History and Biography

I probably read more books in this category than any other (including HCI and CSCW, I’ll admit). I mostly read about the 20th century, but some other periods intrude every so often. Dan Russell has accused me in public of reading a lot about World War II, and I confess that I do. But it’s not the only period, and recently, I’ve had a special interest in the Seventeenth Century.

Scott Anderson. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

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Like many in my generation, I’ve been fascinated by the figure of T.E. Lawrence ever since seeing David Lean’s 1962 film. I had read earlier biographies of Lawrence, which, like the film, tended to persist in developing his celebrity. Anderson’s book is a sober, much more balanced story of that period. It opened my eyes about what was really going on, who the other significant players were (several of whom I’d never heard of in the earlier accounts), and what a complex and, in the end, sad period this was. I like the trope of the simple change of preposition from “of” to “in” in the title of the book. Read this for a much better version of Lawrence and the context of his escapades.

Sarah Bakewell. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. New York: Other Press, 2010.

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This is perhaps the most unusual biography I’ve ever read. It takes as its organizing principle the attempt to answer the question, “how to live.” Then in 20 chapters it takes one of Montaigne’s attempts at an answer, amplifies it, and uses the opportunity to weave in details about Montaigne’s life. By the end, we’ve covered his life and sampled many of his essays. It’s a tour de force, extremely well crafted. It also reinforces the point that Montaigne’s way of writing created an entirely new genre, the personal essay. No topic was too mundane, or for that matter, uninteresting, to tackle in prose. It definitely led me to sample his essays (which, by the way, are voluminous!).

Andrei Cherny. The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2008.

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This book was suggested to me by my sister, Linda. At first the title was a bit off putting, but upon embarking on a read, I was gripped by the unfolding story of the Berlin Airlift.  I of course knew in general about the airlift and the bravery of the pilots and the resilience of the Berliners. But many of the details were new, including the whole story of the candy bombing itself. Initially one pilot, Hal Halvorsen, began dropping candy from his plane as he approached Tempelhof airport, suspended from handkerchiefs as parachutes. It grew into a major sensation, and convinced many of the Berliners of the Americans’ good intentions. The Airlift also played a key role in Harry Truman’s upset win over Dewey in the 1948 election. And there are many other dramatic threads to the story.

Stanley Cloud & Lynne Olson. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

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In the late 1930s, as war loomed in Europe, CBS turned to Edward R. Murrow to cover these events on radio. Broadcast news was in its infancy, and the style of live or near-live coverage that the team assembled by Murrow provided changed the nature of broadcast news forever. Murrow himself was based most of the time in London, and of course provided gripping accounts of the Blitz and other action there. A set of correspondents — ten men and one woman — were scattered among the other venues, and provided reports of action there. For instance, William L. Shirer, based in Berlin, gave accounts of the developments in Nazi Germany. After the war he published a series of volumes about the war, and after having been incredibly close to Murrow, had a falling out that lasted the rest of their lives. Many other names continued to be familiar in radio and television news well into my childhood, including Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Eric Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith. Radio listeners during the war were spellbound by their reports, and they set new standards for what international reporting could be. Many of these people continued to have dominant roles in TV and radio will into the 60s and 70s. Sadly, after the way, CBS and the other major networks evolved away from the kind of careful reporting reflected by the Murrow Boys, and led to the kind of commercialism and sensationalism that characterizes much of today’s TV news in particular. But Cloud and Olson tell the fascinating story of all these figures and their strengths and foibles.

Richard J. Evans. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004.

—–. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin, 2005.

—–. The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin, 2009.

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These three volumes constitute Richard J. Evans’ majestic history of the Third Reich, from its beginning to its tumultuous ending. Drawing on numerous sources, these volumes trace the character and actions of the Third Reich in all of its many ramifications. Even if you’ve read a lot about World War II, and its origins and outcomes, you will be thoroughly rewarded by reading this comprehensive history.

John A. Farrell. Richard Nixon: The Life. New York: Doubleday, 2017.

