What I’ve Been Reading (Non-Football)
One of the things I use my Twitter account for is to give brief reviews of some of the non-football books I read. I’m not going to turn this into a non-football blog, but maybe once a month, perhaps less, I’ll note some of the recent notable books I’ve read that haven’t been about football. Please note I will not cover everything I read, just the ones I feel like talking about. This first installment covers July-October.
Grey Eminence by Edward Cox: As I said when I first noted this book’s existence, somebody finally wrote a book about Fox Conner. The name probably won’t mean anything to most of you, but he was a senior Army general in the 1910’s and 1920’s who served as Pershing’s operations officer in the AEF and was a mentor to, among others, George Marshall, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. Conner apparently burned his papers, making him a hard person to write about. Cox’s relatively slim volume focuses more on his mentorship, and there’s plenty of space left over for a more in-depth analysis of his AEF work. For most general readers, though, this book suffices.
The Obamians by James Mann: Mann’s book on Obama’s war cabinet, a sort of sequel to his earlier Rise of the Vulcans about George W. Bush’s war cabinet. One of the common problems about coming to following people late is they’ve had this whole prior career you don’t know; somebody who started watching the NFL in 2007 doesn’t really understand Manning-Brady in the same way I do. Vulcans was a tremendously valuable way of adding this institutional memory, and there was a lot of history in the 1980’s and 1990’s between and among Bush’s war cabinet. Obamians is a less valuable book, partly because I paid better attention to Clinton’s national security team (I knew what Susan Rice did under Clinton in a way I didn’t know what Paul Wolfowitz did under Reagan), and partly because there’s less history there. Perhaps two-thirds of Vulcans was about before Bush took office; perhaps two-thirds of Obamians is about after Obama takes office. It’s still good, just not as valuable.
The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne: Herbert Gintis, who does consistently interesting reviews on Amazon, has a particularly good one of this book on Bayes’ rule titled “A Complete Muddle.” McGrayne never properly explains what Bayes is, why one would use it, and why one would not use it and would not want it used, and the result is 250 pages of narrative, almost none of it enlightening. Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, which I enjoyed less than I expected to, is a much better guide to actual Bayesian thinking.
The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner: A well-done history of Bell Labs. The book is not as big as the work to come out of Bell Labs, most importantly the transistor and information theory. The result is more narrative and a less powerful book than the one that could have been written. If you read this book, it’s worth supplementing your reading with a book that’s better on the big picture like James Gleick’s The Information or Tim Wu’s The Master Switch (disclosure: Wu co-taught a seminar I took in law school).
Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson: I’m an unabashed Neal Stephenson fan, even though Anathem sits there on my shelf, taunting me for not reading it yet. This is a compendium of his shorter works, all save two non-fiction. The cornerstone of this is his fabulous Wired essay “Mother Earth, Mother Board,” which is available online (60,000 words or so). As is normally the case with a compendium, some of the pieces are better than others and the result is a bit of a hodgepodge. Few of the pieces were completely new to me, though some, like his NY Times op-ed on Star Wars, I hadn’t read in quite a whole. More for Stephenson fans than anybody else, but I enjoyed my time with this book.
The Great Divide by Peter Watson: Another book in what I think of as the post-Guns, Germs, and Steel genre. The big question in this book is how much can you trust Watson. He traces the natural adaptation of civilization to the different physical environments in the Old World versus the New, with a bit of a concentration on the movement of the Old World core northwest from Mesopotamia to northwest Europe. There’s an awful lot of information here that was new to me, and I don’t trust all of it; reading the book, I had an unassailable feeling Watson went very quirky at times. It also bogs down at times with passages that don’t drive the book forward.
Dream Team by Jack McCallum: A very well done, highly entertaining history of maybe the most entertaining team to watch ever, the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, written by maybe the perfect person to write the book. There are no valuable takeaways here, but I devoured this book.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: I’ve read little Holmes before, not for lack of trying. I made it through these dozen or so stories over perhaps half a dozen lunches. That sort of reading, the kind that’s easy to pick up and put down and pick up again a week or a couple weeks later, is valuable to me, but I read these stories without joy.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: I devoured the Harry Potter books as fun escapist fiction. This is not that. I found none of the characters likable or attractive and upon finishing found myself wishing I’d given up on it 80-100 pages in as I’d considered. It may work better for you, but if I want to read something unexciting with people I don’t like, I have shelves of books about real people to choose from.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger: A new biography of the sixth president. The typical introduction to JQA is unflattering-son of a President, failed to win the popular vote, sold the traditional stepping stone of Secretary of State to Henry Clay to become President, and then failed to actually accomplish anything in his four years of office. Aside from his ineffectiveness in charge of the executive branch, that sort of gloss terribly underrates his pre- and post-presidential life. Unger’s biography is useful enough as a straightforward account of JQA’s life, and would have been sufficient for a lesser figure like Baron de Steuben, but I wanted something with greater depth.
The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning: The entry on Penguin’s History of Europe series covering 1648-1815. The subtitle is a bit misleading-Blanning’s story isn’t driven by and doesn’t really concentrate on the five revolutions. Pursuit is a bit inverted in structure-Blanning begins with a discussion of the physical reality of how people lived (a traditional favorite of mine) and ends with the part on the great politico-military affairs of the day. Some of his editorial choices are a bit idiosyncratic-I found the extended section on the hunting practices of the nobility very funny in a deeply absurdist way, but objectively it probably would have been a better choice to leave that out and go into more depth on the scientific advances of the day.
The Quest by Daniel Yergin: The follow-up to his fabulous book The Prize on the history of oil, Quest is much broader in scope, looking at the world of energy as a whole. The first two hundred or so pages are the follow-up to The Prize proper, and is the best part of the book. The latter five hundred pages are a bit of a mishmash on energy as a whole, on electricity, renewables, efficiency, vehicle power, and whatnot. Some of those sections are pretty good, while others aren’t nearly as good (the chapter on Middle East security stood out for me as particularly unenlightening). A friend of mine commented it would make a nice intro book for an undergraduate course on energy. I liked it more than he did, but that’s probably a fair assessment.
During those four months, my football reads, all of which I’ve reviewed on here, included Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, Chris Brown’s The Essential Smart Football, Frank DuPont’s Game Plan, Steve Belichick’s Football Scouting Methods, Robert W. Peterson’s Pigskin, Dan Pastorini’s Taking Flak, Percy David Haughton’s Football and How to Watch It, Frank DeFord’s Everybody’s All-American, John Thorn’s The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book, Joe Posnanski’s Paterno, Best of Rivals by Adam Lazarus, and 2012 NFL Record and Fact Book.
Finally, recent acquisitions of note I have not yet read: Martyball by Marty Schottenheimer, Sid Gillman by Josh Katzowitz, National Forgotten League by Dan Daly, Lamar Hunt by Michael MacCambridge, and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.