Summer Reading 2012

Reading is one of the joys of my life and a big part of every day of my life. Once the dinner dishes are done and the evening news is over, it’s off to my stuffed chair in the corner of the living room. Often with a baseball or basketball game on in the background, I’m transported into whatever world the author of the evening has chosen to transport me. My goal is to slow down around 11 but in this still-new phase of my life there’s no reason to stop until I want to!

I sometimes read during the day as well, but my daytime reading is typically work-related. On a summer afternoon when the hammock or the beach calls out to me I bring along a magazine or professional journal.

Last spring I bought my first iPad and I’m now definitely a fan. I still enjoy reading the old-fashioned way with a “real” book in my hands but I’ve come to find that e-reading is just as satisfying. When Linda and I journeyed to China last spring I brought along a half dozen books in electronic form and even downloaded a few books one evening in Beijing. My local library is constantly adding to its electronic holdings so a good proportion of my e-book reading is free of charge.

I started the summer with two long-awaited biographies. The first was Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. This is the fourth of what will eventually become five volumes on LBJ. The author has spent nearly his entire lifetime studying a single historical figure. This one takes us from the 1960 Presidential election to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These were the years of the lowest valleys and the highest peaks of Johnson’s career. Robert Caro is a student not only of Lyndon Johnson but of the nature and uses of power. (His first major book was The Power Broker, an elaborate treatment of the career of Robert Moses.) Caro’s treatment of the period immediately following John Kennedy’s assassination and the first weeks of the new Johnson administration may be the most important analysis of the transfer of power that has ever been written. Caro is getting on in age and I hope his health holds out long enough for the first and final volume in this series.

I moved from Caro’s book on LBJ to Cronkite by Douglass Brinkley. I spent much of my adult life with Walter Cronkite as my personal television anchor. Every night he brought the news to Linda and me and to millions of Americans of our generation. Much of what I knew about American politics, war and peace, space technology and science and so many other things was filtered through his lenses. Like Lyndon Johnson, Walter was larger than life and Brinkley fills in many of the blanks about the “most trusted man in America.” Brinkley’s writing style is quite different from Caro’s. He doesn’t overwhelm the reader with details and detours into fascinating social and historical commentary (as Caro often does), but he is great storyteller. Cronkite was flawed in many ways (and Brinkley sees no need to cover up those flaws) but for the most part “Uncle Walter” earned the trust Americans placed in him.

The LBJ and Cronkite books were both best-sellers and have received lots of attention. The third book on my Summer Reading list has not. It’s Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left by Jill K. Gill. You’re not likely to find it at your local Barnes & Noble or in your public library, which is too bad. Professor Gill, whom I don’t know, teaches at Boise State University and Northern Illinois Press made an important contribution in publishing this long (551 pages) and carefully-researched study on what may seem to some to be a fairly narrow topic: What was the impact of the Vietnam War (and related matters) on America’s most prominent ecumenical organization? Gill’s argument is not exactly new. The NCC was caught in the struggle that challenged most of the country’s “establishment” institutions that had one foot in traditional structures, cultures and practices and another in social movements that provided fundamental challenges to the legitimacy of established institutions. Gill’s has ploughed through hundreds of documents tracing the internal controversies facing the NCC and its member denominations and was able to interview several of its leaders. I don’t think she totally understands the theological and power struggles among the denominations and between the denominations and the NCC itself, but neither does she ignore these issues. Embattled Ecumenism can be profitably read alongside David Hollinger’s 2011 Presidential address to the Association of American Historians (available free at I’ve also commented on Hollinger’s address at and on this blog.

I also learned a lot from and recommend Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman. It’s written by an attorney and political columnist who has a good sense of history (though she’s not in a class with Robert Caro or Douglas Brinkley). Hirshman traces the evolution of the LGBT struggle for legal recognition and as a social movement. The book is sometimes breezy and sometimes over-enthusiastic and partisan, but it’s a good read.

I also read an awful lot of fiction, much (perhaps most!) of which is not really worthy of serious commentary. Yes, this summer’s fiction reading included Fifty Shades of Grey, which I started a couple of months ago but have not finished. Not sure I will, either.

Not a novel, but a powerful, novel-like memoir is Townie by Andre Dubus III. It’s a coming of age story that takes place in poor mill towns in northeastern Massachusetts, not far from my own hometown. Andre is a tough kid in a tough family living in a couple of tough towns. Violence and abandonment are taken-for-granted parts of everyday life. This is a painful story to read and redemption does not come easily, if it comes. In some ways Dubus’s background resembles that of Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. If you live outside the Bay State and you think you know this slice of America because you’ve visited Boston or Cambridge or the Cape, Townie will introduce you to another side of life here.

On the top of the reading pile for the fall: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon!


Happy Fall Reading!