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I have no idea how many biographies of Richard Nixon there are. Before acquiring this one, I had six on my bookshelf (the real one). But this one is special. As Farrell points out in his Acknowledgements, a trove of new material has become available in the past few decades that give the biographer access to many new details of Nixon’s life. And, as those of us who have lived through most of his life know, it’s an amazing story. I don’t need to recount the stories here. One compelling element of this biography is that the complete set of Nixon tapes (minus some that contained highly classified material) has now been transcribed, so Farrell is able to quote the exact words of many of the participants engaged in the activities during Nixon’s presidency. But also, a number of diaries, notes, files, and other rich material has become available, making for a very engaging narrative. One story  that Farrell was able to confirm from new material is Nixon’s unlawful secret efforts during the 1968 election to persuade the South Vietnamese government to avoid the peace process initiated by the Johnson administration, under the assumption that Nixon would bring them a better deal if elected. He of course in the long run didn’t. The President elected to end the war in Vietnam instead prolonged it by almost five more years, at a huge cost in lives, internal dissent, and American goodwill. Farrell has a Nixon quote from his farewell talk to the White House staff that is so revealing: “Always remember, others may hate you — but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

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There is an enormous library of books about Lincoln. I own a number of them, but this is the one that I found most remarkable. While the early history of Lincoln and his rivals is covered, the focus is on the period of Lincoln’s nomination to candidacy in 1860 up until his assassination. The interesting sequel is that Lincoln appointed all of his rivals to key positions in his cabinet. Asked why he did this, he replied, “We needed the strongest men in the party in the cabinet. These were the very strongest men.” While this resulted in conflict over policy and Civil War details, it was a remarkable strategy, and Kearns goes to great length to show how it resulted in good decisions in the long run. All in all, a remarkable portrait of a president dealing with the gravest threat to the survival of our country.

A.C. Grayling. The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century & the Birth of the Modern Mind. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

1461140096152This book reviews the incredible range of personas active in the 17th century. It is a remarkable age, and Grayling’s claim is that it marks the transition from the earlier periods dominated by faith and authority to the modern view characterized by reason and observation. It was reading this volume, and Snyder’s book on Vermeer and Leeuwenheok, that rekindled my interest in the 17th century.

Max Hastings. Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

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As Dan Russell has pointed out, I have read a lot about World War II. While there are many competitors for this “honor,” World War II is certainly up there as one of the most decisive events of the 20th century. And, if you wanted to read an excellent one volume account of the war, I would recommend this volume. Hastings is certainly one of the best military historians of this era, and this volume may be one of his very best. It is thorough (651 pages of text), and illuminating. There is great courage and great stupidity, on all sides. And the human cost is simply amazing. His figure is that the war cost 60 million lives — I’ve even seen estimates that go as high as 70 million. And those numbers are just the deaths. The horrible injured, the displaced, the incarcerated, only add more terrible numbers. I must agree with Hastings’s summary statement on the last page: “this was the greatest and most terrible event in human history.” Read his account for the excruciating details.

Andrew Hodges. Alan Turing: The Enigma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. [Centenary Edition in 2012 with new preface by the author]

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This is the definitive biography of Turing. He is the pioneer of so much about computing, both theoretically and practically. He developed theoretical frameworks — the Turing Machine, the Turing Test among them — that have influenced so much subsequent thinking. He participated in the building of several computing machines, both during World War II and afterwards. His role in the decryption of the Nazi codes during World War II was noteworthy, though Hodges — much better than the movie The Imitation Game — does a much better job of articulating the roles of all of those involved in this key effort. And of course his tragic entanglements due to his homosexuality are a vivid illustration of the biases and practices of an earlier era. Read Hodges superb biography for a proper account of this interesting and complex man.

Ward Just.To What End: Report from Vietnam. New York: Public Affairs, 1968, 2000.

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This book was originally published in 1968, though it covers the author’s experiences from December 1965 to May 1967. At that time we of course had no idea of where the war in Vietnam was going. But Ward Just, covering it for the Washington Post, finds the whole affair confusing and frustrating. Knowing what we know now, we can see in his account the threads that would lead to the disaster that followed. But it’s so interesting to read an account from that era. The 2000 edition contains a reflective forward, but the text itself is unchanged from when it was written (ironically, while the author was in Ireland). The title is both prophetic and profound. What were we doing there, and why?

