From bad architecture to biographies of a black American economist to beautiful cities, Mark Milke on your top 10 summer books.
Now that we’re almost back to normal, and most people will find a beach, porch or cabin this summer to relax on, let me offer up ten books for your summer reading.
Granted, my reading list is not normal. I do read John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Isabel Allende as my non-fiction escape books. But for a reading list, I assume my readers can easily find those, and I prefer to list some gems that provoke thought and might be forgotten.
If you’re the type as likely to take a history book to the beach along with a Grisham novel and flip back between both here’s my list.
In an age where mobs hack statue heads and cancel nuanced history, Black, the witty fellow who started multiple businesses in his career and gave Canada a gift in starting the National Post, provides depth, nuance and balance. Caveat: It’s 1,106 pages. If you go with Rise to Greatness as your first summer read, it might be your only summer read.
- Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason L. Riley
Thomas Sowell is 90 years old and spends his days with his camera and favourite hobby, photography. He deserves the break. Sowell grew up in the racist American South and later in Harlem, though as he notes, Harlem was actually safe and pleasant when he was a kid.
And then Sowell spent much of his academic career trying to talk economic sense to people who think everything in America that is wrong can be traced to racism.
Actually, as Sowell, and now Riley, a Manhattan Institute scholar and Wall Street Journal columnist both point out in this biography, if you want to understand why some people and then groups writ large fail or flourish, you have to look at a whole host of factors:
- Did their parents read to them as a kid and did they have library card? (Yes, to both, for Sowell.)
- What does the surrounding culture encourage or discourage?
- Where do they live? (Historically, New York City paid a lot more than did Atlanta, regardless of race.)
One fascinating fact about Sowell: He started out in life as an academic Marxist. He then worked for government. That turned him into an advocate for freedom and free markets. That’s because he saw that the latter correlates with reality whereas governments and socialism were about ignoring realities on the ground.
If you buy one book this summer, make it Riley’s Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell. You will quickly see that ignorance in history has been recycled into today’s debates, media, academic meanderings, and politics and that multiple false claims about race, incomes, and culture that Sowell spent his lifetime fighting are regrettably back.
- Inventing the Individual: The Origin of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop
In antiquity, there was no such thing as the individual. If you were the head of the home—male, of course—you were as good as God. So too the firstborn male. Everyone else didn’t count: Wives, daughters, extra sons, and slaves. The only thing that mattered in Greece and later Rome, was the city-state and the home, but not the individuals in it. One was supposed to be loyal to those two entities. There was no conception of an individual conscience that could or should defy either.
So how did we arrive at our conception of an individual today? The rise of a breakaway Jewish sect, Christianity, with some Platonic influences, where individual conscience and the notion of a personal God to whom one could appeal, arose. Larry Siedentop, a onetime lecturer in political thought at Oxford, explains why.
This book ought to be gifted to everyone who tells you we live in an oppressive society.
You probably don’t know that the culture of violence in the American South was an import from Great Britain, from an immigration wave between 1718 to 1775, the one that brought the so-called Scotch-Irish from North Britain and North Ireland to America.
Unlike other immigrant cohorts, the culture of this specific Scotch-Irish group “had been formed in a region of the mother country wracked by turbulent violence,” writes Latzer, prompted in part by the contested territory between Scotland and England and also vicious clan rivalries. Such immigrants formed the “dominant English-speaking culture of the American South,” writes Latzer.
If you want to understand why culture matters, and why it matters to crime, consider that Southern murder rates in the 1870s were “four to fifteen times more frequent… than elsewhere in the United States” and due to culture, and not poverty or urbanization, among other oft-blamed factors. Latzer’s book should be on your list as the retired New York criminology professor busts up more than a few myths attributed as causal to crime.
- From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe is dead (2018) which is a shame. Wolfe was an iconoclast who didn’t suffer high society fools.
Fools, for Wolfe, included architects too enamoured with modernism and who took the wrecking ball to what once made our cities pleasant.
This is a marvellous, slim book, of 143 pages. The version I have from 1983 has a cover price of $2.95.
One quote from it will give you the flavour: “There are now new approaches, new movement new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Slivers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so a to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves.”
Surprise! Commercial break.
