December 23, 2014

For those who need to finish up their holiday shopping or like me haven’t started yet I recommend the perfect gift – a book. It will never tarnish or be part of a divorce settlement like a diamond ring. It takes minimal care and is loyal; it will never stop giving. Here are a few suggestions for the reader interested in politics and current affairs.

First, purchase multiple copies of Ron Capps’s Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. Ron served his country as an intelligence officer, observer, and peacekeeper in war zones including Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur as a soldier and Foreign Service officer. What he saw and his feelings about it brought him to the brink of suicide. Here’s a sample of Ron’s writing:

"When the phone rang I jumped—startled—and nearly shot myself. This would have been somewhat ironic, because I was sitting in a truck, about to kill myself and was already holding the pistol in my hand. But I would have pulled the trigger while the pistol was pointed at my foot rather than my head. After all the crying and shaking, the moralizing and justifying, the calming of hands and nerves, the intense focusing on the immediate act of charging the weapon to put a bullet into the firing chamber, and then taking off the safety and preparing to put the barrel in my mouth, the ringing phone broke the spell, and pulled me back from the brink."

Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years is part of Ron’s courageous effort to ‘write his way back home’ and a visible example of his effort to assist veterans through the Veteran’s Writing Project, which he founded.

Every year we are met with a fresh cascade of books on Abraham Lincoln, that source of fascination for scholars and all Americans. A good one this year is David S. Reynolds’s Lincoln’s Selected Writings. There are several older single volume collections that are very good but this one has an outstanding selection. The best feature though are collections of contemporary and modern writings about Lincoln. The contemporary selections include some by Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. Modern excerpts include some by Carl Sandburg, Allen C. Guelzo, James McPherson, and other outstanding Lincoln scholars.

For the political junkie in your life who wants to understand elections, purchase John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. Professors Sides and Vavreck analyzed the 2012 election in real time and then produced a first rate account using the latest quantitative tools of social science to explain what the real factors are that lead to victory in the nomination contest and the General Election. The game changer in the 2012 election? I’ll give it away – there was none, although the media constantly evoked that phrase to suggest that events that have little to do with the outcome would be determinative. The Gamble is readable and you’ll warm up for 2016 by understanding what really goes on.

The most important and controversial book of the year in the social sciences was probably Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s work is the great social science examination of the history of economic and income inequality, and the current state of affairs.  The sort of relative equality experienced by Americans and many others in the decades of the mid-twentieth century were anomalous in the history of the world. More importantly Piketty discusses the factors that have brought us the explosion of inequality we have all experienced in recent decades and the unhappy fact that those conditions are likely to continue and even worsen absent action by government to restrain it. As wealth grows so does the ability of the wealthy to influence government (see Citigroup and the recent congressional action to offer big banks taxpayer funded insurance against risk). r>g. Once you grasp that formula you’ll dazzle at every social occasion.

Skip Amazon and head to your local independent bookseller for your purchases. Try Porter Square Books,  Harvard Book Store, or in Maine the Maine Coast Book Shop. Don’t buy your loved one a revocable license that hides somewhere on their electronic device. Get that special someone an actual book they can read and interact with (John Adams argued with his books and wrote his critiques in the margins). After the lucky recipient reads it the book can go on a book shelf where it will look very handsome indeed. It will always be there to remind your friend of the enjoyment and learning he or she experienced on reading it and the gratitude felt toward you for your thoughtfulness. The lucky owner will want to take the book down and leaf through it over the years. Books are our friends; give them a good home.

Happy holidays, everyone.

holidays, books, reading

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