understand his father, who was among the five marines who raised the famous flag on Mount Suribachi. In so doing, Bradley wrote a classic account of America’s more recent generations coming to understand the awesome sacrifices of those who lived through and fought World War II.

4. David McCullough, Truman: McCullough is a magnificent writer and historian; it was a tough call taking this one over John Adams or The Path Between the Seas. However, the story of Harry Truman, an ordinary, decent American thrust into the Presidency at a critical time in our history is both moving and enlightening.

3. Robert Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law : This is the book probably most responsible for my having gone to law school and the definitive book on constitutional law, in my view. I read this mid-way through high school and, as a believer in democracy and separation of powers, was properly enraged. The more court decisions I have read and witnessed since that time have only reinforced my belief that the issue of judge-made law, activism and the judicial circumvention of the democratic process is the single most important and least understood domestic issue in American politics. While one side of the political spectrum is more associated with this than the other, the notion of having our laws and social policies increasingly dictated to us by an unelected elite is a highly dangerous and offensive precedent which should be an affront to all Americans. While some might argue that this is the most ideological book on this list, I think it is the most anti-ideological.

2. Lawrence Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: This is on the Crank’s list as well. To me, this is the greatest of all baseball books – a warm, gentle account of a by-gone era of baseball and of America.

1. Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life: A stirring, objective one volume account of the greatest political leader in recent times. To read it is to stand in awe of how much can be accomplished in just one lifetime. You can read my full review here.

Runners-up (again, in no particular order):
HISTORY: Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo by Gregor Dallas, The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks (see here), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (see here), In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, as well as the collected works of Stephen Ambrose.

RECENT HISTORY: Faith of My Fathers by John McCain, Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile (see here), The Brethren by Bob Woodward, Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow, Dead Ground by Raymond Gilmour (about infiltrating the IRA, see here), Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein by Peter Taylor and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America by Anonymous.

SPORTS: A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein (his The Last Amateurs is also a sentimental favorite), Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger, Beyond the Sixth Game by Peter Gammons and If At First… by Keith Hernandez.

Posted by The Mad Hibernian at 10:29 AM | Baseball 2004 • | History • | Pop Culture • | The Mad Hibernian | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

I was kicking myself yesterday for forgetting The Killer Angels, which was a great book. I didn't include plays, but yes, The Crucible was a great one, and another favorite was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Posted by: The Crank at January 22, 2004 12:37 PM

Another great one, and a great movie, I forgot to list was A Man For All Seasons.

Posted by: The Mad Hibernian at January 22, 2004 05:11 PM

Man for All Seasons, *NOW* you're talking.

how come neither of you gents are listing any of halberstam's baseball books, Summer of 64, or October of 41 (i think it was 41)? heck i thought doris goodwin's Wait Til Next Year was very good.

Posted by: Flem Snopes at January 23, 2004 10:12 AM

I think I read some of the “Summer of ‘49” once, but didn’t read the whole thing (the Crank may have) or the rest of Halberstam’s books.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply that there aren’t a lot of other great books – I just haven’t read ‘em yet. These are just my favorites among those I have been lucky enough to read through the years…

Posted by: The Mad Hibernian at January 23, 2004 03:17 PM
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