Stephen M. Walt

Books for the beach

It’s summertime, and some of you will be headed for the beach, or the country, or wherever you go to relax and recharge. You want to take along something fun to read, and you’re not quite ready to tackle that new translation of War and Peace. But you’re afraid you’ll feel guilty if you don’t ...


It’s summertime, and some of you will be headed for the beach, or the country, or wherever you go to relax and recharge. You want to take along something fun to read, and you’re not quite ready to tackle that new translation of War and Peace. But you’re afraid you’ll feel guilty if you don’t read something that is at least tangentially related to international politics. 

What’s the answer? Simple. Here’s a list of books for your summer vacation reading that are all entertaining and easy-to-devour, but will also keep at least a few of your foreign policy synapses alive while you’re relaxing. These suggestions are from my own list of guilty pleasures, and I’m not claiming that these books are the “ten best” or anything like that. I’m sure I’ve missed a few obvious candidates, so feel free to offer up suggestions of your own.

1. Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy.

Yes, it’s sci-fi, and the prose style isn’t exactly Proust. But it’s got lots of international (or more precisely, “interstellar”) politics in it: balance of power, empire, deterrence theory, diplomacy, religion, economic interdependence, and you name it. The late Ernst Haas used to recommend it to grad students at Berkeley, and it’s easy to see why. And the central premise of the book — that mathematically inclined social scientists (“the psycho-historians”) could forecast the future and guide it — is certain to appeal to scholars who think that they could rule the world if they just got their models properly specified and had enough data. (Note: if Asimov’s not-so-subtle leftwing politics bothers you, you can read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers instead, which includes lots of chest-thumping patriotism as well as explicit denunciations of Marx.)

2. Graham Greene, The Quiet American

World-weary and cautionary tale about the idealism of American intervention, well worth re-reading in light of our current overseas adventures. And Greene is always easy to devour, even when dozing at the beach.

3. Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I must have read this book twenty times when I was in high-school, even though I didn’t really understand it.  A dark and comic portrait of World War II, and Heller skewers many absurdities of military life. If you’re worried that Heller will undermine your sense of patriotism, read Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War as an antidote (another one of my faves — see below).

4. John Le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People

Yes, I know the Cold War is over, which gives these books a rather dated quality. But the characters are beautifully crafted, the prose is elegant and seductive, and both books are real page-turners. The first time I read them, I stayed up to 3 AM to finish the damn thing and was next-to-useless the next day. (Cautionary note: the second volume of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, is a bit tedious. But you’ll probably want to read it anyway.) Le Carre is still churning them out, of course, but these three books remain his high point.

5. Alan Furst, The Polish Officer

I’d recommend anything by Furst, who has written a whole series of dark and romantic noir-ish novels that offer detailed and remarkably vivid portraits of life in Europe before and during the Nazi period. There’s not a lot of “high politics” in these books, but they depict spies, politicians, military officials, and ordinary people caught up in the dark dealings of a horrific period. There’s betrayal around every corner, and you’ll find them impossible to put down.

6. Orhan Parmuk, Snow

This was my “beach book” last summer, and I concede it’s not directly about “foreign policy” at all. But it is a brooding and moving portrait of life in contemporary Turkey, and especially the growing role of Islam. If you think that phenomenon is important, this book will open your eyes and touch your heart.

7. Joseph S. Nye, The Power Game

How many major IR scholars have written a novel and actually gotten it published? (Kindly hold the snarky comments about all the political science books that you think are also “fictional”). It’s a fun read, and you get to see how a distinguished scholar, government official, and former Harvard dean writes a sex scene. (And for another example of a Harvard scholar venturing into fiction, see the late John K. Galbraith’s The Triumph: A Novel of Modern Diplomacy, a wicked satire about an ill-starred U.S. intervention in Latin America. It must be fiction, because something like that could never happen in real life, could it?)

8. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

A missionary family’s experiences in the Congo, where misguided idealism and stubbornness eventually lead to tragic consequences. A powerful indictment of patriarchy, religion, and overzealous American righteousness.

9. Pat Barker, The Regeneration Trilogy

An intense and inspired set of novels set in and around World War I, imagining the relations between soldiers — including real-life figures such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon — and the doctors charged with treating them in hospital.  Not exactly a lighthearted read, but it will grip you.

10. Herman Wouk, The Winds of War

I think I read every one of Wouk’s books when I was a teen-ager, and The Caine Mutiny is still my favorite (and his best). But this book (and its sequel, War and Remembrance) is broader, and includes cameo appearances by Churchill, Stalin, and other real-life figures. Wouk marches his characters around the world, and manages to get most of the global conflict in somewhere. It’s not great art, but it will more than pass the time.  

Pack away a few of these, and you’ll have plenty to read while you’re relaxing. And you won’t have to feel too guilty about it either.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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