Warford 2020

Summer reading lists usually contain light and airy “beach reads” meant to be consumed between dips in the sea and volleyball games.

I have no opposition to such books; I just haven’t read any lately. We will feature almost exclusively nonfiction this year, with one novel tossed in at the end — and it is not a 2021 title.

To the list:

“Doom” by Niall Ferguson — See? I told you we weren’t doing light and airy. Yes, the book is about catastrophes — plagues, famines, floods, plane crashes, earthquakes, space flight accidents, nuclear meltdowns, fires — but I have to say it is fascinating.

Ferguson researches common denominators that show up in many disasters, and points out that, in a sense, all disasters are manmade. An earthquake, for example, is not devastating unless large numbers of people built their homes on the fault line.

“Maverick: The Biography of Thomas Sowell” by Jason L. Riley — A Wall Street Journal columnist examines the life of one of the nation’s most brilliant thinkers.

“Author in Chief” by Craig Fehrman — This a closeup look at the writing lives of our presidents, before, during and after their presidencies.

Some wrote more than others. Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, probably wrote more books than some presidents read.

Ulysses Grant, of course, wrote a monumental memoir, often acknowledged as the best, as he raced death to finish before he succumbed to throat cancer.

A much more admirable man than we have often been led to believe, Grant struggled to finish his book not to “set the record straight,” but to provide for the financial wellbeing of his beloved wife, Julia.

“Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes” by Steven B. Smith — This is an insightful, thought-provoking work by an author whom I suspect leans left but who writes right down the middle.

The Yale professor strikes the exact tone I try for in my columns — the extremes on both left and right are damaging the country — and explains what true patriotism is and how the rest of us can reclaim it from the extremists.

“Extraterrestrial” by Avi Loeb — I attended a Zoom talk given by Loeb, the longtime head of the astronomy department at Harvard, and couldn’t wait to read his book.

I am agnostic on the idea of life on other planets, and so is Loeb. But in his book, mostly about the sighting of the mysterious Oumuamua object that passed through our solar system in 2017, Loeb makes the argument: Let’s be open-minded.

If we don’t investigate, we’ll never know. Let’s not dismiss out of hand the idea that there is or was intelligent life somewhere other than here.

“The Ratline” by Phillipe Sands — A riveting true story of an investigation into the past, in search of a Nazi war criminal who got away.

The twist: A main character is the Nazi’s son, who steadfastly refuses to admit, even to himself it seems, that his father really did what he really did.

“The Warden” by Anthony Trollope — OK, don’t ask me how it is possible to get so involved, so deeply invested, in what happens to fictional characters in a tiny English village in the middle of the 19th Century, but that is what Trollope will do to you.

You can’t go wrong with Trollope. You might as well order Barchester Tower, the next in the series, because you will want to read it after finishing “The Warden.”

William P. Warford’s column appears every Friday and Sunday.

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