Maury Klein. A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

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We all know that one of the keys to the outcome of World War II was the mobilization of US industry. While it indeed happened, and by the later stages of the war our industrial output was astounding, the road there was complex and in many ways frustratingly slow. It was a complex process, to be sure. How would it be managed? How could industries that had manufactured things for peace be transformed to make things for war? There were political complexities to overcome. There were reluctant CEOs. There was labor strife to resolve. Women and minorities had to be recruited, and often there were major relocations involved as people from rural areas moved to the cities. Maury Klein’s monumental history — nearly 900 pages of it — tells about all these complexities in what I found to be page-turner detail. The whole process turned a nation barely emerging from the Depression into the international superpower that dominated the second half of the twentieth century.

Fredrik Logevall. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House, 2012.

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This book traces the history of France’s involvement with Vietnam. It was of course an overseas possession of France, part of its empire. But it was troubled, and led to a prolonged conflict, ending when the French lost a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. Previously unknown to me, the US was involved throughout this history. It begins in 1919 at the Versailles treaty talks that followed World War I, when Ho Chi Minh made an unsuccessful attempt to achieve Vietnam’s independence. Woodrow Wilson, the US President, refused to consider it. Throughout France’s war in Vietnam, the US provided military aid, without which the French could not have sustained their long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle. The US was a key player in the Geneva negotiations in 1954 that led to the split of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel. A key part of these negotiations was the US role in keeping the peace in southeast Asia. By the late 1950s Ngo Dinh Diem visits Washington to appeal to Eisenhower for support of South Vietnam. The first US advisers in Vietnam are killed in 1959. And, of course, the story escalates in the 1960s and beyond, not part of this volume. Logevall covers in elegant detail all of the multiple story lines that ultimately lead to our long and very unhappy involvement.

Diarmaid MacCulloch. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2009.

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I have become very interested in the history of religion, and MacCulloch’s masterful opus (1184 pages!) provided an excellent starting point. His reference in the title to 3000 years is due to his tracing the historical origins of Christian thought back a thousand years before the birth of Christ. And what a complex history it is. The church as an institution, shaped by multiple historical forces, divided again and again, and affected by an incredible range of personalities, survives yet today in its multiple forms. This is a book of history that engaged me like no other.

Margaret MacMillan. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2001.

This i51cxfzg1fhl-_sx328_bo1204203200_s a detailed history of the Versailles peace treaty process, an event that most agree changed the course of 20th century history. Indeed, its repercussions are still being felt, especially in the Middle East. MacMillan richly portrays the many significant figures in the drama. While she agrees that the six months of the treaty deliberations had long-lasting effects, she believes it is too simple to blame everything that happened in the century on what happened here. But it certainly laid the groundwork for all of the actors and events that came later, whether it’s the rise of Hitler in Germany, the rise of Japan in the east, the emergence of Israel and all the chaos in the Middle East, the control of eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, and even key events in the US.

Lisa McGirr. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.

51weywnuaml-_sx326_bo1204203200_This is an eye-opening account of what is perhaps one of the most disastrous legal actions in the history of the US. By banning the sale of alcohol, the 18th amendment unleashed a host of unintended consequences. It is widely known that this gave rise to organized crime. But it gave rise to a major expansion of the federal government in law enforcement. And the law was enforced disproportionately in African American, immigrant, and poor white communities. Indeed, even the lawmakers who passed or supported the amendment had access to alcohol in speakeasies and other covert sites. Such discriminatory enforcement led to the rise of an electoral base that helped FDR gain the White House. It also led to the emergence of vigilante groups who worked “in cooperation” with the federal agents, and among other things, led to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had almost disappeared after the enforcement of laws against lynching. McGirr’s excellent book is full of the details of these and other aspects of the Prohibition era.

G.J. Meyer. The World Remade: America in World War I. New York: Bantam Books, 2016.

