As Summer Ends — (Late) Summer Reading List 2022

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
August 8, 2022

This year my Summer Reading List is definitely testing the boundaries of summer. But I claim as justification the fact that the days are still warm and summer reading actually works anytime of the year. I appreciate the many folks who asked when (or if) the list would come this year. Well, the theologically minded can just consider this a bibliographic version of realized eschatology.

I spend much of my time and attention on reading, and necessarily so. I also enjoy reading, but even as I enjoy the reading I do for research and preparation, there is still a qualitative difference between the enjoyment of reading and reading for enjoyment. Those of you who get the difference understand what I mean. The books I suggest below were read for enjoyment and I recommend them to you. As usual, they are nonfiction and tilted toward history, biography, and the like.

  1. Richard Overy, Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945, (Viking, 2021).

How many massive books about World War II occupy your bookshelves? No matter the answer, this volume deserves prime space. Overy is among the most respected historians of World War II, and he combines academic credibility with clear writing. Why another big book about the most famous war in Western history? The answer comes in two dimensions. First, the sheer magnitude of the war staggers the imagination. Thousands of books have been written, and thousands more are needed. Second, new questions underline the need for new investigations. Overy’s big history was written with the question of empire in the foreground. The book’s great achievement is to captivate the reader while reconsidering the war as the battle of empires and imperial ideas. His argument is particularly helpful in coming to a clearer understanding of Imperial Japan’s context and war aims. No reader will agree with Overy’s arguments at every turn (I did not), but his work demands attention, will keep readers turning pages, offers abundant material for consideration, and deserves first place on my list for this summer. It is one of the best single-volume histories of World War II.

2. Jane Ridley, George V: Never A Dull Moment (Harper, 2021).

Like his son, George VI, King George V spent his early years as the princely “spare” rather than the “heir.” Furthermore, he is often dismissed as stuck in an older age and utterly uninteresting. His father (Edward VII) and his son (Edward VIII) were playboys and Edward VIII would, as the next book makes clear, threaten to bring down the entire monarchy through his disastrous debauchery and treason (just wait until the next book on the list).

Once king, George V devoted his life to serving his country, the British Empire, and the institution of the monarchy. Ridley, also a respected historian, basically argues that George V was anything but dull, and that he actually cultivated his public image in order to rebrand the British monarchy as the central institution of British identity and dignity. In Ridley’s eyes, George V saved the British crown, but is remembered also for the great moral fault of abandoning his hapless first cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family to the murderous Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, George had to deal with another cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and the horrors of World War I. Ridley pulls the reader along, weaving the events of the times with the personalities of its famous figures. Her book helps us to understand, not only the reign of George V, but the moral seriousness and sense of history borne by his son, King George VI, and his granddaughter (whom he adored), Queen Elizabeth II.


3. Andrew Lownie, Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor (Pegasus Books, 2022).

Britain’s king was a traitor? The evidence of this dark truth is now overwhelming. Every century has its scandalous figures, but the twentieth century brought the opportunity to be scandalous on a global scale. The century also included some of the darkest moments of human history. The British figure at the intersection of the scandal and the darkness was King Edward VIII, whose short reign and profligate life mixed a deeply unserious man with the horribly serious crime of treason.

Andrew Lownie is hardly the first to reveal the treachery and lechery of King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, but his book “seals the deal,” as it were. This is not a book on the scale of Overy’s Blood and Ruin or Ridley’s biography of George V (who, by the way, predicted that his oldest son would ruin himself and possibly the British Empire within a year of taking the throne), but it is written on the right scale and with the right tone. If the book reads at times like a tabloid report, it is because the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they became known, lived tabloid lives. They must be seen together as pathetic, ruthless, stupid, completely self-absorbed blots upon the House of Windsor and the human race. But, as Lownie makes clear (and the evidence reveals), Britain’s King Edward VIII, was actually a traitor before, during, and after his wretched reign. The book underlines one of the great and ominous questions of twentieth century history: What would have happened if King Edward VIII had remained on the throne?


4. Robert L. O’Connell, Team America: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the World They Forged (New York: Harper, 2022).

