I need a big fat book for traveling

February 15, 2022 • 8:52 am

I’ll be traveling for a month starting in about ten days, and I need something to read in airports and in spare moments on the ship.  I can’t think of anything at the moment, and so I’m crowdsourcing a book. Here are the criteria:

a.) It has to be VERY LARGE

b.) It should be nonfiction although I’d make an exception for a long, high-quality work of fiction.

c.)  It should align with my interests as far as readers here know them (i.e., no mystery books or similar light reads). Books I’ve read that are long and interesting include every book in Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of LBJ (and of Robert Moses), Bloodlands (which I’ve just finished). History, biography, popular science (or science biography), and the like are great.

I welcome suggestions below, perhaps with a few words about why you like the book.


207 thoughts on “I need a big fat book for traveling

  1. Andrew Roberts’ biography of Napoleon was a terrific read, and it’s a nice big doorstop of a book.

    1. People hero-worship Bonaparte but he was a precursor of Hitler with similar disastrous consequences for Europe & his country. Down with tyrants! I want to read The Fall of Robespierre by Colin Jones.

  2. Just started 2nd of 3 volumes of Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy, history of the British Empire. A rollicking trot through almost 400 years of colonial history, warts n’ all so certainly not an apologist for Empire. Highly recommended.

  3. I suggest you try The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand. It’s over 700 fascinating pages.

    1. Heck, if Jerry’s going that route, he might wanna pack Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War for the trip, too — the first work of “scientific” history (which is to say, much like Herodotus, but minus the mythology).

      1. Ugh I had to translate excerpts of Herodotus and perhaps Thucydides (can’t remember) from Greek. Now I’m triggered.

  4. I’ll leave the nonfiction category suggestion to the more well-read. However, if you do decide to take along a fictional novel as well, you might like : “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. It’s set in India, a country you love, and the imagery might provide a fine counterbalance to the frigid environment you’ll be in. Since I’ve never been to India, I’d be curious to know if it captures the essence of India as you remember it.

  5. Most of my doorstops are rather ancient; but I can recommend:

    a. A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil McGregor (2012). The title says it all. https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-World-100-Objects/dp/0241951771 About 700 pages

    b. Citizens, by Simon Schama (1989). A great account of the French Revolution and its aftermath. About 900 pages

    c. A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes (1997). Ditto, about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. About 800 pages. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Peoples-Tragedy-Russian-Revolution-1891-1924/dp/071267327X

    1. [a] got it – excellent writing, fascinating artefacts (sp.?), something new on every page – thank you!

      1. OK, here’s a stab at it.

        You’ll start by learning how he was orphaned at an early age from a somewhat Bible-thumping mother and how he transitioned to becoming part of the first graduating class @ Stanford, becoming a mining engineer that took him to China (where he & his wife survived being shelled during the Boxer Rebellion), Australia, Burma and Russia, in the process translating with his wife (first female grad in Geology from Stanford) Agricola’s De Re Metallica from cobbled Latin (a work that was apparently the standard mining reference for 180yrs) that had defied all earlier attempts, then on to how he wound up shouldering food relief efforts in the small beleaguered countries like Belgium during WWI and including Germany vs. the British blockade in the aftermath as well as Russia in ~1921, all of which thrust him into prominence and gained him worldwide acclaim that translated into becoming Commerce Secy under the Harding and Coolidge admins where he was known as the Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Everything Else.

        During that period you also wind up with a sense that he had a deep background understanding of or appreciation for what would now probably be termed ecology. He was turning into a world-class fisherman during this period. Also, in 1927 he coordinated relief efforts from a rail car HQ in the Great Flood of 1927 that took place over an astonishing period of months.

        Then into the Presidency, throughout which you get an appreciation of his immense ability to crunch numbers and deal in facts, his detailed analysis of the three separate situations that collectively resulted in the Great Depression and kept it going. How many of his relief efforts were blocked by Democrats until FDR took over and claimed credit for them. (The First New Deal, by Raymond Moley, FDR’s economic guru during his first admin, tells the same thing.)

        Throughout there are enough humorous or poignant vignettes to keep things going but not enough to make it seem that that’s all it is.

        Adding another book to the autobiography, Herbert Hoover and Germany (Lochner, 1960) elaborates on the food relief efforts that he headed at the behest of Harry Truman after WWII. Combined from the two you wind up seeing how he had been described as someone who saved more lives worldwide that any other person in history.

