In this article, I discuss five favorite books1 which I have read and which have had an impact on my life. By far, these are not the only such books. In fact, poring over my book collection to select these five titles was an exercise in choice. There were so many options.
Those who know me know that my primary hobby is photography. There are no photography books on this list. But I have included my five favorite photography books in a separate article on my photo website.
These are in no particular order, but let’s dig in.
The Boys of Boise
I am originally from the Boise, Idaho area. In 1955, a scandal broke in the city regarding homosexual activity. The Boys of Boise by John Gerassi tells the story of that episode in the city’s history.
But more than just an historical retelling of events, Gerassi explored the long term impacts. He looked the events which caused the scandal to break. How the city dealt with ‘the problem’ is covered very well.
We tend to think of the news media today as providing questionable accounts. Yet this book explores how the city’s only newspaper created and fanned hysteria. Then, after a few weeks, the paper changed direction and called for calm when it was clear things were spiraling out of control.
Gerassi’s original of this book, published in 1965 – ten years after the events – didn’t explore the fallout. However, in this 2001 update, he explores the devastating impact on many lives.
I came to know some of the people involved. They were fine people who had their lives turned upside down by zealous politicians with questionable goals. In one case, a politician, with whom I became friends, was a bitter man because of the unfair treatment of his son.
The Boys of Boise presents a cautionary tale of government inserting itself into human morality. Unfortunately, for some in Boise city government, the attitude prevailed at least to the end of the 1970s.
James Clavell’s 1975 novel Shōgun is loosely based on the middle years of the life of Japan’s greatest war lord. Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa Shōgunate, which ruled Japan from 1600 to 1867.
Anyone who is interested in the feudal period of Japan will enjoy this book. However, at 1173 pages, it is a long read.
The character of Tokugawa is called Yoshi Toranaga in the book. Two other characters are based on actual people. The principal character, English sea pilot John Blackthorne, is based on English navigator William Adams. The principal female character, Lady Toda Buntaro Mariko, is based on Hosokawa Tama.
Historically, there was no romantic relationship between Adams and Lady Hosokawa, as portrayed in the book. She died about four months after he arrived, in a different part of Japan. So it is unlikely they ever met. Additionally, Tokugawa entrusted Adams with far more freedom than is portrayed between Toranaga and Blackthorne. Still, the book presents a vivid picture of that period in Japan.
The book is the basis for the 1980 mini-series of the same name – one of my favorite movies. It starred Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne and Toshiro Mifune as Toranaga. A friend of mine, Yoko Shimada, starred as Lady Mariko. I have some ties to Japanese cinema going back 50 years, so Japan has long interested me.
While the mini-series is long – about 12 hours in the original form – it leaves much of underlying Japanese culture unexplained. The fact that the Japanese actors actually are speaking Japanese also impedes some understanding of all that is going on. Still, it remains one of my all-time favorite movies.
The book helps to fill in those gaps with good explanations of the reasons some things happen. Those reasons are not always clear in the movie.
Despite its length, I have read this book completely twice, and have it on my Kindle to read again.
Perryville Under Fire
U.S. history, particularly the Civil War era, is one of my favorite topics. That has been enhanced by following the exploits of my great-grandfather, ZC Worley. As a Union soldier, he fought in many important battles of that war.
The Battle of Perryville was the largest Civil War battle fought in Kentucky. The October 7-8, 1862 pitted the Union Army of General Don Carlos Buell against the Confederate forces of General Braxton Bragg.
On the first day of battle, my great-grandfather’s unit was held in reserve. But they were fully engaged on the Union left flank on the second day.
Perryville Under Fire only superficially addresses the battle itself. The main focus is the impact on the small town of Perryville, and on the victorious Union Army. Much like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, nine months later, the citizens of the town were left to deal with the carnage.
With 7,500 casualties, the Union Army and the citizens were unprepared to deal with the death and injuries. Citizens also had to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of their small town.
In many ‘war tales’, we read of the winners and losers in battle – of the maneuvers and tactics. Perryville Under Fire reminds us of the often unintended but real costs to innocent people who happen to live in the battle zone.
The American Spirit
Published in 2017, in the author’s words, “specifically for these politically troubled times,” The American Spirit is a collection of speeches by historian David McCullough. As I stated previously, history is one of my favorite subjects, and this book provides an excellent view of recent America.
The speeches, delivered in various parts of the United States between 1989 and 2016, are both informative and inspiring. All come from McCullough’s conviction that history is an integral part of people’s understand of themselves. This seems to be lost today, particularly on young people. Some educators even feel that we should no longer teach history in schools.
But as McCullough stated in a graduation speech to the University of Pittsburgh in 1994, “You have to know what people of been through to understand what people want and what they don’t want. That’s the nub of it. And what people have been through is what we call history.”
The Time in Which They Lived
McCullough also addresses one of the great mistakes of today. People too often gauge others’ performance, and even their motives, in the light of the norms of the 21st century. In fact, we should judge people’s actions within the context of the time they lived.
In a graduation speech at Dickinson College in 1998, McCullough spoke of one of the benefactors of the college, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush was a significant figure in colonial times. He served in the Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as a physician in Washington’s army. And he gave Thomas Paine the title for his fateful pamphlet Common Sense.
Dr. Rush was a preeminent physician of his era and taught medicine to over 1,000 doctors. But as McCullough points out, he was a man – and a physician – of his time. His answer to most ailments was severe bleeding and terrible emetics and purges. Some recent scholars have surmised that the real heroes were his patients.
In the modern sense of viewing history, it would be easy to cast this man as uneducated, out of touch with the needs of his patients, and even a menace. And if he lived in 2020, that would be true. But he lived in the 1780s. And that should always be a consideration in our view.
I found this book to be a very thoughtful treatise on the America we live in the latter part of the 20th century and early parts of the 21st.
How to Work a Room
This 1988 book by Susan RoAne (pronounced Ro-Ann) is all about, in her terms, ‘mingling.’ Susan gives great tips for those who, like me, are somewhat introverted. Social situation comfort is not our natural forte.
Yet, as I advanced in my career, it became more obvious that if I were to succeed, I would have to gain confidence in social interactions. And that is exactly what this book is about.
I first met Susan in 1986 at the home of another friend, motivational public speaker Patricia Fripp.2 A former Chicago teacher, Susan is witty and friendly – just the kind of person I wanted to emulate in social situations.
I read How to Work a Room completely at least twice. It is one of my favorite ‘self-help’ books. I’ve also gone back to re-read certain sections for reference as situations suggested.
In 2013, Susan published a 25th anniversary revised edition of this book. The link is to that version.