Books for A Summer Afternoon: The 2020 Summer Reading List

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 13, 2020

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” I am not sure I agree with Henry James on the extent of the language, but as a reader I do understand what he meant. Summer reading seems different than reading in other seasons. Summer seems to suggest that we can read just for the satisfaction of reading.

The following are some suggestions for summer reading that I offer as one reader to other readers. As is usual for this annual list, the books are predictably centered in history and historical biography. I read a great deal of fiction and literature, but those books will have to await some later list. The titles I mention below are books I enjoyed reading, and now pass to you.

1. H. W. Brands, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (Basic Books).

“America’s West entered human history as Asia’s east and Beringia’s south. Except that Asia didn’t think of itself as Asia, and Beringia, the northern plain that connected Asia and America when the oceans were low, didn’t think of itself as anything at all.” H. W. Brands is a well-established historian and he brings an incredibly keen eye to the telling of the American West. In my view, this is the best one-volume history of the American West in print. As Brands makes clear, we cannot understand why America is America without tracing the history of the West, and then facing its massive scale and moral challenges. Brands accomplishes these tasks, and does so with a powerful narrative style that will keep you turning page after page.


The result was that the Texas republic, envisioned as a swiftly transitional step to American statehood, acquired an unexpected permanence. Texans of later generations would wax nostalgic about their state’s experience as an independent republic. A few Texans warmed to the idea, imagining Texas expanding far into the west and becoming a great nation of its own. But most Texans, facing an empty treasury, a worthless currency, harrowing raids by Commanches, and an embarrassing vulnerability to the Mexican army, still longed for attachment from the country from which the great majority of them has come. Texans would eventually profess to disdain the power of the American federal government, but in the dicey decade after San Jacinto that power seemed a comforting embrace they could only wish for.”


2. Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown).

Erik Larson is, quite simply, one of the best narrative writers of his generation. Larson’s skill is to make historical narrative become as transfixing as fiction, but true. In this new book, Larson takes the reader into the harrowing days of the Blitz in London during Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Larson knows that this is familiar territory to many readers, but what he offers is a compelling account, drawn from primary (and often intimate) sources, that reveals Churchill becoming Churchill. Given Britain’s life-or-death struggle against Nazi Germany, standing alone, one key question was whether Winston Churchill was up to the task—or if any individual could be up to this task. Larson understands that the Churchill we know now, was not yet known to the British people, or perhaps even to himself. “This was the year that Churchill became Churchill, the cigar-smoking bulldog we all think we know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like,” Larson explains.


With the German shift to night raids, life in London became compressed into the hours of daylight, which as autumn advanced, began to shrink with a dreadful ineluctability, all the faster because of the city’s northern latitude. The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds were that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent. Safety was a product of luck alone. One young boy, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, a fireman or a pilot or such, answered: ‘Alive.'”


3. Dan Jones, Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (Viking).

It is now common to hear the claim that history is always written by the victors. There is truth in the statement, but the truth is limited. Sometimes there are no real victors, and some wars never actually end. In the case of the medieval crusades, we face some of the hardest questions of history—and some of the headline issues of the 21st century. Dan Jones packs a lot into this one-volume account of the forces, individuals, events, and theological beliefs that erupted—again and again—starting a millennium ago. Like empire and colonialism, the crusades are not easily reduced to moral clarity, but it is impossible to understand the modern world—and especially the Middle East—without tracing these momentous events.


These were not wars of religion—indeed, religion was often very plainly secondary to commercial and geopolitical considerations. But they were wars between religious men, and they had consequences that lasted for generations thereafter, so that they could still be seen as playing out in Ibn al-Athir’s day. The collapsing together of wars fought for territory and wars that were waged on the basis of faith and dogma, with the goal of spiritual supremacy, was to play a part in launching two hundred years and more of conflict that would come to be expressed primarily in terms of a battle for the one true faith.”


4. Robert M. Gates, Exercises of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World (Knopf).

This book stands out from the others on this list because it deals with very recent history and it is written as a first-person account. Furthermore, the book offers strong policy proposals and political judgments. Robert Gates began his service to his country when Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States. He would later serve George W. Bush as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and both President Bush and President Barack Obama as Secretary of Defense. In Exercises of Power, Gates offers the reader an understanding of crucial events and crises ranging from Iran and Somalia to Russia, Africa, North Korea, and China. Gates has not written the book to settle scores (though he is clearly keeping score), but to make an argument about the use and misuse of American power. If nothing else, the reader (and leaders, most of all) will understand today’s headlines  and our own challenges by reading Gates’s account of U.S. history in a half-century of tumult.


