Summer Book Recommendations for 2020

Published on June 22, 2020

Summer is a great time to get away from the business world. Although taking a vacation during a pandemic can involve overcoming a number of issues, it is always possible to take a virtual vacation through the pages of a great book. This idea was the inspiration for a list of book recommendations published a decade ago. The Rational Walk has published many book reviews over the years, most of which have to do with business in one way or another. The following mini-reviews cover a range of topics, most unrelated to the business world, and hopefully a few of them will spark an interest this summer.

The Odyssey

Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey makes Homer’s epic poem more accessible to readers who might have been intimated by prior English translations. I first read Homer’s epic poems as a student but I did not take the time to fully appreciate these classics. More than two decades later, I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both are very readable and enjoyable but the language and interpretation still presents somewhat of an obstacle to modern eyes. Wilson’s ingenious translation, in contrast, can be read with as much ease as a modern novel. It is important to note that Wilson has not in any way “dumbed down” the book, but she has used much more direct language requiring less interpretation. Reading her translation is a very enjoyable experience.

The Pilgrimage

Paulo Coelho’s book about his pilgrimage on The Camino de Santiago is a classic on par with The Alchemist which appeared in last year’s list of holiday book recommendations. Coelho is a natural storyteller and his pilgrimage story is a combination of autobiography and elements that will strike many readers as embellishments. But no matter how you approach the book, or whether you view it from a religious perspective or not, Coelho’s account of the Way of Saint James is a classic travel adventure story. I had an opportunity to walk part of The Camino last year on a trip to Spain and I passed through many of the small towns and villages that Coelho describes. Much has changed since he wrote the book. The way is more crowded and there are far more services for tourists but the path retains its charm.

The Wright Brothers

Warren Buffett often jokes that investors would have saved billions of dollars if someone had shot down the Wright Brothers’ plane back in 1903. Buffett is well versed in the woes of the capitalist who enters the airline industry but no doubt admires the life story of Wilbur and Orville Wright. At a time when the idea of aviation was thought of as a fantasy or science fiction, these men had a dream and were determined to succeed despite limited formal education and access to capital. Their work with bicycles and endless tinkering convinced them that heavier-than-air aircraft could be built and controlled by human pilots. I read this book a few years ago and found it well researched and a quick read. It is a very good choice for younger readers given the topic and the relatively brief length of the book.

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Isaacson is one of my favorite biographers and his account of the life and times of Albert Einstein is one of his best books. Attempting to delve into the mind of any accomplished human being is a huge challenge, and that is even more true when describing a genius who is most known for his extensive scientific contributions. Isaacson manages to do justice to the life of Einstein and the basic outlines of the science while keeping the book accessible to the average reader. Isaacson’s biographies of Steve Jobs and Leonardo DaVinci are also well worth your time. Isaacson’s books are long and detailed but fascinating enough to avoid getting bogged down or intimidated. My notes indicate that I read the Einstein book in just under a week in the fall of 2017.

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I

I recently read William Shirer’s account of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I mentioned in a related article on World War II. I have long been fascinated by World War II and Shirer’s book provides many answers regarding how Hitler came to power. However, it is not possible to fully understand the rise of Hitler without studying World War I. Barbara Tuchman’s book, The Guns of August, is an account of the first month of World War I. Tuchman wrote this book in the early 1960s at a time when the First World War was still not ancient history. She was not an academic historian and wrote compellingly for a general audience. Her work influenced President Kennedy and many others around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps Tuchman’s narrative of the human follies that led to the outbreak of war in 1914 prevented the outbreak of war in 1962.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit’s family history in Israel dates back to 1897 when his great-grandfather visited Ottoman-controlled Palestine on a Zionist-organized tour. Shavit recounts this personal history which is intertwined with Palestine’s history under British control followed by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. I read this book four years ago and found the author’s approach to be honest and not at all dogmatic. It is difficult to gain an appreciation for the small size of Israel without visiting the country. As an American visiting Israel in 2012, I was struck by how quickly I was able to drive from Ben Gurion Airport to the far northern reaches of the country in the Galilee. For readers seeking a more complete history of Israel, I recommend Israel by Daniel Gordis.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs

I recently published a long-form essay on Robert Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s book, The Power Broker. Jane Jacobs was one of many citizens of New York who saw the problems associated with the road building and slum clearance programs that Moses advocated and imposed on the region from the 1930s through the 1960s. Jacobs was difficult to pigeonhole into any broad political ideology but I think it is fair to say that she was an advocate of localism. She had disdain for “master plans” developed by people who did not have an understanding of the fabric of the communities that would be irrevocably altered and, in many cases, ruined by such “master plans”. This collection of essays is a good introduction to the philosophy of development and planning advocated by Jacobs which strikes me as a far more enlightened and balanced approach to city planning.

The Jazz of Physics

Stephon Alexander is a tenor saxophonist and physicist. Based on reading his book, it is difficult to tell which subject he finds more fascinating. Perhaps that is because he views music and physics as, in a very real sense, two sides of the same coin. Heavily influenced by both Albert Einstein and the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Alexander makes some fascinating discoveries regarding the structure of music and how it might relate to the structure of the universe. Alexander’s book is not always an easy read but it is accessible and comprehensible to the reader with limited scientific background who is willing to expend some effort. The book will be most appealing to readers who have an interest in music, specifically jazz music, and at least some desire to explore how music, science, and the universe might be related.

The Sage of Monticello

Dumas Malone spent a lifetime researching and writing about Thomas Jefferson and The Sage of Monticello is the final book in his six volume biography. Malone himself was elderly when he wrote about Jefferson’s final years and perhaps one of the reasons the book is so fascinating is because the biographer could more fully relate to his subject. Jefferson’s retirement years at his beloved Monticello estate were probably the most creative years of his life. Jefferson was a planter and a politician but also a scientist and a family man who delighted in the presence of his daughter and grandchildren. Jefferson also had many human flaws and his spendthrift ways over a long lifetime, combined with some bad luck, marred his retirement years due to oppressive levels of debt. When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he knew that Monticello would eventually have to be sold to satisfy his massive liabilities.

The New Girl

Daniel Silva is the modern master of the spy novel, as the popularity of his Gabriel Allon series attests. The New Girl is the latest book in the nineteen volume series and will not disappoint enthusiasts of the spy genre whether they have read prior books in the series or not. Silva provides enough background in each book to make them stand on their own. Gabriel Allon is the Israeli version of James Bond, except much more of a Renaissance man, quite literally. Allon’s “cover” is that of an art restorer which was his trained profession before being recruited into the Israeli spy game as a young man. Silva’s books are entertaining and quick to read. I picked up this book before leaving on a trip to Europe and finished it during the long flight and subsequent train ride. Book twenty, The Order, comes out on July 14.

For additional book recommendations, check out the full archive of book reviews that have been published on The Rational Walk since 2009. For ten additional book recommendations in a format similar to this post, take a look at Holiday Book Recommendations for 2019.

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Summer Book Recommendations for 2020