Books by Friends: Skyfaring, America's Moment, Republic of Conscience

What to read about the long-forgotten elegance of flight, the under-appreciated economic potential of America, and the perhaps-fixable corruption of politics

Henri Matisse, The Reader. Perhaps she is reading something written by a friend! (Wikimedia)

As in several previous installments in this series, I disclose for the record that I have some connection with the authors of these books. But as in the previous cases, these are all books I’d recommend whether or not I’d known their authors. I’m mentioning them with deliberate brevity, both to encourage you to find out  more yourself and because if I waited to do "real" write-ups I'd take longer to get around to it.

Seriously, these are books you will be glad to have read.

An elegant description of flight (Penguin
Random House)

1) Skyfaring, by Mark Vanhoenacker.

Like many readers, I was sorry to hear last week of the death of James Salter. His books Light Years and Burning the Days are among those I remember most clearly for their grace of expression and power in conveying particular moods.

But Salter was also interesting to me because of his career as a Korean War-era military pilot and his ongoing interest in aviation. The one time I met him, at a conference in Austin 15 years ago, we spent most of the time talking about flying. First he grilled me on how much experience I had. When I told him, he said, “Well, if you’ve made it this far, you’ll probably live.” Then we talked about why it was that flight, and the ability to see the world from a perspective humanity had only dreamed of until the past century, had lost its sense of magic and the literary fascination it held in the days of Beryl Markham (West With the Night) and Antoine de St. Exupéry (Vol de Nuit).

Apart from Salter, my friend and one-time Atlantic colleague William Langewiesche has probably done more than any other writer to sustain the idea that traveling “Inside the Sky” should be seen as a deeply interesting pursuit and a complement to a literary sensibility. Now Mark Vanhoenecker makes a dramatic, elegant addition to this small group with Skyfaring. Vanhoenecker is a commercial airline pilot—and at the words “commercial airline,” the spirit sinks. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that this book lifts the thoughts and spirits. It is a highly informative book about how the world looks from the cockpit of a modern jetliner, but it also is a truly beautiful book about possibilities and limits, connections and separations, surprises and habituations, and other long-standing themes of literature.

(And, by the way, I don’t know the author, but I did a blurb for the book and thus put it in the “by friends” category.)

An argument that better economic times are ahead
(W. W. Norton & Company)

2) America’s Moment, by the Rework America team for the Markle Foundation.

Many of the reports Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have done in our American Futures travels amount to documentation of the country’s response to changed economic circumstances. Everyone knows about the damage done by the most recent crash, about the opportunities closed off by global competition or technological shifts, about the bad ways in which the early 21st century resembles the original Gilded Age.

What has surprised us in our travels is evidence of the efforts—by individuals, by companies, by communities with their schools and civic organizations, by states and the entire nation—to find opportunities in the changed circumstances, as has of course happened after the great dislocations of the past. The Rework America team, coordinated by Philip Zelikow (who was director of the 9/11 Commission and wrote its best-selling report), addresses the question of opportunities created, versus opportunities lost, in a more systematic way than we have been able to do—and argues that a despairing, closed-horizons mood is exactly the wrong response to the next stage of economic creation. It is especially powerful in examining the history of America’s stages of growth and stagnation and applying those lessons to the years ahead.

I took part in two meetings of the working group and submitted some ideas. (And the book mentions some examples we have reported on.) But if I’d had nothing to do with the project I’d still say that this book is a clear-headed, economically sophisticated, historically grounded, vividly argued guide to the next stage of American growth. You can see an interesting video narrated by Robert Wagner here.

Has politics gone bad? You don’t know the half
of it. (Penguin U.S.A.)

3) The Republic of Conscience, by Gary Hart.

Who is your nominee for the public figure who has been right most often, over the longest period of time, on the broadest questions of national security? I propose Gary Hart.

From his anti-Vietnam War stands in the 1970s, through his leadership of Congressional defense-reform efforts in the 1980s, to his warning in the late 1990s on the Hart-Rudman Commission about the risk of terrorist attack, to his prescience about the imperial overreach of the past dozen years, Hart has been strikingly right more often, and embarrassingly wrong less often, than other public figures I can think of.

He has become a prolific author in his post-elective-politics years. His latest book is a jeremiad, but an informed and precise one. He argues that what has gone wrong in national politics is even worse than you think, and a lot of it comes down to the untrammeled role of money and the expansion of the security state. You’ve heard other people say this: What’s different in Hart’s analysis is the way he grounds his argument in the real things he has seen through a real career of running for office and seeing policy made. Practical point: If you’re inspired by the pleas-for-change speeches by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, or for that matter by Marco Rubio, by all means read this book.


Previously in the “books by friends” series, a mention of Erik Tarloff’s All Our Yesterdays; Jack Livings’s The Dog; Michael Zakkour’s China’s Super Consumers; and Mark Bernstein’s The Tinderbox Way last fall. Then a few months ago, another report covering Robert Wachter’s The Digital Doctor; Gabriel Weimann’s Terrorism in Cyberspace; Andrew Guthrie Ferguson’s Why Jury Duty Matters; Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton; and Patrick Evans’s Grand Rapids Beer.