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Every once in awhile one reads a book that shakes one’s ideas to the core. This has been such a book for me. I have, over the years, read a lot about World War I. But everything I read was about the war in Europe, or the war in European spheres of interest like the Middle East. This book focuses on what was happening in the US. The US did not formally commit to the war until April of 1917 (the war had begun in August 1914). It did not get involved in combat until almost a year later, and only in the following fall of 1918 were US troops led by US generals engaged in serious offensives. It is likely that this late involvement had a decisive effect. Even more decisive, however, was the US’s financial and materiel support of the Allies (Britain and France, primarily), and Britain’s morally indefensible blockade of food (and of course military supplies) to Germany. The latter led to widespread deaths via starvation of civilians. The story as told by Meyer principally involves Woodrow Wilson. I had not known much about him before, though I had a vaguely positive image of him. After all, I had been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in graduate school, and liked the work of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, to which I have occasionally given money. But the Wilson of Meyer’s depiction is incredible. He was a self-centered, idealistic man whose goal was to bring peace to the world by figuring out how to be at the center of whatever kind of peace process came at the end of this vicious war. He was stubborn, isolated, and inflexible. One reading is that after years of US propensity to stay out of the war, he finally realized that if he was to have a role in the peace, he would have to have the US involved in the defeat of Germany. And then he almost single handedly wrecked the Versailles peace process. His insistence on unwavering support for his idea of a League of Nations led Britain and France to negotiate for ever harsher terms for Germany and better deals for themselves. His continued unwavering support for the League of Nations in the form he wanted led to the US Congress rejecting US involvement in it. He was unable to negotiate, compromise, work with others. It cost him politically and personally. He was also maniacal about those who opposed him on any grounds, and it lead to the gravest abuses of the Bill of Rights probably ever. All manner of innocent people were caught in the webs of his zealous minions who accused anyone who disagreed with Wilson of treason, with jailings or sometimes even worse. Interestingly, this climate also lead to the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, followed up with the repressive Volstead Act. It also, somewhat paradoxically, eased the way to women’s suffrage. Having only read this account of these events, I am motivated to look into other biographies of Wilson and other histories of what was going on in the US at this time. But I have to say, I have somewhat different feelings about my own past as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.

Craig Nelson. Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness. New York: Scribner, 2016.

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2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There are a flurry of books and articles appearing as a result. Nelson’s book is just one of them, but it happens to be the one I picked up at a bookstore and read. Unlike earlier accounts, like Walter Lord’s famous Day of Infamy (1957), Nelson’s account (and I’m sure the others appearing this year) had access to a rich array of archival material: diaries, government records, transcripts, notes, on both sides. As a result, we get a much more nuanced account of the whole event. There was enormous conflict on the Japanese side about whether to do this at all, and the fact that diplomacy was still in progress at the moment of the attack is symptomatic of both the conflict and the ineptitude on the Japanese side. Similarly, the fact that the US was caught unprepared was evidence of much conflict and ineptitude on that side. There were widespread doubts that the Japanese were capable of such a thing, a reflection on deep cultural biases among many in the military and the government. As a result, warnings based on intercepted cable traffic that such an attack was possible, those who could have done something ignored the warnings and made no preparations. The diaries and personal accounts of participants on both sides add a level of richness absent in earlier accounts. And, of course, in the end, Admiral Yamamoto’s fear — he planned the attack despite having deep opposition to doing it — came true: it marked the beginning of the end of the imperialistic dreams of the militants who had gained control of the Japanese government.

Daniel Okrent. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

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I learned long ago that it is usually valuable to read more than one book on a topic. I had earlier read the McGirr volume (reviewed above) on the Prohibition before I read Okrent’s account. The two books are very complementary. Okrent focuses much more on the vast array of characters who populated the “wet” and “dry” elements of the debates about Prohibition and its repeal. It’s a fascinating story. The circumstances that led to the perfect storm that created the 18th amendment, and the later perfect storm that led to its repeal, are told in page-turning detail. Okrent’s talent for making the rich array of characters interesting is admirable. To me, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the story is that despite all the crime and hypocrisy that accompanied Prohibition — even many of its supporters drinking freely, for example — the net result was a reduction in alcohol consumption. Even after repeal, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the pre-Prohibition levels of alcohol consumption were briefly matched, and even then fell off. And the Canadian Sam Bronfman, one of the most successful of the purveyors of illicit drink, said that there was only one explanation for what happened during Prohibition: “You people were thirsty.”

Lynne Olson. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II. New York: Random House, 2013.

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As the world turned once more to war, there was major debate in the US about whether we should get involved. As European nations fell, and the British were seriously threatened, President Roosevelt tried to convince Americans that it was our moral duty to support the British and perhaps even get formally involved in the conflict. However, there was serious pushback to this idea, triggered in part by widespread frustration that our involvement in World War I had in the long run not solved anything in Europe. The leading spokesperson for staying out of the new war was the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. The resulting fight was anything but gentlemanly. Both sides used dubious methods to discredit the other. For instance, some in the military worked to undermine Roosevelt’s support of Britain. Roosevelt, in turn, authorized wiretaps of Lindbergh, spied on antiwar groups, tried to besmirch the reputations of antiwar congressman,  and mounted serious efforts in the press to win over support for his policies. Lindbergh in turn was portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer. It was an ugly time, ended only when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the opposition to our involvement in the war dissipated. Lynne Olson portrays the characters and the often ugly actions in riveting detail.

