3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading
The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today
1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.
Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.
2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.
The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.
I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.
3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.)
John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:
Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”
There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.
When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.
I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."
You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
"The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.