Finally an Interesting, Believable New York Times List of Favorite Books

The “By the Book” feature in the Sunday New York Times Book Review asks interesting people what books are on your nightstand, what’s the last great book you read, what kind of  books bring you the most reading pleasure, etc. Lots of the recommended books are the classics you were supposed to read in college–Plato, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, etc. Often the list may set off your b.s. detector: A Washington writer I know slightly suggested that the six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” were a favorite and if you know that writer you wouldn’t believe it for a minute. So this week’s By the Book featuring chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain was a breath of fresh air.

Among his favorites:

Fictional hero? Maybe Fowler from “The Quiet American.” Or the Consul from “Under the Volcano. Favorite anti-hero? Maybe Eddie from “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” or Vaughn from “Crash.” Villain? You can hardly do better than Karla from le Carré’s “Smiley’s People.”…

I like my spy fiction dreary, realistic and preferably written by a former intelligence officer. Spy novel authors and titles I particularly like include W. T. Tyler’s “The Man Who Lost The War” and “Rogue’s March.” I’ll devour anything by Charles McCarry. I loved the stories in “Ashenden: Or the British Agent” by W. Somerset Maugham. And though he’s not an ex-spook like the above, David Ignatius’s “Agents of Innocence” is very, very good.

That was a By the Book list I could relate to because I recently had a Washington lunch with a writer and an editor and we agreed to tell each other about what we like to read and my list was somewhat in sync with Bourdain’s. Here’s what I sent to my lunch companions.
I confess I haven’t read a lot of recent non-fiction because for 40 years I spent every day reading magazines and newspapers, scanning books, editing articles, and doing all the things editors have to do. That pace helps develop a short attention span. As an editor, I always tried to take 7,000 word stories going 45 miles an hour and make them 5,000 word stories going 70 mph. When I read a well-reviewed non-fiction book, it often seemed to move too slow.

I do admire the Robert Caro and Tom Ricks kind of authors who do definitive biographies and histories but I’m probably not going to read them. I mostly let the New York Times Book Review tell me about them.

I’ve read a lot of books about editors and journalism. Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins shaped my thinking of what a good editor does. Tom Kunkel’s book about Harold Ross and the New Yorker was a wonderful read with a lot of insight into how good editors work. Jeff Himmelman’s book, A Good Life, about Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was very good. Carol Polsgrove’s book about Esquire and Harold Hays was fun to read and insightful. I’ve read lots of books written by editors but those sell by being mostly about famous writers, not about the work of editing.

I’ve loved books that change the way you think. The first, going way back, was The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, about being other directed (reacting to others) or inner directed (going by your own compass). Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner, changed how I saw writers and designers. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences was an eye-opener about the strengths of different kinds of people. And then came Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman–that changed how I saw myself and other people. If you’re a slow thinker, as I am, you’ll love the way he puts fast thinkers and talkers in their place. As an editor, I made a lot of mistakes thinking that writers who are good talkers also will be good writers. The opposite often is true. The big lesson: Evaluate writers by what they write, not by how well they talk.

I’ve loved non-fiction books like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and The Wise Men, by Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson. Lots of interesting history and personalities,

Other favorite books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, which provides some insight into autism. A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar, about economist and mathematician John Nash and his battle with schizophrenia. Einstein’s Dreams, a novel by Alan Lightman about conceptions of time.

Mindset, by Carol Dweck, was recommended by a UVa professor I was with at a Nats baseball game and my daughter, Jeannie, a physician, says it changed her life.

I’ve currently got four novels ( by Henning Mankell, Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane)  out of the library, all about spying and crime. The novels have plots that keep you turning the page and the good ones also have some history lessons. My favorite writers:

Alan Furst’s novels, mostly set in Europe before and during World War Two. Furst is a quiet novelist—no turning the page to see who gets killed next. He does his research and writes about how people dealt with war.

For Washington novels, Ward Just. Also a quiet novelist but wonderful at showing how people cope with the problems of politics and journalism.

Charles McCarry once was a CIA spy and he then lived in Washington for a time writing for the National Geographic. Most of his novels have a lot of CIA and often a lot of Washington. My favorite: The Tears of Autumn, a tale about a CIA agent’s quest for proof that the South Vietnamese were behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as revenge for Kennedy backing a 1963 coup d’etat.

For more up-to-date fiction: The David Ignatius novels, mostly set in the Middle East. You get a good story and insight into today’s wars.

Agree with Bourdain on Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which became a good Michael Kaine movie.

I’ve very much enjoyed the George V. Higgins novels, mostly about Boston criminals and cops. His novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, became a terrific Robert Mitchum movie. Higgins and McCarry wrote some for the Washingtonian and when you know writers personally their books always seem more interesting.

I also liked Scott Turow’s very good legal novels. Presumed Innocent, which became a Harrison Ford movie, was a terrific read. One summer at the beach I read Presumed Innocent and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities—summer reading doesn’t get better than that. The good reads list could go on but that’s a start.
If you’ve got a list of books that changed the way you see journalism or life, send it to [email protected] and it can be part of a future post.

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