Biographies: The Choices We Make

We choose to read for various reasons.  At times, our concerns are political or social or both.  In a library we may literally trip over a section of books unknown to us before, where we fall in love behind the shelves (this, by the way, does not happen the same way online; it cannot).  Eclectic tastes in food mirror my variant desires in literature.  I may jump from one thing to another simply because the title, author, or subject has somehow captured my “fancy.”  Experimenting with authors will take place.  While I may “fall” for one, you may wonder “what does he see in her?!

We both know the plethora of pages out there, languishing on library shelves.  Some should be dusted off and dog-eared.  Others should be left to the dustbin of “withdrawn, discarded.”  [At Mahseh, I have been able to procure thousands of donated volumes; over a thousand came from the biographies in Cliff House’s library.  If I consume all of his purchases now resident at The Center in my lifetime, I shall surely raise my I.Q.]  So here is a smattering of books I’ve read.  And since you asked me to engage this task, the list contains nothing more than my personal taste.  While I would hope others might “take up and read” I know there is only so much time, so many shekels, and so little room in life.[1]

Choosing the biographies.  There are so many kinds, types, or styles to be chosen: histories, autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, journals, and I’m sure there are more.  Some might quibble that I lump these together.  I make no apology for doing so since biography is the core of history.  We learn much about individuals through various writing styles.

Choosing the writers.  Peggy Noonan When Character Was King or John Paul the Great is, I believe, America’s Essayist Laureate.  I read her weekly column religiously, whether I agree or not.  Her style is hammer and anvil in a soft summer breeze.  Victor Davis Hanson is one of our great commentators.  His rhetoric is caged in the steel trap of a historian’s mind.  Hanson is brilliant.  Read him.  Burt Folsom just published New Deal or Raw Deal? concerning the failed economic policies of FDR.  Reading Folsom should begin with The Myth of the Robber Barons.  He is a scholar, excellent speaker, and great story-teller historian.  Thomas Sowell, whom David Mamet claims is America’s greatest living thinker, is rock solid in his preservation of the past, economic principles, and incisive thinking about sociological matters.  Read everything he writes.  I have learned so much from Samuel P. Huntington about Muslim-mindset.  The Clash of Civilizations was prescient.  His work should be read by all.

Choosing “the one.” Some writers have written a great deal: some should have stopped after one book.  Others have written in other venues: addition of their writing here may be the only entry in this category.  Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation should be read to not forget.  We Were One about the battle for Fallujah, Iraq, is another for American memory.  Patrick O’Donnell’s book should be put on the big screen (for political reasons, it will not) showing the valiant bravery of The Corps.  Louis L’Amour’s Wandering Man changed the way I write and goads me every time I receive a rejection of some kind.  It is a great read.  Ghost Soldiers, a World War II rescue mission behind Japanese lines, is a page-turner.  My response when I was done: America has produced great men.

Choosing the historians. There are those, like Noonan, whom I love as writers.  But then there are historians who write well, whose books, if not on your shelf now, should be.  Daniel Boorstin’s series Creators, Discoverers, Seekers is second to none.  In fact, anything by the famed Librarian of Congress should be read: my favorite is Cleopatra’s Nose.  Paul Johnson is crucially important for his choice of subjects and his service toward the conservative cause.  History of the American People, Intellectuals, Modern Times (a modern classic) are imperative. Victor Davis Hanson is in his prime.  Writing on everything from warfare to Mexican immigration to his acerbic condemnation of forgetting the classics ought to be required reading in some undergraduate course.  Need I mention Stephen Ambrose?  Well, there, I did.  He writes as if he was on the ground in World War II (or in The Wild Blue as the case may be).  John Keegan’s The Mask of Command is classic.  The First World War ended with my anger rising over the senselessness of politicians and their wars.  I enjoyed James Brady’s The Coldest War because he fought in Korea, as did my dad.  Thomas J. Cutler’s The Battle of Leyte Gulf 23-26 October 1944 is a riveting account of the largest sea battle in history: I was enthralled.  Richard Brookhiser is writing fine books on our nation’s founders.  They are succinct which lends themselves to readers like me, reading outside my field.  Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization was the first in his “hinges of history” series.  The aforementioned still shines brightest of them all and re-energized my reading of history while I was teaching your classes at LCS.

Choosing the publishers.  We should all read those with whom we disagree.  Our tempers are tempered while our arguments are sharpened.  Yet, we, on the right side of the aisle, depend on publishers such as Spence, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and Regnery, to name a few, to produce books which counter the excess weight on the other side.  I highly recommend the ISI Student Series.  These small books open the pages of at least fifteen major areas of study.  I have read and re-read many of them, many times.  In all seriousness, they should be on your shelf.  If you sign up with their book club, you can get the whole series for 40% off, two free books, etc. all for only $15/year.  Do it.

Choosing the themes.  Sometimes we just “run into” books.  I picked up Sailor Historian: The Best of Samuel Eliot Morison while on holiday in Maine back in 2000.  I was captivated by an arena of life for which I had no previous understanding.  I have just recently paged through it again.  Johnny U about my childhood football hero Johnny Unitas made me proud to be a man.  Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy makes me feel the same way.  I love my country.  While Don Eberly’s editing of Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance is a book of essays, most deal with historical examples of Americans whose lives made a difference.  The articles by Wolfe and West have been used in my classes for years.  Get this book.  There are so many thematic ideas out there.  We choose some.  Others choose us.