It is telling that of the eight presidents I worked for, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, only two, Nixon and Reagan, had strategically ambitious foreign policy objectives when they became president and were able to succeed in achieving those objectives. In doing so, both dominated the international scene. Every president, sitting under that big funnel I described earlier, faces countless and endlessly diverse problems and crises, usually on a daily basis. Distractions are constant. A president must deal with those but, at the same time, never lose sight of the big picture—keeping as top priority the development and implementation of long-term strategies for dealing with the most important challenges. Today that means China and Russia above all, but also North Korea and Iran.”


5. John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press).

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Separatists from the Church of England we know as “The Pilgrims” from the the Old World to the New. John Turner, who teaches at George Mason University, has written the best history yet of Plymouth Colony and its meaning for American history. The book is superb history, but it rises above others because Turner understands the theology as well as the history. Indeed, he understands that the history and theology must be considered together. At the center of the book is a question: What did the settlers of Plymouth Colony mean by liberty? That leads to a second, more urgent question: What do we mean by liberty? As Turner reveals, the Pilgrims did not leave us a “simple story of democracy and freedom.” But, at the same time, we cannot tell our story without them.


Some of the Pilgrims suffered persecution for their religious beliefs and practices in England. Once in charge of their own colony, however, they persecuted others. Like most of their contemporaries, Pilgrim leaders desired religious uniformity and understood Christian liberty as mandating very specific forms of worship, church government, and discipline. Until late in the seventeenth century, the main argument among European Christians was not whether there should be only one religious option, but what that option should be and how governments should penalize those who did not conform to it.”

I really enjoyed my conversation with John G. Turner about his new book on my program, Thinking in Public: “They Knew They Were Pilgrims: A Conversation with Historian John Turner” (June 3, 2020). I think you will enjoy it, too.


6. Frederick Taylor, 1939: A People’s History of the Coming of the Second World War (Norton).

Several of the books on this year’s list have to do with World War II, and particularly the years 1939-1940. That makes sense when you consider two blunt facts. The first is that the year 2020 represents the 80th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister of Great Britain and the 75th anniversary of the end of that horrible war. The second fact is that eyewitnesses to these great events are passing quickly from the scene. Their stories are too important to lose.

In 1939: A People’s History of the Coming of the Second World War, Frederick Taylor looks at the arrival of the war from the perspective of the people, young and old, who lived it, day by day. This is not history as experienced by those in power, but as lived by those who, on both sides of the coming fury, were just trying to get on with life. At the same time, they all seemed to know that something nearly apocalyptic was coming. Taylor makes use of interviews, diaries, and mass opinion data—none of which was really accessible until long after the war was over. The pages turn as the unthinkable becomes the possible and then the inevitable.


At his country bolthole, Erich Ebermayer and his companion had been up early on a fine morning and taken a bicycle ride through the countryside to Kloster Speinshardt, a twelfth-century hilltop monastery. Ebermayer wanted, he said, to be among fellow human beings on what he knew would be a fateful Sunday. The church was full. Ebermayer stood at the back beneath the organ loft. The sermon was ‘surprisingly good . . . almost moving in its simplicity and dignity. Not a word of war-euphoria, though admittedly, also no clear statement against the war.’ They arrived home, switched on the radio and realized that Germany was at war with Britain.”


7. Adrian Phillips, Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, & Britain’s Plight of Appeasement, 1937-1939 (Pegasus Books).

The general view of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose policy toward Adolf Hitler is summarized in one evil word, appeasement, is that he was inept and idealistic. He tends to be remembered as the man who gave peace every chance until Hitler’s nefarious plans were finally undeniable. Adrian Phillips offers a very strong, very compelling, and much darker portrait of Chamberlain in this new book. But what makes the book even more interesting is the way Phillips reveals Sir Horace Wilson, essentially a civil servant, as Chamberlain’s chief deputy and advisor in the strategy of appeasement. The contest between Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain is the chief dynamic of the book, and the reader gets to consider what it was like to live through those days, not knowing how history would unfold. The revelation of the machinations of Chamberlain and Wilson will darken further how they are remembered. The reader senses on every page what is at stake.


Lurking beneath Chamberlain’s forbidding exterior was an acute preoccupation with what other people thought about him. His conviction of his own superior ability as a problem-solver was a facet of a more alarming flaw in his personality and one which was to lead him into a catastrophic misjudgment: vanity. Chamberlain appeared to be pathologically unable of making a balanced judgment about anything that he did. Everything that he did was a triumph. His self-view was entirely unclouded by doubt or irony. His overweening vanity left him vulnerable to even the most transparently dishonest flattery, which he lapped up uncritically, taking anything positive as truth. Chamberlain’s vanity was both strong and childlike; his letters to his sisters are full of accounts of his delight at other people recognizing his skills at, to cite a few examples, diplomacy, fishing, or shooting.”