        Altogether it is a potent antidote to the notion that he was a do-nothing president who caused the Great Depression. Stuff gleaned elsewhere: I believe it was Eunice Shriver who said that her father Joe Kennedy always said that he was the most intelligent person he had ever known. He dies @ age 90, and by the later ’50s had become relatively rehabilitated in general perception (that has sadly waned since). But back then when he was asked what he attributed his resurrection of his reputation to, he would reply, “I outlived the bastards.”

        There’s also the advantage that if you’re going to lug a big work along with you, this one’s in three volumes so you don’t have to carry the whole thing all the time.

  6. As an appeal to your exception, how about “Rabbit Angstrom” by John Updike? This fat Everyman’s Library edition (1500 pages) is a compendium of the four “Rabbit” books. From Joyce Carol Oates: “The being that most illuminates the Rabbit quartet is not finally Harry Angstrom himself but the world through which he moves in his slow downward slide, meticulously recorded by one of the most gifted American realists … The Rabbit novels, for all their grittiness, constitute John Updike’s surpassingly eloquent valentine to his country.”

  7. Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, at over 800 pages, certainly qualifies as a doorstop. He’s a great writer, seems to have read everything, seen everything, and heard everything worthy of discussion.

  8. For a long work of fiction I recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for it’s unique style, a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary numerous times, and creativity. Never read anything like it.

      1. It is a commitment, but there are some real gems in it. There is a video on the internet of the calamity song by the Decemberists which is worth watching. It pretty well captures a small segment of the book in which a number of students in a New England tennis academy play a game called eschaton.

  9. Two years ago I have read Wolfgang Benz’ monograph “Im Widerstand. Größe und Scheitern der Opposition gegen Hitler” (“In Resistance. Greatness and failure of the opposition against Hitler”).


    I do not know if the book has been translated into English yet, but it is fantastic if you want to get a comprehensive overview of a wide variety of people and groups who resisted Nazism. Moreover, it is once again very topical in view of the rise of radical right-wing movements throughout the world.

  10. The book that immediately came to my mind is “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth. Some 1500 pages of extremely good fiction, set in India in the 50’ies.
    I have never been to India but with books like this you don’t have to go there. I expect it to be at least as good as the Raj quartet, which I am looking forward to read.

  11. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present (877pp). This is Barzun’s magnum opus (2000, published for the Millennium), the result of studying and teaching Western civilization for more than six decades. Not a textbook but rather an immensely learned personal view of what we were and how we came to be where we are today. I should note also that the volume is very well organized, making the titanic subject manageable.

      1. Second on McPhee. Annals is very long because it is the compilation of his four geology series books, all of which are excellent. (Anything by McPhee!)

      2. Also agree on “Annals of the Former World”. John McPhee is unparalled as a long-form nonfiction writer. Take anything by McPhee. I guarantee you will be buttonholing people on the cruise to tell them about what you just learned from him.

      3. “Anything by McPhee” indeed. One of my small pleasures for decades has been introducing people to McPhee. I usually start them with Oranges (the book, not the fruit….). I’ve not yet had a rejection.

  12. I recommend “From Dawn to Decadence’ an over 800 page account of the last 500 years of western civilization. By Jacques Barzun.

  13. Meets the criteria, but maybe off the path a bit :

    Henry Dudeney
    536 Curious Problems & Puzzles
    Barnes & Noble, 1995
    ISBN 1-56619-896-8
    Pages : 428
    (Might be printed by another publisher)

    Martin Gardner
    The Colossal Book of Short Puzzles and Problems
    W. W. Norton
    ISBN 0-393-06114-0 (hardcover)
    Pages : 494

    … The Moscow Puzzles (Kordemsky) has good dimensions for trips, but only just over 300 pages.

    Nonetheless, these are valuable for, well, mind exercise to learn stuff, get a challenge, at least – many require no special techniques. May require pencil and paper, or the ‘ol cocktail napkin or back of the envelope. Maybe toothpicks. Will serve one well after the trip as well. I just wrote “well” twice in the same sentence.

    “Bonn voyajee!”
    -Bugs Bunny

  14. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is pretty good.

    Fiction-wise, I assume that you’d have read them but if you haven’t read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams it’s great. You can get all 5 books+1 Novella as an anthology (Called “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide”).

