As Summer Ends — A Summer Booklist That Will Outlast Warm Weather (2023)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
August 7, 2023

I know, I know. August is a bit late for the release of a “summer reading list.” I can only plead necessity. I divide my reading into three major categories: First, books I must read for doing the work I do. Second, books I need to read for lifetime investment. Third, books I want to read, partly just for pleasure, but will have to wait until I have some time to read them.

To read is to choose. The choice is made easy when a book qualifies under all three categories. July allows me to dive more deeply into that third category, and that also includes fiction. But the stack I recommend each year is heavily weighted with history and nonfiction. July is now over, and I can share recommendations from my summer reading. My recommendation is meant to last far beyond the warm weather.

  1. Evan Thomas, Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II (Random House, 2023)

Evan Thomas’s timing could not be better. With so much discussion about Robert Oppenheimer and the use of atomic weapons to end the war with Japan, what we need is a first-rate author with a new, credible, and well-documented look at end of World War II in the Pacific. Thomas tells the big story through the lens of documentation left by three men: Harry Stimson, who served as U.S. Secretary of War; General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who directed strategic bombing in the Pacific; and Shigenori Togo, a member of Emperor Hirohito’s war cabinet, and the only member of that body who had come to the conclusion, before the atomic bombs fell, that Japan’s only hope was surrender. Thomas is skilled as a journalist and honest with his material. He makes absolutely clear that Japan was not poised to surrender until the bombs were dropped. Even then, many of the Japanese warlords sought to persuade the Emperor not to surrender. This is a riveting read that takes on added moral and historical importance in today’s context.


In consensus-minded Japan, and especially at the palace, little happens quickly, but Hirohito is aware that time has run out. The emperor has been vitalized by the desire to survive American atomic bombs and the suicidal fanatics in his own army, and he wants to save what is left of his country. He wants to convene the top leaders of government for a second seidan, at which he will accept Washington’s surrender terms and, finally, once for all end the war and preserve the nation. Prime Minister Sukuki proposes a meeting to begin in about four hour’s time, at one P.M. No says the emperor. Sooner. He does not want to give the military time to organize a coup. Hirohito has been hearing rumors, and they are all true.”


2. Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England 1603-1689 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023)

The death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 had been anticipated with dread for long decades. Every breath the Queen drew was strength to England, and when she no longer breathed, no one knew what would happen to the nation. The Blazing World begins with reign of King James I, the first of England’s Stuart monarchs. But, as author Jonathan Healey makes clear, the new century “was a tough time to be alive.” The dawn of the early modern age is made clear in this century which saw England thrown into tumult by civil war and religious tension–and by arguments that continue to this day. Healey, a historian at Oxford University, knows the era and his book, while certain to add fuel to many arguments, is a very good read.


“There is so much that is alien about the seventeenth century. Historians always must remember that the past is its own being, not ours. Like the Cheshire Cat, it can tempt us with a familiar smile, but  fades away before we can gain the measure of it.”


3. Calder Walton, Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West (Simon & Schuster, 2023). 

From the time I was 15, I have been fascinated with spy literature. It started with fiction. I discovered the genre by accident and was hooked. Only later did I realize that many of the most familiar authors of spy novels were themselves former spies. As Calder Walton reveals in this work of non-fiction, fact and fiction are often hard to tell apart in spy craft — and by design. Walton teaches at Harvard and his book can be seen as a major historical reset of our understanding of the spy war between the USSR with its allies and the United States with our own. I’ll just say that the book is riveting. My teenage fascination with spy craft and history remains, but to that must be added a deep worldview concern about the life-and-death moral issues involved in the enterprise and the very real clash of civilizations that was (and is) at stake. I commend the book highly, but in my view the author goes out on a limb as he concludes on more recent developments. I think he grants too much credibility to the political judgments of some former intelligence officials. At the same time, the greater part of the book is a rare achievement that more than justifies the decision to read it.


