My favorite Christmas gifts have always been books. They fire my imagination in the way that no gadget ever can. They transport me back in time, take me to different places, put me in other peoples shoes. They enable me to get outside of myself.
I like the feel of books, the look of books, and even the smell of new books.
Books also enabled me to escape the cotton dust and machine oil of the mill and factory floors where I worked as a kid, and to follow my dream of writing for a living. Books were my ticket to the middle class.
In case you are still doing last-minute Christmas shopping, here are several books either published in hardback or paperback this year that I would recommend to the history lovers on your Christmas list.
The Passage of Power The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. The fourth volume in the epic biography of LBJ traces the years from 1958 to 1964, from his days as Senate majority leader, to his ill-fated pursuit of the presidency in 1960, to his humiliating years as vice president, to his feud with Bobby Kennedy, to the tick-tock of the fateful day in Dallas, to his ascendancy to the presidency and the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Reading Caro is like taking a graduate course in American politics -- except a whole lot more fun.
Mission to Paris by Alan Furst. My guilty pleasure is spy novels, and I devour everything written by Furst, who sets his stories in Europe before or during World War II. In his 12th and latest novel, American actor Frederic Stahl is in 1938 Paris to shoot a movie when he becomes entangled with Nazis who want to use him to make pro-German propaganda. Fursts books are dense with mood, historical detail, sexy women and a sense of foreboding because you know bad days are ahead.
Inferno: The World At War, 1939-45 by Max Hastings. Just what we need, another book on World War II, you might say. But Hastings, a British historian and war correspondent, has put together the best single volume I have read about the war. The book is filled with human stories of soldiers and civilians of both sides. He provides a cant-put-down narrative of the time of our fathers and grandfathers, when the world came apart and it took some good men to put it back together again.
Jerusalem The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. To walk the streets of Jerusalem will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Everywhere you turn, there are sites sacred to Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Montefiore tells the multicultural story beginning with King David and ending with 1967 Israeli-Arab conflict.
Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History by Robert Hughes. Hughes, the Australian-born art critic for Time magazine, who died this year, is a perceptive, if opinionated, guide through the citys riches. And what riches, from the Pantheon to Michelangelos Sistine Chapel to Berninis Fountain of Four Rivers. If Jerusalem is a spiritual journey, Rome is a feast for the eyes.
Eisenhower In War & Peace by Jean Edward Smith. Ike preceded Kennedy and was the far more accomplished leader, pushing through the interstate highway system, winding down the Korean war, and keeping the country at peace for the rest of the decade. Eisenhower had seen enough war and was not impressed with saber-rattling generals. Ike was one of the few presidents who left office as popular as he entered.
Hopefully good days are ahead for you and yours this Christmas.