A Year of Reading

Thanks to the pandemic, nuclear power school, and my book-loving wife, 2020 is the year I re-discovered an enthusiasm for reading (and finishing) books.

It was the inertia of a childhood spent with books and reading that caused me to say, for the last five years or so, that one of my favorite things to do is “read.”

But unfortunately since about junior year of college, reading has been a pastime of mine more in theory than in practice. Some of that was because of all the reading I was assigned for class, both at the Naval Academy and during my master’s program at the University of Chicago. Some of it was because I spent a lot of time reading random articles that popped up online. Mostly it was due to a lack of effort: the ease and novelty of scrolling through my Facebook or Twitter feeds compared to the diligence and self-discipline it apparently takes to read a book. 10-year-old me must have possessed that discipline in greater measure than 25-year-old me — the more time passed since I habitually read books for pleasure, the more my reading muscles atrophied, and the less enjoyable it became. I became alarmed at this last year and decided I would do something about in 2020.

When I left Chicago in March to 1) marry my fiancée, MW, and 2) start nuclear power school in Charleston, I had no idea how much time I would actually have to read this year. It turned out to be quite a lot.

Power school allowed for a relatively fixed routine — eight or nine hour days that left evenings completely free — and the COVID situation prevented many other forms of recreation. It helped that MW loves to read too. (She also loves The Office and Parks & Rec, and there was plenty of time for those as well.) So this year, we spent hours and hours of our newlywed months sitting near one another in our small apartment living room, reading.

Here are the books I most enjoyed this year:

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880), trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2002): This is the first book I attempted after moving to Charleston. I bought this copy of The Brothers Karamazov in high school, tried it three times since then, and never made it more than a quarter of the way in — I just couldn’t make sense of the characters or the plot. I picked it up again after hearing both Russell Moore and Phil Klay (see below), two thinkers I deeply admire, describe it as one of their favorite novels of all time. This time I made it. I can’t speak to how this translation compares to others, but I found this one readable enough, especially after I powered through the first two or three books (there are thirteen “books” within the book). The most gripping part of the novel was the “Grand Inquisitor” section — an allegory told by the atheist Ivan Karamazov to his devout younger brother Alyosha — in which a 15th century Spanish priest-magistrate confronts Jesus Christ to criticize His failure to accept the gifts offered Him by the Devil during His temptation. The official informs Jesus that the modern-day church has corrected His mistake by accepting the “kingdoms of the world” and other worldly benefits on His behalf. The passage is a thought-provoking reflection on how the Church’s pursuit of cultural relevance and political power can lead it away from the spirit of Christ. The rest of the novel was a highly enjoyable murder mystery and courtroom drama (after the first 100 pages), interspersed with expansive philosophical dialogues about family, faith, and justice. I hope to read it a few more times in my life.

Missionaries by Phil Klay (2020): Phil is my favorite living writer, and that’s not just because he was twice a guest on Thank You For Your Service, the podcast I started and co-hosted at UChicago. His book of short stories, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award and was my first exposure to what the Iraq War felt like for those who fought and worked there. His essays on civil-military relations for The Atlantic and Brookings are must-read masterpieces that I recommend to everyone remotely interested in the topic. I won’t pretend to have grasped every single nuance he threaded between the lines of his debut novel, Missionaries, but even a literary novice like me could tell it is an extraordinary book. At the very least, it’s worth reading just to admire the prose — the way Phil constructs poignant, complex characters and rich settings in just a few sentences. There are deep messages, too: through four main characters whose stories intersect in the context of the Colombian drug conflict, Phil vividly illustrates the impact of war on the people, communities, and cultures who fight it. The modern “American way of war” is under examination here, with a focus on the unseen consequences of exporting American military power around the globe.

The Luckiest Man: Life With John McCain by Mark Salter (2020): Usually when I buy a book, it sits on a shelf for months or years before I get around to reading it. Not this one. I barely made it home from Costco before I started reading this new biography — the closest we’ll ever get to an “official” one — of the late Senator John McCain. McCain became one of my personal heroes after his 2008 campaign for president; the first major political event I closely followed. His final speech at the Naval Academy, his alma mater, during my senior year was one of the most moving things I have ever seen, and less than a year later, thanks to a crazy accident of timing and place, I got to serve as an usher at Senator McCain’s funeral. Because of these small connections, McCain is a really special figure to me. I enjoyed every page of Mark Salter’s retelling of the McCain story, in which he is not only the narrator but also one of the central characters. A former Senate aide to McCain who worked on both of his presidential campaigns, Salter wrote many of McCain’s most impactful speeches and co-authored seven books with him. The Luckiest Man is inevitably a favorable account of McCain’s life and philosophy, written by someone who understood his thinking — who literally spoke, wrote, and thought on McCain’s behalf for several decades — better than anyone. The relationship between Salter and his boss is one of the more fascinating elements of the book. Reading it, you get the sense that Salter was perpetually somewhat baffled that he, of all people, ended up having this front-row seat to history alongside such an extraordinary figure — that Salter, like McCain, considered himself among the “luckiest” of people for the opportunity to spend himself in a worthy and patriotic life’s work. Alongside the retelling of major McCain life events, there is plenty of political “sausage-making” here too — it’s a must-read for anyone interested in political campaigns or legislative process. Highly recommend.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020): President Obama’s memoir was released just days after I finished The Luckiest Man, and I read it right away. A lot of people online have been complaining about A Promised Land’s enormous length (750 pages, for just the first volume), chalking it up to Obama’s enormous ego. I did not mind at all — partially because MW and I started a two-week quarantine in Connecticut right after I started it, and partially because I genuinely enjoyed almost all of his rambling tangents. Most of them are not about himself. Before recalling events or debates that took place during his presidency, Obama traces the issue in question (i.e. healthcare reform, the war in Afghanistan, the rise of the Tea Party) back through American history, providing the reader a comprehensive background summary of his historical understanding of that issue. These summaries are primarily useful not because they should be relied upon as an objective historical record, but because of how they illuminate Obama’s decision-making process and his general approach toward politics. His reflections on his presidential life are searching, introspective, and often highly self-critical. Agree or disagree with his policies and worldview, I think there is much to be admired about a public servant who is capable of situating his actions in the long historical arc of American history and conducting himself accordingly. I enjoyed reading about how President Obama understood this and cultivated that trait in himself.

