While I’ve always been an avid reader of books, in the past twelve months or so I’ve also become an avid listener. After seeing hundreds of Audible ads advertising “Download a Free Audiobook Today!” I finally went ahead and signed up and downloaded my free audiobook (and yes, you actually can join, get that free audiobook, and quit the program within fourteen days). There has been no looking back and I’ve become a bona fide lover of audiobooks. I listen while commuting, while doing dishes, and in that time when I’m too tired to read and but not tired enough to go to bed.
Here are a few of the books I’ve listened to in the past few months.
Washington by Ron Chernow
One of my long-term projects is to read (or listen to) a biography of each of the American presidents. Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a brilliant account of the life of George Washington. It represents 42 hours of listening, but it didn’t ever grow the least bit dull. There are two aspects to the life of the first President that stood out to me more than anything else. The first was the unexpected interplay between Washington’s pride and humility. Though he was a proud man—vain even—he was also motivated by higher ideals than self. So even while he was desirious of having power, he was willing to give it up. He is the one man in American history (the one man in human history, perhaps) who has had access to complete military power and complete political power and who has willingly given up both. That is remarkable. The other aspect of his life that stood out to me was the deep sadness of his wife. Both of the Washington’s wanted to live a quiet country life, and yet time and time again duty came calling, taking George away. Martha lived with constant sadness that she and her husband spent so much time apart. Her life displays just some of the sadness of life in a fallen world. (Buy it at Amazon or Audible)
Truman by David McCullough
As I continue to work my way through the presidents, I knew I wanted to move quickly to Truman since it collides with another of my projects—working my way through all of David McCullough’s books. McCullough’s biography is considered the definitive work and I can’t see how it will ever be equalled. Even longer than Washington, Truman clocks in at 54 hours, but is fascinating from beginning to end. To give a sense of the value of reading this biography, I’ll refer you to an article my mother wrote after she read it for the second time: My Favorite New Deal Mason. Here’s a key quote from that review: “I think Truman's fundamental weakness was his misunderstanding of human nature. He was a committed humanist and had no category for entrenched personal evil. This influenced many of his decisions in a way that has proven counter-productive over the long term.” (Buy it at Amazon or Audible)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Through much of 2012 I had seen Behind the Beautiful Forevers on various lists of bestselling books, but it wasn’t until I returned from a week in India that I decided to pick it up. I’m glad I did. Boo spent three years in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum community. In this book she relates her experience there and tells about the lives of the people who live in that slum. I guess you might term this “narrative non-fiction” and it is very well done. She aptly highlights the despair of people who are victims of their circumstances and victims of the systemic corruption that plagues modern-day India. The contrast between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots, is stark and startling, the characters unforgettable, the stories tragic. (Buy it at Amazon or Audible)
Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly
Killing Kennedy is the follow-up to O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. (Because of its narrow focus, it does not count toward my presidential biography project) Both books made their way to the New York Times list of bestsellers and are there still. Killing Kennedy is a short, punchy account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It avoids swinging into conspiracy theory territory and simply recounts the facts as the history books have recorded them. It is fast-paced and well-told. Unfortunately it also has rather a “tabloid” feel. While no account of Kennedy’s life can be told without referring to his wild, unrepentant philandering, O’Reilly dwells there for a little bit too long, especially considering that this is an account of his death more than his life. There is no good reason for it, except that it is lascivious and, therefore, captivating. This book may still be worth listening to if you want to better understand one of America’s defining moments, but do be aware of that unfortunate secondary emphasis. (Buy it at Amazon or Audible)
Columbine by Dave Cullen
I listened to Columbine this summer, long before the tragedy in Newtown. Somehow recent events have made the shootings at Columbine High School seem even more tragic. Years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered one teacher and twelve of their fellow students, Cullen assembled the facts and did his utmost to separate truth from error and fact from fiction. The book’s editorial description says it well: “Over the course of this gripping narrative, Dave Cullen approaches his subjects with unrivaled care and insight. What emerges are shattering portraits of the killers, the victims, and the community that suffered one of the greatest—and most socially and historically important—shooting tragedies of the 20th century.” One of the greatest lessons may be that it will take years before we can really know what happened at Newtown, Connecticut. It will take that long for the reports to be gathered and filtered. In the end, much of what we think we know will be corrected. (Buy it at Amazon or Audible)