Choosing the people. Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest mind, ever, was so well documented by George M. Marsden.  As I do with many of my books, the pages are littered with my musings.  I remember reading this when it first came out on my back porch in the summertime while I was teaching at Moody.  Coolidge: An American Enigma by Robert Sobel was consumed because Reagan placed his bust prominently in The Oval Office.  It should come as no surprise, then, that I read everything about my favorite president, Ronald Reagan.  Too many books to claim here line my shelves.  The same is true of Malcolm Muggeridge.  His autobiographical works Chronicles of Wasted Time document his move from communist sympathizer to Christian cheerleader.  Francis Schaeffer changed my life in high school.  Though it is a book on apologetics C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer (Burson and Walls) made my heart leap, remembering the practices of this Christian thinker whose ideas shaped my own.

Choosing the persuasion, perspective, or point-of-view.  I am a conservative in almost every way that label can be attached.  Since I live in the midst of a liberal culture, it is imperative for my mind that I adhere my literary consumption to the right.  Like any individual in community, we need our community.  Since my knowledge is delinquent in many areas, I depend on others whom I’ve grown to trust.  While continuing to read those with whom I disagree, I believe, for me at least, it is important to sit at the table with those with whom I agree more often.

Choosing the filmImperfect Past seeks to rectify how history is misplayed on the big screen.  There are many examples of people who are both maligned (Bush, by Michael Moore and Oliver Stone) and white-washed (Milk, played by Sean Penn).  [History’s spin in Hollywood alone should be a solitary essay.]  Other movies get histories’ achievers mostly right: I think of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and, of course, The Passion of The Christ. I mention film because Hollywood reinterprets at whim, mostly for the worse, the lives of those who have gone before.   To me, the most glaring example of this trend from California over the last forty years has been the dearth of movies celebrating those who protect our nation in the military.  If The Lord tarries, history will point toward Hollywood’s pervasive influence as a contributor toward the precipitous decline of our country.  One must watch films from the forties and fifties to see honor rightly bestowed on those who wore the uniform of The United States of America.

Choosing the moving. No other book in the last twenty years of my life has so moved my person than To End All Wars. I end this little project by quoting from Gordon’s book and a bit from an article I wrote a few years back.  I read this book on a flight from Chicago to L.A. while teaching at Moody.  It was impossible to hide the tears that flowed while sitting among two hundred passengers.

“Australian, English, Dutch, Scottish and allies from many countries suffered deprivation and death in the Japanese prisoner of war camp in Wampo, Thailand.”  As Alastair Gordon recounts his experiences in To End All Wars his life change is not what one would expect.  Fellow captives practicing John 15:13 began a chain reaction among the POW’s forced to build the Burma–Thailand railroad.

Our regeneration, sparked by conspicuous acts of self-sacrifice, had begun…it might be thought that, this [was a] change in atmosphere . . . it was dawning on us all–officers and other ranks alike–that the law of the jungle is not the law for man.  We had seen for ourselves how quickly it could strip most of us of our humanity and reduce us to levels lower than the beasts…we were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death…love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith…were the essence of life….[2]

Millions share a similar story though not all are in print.  The human family convulses with the trauma it brings upon itself through its own inherent corruption.  Yet Heaven’s way revolutionizes life on earth.  Indeed, Jesus’ own self-sacrifice allows the possibility of hope for the whole of humankind.  People walk in the same shoes.  Our innate connection as fellow earthwalkers allows the Christian worldview its exclusive voice of hope for the world.  And our sons and daughters must be helped to develop a biblical heaven-view as they prepare their earth-walk…

Heaven’s view transforms earth walkers.  Alastair Gordon reminds us, “through our readings and discussions we gradually came to know Jesus.  He was one of us.  We understood that the love expressed so supremely in Jesus was…other-centred rather than self-centred, greater than all the laws of men.”[3] The commonality of life on earth will grant Christian young people opportunity to connect Truth from Heaven[4]

Biographies: The Choices We Make: Some of What I Have Read for My Friend, John Milliken.  Originally written and sent via email on 2 February 2009.

[1] I regret the brevity of these pages.  There is so much more to say about biographies of those in the humanities, for instance.  I believe that knowing a person’s background is imperative to interpreting their work.  Many books have been helpful to me in this regard in the arena of literature, not the least of which is the Guinness, Cowan edited work Invitation to The Classics.  D. Bruce Lockerbie wrote Dismissing God which is an excellent little treatise on pagan authors.  The same sentiment could be said for artists, architects, etc. etc.  My brother-in-law Larry Renoe (a pastor in a large CO church) has read biographies on all our presidents: a feat worthy of mention.

[2] Ernest Gordon. 2002. To End All Wars. (Reprint, Zondervan): 103-106.

[3] Ibid. 117-118.

[4] From a published article entitled “Earthwalkers,” by Mark Eckel.

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    1. Hey Sandy! I am not familiar with the titles you hyperlinked. You have such an extensive library and a wealth of teaching with books I need to take lessons from you! 🙂 I’m pleased that the essay was helpful. Any questions about anything you think I might help with holler: Peace to you.

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