      1. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould
        The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, by Judith Rich Harris
        Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
        The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
        The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein
        A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
        Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Atul Gawande
        Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande
        The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
        Autism’s False Prophets, by Paul Offit
        The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
        Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam
        1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann
        The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk
        Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor
        Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein
        The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein
        Before the Storm, Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein
        Flash Boys, A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis
        The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
        Mindset, by Carol Dweck
        Ending Medical Reversal, by Vinayak Prasad and Adam Cifu
        Educated, by Tara Westover
        Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker
        Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

  15. Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. Great book on how Europe messed up its way into WW1. Very insightful, and a very good read. Explains how assumptions about other peoples without knowledge led to bad calculations. Its very big, as is the subject.

    1. Also “Sleepwalkers” by Hermann Broch (from which I believe Clark’s book takes its title), an excellent novel—of epic length—that looks at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the collapse of German civil society through the lens of three thematically connected plots taking place in 1888, 1903, and 1918. From Stephen Spender’s 1948 review for Commentary: “His characters are sleepwalkers because their own lives are shaped by the forces of the nightmare reality in which they live.”

    2. I think that book has had some criticism? Germany was certainly pushing for war. There is a very good book about the Treaty of Versailles by a German author, But I cannot recall the author & my copy is in a box still!

      1. I think Sleepwalkers has been very favorably reviewed. It is only rejected by those who want to claim that Germany was solely responsible for the War. But that is not historically accurate. It took mistakes and ignorance on many sides. And as Clark notes even family ties could not prevent the outcome.

  16. Have you read Neil Sheehan’s <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bright_Shining_Lie&quot;A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam? It gives a full accounting of US involvement in Vietnam, but has the narrative drive of a novel (in the manner of Caro’s biography of LBJ). It won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award for nonfiction in the late 80s.

    Sheehan was one of the reporters, along with David Halberstam, assigned to cover Vietnam in the early days, before the Buddhist uprising and the coup that deposed Ngo Dinh Diem, and returned there to report on the war several times over the next decade. Sheehan knits into the history of the war the biography of John Paul Vann, a very interesting character who served as an early military advisor to the South Vietnamese Army also returned several times. (He was killed in action there in 1972.)

    I read the book years ago, but it’s been on my mind again lately, since I chanced upon an interview with Sheehan (who died last year) on YouTube.

      1. Knowing your feelings on the topic, I’d add that, in the interview I recently watched with Sheehan, he called John Paul Vann the American T.E. Lawrence.

    1. Outstanding choice. Not only I liked it but so did my son, born long after the Vietnam War. He had got interested in McNamara’s failings and requisitioned Sheehan from me as soon as recognized it on my shelves.

  17. I can strongly recommend THE SWERVE, by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award in 2012.

    From the online blurb:

    >>> In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His discovery, Lucretius’ ancient poem On the Nature of Things, had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years.

    It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to human life, that pleasure and virtue are not opposites but intertwined, and that matter is made up of very small material particles in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions. Its return to circulation changed the course of history. The poem’s vision would shape the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and—in the hands of Thomas Jefferson—leave its trace on the Declaration of Independence.

  18. If you haven’t read it already, I strongly recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’. It examines emergent properties, self-reference, and paradox; it focuses on intelligence, but also biology, fractals, linguistics, etc. It interweaves non-fiction explanations with fictional dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise elaborating on everything covered. There are dozens of Easter eggs hidden throughout the book; even if you have read it, I consider it worth a second reading.

    1. That book is singular in that I enjoy looking at it, learning all the interesting stuff, and then marveling as follows :

      “Wow! Amazing! Fascinating!… and the point is….?”

      … I recall little things too, like the Shepard tone thing… astonished it was in there the whole time before I understood it at all…

  19. It’s not new (2017), but have you read “Freud – The Making of an Illusion” by Frederick Crews? It’s fairly hefty (746 pages) and a great dismantling of Freud’s reputation detailing his scientific failings (falsifying evidence and passing other people’s work as his own) and of the cult-like behaviour of his followers.

  20. In the fiction category I submit a book that I may have recommended to you before: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. The man is a master of painting word pictures of the old west.

      1. Have you read the follow-on? Dark Sun, the Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. A lot on the penetration of the Manhattan Project discovered only in 1950, the Soviet Bomb project, and then the betrayal of Oppenheimer by Teller and the shabby treatment by the U.S. government of their Shatterer of Worlds who gave them The Bomb. And that’s all in the first half, before the H-Bomb itself is elaborated.