In recent years, academic historians have increasingly focused on structural, socioeconomic causes to explain major historical turning points, relegating the ‘great men’ school of history to the antiquarian past. That is a mistake. No one should suggest that we are not creatures of the times in which we live, subject to forces beyond our control–though not in the Jedi sense. At the same time, no serious person (outside of, perhaps, university history departments) would argue that the personalities of leaders are not important. If Stalin had not become leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin, or Khrushchev after Malenkov and Stalin, the Soviet Union would have been a very different place. Who would argue that Russia today would be different if Putin had not entered the Kremlin? The same is true for Winston Churchill for Britain’s war, or Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, or Mikhail Gorbachev in helping end the Cold War. Leaders matter.”


4. Rory Carroll, There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, and Two Minutes that Changed History (Putnam, 2023). 

In 1984, Britain was effectively at war, and had been for nearly twenty years. The Irish Republican Army was waging a war of terror on Britain and the stakes were growing more dangerous by the day. The IRA had chosen a path of strategic attack upon London and British leaders, but had now authorized a plot to assassinate Britain’s prime minister and head of government, Margaret Thatcher. As we now know, the plot almost succeeded. Had Thatcher’s movements shifted by seconds or inches, she would have been killed in the massive bomb that went off in a Brighton hotel hosting the Conservative Party conference. In the end, five people were killed, many were badly injured, and Britain was shaken, but resolved. Carroll traces the plot, the personalities, the background, the investigation, and he makes judgments. The book reveals why Thatcher was known as Britain’s “Iron Lady,” and it also brings the story up to the present day. It is a compelling read.



Had Thatcher still been in her bathroom she would have been cut to ribbons, perhaps fatally. The briefest extension of the speechwriting marathon–a final musing over a certain adjective, or haggling over a particular verb–could have placed her in the bathroom precisely at the moment of detonation, leaving her sprayed by a blizzard of broken glass, ceramic, and concrete. Instead, she emerged with two minutes to spare and was in the lounge, about a dozen feet from the bathroom, when the carnage began. Even there, she might have perished. had the chimney stack toppled a slightly different way, the tons of debris could have smashed into her suite and flattened the lounge. Revenge for the dead hunger strikers would have been served, and a major Western democracy would have convulsed. Thatcherism might have died with her. The attorney general would probably have appointed Willie Whitelaw, a traditional Tory grandee, as caretaker prime minister while the conservatives chose a successor. History pirouetted on a twist of geometry.”


5. Julia Boyd and Angela Patel, A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism (Pegasus Books, 2023). 

A focus on telling history from the vantage point of ordinary people, rather than a focus on great leaders, was a hallmark of France’s “Annales School” of history. Some of that work is predictably laden with theory, rather than data. The reason for that is simple: almost every movement or word of a king is recorded or witnessed while the same is not true for the king’s butler. At the same time, the impulse can lead in fruitful directions where the materials of history are available. That’s why this book is so important. Julia Boyd is a fine historian and an excellent writer. In this book she looks at one little Bavarian village, Oberstdorf, and it’s experience during the Third Reich. In Oberstdorf, records had been preserved and memories were still alive. Furthermore, a local historian, Angelika Patel, had already done much historical work about the village during the Nazi years. The result is a book that takes the reader right into the deeply conflicted heart of a small German village during some of the darkest years of human history. It is well worth your time.


There was another aspect of membership of the youth groups that must have delighted many teenagers — release from parental authority. Farm children were used to working hard from a young age, but as the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls absorbed more and more of their lives, there was correspondingly less time for scrubbing out cowsheds. Some parents no doubt resented his kidnapping of their offspring. . . . Whether or not parents approved of their children spending so much time with either organization was, however, largely irrelevant since their authority continued to be massively eroded by the state as the decade progressed.”


6. Burkhard Bilger, Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets (Random House, 2022). 

Like A Village in the Third Reich, Fatherland is the kind of work that reminds us of an interesting intersection in the study of the twentieth century. In a brief period of years we are progressively losing the ability to know and interview those who experienced World War II first-hand, even as children. At the same time, historical materials unavailable just decades ago are coming to light. Burkhard Bilger is an established writer whose parents were both immigrants from Germany. He knows Germany well, and yet he was troubled by unanswered questions. Over time, he pieced together the knowledge that his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher by trade, had become a “loyal” Nazi who was part of the crackdown on a village in occupied France. Bilger’s research and reflections combine in a memorable book that is bracing for its honesty. Burkhard Bilger set out on a quest to understand his own grandfather, but the story he found was bigger than he might have expected.


