George F. Will: By the Book
The political columnist and author, most recently, of “The Conservative Sensibility” has no love for Holden Caulfield: “Just what the world does not need: another sullen adolescent.”
What books are on your nightstand?
There are 47 audiobooks on my phone, which is my nightstand: I listen two to three hours a day in what otherwise would be wasted time — shaving, commuting, exercising. The 47, and paper books scattered around, include novels (e.g., John Williams’s “Stoner,” Kate Atkinson’s “Transcription”), biographies (e.g., David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass,” Victor Sebestyen’s “Lenin”) and history (e.g., Elaine Weiss’s “The Woman’s Hour,” Sean Wilentz’s “No Property in Man”).
Tell us about the last great book you read.
Rick Atkinson’s just-published “The British Are Coming,” the first of what will be a three-volume military history of the American Revolution. Its excellence equals that of his Liberation trilogy (“An Army at Dawn,” “The Day of Battle,” “The Guns at Last Light”), the story of United States forces in World War II’s European theater.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
David Quammen’s “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin” teaches how thrilling intellectual steadfastness — following facts wherever they lead — can be. Max Hastings’s prodigiously researched and deeply humane “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975” is instruction in the costs of disregarding facts — of foreign policy made on the “believing is seeing” principle.
What’s the best book of political philosophy or theory?
Aristotle’s “Politics.” Followed closely — very closely — by “The Federalist,” a collection of newspaper columns, a genre that reached its apogee in 1788.
What books best capture your own political principles?
After those two, the Library of America’s two-volume “The Speeches & Writings of Abraham Lincoln.” Then Harry Jaffa’s “Crisis of the House Divided” on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Friedrich Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty,” Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer,” Timothy Sandefur’s “The Conscience of the Constitution,” Ronald J. Pestritto’s “Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism,” and two by Greg Weiner: “Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics” and “American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
Which books do you think capture the current social and political moment in America?
Populism — lawlessness in the service of curdled envy and resentment — has returned, so readers should return to “All the King’s Men” (1946). Robert Penn Warren’s roman à clef about Louisiana’s Huey Long still resonates. For the descent of populism into opera buffa, read A. J. Liebling’s hilarious — unless you lived there — “The Earl of Louisiana.” What happens on campus does not stay on campus, so it is time to revisit “Pictures From an Institution,” Randall Jarrell’s 1954 sendup of progressive academia, where we meet Benton College’s President Dwight Robbins, who “was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.” From current writers, Timothy P. Carney’s “Alienated America” and Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic” suggest the sociology of populism’s appeal. To understand the Republican Party’s descent into a cult, and congressional Republicans’ loyalty-as-lobotomy, read Arthur Koestler’s novel of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, “Darkness at Noon.” Pay particular attention to Gletkin, the embodiment of the apparatchik mentality.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The Great Gatsby,” for the perils of life lived as a series of gestures.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“Middlemarch,” because Virginia Woolf was on to something when she called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” And because 40 is the new 21.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Two are tied for this trophy. Perhaps the finest book from World War II is Eric Sevareid’s 1946 memoir “Not So Wild a Dream,” which is lyrical without being sentimental. And because nothing is more perishable than the public’s remembrance of a newspaper columnist, savor “America Comes of Middle Age” (1963), a collection of columns by Murray Kempton. His craftsmanship — has anyone ever done more with fewer than 700 words? — caused a 17-year-old from central Illinois, who first read Kempton in The New York Post in 1958, to see that elegant journalism is not an oxymoron.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Alan Furst’s historical novels, set immediately before and during World War II, are my favorite contemporary fiction. Since reading “The Female Persuasion” and “Manhattan Beach,” I will pounce whenever Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan publish novels. The vinegary Lionel Shriver has a bracingly bleak, which is to say cleareyed, take on this era. Ian McEwan never disappoints. Richard Russo’s character Sully (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Everybody’s Fool”) will make you want to visit — briefly, for a beer with Sully — North Bath, N.Y. George Pelecanos’s crime novels are set in Washington, D.C., but have nothing to do with the shocking behavior that is not considered criminal there. Pelecanos’s best are comparable to George V. Higgins’s 1970 masterpiece, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Scott Turow has not lost an inch off his fastball since “Presumed Innocent.” So many superb histories are being written by nonacademic historians, including Rick Atkinson, Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts, Ron Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, Daniel Okrent (“Last Call,” his spectacular history of Prohibition), David McCullough (especially “The Great Bridge,” the story of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge), Lynne Olson (“Last Hope Island”), Richard Rhodes (“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”).
Which genres do you avoid?
Science fiction. Reality is weird enough.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?
Three at a time, one on paper (currently “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson”), one from Audible (currently Sean Wilentz’s “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding”), one on Kindle (currently “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard”).
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works in Two Volumes” (Moscow, 1962).
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
To wean me away from reading only baseball box scores, my father, a philosophy professor, read to me C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, which whetted an appetite that I slaked, decades later, with Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, also set during the Napoleonic Wars. My first adolescent plunge into serious novels was James T. Farrell’s trilogy about a Chicago adolescent, Studs Lonigan.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” It is short. It is high journalism, but journalism, so it will not be too syntactically challenging for a man comfortable with at most 240 characters. And he who has the nuclear launch codes, and who talks loosely about unleashing “fire and fury,” should glimpse what that can mean.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Albert Camus, whose “The Stranger” ignited my compulsive reading as an undergraduate (1958-62), when every aspiring intellectual had to be an existentialist, which entailed two core beliefs: Life is absurd, and European movies (“La Dolce Vita,” “Breathless”) are profound. Thomas Mann, whose novel “The Magic Mountain,” like Camus’s “The Plague,” is an exhilarating example of the literature of political ideas. And to lighten the evening, Peter De Vries, the only American novelist wittier than Mark Twain. Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, De Vries was an anthropologist observing middle-class Americans from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“The Catcher in the Rye,” which, like Holden Caulfield, should have been strangled in the cradle. Just what the world does not need: another sullen adolescent.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
Although “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball” has perhaps sold more than the other 13 combined, my favorite is “Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does,” based on my Godkin Lectures at Harvard in 1981.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Lionel Shriver, because she will tolerate my convictions, and because her take on me would be entertainingly acidic, which I, like almost everyone else, probably deserve.
What do you plan to read next?
“Metropolis,” the last of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, which convincingly convey the atmosphere of menace and moral vertigo in Germany and Europe before, during and immediately after the Nazis. When Kerr died last year, so did Bernie. Both will be missed.
An expanded version of this interview is available at nytimes.com/books.
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