A Year for the Books

One of the greatest professional gifts of my life was a bit of offhand advice given me about 20 years ago by a writer who said, “Never feel guilty about reading, it’s what you do to do your job.” If he hadn’t said it, I don’t know if I’d read less or read guiltily, but I’m grateful I haven’t felt I had to do either.

I suspect reading is about to make a big comeback in America, that in fact we’re going to be reading more books in the future, not fewer. It is a relatively inexpensive (libraries, Kindle, Amazon), peaceful and enriching activity. And we’re about to enter an age of greater quiet. More people will be home, not traveling as much to business meetings or rushing out to the new jobsite. A lot of adults are going to be more in search of guidance and inspiration. The past quarter century we’ve had other diversions, often expensive ones—movies, DVDs, Xboxes. Books will fit the quieter future.

At any rate, 2008 was my year of reading furiously. I’m not sure why, nor why it involved a lot of rereading, a lot of going back to old texts as if I were on a hunt in which trails had to be retraced. I spent my youth reading novels, and learning life from them. Then at some point in my 40s, all I wanted was what was true. What happened in the war, at the battle, in that important life? I ask people my age, “Do you read mostly nonfiction now?” They almost always say: “Yes.” Is this connected with age? Here’s a twist: Lately I want to turn back to novels again.

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I reread Edmund Burke and discovered Conor Cruise O’Brien’s great biography of him. I was moved to see, or to notice for the first time, that Marie Antoinette had learned of Burke’s stirring defense of her, and his portrait of her, before she died. Maybe that’s how she could walk with such dignity to her death on the guillotine: because she knew she had defenders, and she knew they were well-armed. But the French Revolution continues its draw, I think because we sense in it—the heads on the pikes, the terrible dragging down of everything—such a dramatic telling of the demonic at work in history.

I read a lot of biographies this year. “Henry James, the Mature Master” by Sheldon M. Novick was very good, though I continue to wonder why James himself fascinates me when his work, actually, does not. The first volume of Alistair Horne’s admiring and authoritative “Harold Macmillan” set me on a journey for Great Lives Within the Ends of Empires. Or maybe that journey got me to Macmillan. Whichever, the journey continues.

Just before Macmillan there was “The Duff Cooper Diaries,” which gave me great pleasure. Cooper, the 20th-century British diplomat, was a man of real liveliness. He found life delicious when he wasn’t depressed. He was utterly worldly and yet quite down to earth: Half the book is his waking up hung over and wondering how to explain his latest infidelity to the wife he adored. Then he’d go to lunch and stop Hitler. (Cooper’s diaries helped me come down from Arthur Schlesinger’s, a great treat of 2007. He was in his way so small-d democratic and bedazzled by celebrity that he’d write things like, At luncheon I questioned the legitimacy of Tonkin Gulf, and was delighted to see Ann-Margaret had come to see it the same way.)

In foreign affairs I reread Ronald Steel’s “Walter Lippmann and the American Century” published to great acclaim 28 years ago, when I first read it. But this time I thought: There’s not enough here, not enough of this life has been caught. Lippmann, the great journalist, has been popping up in whatever I read lately. In the Duff Cooper diaries he’s offering well-reasoned advice on the organization of the Western alliance at the close of World War II. The other night he was in Gordon M. Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster,” about McGeorge Bundy’s late-life attempts to understand the Vietnam War and his part in it. Lippmann is meeting with National Security Adviser Bundy in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, in 1964. Bundy challenges him on his sympathy for the French policy, if that’s the right word, of “neutralization” in Vietnam: Learn from the French experience in Southeast Asia, propose a Geneva conference, include the Chinese. Bundy thinks this vague, impracticable, a recipe for communist hegemony. “Mac, please don’t speak in such clichés,” Lippmann retorts. Some probing, digging young scholar should write a new biography of Lippmann, taking another look at that stupendous, constructive and somehow irritating life and career.

A true delight was “The Blair Years,” Alastair Campbell’s memoir of his service with Tony Blair. No modern American political operative would write, or could write, a book as truthful, half crazy and irreverent as this one. It is a small classic, as is its more magisterial counterpart, “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen, a loving, tough-minded, broadly gauged memoir of his time as speechwriter and adviser to his friend John F. Kennedy. And there was “Mychal,” the journalist Michael Daly’s affectionate and unflinching portrait of Father Mychal Judge, who died in the Towers on 9/11. It contains the best reporting I’ve seen of what happened to the New York City firemen on that day, and of their habitual, and heroic, fatalism.

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Mother TheresaNone of these books were more important in the end than a modest and unheralded book called “Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire” by Joseph Langford, a priest of her Missionaries of Charity and her close friend of many years. You wouldn’t think there’s much new to say here, but there is. Everyone knows that as a young nun in Calcutta, Mother Teresa, then Sister Teresa, left her convent, with only five rupees in her pocket, in order to work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of the city. But what made her do this?

On Sept. 10, 1946, on a train to Darjeeling, on her way to a spiritual retreat, she had, as Father Langford puts it, “an overwhelming experience of God.” This is known. But its nature? It was not “some dry command to ‘work for the poor,’” he says, but something else, something more monumental. What? For many years, she didn’t like to speak of what happened, or interpret it. So the deepest meaning of her message remained largely unknown. Says Father Langford, “What was deepest in her . . . is still a mystery even to her most ardent admirers. But it was not her wish that this secret remain forever unknown.”

In this book, based on her letters, writings and conversations, he tells of how she came to serve “the least, the last, and the lost,” not as a female Albert Schweitzer but as “a mystic with sleeves rolled up.” Father Langford tells the story of her encounter on the train, of what was said, of what she heard, and of the things he learned from her including, most centrally, this: You must find your own Calcutta. You don’t have to go to India. Calcutta is all around you.

It’s better than I’m saying. But this is a good time to have Mother Teresa’s life in mind, and to remember, perhaps, that all can change, that a life—and a world—can be made better all of a sudden, out of the blue, unexpectedly. But you have to be listening. You have to be able to hear. Happy 2009.