8. Justin Marozzi, Islamic Empires: The Cities that Shaped Civilization from Mecca to Dubai (Pegasus Books).

Now we arrive at a dimension of history few in the West seem to know. In Islamic Empires, reporter Justin Marozzi, who has served as foreign correspondent for both the Financial Times and the Economist, takes us into the history of Islamic civilization at its zenith. He does so by looking at fifteen cities, each representing a century of Islamic history (or prehistory). The cities include Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba, Jerusalem, Cairo, Fez, Samarkand, Constantinople, Kabul, Isfahan, Tripoli, Beirut, Dubai, and Doha. Each city represents a century, so cities such as Jakarta did not make the cut. Those fifteen that remain offer the reader a window into understanding both Islamic history and the self-conception of Islam and the worldview of many Muslims today. Don’t read this book for theological analysis; read it for the insights into Islamic history that will make today’s world much more understandable.


A city is an idea. It is the realization, however imperfect, of humanity’s aspiration for a better future. ‘When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city,’ wrote the Italian novelist Italo Calvino. Every day migrants all over the world make this journey from wild regions to myriad cities in search of this elusive promise. For Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, the city may have been ‘a culturally refined but morally corruptive space,’ but that did not prevent countless millions of men and women from responding to the irresistible centripetal pull of Islamic cities, right up to today.”


9. Max Hastings, Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II (Harper).

Max Hastings is one of the most recognized authors in military history today, and he has to know that the subtitle of his new book, detailing the Royal Air Force’s “most brilliant attack,” is an argument in itself. But Hastings makes good on his claim that the RAF attacks on the massive Moehne and Eder dams in Germany represented an unparalleled brilliance. At the same time, he reveals that these spectacular achievements of the RAF were largely wasted in strategic impact. The famous “dambuster” raids are part of World War II lore by now, with the RAF  dropping the ingenious “bouncing bombs” on the massive lakes, eventually detonating at the dams. What Hastings also makes clear is that more than 1,400 human beings, mostly civilians, were swept away in the deluges that followed the “dambusting.”

The attacks (and the subsequent squandering of the opportunity) raise huge military, moral, and historical issues. Hastings tells the story well and he tells it honestly. He is candid about the brave young men—incredibly young—who undertook the mission with courage and the many who died in the effort. The concept of total war takes on a whole new meaning in light of this story.


These men were destined to be branded a band of brothers, a congregation of heroes. In truth, of course, 617 comprised a mingling of the good, the bad and the ugly , such as are all gatherings of humanity. It is important not to idealize all the crew relationships. Les Munro described his Canadian gunners as ‘rather hard cases,’ and some of his comrades characterized each other in harsher terms. Socially, many of these men, who served together for only a matter of weeks, had little in common. The most that can be said is that a crew which had forged a bond through extended operational experience together, such as that of Australian Les Knight, shared a mutual confidence lacked by those of their brethren who had come together more lately. Almost all of the generation that fought for the Allies in World War II enjoyed a far more coherent view of what they fought against—the huge evil of Nazism—than of what they were fighting for, which no politician had bothered credibly to tell them.”


10. Michael Medved, God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era (Crown Forum).

“The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years.” So noted historian Walter A. McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania. As Michael Medved rightly observes, this does not mean that every decision or policy undertaken by the U.S. will be right, but it does mean that it will be consequential. In his first volume in this series, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, Medved made the case that something beyond historical causality is required to explain the history of the United States. He began with both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, rivals in one sense to the end, died on the 4th of July, 1826—exactly the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. In this new book, God’s Hand on America, Medved looks to turns in history including the acquisition of Alaska, the Battle of Midway, the U.S. recognition of Israel’s statehood, the civil rights movement,  and many others. Academic historians bracket any providential reading of history, but Medved writes a compelling book that finds abundant evidence of divine providence. Both books make for compelling reading and a new appreciation of our nation, its burden, and its promise.


“‘Nobody knew the president was sick. For a lot of us, we didn’t even know he was mortal.” That’s what my late father told me, recalling one of the darkest days of his young life. On April 12, 1945, he got the news that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had suddenly passed into eternity. A nineteen-year-old draftee stationed in California, awaiting navy deployment as part of the final, bloody push against the Japanese home islands, my father felt suddenly lost, vulnerable, devastated after the president’s death. He was six years old when FDR first took charge in the White House. He couldn’t remember another name attached to the title ‘president.’ As a boy, he watched his Russian immigrant parents—my grandparents—celebrate their newly earned citizenship by clipping a magazine image of President Roosevelt, encasing it in a gilt-and-glass dime-store frame, and patriotically installing it in a place of honor on the wall of their South Philadelphia living room.”

The year 2020 is a very strange and trying year and this may be remembered as a summer of the pandemic. But my hope is that you can find some time to read and reflect this summer. And when you get a chance, let me know what you are reading as well. Passing on a book recommendation is just what readers do. Happy reading.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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