Here’s an excerpt on the victim claims in universities: “When last century’s critical theorists and this century’s victim cultists engage in bleak narratives, forever arguing that the reality of a much more tolerant and equal opportunity-anchored society today is an illusion, such critics and erstwhile victims live in an imagined Hades. They simply have not caught up with the demonstrable reality of a freer, more flourishing, prosperous world in the last 70 years, and where the exceptions today are not the nations in which they live, but societies whose regimes have traditionally opposed the Anglosphere and its ideas, ideals, and norms.”
- Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, by Witold Rybczynski
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved cities—their architecture, soaring skyscrapers, parks and energy. The Tom Wolfe caveat about boring modernist glass boxes aside, I find how we arrived at pleasant or poor urban environments fascinating. He is a onetime McGill University professor and is now at the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Design department. Witold Rybczynski is the most thoughtful, accessible author alive on the “why” and cities are pleasant or a pain.
The benefit of a Rybczynski is that he is also not an urban design snob. He does not, for example, dismiss suburbs. Instead, he calls us back to better-designed suburbs, such as Garden City suburbs of one century previous.
Writing of one such suburb, Forest Hill Gardens, in Queens, Rybczynski describes his impression this way: “Getting off the train and descending an outdoor staircase into Station Square, I find myself in a cobblestoned place surrounded by buildings with deep arcades, half-timbered walls infilled with patterned brick, and steeply pitched red-tile roofs topped by clock towers and turrets. The overall effect recalls a medieval Bavarian town, perhaps Rothenburg, which was much admired by Garden City planner and architects.”
Rybczynski loves cities and beautifully-deigned suburbs. It shows.
- Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, by Norman Mailer
Did you know that the famed and egotistical American novelist, Norman Mailer, wrote a book about John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald?
Neither did I.
I only recently discovered Mailer’s 1995 book. It reads less like history but instead, as one would expect from a novelist, like a novel. Mailer interviewed seemingly everyone including former KGB agents who tracked Oswald in Moscow and Minsk, and where Oswald met his Russian wife, Marina.
Marina had her own tragic life before meeting Oswald and then during her short early life with him. Mailer details all that in addition to Oswald’s neuroses which stopped the world in its tracks on November 22, 1963. The combination of archival research, in-person interviews and novel-like storytelling makes Oswald’s Tale unique.
- The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis
We live in age where critical theory, post-modernism, deconstructivism and much else pour acid on the foundations of what has been one of the better, more flourishing civilizations in human history—ours in the West. It’s why hundreds of millions of people over the past century flocked to London, New York City, Paris, and Toronto and not, say, Mao’s China in the midst of his murderous Cultural Revolution.
Agree or not, here’s what will not help improve and renew our civilization: Cynicism.
Lewis, who hung around with J.R.R. Tolkien, was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge. He published The Abolition of Man in 1943 while the Nazis still had a firm death-grip on Europe.
Professors around Lewis saw too much emotional propaganda directed at students and thought it was their job to inculcate cynicism.
Lewis disagreed, arguing that “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles [false sentiment] but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils, we only make them easier prey for the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
Read Lewis and then think about how we can all “irrigate deserts” and give something back to our youth. Think about how we can protect them from the cynics and propagandists alike by giving the young and others reason, history, nuance, compassion and wisdom and is so doing nourish empathetic hearts and actual smart heads.
- Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson
I don’t know about you, but when governments finally let lapse their control-freak posture, I’m off to somewhere new, preferably a balcony or a beach in a city where I don’t know the language.
Bryson was/is an American travel writer who also spent two decades in Great Britain’s newspapers. The combination gave him British irreverence and American accessibility. His 1995 book profiled over two dozen European cities and unlike many travel writers on someone’s dole, Bryson was refreshingly honest. A few examples:
- On Rome: “Everything Stockholm was not—warm, sunny, relaxed, lively, full of good food and cheap drink.
- Liechtenstein” “Everything about Liechtenstein is ridiculous. For a start it is ridiculously small: it is barely 1/250th the size of Switzerland which of course is itself ridiculously small.”
- Amsterdam: “The Dutch are very like the English. Both are kind of slobby (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) …. There is none of the obsessive fastidiousness you find in Germany or Switzerland, where the cars on some residential streets look as if they were lined up with by someone with a yardstick. In Amsterdam they just sort of abandon their car at the canalside, often at the brink of plunging in.”
That’s Bill Bryson. Sure, the book is dated and you could go to Europe post-pandemic with an app that tells you where to eat and sleep.
But Bryson’s book is much more fun.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.