Lynne Olson. Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War. New York: Random House, 2017.

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As country after country fell to the German Nazis, their leadership fled to the as-yet-unoccupied England. Eventually, the leadership of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (actually, later Yugoslavia, but Olson does not cover that) ended up in the “last hope island.” Many military persons and civilians also fled to England. From the relative safety of England, they organized and monitored resistance movements in the occupied countries. They oversaw rescue networks for downed Allied flyers. They participated in military action. For instance, Polish pilots played a key role in the Battle of Britain and other later action. Forces from these countries played key roles in the invasions of North Africa, Italy, and on D-Day. While there were complicated relationships among these groups and the British government and intelligence services, much good came of the fact that there was organized long-distance oversight of activities in the occupied countries. And these relationships had much to do with the course of history after the war. The foundations for the European Union were formed, as was the British ambivalence toward being part of it. Olson covers an amazing array of activities and personalities involved in all of this. And, sadly, many international cruelties, such as the United States’ abandonment of Czechoslovakia during and after the war, are recounted. Leaders such as Churchill and Roosevelt had complex relationships with many of the figures who were in England, especially Charles de Gaulle. Though I have read a lot about World War II, this volume provided an essential perspective on important matters scarcely mentioned in most other histories.

Elaine Pagels. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012.

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The biblical book of Revelation is certainly one of the strangest and most controversial books in the Bible. Elaine Pagels’  research into the historical period in which it was written is itself full of surprising revelations. Her conclusion is that the book, seen in its historical context, is a satire about ongoing political events. It is similar to other texts from the same period also called “revelations.” Even as a biblical object, it has had a controversial history. For several centuries it was voted down for inclusion in the Bible, and even when it finally was approved, it was by a narrow margin. And later religious leaders like Martin Luther wanted to get it out of the Bible. Pagels’ analysis is intriguing, and her recounting of the perennial controversy surrounding the book and its interpretation is gripping.

Jennifer Potter. Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.

51jpftrhy7l-_sx323_bo1204203200_This most interesting family plays a peculiar role in the history of science. John the elder, and his son the younger, and the latter’s wife Hester, were passionate collectors of all manner of curiosities. Their extraordinary collection later became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The reason for the name of the museum is that Elias Ashmole essentially hoodwinked Hester out of ownership of the collection, and then “generously” donated the collection to Oxford. Potter’s fascinating biography traces the ins and outs of this curious family. By the way, all of this happens in the 17th century!

James Reston, Jr. The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.

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This slim volume (main text: 181 pages) tells the gripping story of the Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in 1977. Reston was one of the three primary background researchers for the interviews, and tells the story from his perspective. There were doubts about whether Frost would be up to the task of confronting Nixon. The background researchers armed him with an incredible array of material. But in the early phases of the interviews, touching on domestic and foreign matters, Nixon came across as holding the upper hand. When the interviews turned to Watergate, the background researchers said we’ve got to go for the jugular. There was a week’s delay before this phase of the interviews took place, and there was frenetic preparation, including a number of potential surprises for Nixon based on material gleaned from the White House tapes and other sources. And, indeed, it worked. The Watergate phase of these interviews are the most compelling, leading to Nixon making apologies — in his own somewhat indirect ways, of course. And since Nixon had been pardoned by Gerald Ford, this was the only time that he was actually called on to defend his behavior during these events. Reston’s descriptions are fascinating, down to off-camera moments where Nixon made odd comments to those involved in the tapings. I remember watching the original interviews (40 years ago!), and recently watched an edited selection of the Watergate phase of them. Having Reston’s report on what was going on as they were being made lends useful perspective to those amazing times.

Eugene Rogan. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

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So much history of The Great War focuses on the European theaters, and the tragic consequences for European history triggered by the Versailles Treaty ending that war. But of great consequence for the present day is what happened in the Middle East during the Great War, and what tragic implications for subsequent history the outcome of that war had for the 20th and now 21st centuries. Rogan’s volume covers the very different war that took place in the Middle East, leading to the ending of the centuries old Ottoman Empire. The carving up of Middle Eastern geography by the European powers has catalyzed the many tragic struggles that have swept this region ever since.

