- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on February 7, 2014.
It seems these days everyone does lists of books they’ve read. I enjoy them, and read them all — but I still always detect of whiff of Protestant work ethic boasting in them: I put myself through reading this, and now I am going to inflict it on you.
Here instead is a genuinely Calvinist list: Books I have been intending to read for ever so long, but confess that I haven’t gotten around to. This is not a list of books I didn’t like, but rather of stuff that I have really meant to read, but for some reason haven’t.
1. Michael Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. My all-time favorite book I haven’t read. I have two copies of this. One has been moving around with me since college. The other is on my nightstand right now. But I just put on top of it a collection of essays by Albert Murray, another author I have been meaning to read for some time. (I try not to read about war just before bed — too much work-like.)
2. Anything by Faulkner. I’ve finished some of the short stories, but never one of the novels. I know, as with John Coltrane, that the fault lies with me. But somehow I don’t care. Maybe Faulkner was overrated. I hope so because I’d sure hate to miss out on something great.
3. The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. I really was going to read these, someday, until Al Gore listed the first of these as his favorite book during his 2000 presidential campaign. Even if it was true, he shouldn’t have said so, for political reasons. And I still suspect it wasn’t true. This might have been no. 1 on my list but when Al dragged it into the campaign I lost all desire to pick it up.
4. Even worse, German literature. At least I tried to read some of the French. Most of all, I loves me some Montaigne. But I honestly don’t think I ever have seriously tried to read Faust, or Thomas Mann, except for Death in Venice. I have never even pretended to read Hegel or Kant. In college I did read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but they struck me as wankers.
5. Maj. Albert Murray, USAF (Ret). Yes, I really do plan to remedy this soon. I’ve wanted to read him for years, and the other day, as I was thinking about getting Stanley Crouch’s new book on Charlie Parker, I thought to myself: “Tom, before you do, you really ought to read Albert Murray, mainly because Crouch is always invoking him.” Unlike pretty much everything else on this list, except maybe no. 9 Dante, I do expect this to happen in this lifetime, probably this year.
6. Adam Ulam on Russia. I really started wanting to read his stuff in the 1980s, but it never made it to the top of the pile. By the time I was close, the Soviet Union had evaporated. And lately, Russia just puts me off. Putin is a punk — and not in a good way. Btw, someone once told me that Ulam’s older brother was key in helping Israel build an atomic bomb.
7. Every official U.S. government document on national security strategy. I realized a couple of years ago that these documents are for chumps. Dirty little Pentagon secret: No one who runs the country reads them. Mid-level bureaucrats write these for each other to cite.
8. Tennyson and other Victorian poets. Somehow I never got around to them. In the great college course I took on English poetry, the professor ended the second semester with the Romantics. Lately I have realized I likely never will get to the Victorian poets, unless I get hit over the head with a cricket bat. (On the other hand, I am a big fan of Oscar Wilde.)
9. Dante’s Inferno. It barely makes this best dissed list, because I’ve read parts, and I love Italy and if I wind up there again for a month or two of work I might read it, finally.
10. James Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t know how I evaded this. I actually was planning on reading it in about 1985 but a friend said to wait until the Hugh Kenner edition came out. But since then I’ve gone almost 30 years without picking it up. I may be the only English major ever to not read it. Maybe confessing this will shame me into it. I actually suspect I will like it when I do.