We live in an unforgiving time, impatient to pass judgment and rectify the past. But the guilt that drives us can reach beyond penance or restitution to a conviction that something in us, or in our culture, is broken beyond despair. That our history is irredeemable. I have never believed that. Not when I first went searching for my grandfather’s past and even less so now. It’s not just that his story belies the irredeemable sin, or that Germany has been so utterly transformed by the war. It’s that the better I know him, the more I see how deeply personal his choices were—how bound up in the events of his life and the peculiarities of his mind. Like millions of Germans, Karl came to see the Nazis in his own way and through his own weaknesses. Only he could bear the weight of that decision, and only he, and other Germans like him, could summon the strength to change. He was my mother’s father. I have his hollow cheeks and downturned eyes, his stiff shoulders and earnest stare. But his conscience was his own.”


7. David Grann, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder (Doubleday, 2023). 

Well, I will be honest and say that reading this book made me absolutely certain that I would not want to have been on the HMS Wager, which was shipwrecked on the west coast of Patagonia (now Chile) in 1741. The Wager was an armed merchant ship that had been transformed into a warship of Britain’s navy. Grann tells a strong story very well, and readers will get a very good picture of what life on an eighteenth century naval vessel was like. The book also helps us all to understand how little was known about some areas of the planet and how daunting sailing through treacherous waters would be. There is plenty of material for historical and moral investigation here, and Grann lays it all out. You add shipwreck to mutiny, add desperation and global politics, and throw in a lot of interesting naval history and law and you have the makings of a great tale and a satisfying read.


Because the far-southern seas are the only waters that flow uninterrupted around the globe, they gather enormous power, with waves building over as much as thirteen thousand miles, accumulating strength as they roll one ocean after another. When they arrive, at last, at Cape Horn, they are squeezed into a narrowing corridor between the southernmost American headlands and the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula. This funnel, known as the Drake Passage, makes the torrent even more pulverizing. The currents are not only the longest-running on earth but also the strongest, transporting more than four billion cubic feet of water per second, more than six hundred times the discharge of the Amazon River. And then there are the winds. Consistently whipping eastward from the Pacific, where no lands obstruct them, they frequently accelerate to hurricane force, and can reach two hundred miles per hour. Seamen refer to latitudes at which they blow with names that capture the increasing intensity: the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and the Screaming Sixties.”


8. Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker, Armada: The Spanish Enterprise and England’s Deliverance in 1588 (Yale University Press, 2022). 

The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of those historical events that most people seem to have heard about but few seem to know why it matters. It matters massively. I am averse to confusing history with counterfactual history, though I understand the temptation. Nevertheless, to suggest something of the scale of this historical question, just imagine that if the “Spanish Enterprise” had been successful, England might well have been added to the Catholic fold, Spain might well have reigned supreme over the waves, and the North American colonies might well have become an extension of Spanish culture rather than British. Which is to say: had events gone the other way, this article might well have been written in Spanish. In any event, the history we have known for the last nearly five hundred years would be very different.

There is so much to this story, from personalities (including King Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I of England) to the weather, the respective courts, and the world of the sixteenth century. Martin and parker, both respected historians of the era, have produced a genuinely important historical work that is also well written and very well documented. Yale University Press also produced a genuinely beautiful book with many full-color plates. As a physical object, the book is oddly heavy. Read it and sail on.


England’s best-informed contemporary opinion thus did not underestimate the enormity of the threat posed by Philip’s fleet — and yet, as quickly as it had come, the threat evaporated. The Armada had no further tricks up its sleeve: It struggled on between Orkney and Shetland and into the Atlantic in an effort to gain sufficient sea-room for  a safe run toward the ports of Galicia and Biscay. But fortune did not favour it. The autumn gales of that portentous year — the Winds of God, as their Protestant detractors would have it — blew early and with unusual violence, driving many of the returning ships toward the western seaboards of Scotland and Ireland. A large number were wrecked, often in cataclysmic circumstances, and the survivors were hunted down with little mercy. For the Spaniards, the Armada campaign proved and unmitigated disaster brought about as much by the forces of nature as by the hands of their adversaries. The English and the Dutch, in contrast, saw it as both an overwhelming victory and a clear demonstration of where divine sympathy lay.