        Much of the Russian material became available only after the fall of the USSR.

  21. Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965 (LOA #330) (Library of America)

    These two books were written more than 50 years ago by one of America’s eminent historians. They are as relevant now as then to understand American society. The newly published Library of America edition contains both volumes.

  22. Gibbon, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. It does not need more information, a classic and at about eleven hundred pages a good read.
    For more history I can recommend, Trial By Fire, by Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War II. A splendid read, if you like history.

  23. I recommend “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings” by Neil Price. About 600 pages.
    Price is distinguished professor and chair of archaeology at Uppsala University in Sweden. He has researched, taught and written on the Vikings for nearly 35 years. I loved this book because it was like reading a big adventure story, I couldn’t put it down.

  24. I recommend The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. It’s about how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people differ in their psychology from the typical person throughout human history, and what it means for society. Fascinating.

  25. Large, nonfiction, aligns with Jerry’s interests: check

    $116 @Amazon.com
    Speciation – Jerry Coyne & H. Allen Orr

  26. I recommend “Nature and power: A global history of the environment” by Joachim Radkau.
    I also second drosophilist’s recommendation (The WEIRDEST people in the world), another book worth the long read.

  27. Looks like you’ve already got some interesting suggestions but I’ll throw in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Perhaps any one-volume history of philosophy will do but this is the only one I’ve read and as a philosophy novice I still thought it was interesting and comprehensible. Most of the chapters focus on specific individuals though he ties them into the broader social fabric of their time. Having read some of these individuals’ works after reading Russell’s History I did think he misrepresented or simplified some things (e.g. his treatments of Epicurus and Nietzsche) but overall still a good general introduction.

    1. Since someone has mentioned Western philosophy, this seems like the right place to ask for another recommendation. The book is Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, and it purports to be a novel which teaches the history of Western philosophy along the way. Can anyone give a yea or nay to it? Again, thanks in advance.

    1. It’s close to the top of my list. I have really enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Chernow. Hamilton won lots of awards and apparently was the inspiration for the eponymous musical.

  28. Given your fondness of food and history (two excellent passions) I would recommend Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History (488 pages). Arguably by Christopher Hitchens is a very nice collection of his essays (788 pages), his memoir Hitch-22 is also a great read (448 pages).

  29. The Coldest Winter by David Halberstan, 661 pages, hard truths
    And you may have already read the two books by Edmund De Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes and The White Road, both entertaining and illuminating, about 400 pages each.

  30. Seeing Stephen’s reference to the situation in Eastern Europe, I thought of Ivan Krastev/Stephen Holmes: “The light that failed”, on the disaffectation with liberal democracy in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. It’s not that fat, though.

  31. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. It’s a survey of archaeology in the Middle East as it relates to the Bible. Spoiler: the Bible turns out not to be well supported by archaeology.

    Also, Rubicon by Tom Holland chronicles the fall of the Roman Republic. Two of his other books: Persian Fire and In the Shadow of the Sword are on my want to read list. They look interesting but I can’t recommend them because I haven’t read them yet.

  32. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Piketty. Could bundle with “Capital and Ideology” (which I haven’t read, but follows from the last chapter of CTFC).

  33. I just finished the Thernstroms’ 1999 book, ‘America in Black and White’. A dry read, but eye-opening in its historical perspective.

  34. If you want to learn about General Relativity, there’s probably no finer book than “Gravitation” by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. It’s definitely NOT a quick read…I think time dilation measurably and noticeably applies in its vicinity due to its density.

    Or you could go the Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. That’s a killer book…well, hopefully the opposite, usually, but it’s a figure of speech. It could certainly be used as a murder weapon.

    In all seriousness, though, Kip Thorne’s “Black Holes and Time Warps” is one of the best books on GR for the layperson that I’ve read. Or anything by Brian Greene or Sean Carroll, though their stuff is not usually as massive.

    In fiction, I’m sure you’ve already read The Lord of the Rings, if it’s your kind of book. But I would never not recommend it.

  35. Take the plunge, Jerry, and get a decent tablet. You will love reading on it quickly. I love books, the ink, the haptic quality as well, but for ease of reading, and travelling, this is a serious upgrade (e.g. Apple 11″ wifi only, you can get hotspot internet through your iphone if needed).