The Rickover Effect by Theodore Rockwell (1992): I thought this one was going to be a struggle to read — it was not. Despite choosing to become a U.S. Navy submarine officer, I have never been all that interested in nuclear science, naval engineering, or the life of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. Years after attending my required engineering courses in Rickover Hall at the Naval Academy, and spending six months of my life in the Rickover building at nuclear power school this year, I happened upon The Rickover Effect at the NEX on base (in the uniform aisle, next to the tailor shop) and grudgingly decided it was something I should probably read. What I thought would be a dry technical history of an engineering project turned out to be a riveting story of politics, leadership, and determination. Ted Rockwell, one of Rickover’s top project directors and aides, portrays the Admiral as a genius of management with an eccentric, nearly superhuman gift for causing strong men and massive organizations to conform to his will. Equally interesting is the team of naval engineers he assembled, with its scientific expertise and bureaucratic savvy: one of my favorite anecdotes was about Rockwell’s participation in a campaign to have Captain Rickover promoted to Rear Admiral in order to prevent his being forced into retirement. After being blown off by the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Rickover’s civilian aides got the senator’s local newspaper to run a story on the injustice, eventually succeeding in persuading the Senate to back the effort and saving Rickover’s career. Rockwell’s obvious reverence for his former captain may sometimes cloud his objectivity. Even still, it is an inspirational account of how bold, persistent work can bring seemingly fantastical ideas into reality. The Rickover Effect leaves the reader with little doubt that getting ships and submarines underway on nuclear power, less than 10 years after the project began, could not have been accomplished by anyone other than this singularly dynamic, outside-the-box person.

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor (1956): This book wins the prize for most unexpected find of the year; I would never heard of it if my dad hadn’t sent it to me after reading a very random review in the Anchorage Daily News. The copy I read was at least 40 years old. The story follows Frank Skeffington, the septuagenarian incumbent mayor of a very Irish city in New England, as he embarks on his final campaign for reelection. Skeffington invites his politically inexperienced nephew to accompany him, leading to a fascinating series of events all around the city — including a rather shocking campaign rally at the wake of a dead supporter and bitter showdowns with powerful bankers and newspapermen. At its core, it is the story of how urban politics in America evolved from the quid-pro-quo machine style of the Gilded Age to a less corrupt, but less personal and more commercialized version. It is also a poignant reflection on loneliness and family. I can’t think of a book that has caused me to laugh out loud as often as this one — mostly due to O’Connor’s incredible ability to describe interpersonal dynamics: body language, speech patterns, etc. Those descriptions, usually of the band of sycophants that constantly surround Skeffington, were always clever and often extremely funny. I also cried, near the end of the book, when the mayor, in a moment of deep vulnerability, asks his nephew if he enjoyed the campaign (“We had some fun, didn’t we?”). At that moment, you realize what a deep void the relentless pursuit of power had left in the heart of this powerful, hard-charging campaigner. This book is a classic that should be read more widely.

The Economist (magazine): I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the time my wife and I spent reading The Economist this year, thanks to a subscription gifted to us by MW’s grandmother. I tried to make it through the Leaders, United States, and China sections every week and particularly enjoyed James Astill’s column on American life and politics, “Lexington,” and the beautiful obituaries at the end of every issue. MW likes to read the science, technology, and business pieces. In a year where major crises seemed to dominate the news almost every day, The Economist’s style — the in-depth explorations of economic trends, the amplification of local stories that don’t draw wall-to-wall cable news coverage, its deep commitment to liberal democracy and the free exchange of ideas, and its external (British) view of American social and political turmoil — was refreshing. People understandably have a hard time trusting many sources of news these days. For what it’s worth, I think The Economist is an exceedingly trustworthy one — this is a subscription I don’t see myself ever canceling.

Right now I’m finishing up a few other books: The Courage to Stand (Russell Moore), Travels With Charley in Search of America (John Steinbeck), and The Conservative Sensibility (George F. Will). MW, for her part, enjoyed Becoming (Michelle Obama), American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins), Let Me Be a Woman (Elisabeth Eliot) and The Splendid and the Vile (Erik Larson).

MW and I are enjoying our time at submarine school in Groton, CT! We celebrated Christmas with some Chinese takeout and enjoyed our Zoom calls with family. It was difficult to be physically separated from them this year — for me, it’s the first Christmas season I’ve ever spent away from my parents, and the first calendar year I spent entirely away from Alaska. But despite all the sadness and strife in the world, 2020 was an extraordinary year for the two of us and we feel incredibly blessed.

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