9. William D. Cohan, Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon (Penguin, 2022). 

If you look for this book in your local bookstore, you had better ask where to find it. It’s hardly obscure, but the book could be placed in the business section or in American history, in economics or in leadership studies. It is the history of the rise and fall (and rise again?) of General Electric, particularly over the last three decades. Few corporations in America can rival GE for its centrality and history. Start with the fact that Thomas Edison stands at the headwaters of the company and Jack Welch stood as its iconic leader in the modern era. Add in world history, American history, the history of giant American corporations and titanic personalities, and this is a whale of a tale. Furthermore, it is rich with analysis, anecdotes, and documentation. Closer to our own times, it is a chronicle of how GE, famously committed to producing its own corporate leaders, succeeded well at that task until it failed badly. Jack Welch lived long enough to be celebrated as a titan of business and then seen as out of favor with management trends. He came to regret his choice of successor, and GE shrank from the world’s most valuable company to a fraction of its former self, only (even after Cohan’s book came to a close) to roar back (to some degree) as a jet engine manufacturer. Try explaining that to Thomas Alva Edison.


GE was never just another company. At different times during its 130-year run, it had been a leader in technological innovation and entrepreneurial drive. It has been a leader in helping people buy GE products, and a variety of other things, using GE’s money. The generation and distribution of electricity? GE. The lightbulb? GE. The jet engine? GE. The X-ray machine? GE. The world’s first radio broadcast? GE. The first home television sets? GE. The first electric cars? GE. Beneath the hood, GE had also been a crucible of corporate leadership, producing one leading executive after another who was capable of managing massive, far-flung global businesses across a variety of disciplines–including, among many others, Boeing, Honeywell, Allied-Signal, and Warner Bros. Discovery–and could do so while making a tidy profit. Although many people forget, GE was also a financial powerhouse, larger and more profitable than many commercial banks, investment banks, private-equity firms, or hedge funds. GE embodied both the muscle of American business–entrepreneurial drive, inventiveness, financial legerdemain–and its weaknesses–unchecked egos, grandiosity, hubris, and corruption. The story of GE’s glorious rise and distressing fall is not just the story of a power company or a jet engine company or a TV network or a finance behemoth. It’s a cautionary tale about hype, hubris, blind ambition, and the limits of believing–and trying to live up continuously to–a flawed corporate mythology.


10. Martyn Rady, The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe (Basic Books, 2023). 

Americans often lack an historical knowledge of the world that existed before 1776 and how that world both shaped our own and often drives history and headlines today. Central Europe–Mitteluropa–often represents a particular gap in knowledge. In The Middle Kingdoms, Martyn Rady offers a first-rate history of central Europe from the Roman Empire to the present. How important is a knowledge of this history? Just consider how many of today’s headlines, from Germany, Hungry, Poland, and Ukraine are part of this history. From the Romans through the Christians and the Ottomans and the Communists, the narrative offers both depth and breadth. Add the Protestant Reformation to the mix, along with the future of Europe. Rady is Masaryk Professor Emeritus at University College London and this book reveals a lifetime of historical study. Rady is also a good writer, and he knows how to keep a reader’s attention.


In Western Europe, the state preceded the nation. State boundaries identified where nations were, and governments through their control of the army, bureaucracy, and education forced nations into being within the spaces of their states. It was different in Central Europe, where nations crystallized without states to give them definition. Romantic writers identified nations by language, history, and lore, and the marks of nationhood were seized upon by peoples. But there were plenty of spaces in Central Europe where nations overlapped and shared the same space. The incongruity of state and nation prompted drastic revisions of boundaries within Central Europe. Having been torn apart by Napoleon, Central Europe was threatened with a new round of challenges in 1848, was rebuilt by Bismarck, and comprehensively dismantled and reorganized in the wake of both world wars. All this was done in the service of the national idea. Where people did not fit, their new twentieth-century masters either killed them or lead them into cattle trucks. Stalin put it simply around 1946. Referring to the trapped Hungarian minorities in the states of Central Europe, he observed, ‘The Hungarian problem is only one of boxcars.'”

Well, there are ten titles to keep you busy for a while. Let me know what you think, and let me know what you are 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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