    My recommendation:
    Hofstadter, “Gödel—Escher—Bach”. It’s a weird book, threeway between art, math and cognitive science but immensely stimulating. It leads to a world of paradoxes, self-repeating patterns, and representations. Hofstadter keeps it grounded with alternating chapters of Alice in Wonderland type of parabels, riddles and examples.

    Chomsky, “Fateful Triangle”. This is said to be one of Chomsky’s key works on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This will be challenging your views, perhaps amend them, maybe you’re offended by it, but it will certainly be interesting.

    1. I second this recommendation about tablets and e-book format. Heck, you can download the free Kindle app for your smartphone, (and the Apple equivalent I would assume) and bring it with you almost anywhere. I’ve got more than four hundred books in my pocket wherever I go. It’s not quite the same as reading the “real thing” but it’s the information that matters most, and it’s very nifty to be able to do so handily. Also, G-E-B IS a good book, I can confirm, though I can also understand PCC(E)’s mention that he couldn’t get into it before…it’s worth a retry, I think.

      1. Didn’t know Jerry rejected G-E-B already, my bad.

        Reading on the phone versus a tablet is a huge difference though, and I could see why it’s more off-putting to treat it as comparable. A good tablet can compete with reading books, and it’s more a tradeoff. They have retina sharp displays, variable light and bookmarks. You can make screenshots of passages, and annotate too, or copy paste quotes into notes etc. and of course have anything you want with you. Jerry was also still printing out internet posts. For this, it’s really a big improvement. For a few bucks, you can get e.g. Reeder, a aggregator of blogs you follow, e.g. Substacks.

        1. It’s definitely an improvement in quality to have the tablet, couldn’t agree more. But it’s so COOL to be able just to pull out my smartphone and read…and I have to wear reading glasses no matter what, anyway. It was my Mom who actually turned me on to tablets/phones, because she was diabetic with retinopathy, and the ability to alter text size made things much more convenient for her.

      2. I third the recommendation for a tablet. I’m a kindle lover now. They make it so comfortable to read in bed and anywhere.

    2. I agree on both e-readers and GEB. Unfortunately, in my understanding, Gödel Escher Bach is not available yet as an e-book – at least not for Kindle.

    3. Since you mentioned Chomsky, I might as well throw in Chomsky’s (and Herman’s) “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”. It’s not only long, but very dense. It’s one of those books where you basically read it twice when reading it the first time. (At least that’s how it was for me.) It tackles the complex problem of how communication media in the U.S. and abroad are used as ideological institutions / propaganda outlets and how it’s been getting worse for decades by shrinking the public market space of ideas and content and turning the populace into commercial and pop consumers. That’s just a very narrow overview. It’s an extremely important and fascinating book imo. It has many revisions as the original came out in 1988, so make sure and get the latest edition.

  36. The Annals by Tacitus (Yardley translation). Most interesting of the roman histories I have read, And as a bonus it provides one of the first mentions of the historical Jesus.

  37. 1. ‘The Boundless Sea – a human history of the oceans’ by David Abulafia. An almost ideal book to read on the go, like a travel book, as it doesn’t need great concentration to keep multiple threads running, unlike some of the longer books of fiction. You may know the saying attributed to Archilochus the archaic Greek poet : ‘the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing’. This book has multiple fascinating historical vignettes, so it’s written as if by a historical fox, but it has an underlying historical unity, from the organising principle of one big thing : humans are a travelling and exploratory species, and they have used the oceans for this purpose.

    2. Francis Fukuyama’s 2 volume ‘origins of political order’ is the current attempt for a grand historical narrative on the development of the organising principles of the nation-state. There are a couple of youtube videos of him describing certain chapters eg the development of the ancient Chinese state and how it applies to today. So you can try these to see if you might like a longer exposition in a book form.

  38. Jorge Luis Borges Selected Non-fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger, 560 pages. 1999. Penguin Books.” Dizzying in scope and dazzling in execution… “ The New Yorker.