Staying within the same historical period, take a look at four great American generals who led great armies into battle and commanded the world stage in order to win World War II. Team America puts the focus on four American generals who led the Allied War effort. Together, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, and George S. Patton would change the course of history and the art of warfare. O’Connell argues that they forged a world, and in some sense they certainly did. The great trial of America’s task in World War II called out for leadership, but these leaders are mere men. They also led the world’s greatest military effort to victory and changed history.

As O’Connell argues, “They were far from perfect human beings, but they did basically represent the values of their countrymen in some very tough circumstances. All four exhibited remarkable adaptability, which was exactly what tumultuous times demanded, but they never lost their basic respect for human life in an environment devoted to slaughter. They played in a very rough league, yet they never truly disgraced themselves, or us–not even George Patton.” This book is not about hero-worship or celebrity. Chapter after chapter, O’Connell’s book takes the reader behind what John Keegan called “the mask of command.”


5. Candice Millard, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile (Doubleday, 2022). 

Candice Millard is among the best writers of nonfiction working in the field today. She knows a good story when she sees one, and she tells the story well. Her books Destiny of the Republic, The River of Doubt, and Hero of the Empire, were all best-sellers, and deservedly so. In this most recent book Millard turns to the story of the race to find the source of the Nile.

To modern readers, able to use their smart phone to pull up a fairly current satellite image of virtually any spot on earth, it might seem inconceivable that nineteenth century Europeans had no real knowledge of the source of the Nile, but that was indeed the case. The Nile nourished civilizations for centuries, but it was the age of empire that provided the impetus for the race to find its source.

The story of the British expeditions to find the source of the Nile is fascinating and Millard puts the story within its context in world politics and the swirl of Victorian imperial ambitions. But it is the characters that make the story. Most importantly, it is the lives of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke that provide the central moral dynamic and conflict. The character of Sidi Mubarak Bombay, “sold for cloth in Zanzibar” as a young boy, is a big part of the story, and rightly so. Returning from India to Africa, he became part of the great search for the headwaters of the Nile.


6.  Anthony Tucker-Jones, Churchill, Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945 (Osprey, 2021). 

The world knows no shortage of books on Winston Churchill, but his life was so large that the books will keep coming. Frankly, this is good news. In this new book, Anthony Tucker-Jones considers Churchill as military leader and man at war. By dating the book back to 1895, Tucker-Jones is able to trace Churchill’s rise to lead Britain in World War II through looking at dimensions many other biographers miss. As Andrew Roberts, author of the best single-volume biography of Churchill noted, Churchill drew upon his long decades of experience both with and in the British armed services in order to lead Britain “during the greatest existential crisis in British history.”

Tucker-Jones clearly admires Churchill, and his book offers a broad and insightful view of Churchill’s life and times seen through his military training at Sandhurst, his experience as a soldier in war, and his role in national leadership over more than six decades of public life. At the same time, Tucker-Jones acknowledges Churchill’s mistakes and misjudgments. And yet, the big story is the sheer indispensability and magnitude of Churchill’s leadership in World War II. He was the soldier-statesman who understood Hitler, understood warfare, and understood what to do.


7. Keith Thomson, Born to Be Hanged: The Epic Story of the Gentlemen Pirates Who Raided the South Seas, Rescued a Princess, and Stole a Fortune (Little, Brown, 2022). 

Who exactly were the pirates and what was the “Golden Age of Piracy?” In truth, piracy of one sort or another is about as old as humanity, but in our culture the term most commonly refers to the bands of upstart criminals who raided naval shipping and coastal communities during the Age of Empire. In this work, Keith Thomson tells the tale of pirates who risked their lives to cross Panama on foot and then raid the Spanish Main with remarkable skill. At the same time, Thomson cuts through any romantic notions of piracy and reveals the mix of opportunism, risk-taking, and treachery that had to be combined with courage and intelligence in order for “buccaneers” to survive, much less to gain riches.

