Great Books

While I can never hope to compete with the likes of Lex – who reads even while cooking – or Ginny, who can glean the subtlest moral from any tale and nimbly connect it to her own life’s experience; I did, for me, a lot of reading last year. Of all that I read two books stand out like flares amongst candles and I recommend them to you heartily.

No. 1: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

I cannot, literally, praise this book highly enough. Published in 1986, it has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and if you read it, you’ll understand why.

In the first half of the book Rhodes tackles the scientific discoveries leading to the bomb with rare articulateness, speaking with clarity and insight about the science but also about the scientists themselves. Their excitement, confusion, personalities and lives. They become living, breathing characters, not icons on a pedestal. One gets a rare sense of how science builds upon itself with each new discovery fueling insights across the globe. How it inspires new experiments designed to further unravel the mystery; the professional rivalries, the personal and nationalist ambitions to be the first to achieve a key breakthrough and earn the coveted Nobel, forever framing your name in lights among the immortals. The icons become human again with frailties, ideals, naivitees, families, political beliefs, fears, frustrations and bursts of amazing genious. It’s fun getting to know these people. They’re an interesting and very human lot.

In part two, Rhodes begins with the political, social and economic unravelling of the world and the unleashing of the immense and barbaric levels of warfare that we call WWII. He covers the frustrating efforts of scientists to get the attention of the US government bueauracracy regarding the danger of Germany’s developing atomic weapons and the critical need of the Allies to not only derail Germany’s efforts, but to develop these weapons themselves, for they were absolutely convinced that whoever achieved this weapon would win the war and dominate the world for the forseeable future. Rhodes unveils the truly immense scope that was the Manhattan District project, the vast resources that were funneled into it, and the long, frustrating, effort to figure out how to make the weapon work or even to determine if it ever could be made to work.

The climax of the book, the explosion of the history’s first atomic detonation at the Trinty Site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the subsequent droppng of the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the long detailed descriptions of the effects the bomb are both profound and deeply disturbing.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Interesting links:

The Atomic Cannon
Hiroshima yield weapon fired from an artillery piece.

Gallery of US nuclear weapons tests.

No. 2: Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

This is a masterful retelling of a time and an event. Set in the Dutch Colony of what was then known as the Spice Islands and what today we call Indonesia, Winchester brings to life the colonial period of Europeans in far flung, exotic and sometimes grueling and dangerous corners of the Earth. The event in the title, the explosion and absolute destruction of the island volcano of Krakatoa was a catastrophe on par, perhaps exceeding, the tsunami that recently ravaged virtually the same geographic region two years ago. Winchester discusses the geologic causes, the aftereffects, the social impact and historical ramifications of that far off event. Beautifully written and highly engaging.

Recommended. Four stars.

5 thoughts on “Great Books”

  1. Michael, I am telling you, the key is to get rid of your television.

    I have wanted to do a post about books I’ve read recently but the time when I can do that keeps receding into the future. In the meantime, here is the barebones list of what I have gotten to in the third and fourth quarter of 2005. I hope some time to do a review post on all this stuff. All of it is good.


    · Frank Kitson, Bunch of Five
    · Michael Deaver, A Different Drummer My Thirty Years with Reagan
    · Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel, the new Hofman translation
    · Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History
    · Eddie Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus
    · Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence
    · Thomas Sowell Black Rednecks, White Liberals
    · Edward E.”Doc” Smith, Gray Lensman
    · Ralph Peters New Glory : Expanding America’s Global Supremacy
    · Robert D. Kaplan Imperial Grunts : The American Military on the Ground


    · Joel Garreau Radical Evolution, The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human
    · M. Stanton Evans The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition
    · Rodney Stark The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
    · Donald R. Headrick The Tentacles of Progress : Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940
    · Neal Stephenson The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
    · John L. Allen Opus Dei : An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most controversial Force in the Catholic Church
    · Nicholas Ostler Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World
    · Nicholas Rombes The Ramones (33 1/3)
    · Henry James’ novella “The Beast in the Jungle”

    1Q 2006 (finished today!)

    · Jeremy Black War and the New Disorder in the 21st Century

    Currently Reading

    · Alan Macfarlane The Savage Wars of Peace
    · J.N. Figgis Studies of Political Thought: From Gerson to Grotius, 1414-1625
    · Robert Doughty Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
    · Andres Vazquez de Prada The Founder of Opus Dei: The Life of Josemaria Escriva : The Divine Ways on Earth
    · Arthur Hermann The Idea of Decline in Western History
    · Gavin De Becker Protecting the Gift
    · James Campbell The Anglo-Saxon State
    · Thomas P.M. Barnett Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating

    Currently “reading” but stalled

    · Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI,
    and a Devil’s Deal.
    · James Stenson, Father, The Family Protector
    · N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean
    · Cynthia V. Wedgewood, William the Silent
    · Edward E.”Doc” Smith, Second Stage Lensman
    · Alan MacFarlane, Letters to Lily: On How the World Works
    · Ferdinand Mount The Man Who Rode Ampersand

  2. Lex, as I said, who can compete with your olympian achievements in reading? For what it’s worth, I also read this this year…

    All but two of the Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester. I’d been meaning to read them for years but got suddenly interested in them this year for some odd reason. Thoroughly enjoyed them too.

    The African Queen, also C.S Forester

    Nelson’s Trafalagar, Roy Atkins

    Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer

    Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fisher

    Common Sense, Thomas Paine

    Self Reliance & Other Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

    Empires of Light, Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse & the Race to Electrify the World, Jill Jones

    2001: A space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke (for the tenth time or so. I love this book.)

    The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, A. C. Doyle (Also for the tenth time or so)

    Dune, Frank Herbert (For the twentieth time. This book is an old friend and a masterpiece).

    Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

    Children of Dune, Frank Herbert

    The Complete Robot Stories, Isaac Asimov

    Timeline, Michael Crichton

    State of Fear, Michael Crichton

    A History of Ireland, Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry (Unfinished, poorly written)

    A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Book I, Winston Churchill (Not great, not too bad)

    New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village, John Baskin (A beautiful book, recommended)

    The Diary of H.L Mencken, Charles Fecher (Unfinished, lost interest. Boozing, celebrities and snarkiness in the 1930’s. Zzzzzzz.)

    The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd, Richard Zacks

    A few others that were so bad they’re already forgotten. The two I highlighted stood out clearly from the pack.

  3. Rather than contributing a massive list, let me second your rave regarding Richard Rhode’s book. One of my top 5 non-fiction over the last 35 years.

  4. Rhodes’ follow up to that, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb is good as well.

    One of the best things I’ve read/am reading (up to Constantine the Great right now) this year is (finally) Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My word, that man could write.

    Lex is right, of course. In the immortal words of Neds Atomic Dustbin: Kill Your Television!

  5. If you are looking for another book to read, I have one that I recommend highly.

    The book is titled “The Fall of Lucifer”, written by Wendy Alec.

    The book opens with the three Angelic brothers, Lucifer, Michael and Gabriel, in heaven before the fall. Over the course of the book, the essence of the angels is developed. The controversy arises when God created man to be higher than the angels, in that we are created in the image of God. Lucifer was embittered to the point of rebellion.

    Various historical events are incorporated, and the plot offers the perspective of an angel into the events. The novel develops the beauty of heaven and the grotesque quality of hell, the depths of evil, and the beauty of grace. It communicates these themes through beautiful imagery and an intriguing plot. The beautiful imagery would make for amazing scenery!

    This is a fast read, 300-page novel that is consuming to the imagination and penetrating to the heart. I hope they make this book into a movie. It would be amazing. If you have time, I hope you enjoy it!

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