 James M. Scott. Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.

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This book is like the one above about the Berlin Airlift (The Candy Bombers). It’s about an iconic historic moment that is usually remembered as a heroic endeavor by brave Americans. It is that, for sure. But reading this account embeds the event in its historic context, and it’s a much more complex, and therefore interesting, story. For sure there are brave and heroic figures involved. But there are numerous tragic moments, such as the vicious revenge for the raid that was taken out on occupied China by the Japanese troops, the puzzling long-term imprisonment of the crew of the one bomber that landed in the Soviet Union, the ordeal of the two bomber crews that were captured by the Japanese, and the complex stories of those who eventually made it back to the US. There is the give-and-take of public stories about the raid, on both sides, with the actual facts about the raid eventually first disclosed by the Japanese rather than by the Americans, who got tangled up in confusing principles of secrecy. This book is a good example of why most of my reading is about history — there is always much more going on in events than one realizes.

Philip Shenon. A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination. New York: Henry Holt, 2013.

51gpzizug6l-_sx327_bo1204203200_For people of my age,  the Kennedy assassination was the first of, sadly, a long series of traumatic national or international events. It totally broke us out of the complacencies of the 50s and the early fantasies of the 60s. Indeed, it was a harbinger of a turbulent decade. And few events have been surrounded by as many rumors and accusations. In this detailed book by Philip Shenon, the whole history of the event and its endless sequelae are reviewed in depth. The investigation that followed it, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, was deeply flawed. Warren himself prejudged the outcome at the beginning, and was little interested in following up leads. Many tantalizing threads were uninvestigated. Various agencies like the FBI and CIA had information that was never shared with the Warren Commission. Key evidence was destroyed. It’s a complex and sad story, and there is sufficient evidence that if information had been properly shared, the whole sorry affair might have been prevented. It’s a frustrating yet interesting story.

Margot Lee Shetterly. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

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This is a truly remarkable book, about computers who are human, in this case, black women who were an integral part of aviation research in the 1940s and 1950s, and the space race in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond. They were first hired during World War II, when a shortage of male talent led to the hiring of women trained in mathematics, including many from black colleges and schools. They were hired into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The black women were organized into a segregated group, the West Area Computers, where they carried out mathematical calculations that helped refine the performance of World War II aircraft. The book traces the remarkable history of extraordinary talent sequestered in a segregated organization, living in a segregated state, yet making landmark contributions to the science and engineering of aviation in the 1940s and 1950s, and the conquest of space after that. While the Langley Laboratory slowly integrated itself, though with many challenges, the state of Virginia around it was one of the most segregated of all of them. Virginia defied Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and even went so far in Prince Edward County to take away all funding of public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than integrate them. But the black women computers strove on, contributing magnificently to the Mercury space program and the later Gemini and Apollo programs. As digital computers began supplementing and then replacing the human computers, it was black women who were charged with checking the output of the digital computers to make sure they were working correctly. They evolved into FORTRAN programmers, and indeed did the key calculations behind the Apollo moon landings. As the author says in the Epilogue, the most surprising question of all is why we did not know all of this until now. That’s what many who exit the movie version of this also say.

This is an amazing example of the story of humans as computers that is described more broadly in David Alan Grier’s book, When Computers Were Human, reviewed here in the section of HCI and CSCW.

Laura J. Snyder. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.

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This interesting volume explores how the emergence of optical instruments changed how both artists and scientists came to see the world. Leeuwenhoek, of course, carried out an amazing array of observations using a microscope. Vermeer is now widely believed to have used a camera obscura to create images of the world that he could study, and perhaps even copy (though this latter claim is controversial). Along with Grayling’s The Age of Genius, this book got me interested in reading more widely about the 17th century.

Volker Ullrich. Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

51bnwkpienl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is the first volume of a recent biography of Hitler (the original was published in Germany) that in part attempts to clarify, and often debunk, a variety of myths about this notorious leader. It focuses mostly on Hitler the person, but of course along the way we encounter all the terrible things he and his minions did. This volume covers the period up to the beginning of the War. The next volume will pick up the story with the invasion of Poland.