Recommended Reading, Summer 2009

The Bureau Staff has suggestions for your summer reading list.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945Yes, Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 is a behemoth, all 935 pages and 1.8 pounds of it. But really, would you trust someone to examine Europe, 1945-2005, with any less of a book?

Postwar describes the growth of “Europe as a way of life” from the nation-states blasted apart — politically, economically, demographically — by World War II, the continent’s “original sin.” In his book, Judt takes on Europe’s enduring myths: he argues that the Marshall Plan’s greatest effects were psychological and not economic; that Gorbachev’s inept leadership, far more than his reformer’s instincts, led to the USSR’s breakup; that Europe’s reinvention after the war relied almost entirely on collective amnesia and a narrative of victimhood. He describes the problems with the welfare state and its promise of an ever-better society on the one hand, and the social “meltdown” caused by the Thatcherite reforms on the other. He tracks the self-destruction of Europe’s intellectuals, once arbiters of public morality and political opinion, whose “high-cultural pretension,” “knowing cynicism,” and, above all, impenetrable writing doomed them to irrelevance. Most of all, Judt shows that compromises, accidents, and failures shaped Europe much more than foresight ever did.

Ultimately, Judt celebrates Europe’s remade political and social identity as the best safeguard against a resurgence of state terror and ethnic persecution — a powerful argument to make when mass migration, from within the EU and without, is starting to make Europe look as diverse and divided as it did in 1914. – Bureau Writer Darryl Campbell

The Demolished ManLike most adolescents destined to mature into full-blown nerds, I had a science fiction phase that lasted between late middle school and early high school. I read most of the staples — Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, etc. — but my favorite author was Alfred Bester, perhaps the most underrated science-fiction novelist.

So when The Guardian published their massive list of must-read sci-fi and fantasy novels, I was discouraged to see that The Stars My Destination was their only nod to Bester. Instead, I would’ve picked The Demolished Man, his best novel, the first Hugo Award winner, and hailed by many as one of the most influential sci-fi novels of the ’50s. Though his work predates cyberpunk by three decades, Bester’s gritty antiheroes, authoritarian corporatism, and dystopian film noir cityscapes would later become staple elements of cyberpunk’s popularity in the ’80s with authors William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling. – Bureau Editor Kevin Nguyen

The Blind SideNo way can I describe the appeal of my pick, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, better than the immortal Ira Glass, so I’ll shut up for a second: “This is a non-fiction masterpiece. I feel like Michael Lewis has created an entirely original way to write about race and class where it’s just really fun to read.” That’s exactly the appeal of this book, which follows the story of a giant, poor black kid from Memphis as he finds himself at an ultra-white Christian high school on his way to becoming the top college football prospect in America. Lewis also branches out from his central narrative into an explanation of how the left tackle became a major position in the NFL, and he also touches on the strange, selectively restrictive world of NCAA recruiting. The topics weave together perfectly, and the book breezes by.

One thing I love about The Blind Side is that, like David Simon’s Homicide, it contains a single page that completely changes the scale of the book. After describing the arduous process of how the book’s hero, Michael Oher, went from semi-literate to academically viable, Lewis asks how we can expect to change the situation of millions of disadvantaged people around the world when it took such an extraordinary effort from the most advantaged Americans to turn around one kid’s life. This thought is brief, off-the-cuff, and not at all heavy-handed, but that single page completely bowled me over. In the span of a few hundred words Lewis expanded his subject from one curious family to all of humanity, and for a moment, I caught a glimpse of something bigger than words. That feeling alone would have been worth reading a book twice as long. – Bureau Editor Nick Martens

The Beak of the FinchJonathan Weiner’s extraordinary book on evolutionary biology, The Beak of the Finch, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction when it was published in 1995. The author follows the lives of Peter and Rosemary Grant, a husband and wife scientist couple who have been studying the lives of the Galapagos Finches (a.k.a. Darwin’s finches) for several decades. Weaving in the history of Darwin and evolution to contextualize the Grants’ astonishing studies on these birds, any layperson will have their previous thoughts on evolution upended by this book.

To briefly describe their work, the pair has been tracking a flock of birds on a tiny island for more than twenty years. They can identify every finch on the island. Each bird (and their parents, and parents’ parents) have been measured and recorded. What they discover in this painstaking research is truly remarkable. We typically believe that evolution occurs over a vast expanse of time; that species evolves so slowly and minutely we cannot hope to track their changes in a human lifespan. The Grants’ research, however, shows the exact opposite: that natural selection is a truly powerful force which obliges evolutionary change much quicker than we ever believed — even within a single generations. Weiner is able to encompass the consequence of the Grants’ work while preserving readability for the average person, making this book a riveting read. – Bureau Writer Jordan Barber