Wednesday, June 18, 2008


[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

I've been fortunate enough recently to read some truly outstanding books, and I'm happy to tell you about them.

The most remarkable is The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Simply put, it's one of the most riveting nonfiction books I've ever read.

The Race Beat meticulously documents the course of the civil rights era, but from a different angle: the influence of the press, both positive and negative, in defining and changing the discussion.

This book is frequently very difficult to read, because the events it describes in detail are often sickening. It's very difficult to understand the stunning amount of hatred that existed in our country, and after reading this book, I will never again doubt that we have made progress in the last four decades. We are a long way from being a colorblind society, but we are not nearly so far away as we were back then.

I can't recommend The Race Beat highly enough. It's brilliantly written and meticulously researched, a stunning piece of journalism, and on top of all that, it's a great read.

Amazon link: The Race Beat.

The next book is the most thoroughly researched biography of Mao that I've ever read. It's somewhat controversial, as its Chinese author clearly hates her subject beyond all pretense of objectivity, yet the details assembled are still quite remarkable. The book is Mao: The Unknown Story, written by Jung Chang (who also wrote the highly-regarded Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China) and Jon Halliday.

The portrait of Mao that emerges is of a man beyond regret or remorse. It's chilling to see the documentation of the mammoth degree of foreign aid given by Mao at a time when millions of its citizens were starving each year. Also chilling are Mao's stratagems for identifying and eliminating dissent. I think it's fair to say that he was willing to execute a thousand innocent men to eliminate a single threat.

It's difficult to read about inhumanity on such a massive scale, but the authors conducted hundreds of interviews and had a seemingly unprecedented degree of access to official documents, and it's an excellent read. If you want to know about Mao and the history of the Communist revolution in China, I would highly recommend this book.

Amazon link: Mao: The Unknown Story.

The next two books are both written by Rick Perlstein: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Of the two, the book about Barry Goldwater and the 1964 election is more interesting, only because that particular election has been thinly covered in the past, and Perlstein has assembled a staggering amount of detail about what happened. Nixonland, which covers the 1968 in 1972 elections, is just as dense, but lacks the revelatory nature of the Goldwater book because these elections have already been-well covered elsewhere.

Again, the general chaos and borderline madness of the 1960s is on full display here. Perlstein is identified as a "liberal" historian, and it certainly appears to influence how he connects the dots from one event to another, but his analysis is not why these books are valuable: it's the truly stunning amount of detail he has gathered.

The Barry Goldwater book is out of print, so you might try your local library, but for Nixonland, here's the Amazon link. I also think these books are much better if they're read in order, because combined, they cover the whole of the 1960s.

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