Thomson focuses on a two-year period in which these pirates greatly vexed the Spanish through their raids up and down the Pacific’s South American coast. There is no Disney-like cartooning here, but the characters are no less compelling. Thomson has done good investigative work here, and his purpose is not to write social history, but to tell a very good historical tale. Given the ambition of monarchs, it was quite possible in the age of piracy for buccaneers to be threatened with the hangman’s noose in one season, only to be given a royal commission in the next. Thomson tells us that the tales of the pirates captivated readers in the seventeenth century. They still do.


8. Henry Kissinger, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy (Penguin, 2022). 

He is 99 years old and he is still writing and thinking. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize and earned the hatred of the American Left, served President Richard Nixon as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, and was one of the very few figures who dominated the twentieth century still with us today — and still talking and writing. It is safe to say that no thinker alive today can match Henry Kissinger for the length of his struggle with the question of leadership and the intimacy of his personal knowledge of leaders who shaped human destinies in the twentieth century.

“Any society, whatever its political system, is perpetually in transit between a past that forms it memory and a vision of the future that inspires its evolution,” Kissinger writes, adding, that “along this route, leadership is indispensable.” He should know.

Kissinger’s new book, impressive in both size and scale, includes serious considerations of the art and science of leadership — offered with good argument and spiced with historical observations — and direct considerations of significant figures on the world scene who are taken as examples. Many readers will hasten to the chapters on individual leaders who Kissinger knew. That would be a mistake. His observations about leadership are, taken alone, worth reading. But the chapters on individual leaders constitute the heart of the book.

In the central chapters, Kissinger considers Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kwan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher. In each chapter, Kissinger makes the kind of observations that he alone can make, and did make, up close. A commanding pillar of realism in American foreign policy, Kissinger often infuriated the Left and the Right, but especially the Left. Only Henry Kissinger could write this kind of book late in the tenth decade of his life, and I am glad he did.


9. David Gergen, Hearts Touched by Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made (Simon and Schuster, 2022). 

If Henry Kissinger was a political colossus, David Gergen was a political enabler. As the cover for this book indicates, Gergen was “White House advisor to four presidents.” Indeed, he was. More Americans probably know him as a commentator on CNN. Unpredictably enough, Gergen served both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as political advisor. As a matter of fact, he advised four presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. That list would indicate that Gergen as a certain kind of political and ideological flexibility, to say the least. At the same time, that resume underlines the unique vantage point Gergen occupied over decades — and from which to make observations about leadership.

Now, the same ideological “flexibility” that marked Gergen’s resume and political commentary is fully on display in this book. This is not the same quality of deep and serious consideration of leadership that we find in Henry Kissinger’s new book. There is little ideological or political consistency on display. Gergen just offers anecdotes and illustrations and advice, offered in something of a self-help guide. And yet, he was there, making observations, as leaders on the world stage passed by (and occupied the office down the White House hallway). His new book is a light read, but some of the practical advice and many of his anecdotes and illustrations are worth consideration. So eat the meat and throw out the bones.


10. Tom Sancton, The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping that Brought Down an Empire (Dutton, 2022). 

Baron Edouard-Jean Empain, Third Baron Empain, captain of industry, multimillionaire, and man of stature, power, celebrity, and industry, was kidnapped in Paris on January 23, 1978. Held for ransom, he would remain in captivity for 63 days, and in that period Empain would lose both a finger and his empire.

Classify this work as a combination of narrative history and true crime. The 1970s were a period of increased terrorist activity and headline kidnappings. But the kidnapping of Baron Empain (known to family and friends as Wado) set loose a series of events that the kidnappers did not intend. The entire Empain empire (associated with the Schneider group, of which Wado was the director) began to crack when it became apparent that the family was not really in a position to pay the ransom. Wado was a gambler and he played for big stakes. He lost a lot of bets. Empain did not expect to survive the abduction, but he did. Eventually, French authorities ended the kidnapping.  After the sensational events were over (a truly interesting crime story), Empain’s empire was in shreds. He was soon divorced, devoid of empire, and out of the headlines. The family’s mansion in Paris would be owned by a Russian official with Gazprom. Few remember the story today, but sometimes that makes the story more interesting.

The best thing about summer reading is that it is no crime to read the books when the weather turns chillier. So enjoy.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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