I’ve completed updating my 2012 List-o-Books, an enumeration of all fifty-five books I read last year. As per my usual practice, the list is a hodge-podge of books with no particular theme, a preponderance of non-fiction, and a few by some of my favorite authors. The list includes one classic, 1984, a book I had somehow managed to escape reading until now. A number of books about food – particularly seafood - appear, but also a book about olive oil that knocked my socks off, and one about frozen food, or rather frozen food’s iconoclastic inventor, Clarence “Bob” Birdseye. Throw into the blender one delightful road book about the Weinermobile, and it all added up to a fun, if scattered, year of reading.
There are two books I read that were a cut above the rest, absolute must-read books that I highly recommend. Both books are profoundly distressing, sobering windows into the darkest areas of man’s inhumanity to men. These aren’t light reading, but worthwhile and engaging nonetheless.
- IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black: Thomas Watson built the computing empire of IBM on the strength of one machine, the Hollerith tabulator. But his blind pursuit of money at all cost blinded him to the evils of the Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, who were wildly enthusiastic customers for IBM’s Hollerith machines. This isn’t the case of a company being “out of the loop” on the misuse of their products, however. IBM had lucrative service contracts to repair and maintain their machines, leased to the Nazis and used even inside the network of concentration camps, where favored Jewish prisoners worked as keypunch operators. The classic apologist statement about Hitler is that he made the trains run on time, and, indeed, he did, with the help of IBM’s Hollerith machines. In 2003, this book received due recognition by American Society of Journalists and Authors, praised as the Best Book of the Year. Be sure to check out the author’s website.
- Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden: The United States, under the auspices of the United Nations, has been officially at war with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1950. We have about 30,000 troops stationed along the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, protecting South Korea. Saber rattling with the DPRK is a regular feature of our Asian foreign policy, ratcheted up in recent years as Pyongyang has pursued nuclear ambitions, and achieved them. But we, or at least the public, know very little daily life inside North Korea today, thanks to the DPRK’s near total repression of contact with the outside world. So what justifies our belligerent stance against such a small country? Escape from Camp 14 goes a long way toward answering that question, taking readers on the frightening odyssey of one man, born within the confines of a sprawling Korean prison camp, who dares to escape in a desperate quest for freedom. The the escapee, Shin Dong-hyuk, is woefully ill-equipped for the world he encounters beyond the 38th parallel.
A colleague of mine noticed my haphazard reading habits, and once commented that my reading is broad but not deep. If my reading list from 2012 is in any way indicative of my reading habits, it is a slap-dash mess, with classics, bestsellers, history, science, and Weinermobiles. In short, I find myself in full agreement with my colleague. And so I set about to change things in 2013.
2012 was also an election year, and for much of the year my unabashedly liberal anxieties about the possibility of a President Romney weighed on me every day when I read the paper, as well as a great concern for our country’s deeply divided politics. As the election filled the news, I read Candace Millard’s superb work Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Little did I know that so much could be written about James Garfield, our twentieth president who only served for two-hundred days after surviving an assassination attempt, but eventually succumbing to a lingering infection. The book was absolutely fascinating, and after reading it, I came up with my reading plan for 2013: read a book by or about every President of the United States, from Washington to Obama.
There have only been forty-four Presidents, somewhat fewer than the number of books I read last year, making my plan feasible. There is probably a decent one-volume biography about each President. But, as I’m discovering reading about George Washington, a one volume presidential biography can be quite substantial. I plan to keep this blog updated with posts about this reading odyssey as I proceed, and would welcome your suggestions for essential Presidential books to read, or avoid. Look for an update soon on Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning tome Washington: A Life. Happy reading!