  39. The Second World War. Winston Churchill’s Nobel-Prize-winning 6-volume history of World War II (4,736 pages—do I get a prize for length?). I understand there’s an abridged version, but the original version is eminently readable and thoroughly entertaining. A few excerpts:
    The reader is now invited to move westward to the Emerald Isle. “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” but a visit there is sometimes irresistible.
    [On his habit of taking a nap every afternoon:] Nature had not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces. I regretted having to send myself to bed like a child every afternoon, but I was rewarded by being able to work through the night until two or even later—sometimes much later—in the morning, and begin the new day between eight and nine o’clock. This routine I observed throughout the war, and I commend it to others if and when they find it necessary for a long spell to get the last scrap out of the human structure.
    [On Jane Austen:] The doctors tried to keep the work away from my bedside, but I defied them. They all kept on saying, “Don’t work, don’t worry,” to such an extent that I decided to read a novel. I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.
    Past experience carries with its advantages the drawback that things never happen the same way again. Otherwise I suppose life would be too easy.
    There is no room in war for pique, spite, or rancour.
    I feared that the long nights for millions in the crowded streetshelters—only blast-proof at that—would produce epidemics of influenza, diphtheria, the common cold, and what not. But it appeared that Nature had already provided against this danger. Man is a gregarious animal, and apparently the mischievous microbes he exhales fight and neutralise each other. They go out and devour each other, and Man walks off unharmed. If this is not scientifically correct, it ought to be.

    1. Yes: Monumental in every sense of the word. And wonderful. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I ended up buying a (used) first edition to get the best maps, etc.! I plan to reread it soon! Churchill was an excellent writer.

  40. This is not a recommendation, but a request for one. I’ve long been thinking about reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen, but am hesitant to start a 700-page non-fiction book. Has anyone who has read it have any positive or negative recommendation, for me and (if he hasn’t read it already) our host? Thanks in advance.

    1. I’ve read all of Quammen’s collections of essays and can heartily recommend them. The only longer book of his I’ve read is The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, which I found less successful. My impression is that, like David Brooks, Quammen is a sprinter rather than a marathoner. But Song of the Dodo got good (if not many) customer reviews on Amazon.

    2. It is one of my favorite books, almost anything by Quammen is very good. (The only one I wouldn’t recommend is his latest, The Tangled Tree.) Song of the Dodo is really four books in one: a history of the field of Biogeography (Alfred Russell Wallace, etc.), explanation of the Theory of Island Biogeography (Wilson & McArthur), meetings with current-day biogeography scientists, and a travel book recounting his adventures in doing all of the above. He is a great writer and there is a lot of self-deprecating humor. In a History & Philosophy of Science reading group at my university, the group wanted something to follow up Guns, Germs and Steel, and I recommended Song of the Dodo. They were very pleased in the end to have chosen it.

    3. Song of the Dodo is fantastic. I read a lot of biological nonfiction and it is still my number-one favorite.
      I was scrolling down to recommend it here.

      Also (nonbiological) Tuchman’s Distant Mirror, a history of the “calamitous 14th Century”. Great writing.

      1. Excellent. Thanks to you (and everyone) who commented on it. Posting here, to second your recommendation of the Tuchman.

    4. Agree on Quammen — any of his books. A very timely (and long, Jerry) example is his Spillover about zoonotic viruses causing epidemics in humans. Really good. I read it before COVID.

  41. Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind (1973) is worth reading. I don’t agree with everything, but it helped me frame a lot of my experiences in the Middle East. It is one of the two books expats ‘in the know’ in the Middle East have frequently recommended. It’s tough to figure out where the lines between cultural psychology and pseudo-scientific racist stereotype is, but it illuminated quite a bit about homelife in Arabia that I had never heard before (boys being breastfed past the point where they start speaking!).

  42. I’ll shameless plug “The Rocks Were There: Straight Science Answers to Bent Creationist Questions” I authored with Louisiana State biology student Jackson Wheat, comprehensively diving into the claims of the Answers in Genesis Answers book series, plus jabs more broadly at ID (including an extensive section on the LTEE issue). 800+ pages, fully referenced (including a dozen or so of your citations) and indexed. Can also be used to whack people who claim that creationists have a case to make.

  43. David Abulafia’s “The Great Sea : A Human History of the Mediterranean” seems to fit the bill: quite large, nonfiction, history, and a fascinating topic in general.

    1. Atlas Shrugged is the funniest book I have ever read. The scene where she makes a train run on time by the force of her will made me drop the book in the tub, I was laughing so hard.

  44. I recommend “Horizon” by Barry Lopez. Great writing. Involves travel over many years and locations, including Antarctica.

  45. I once read the entirety of War and Peace while sitting on the ground in the Belizean jungle, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Gibbon’s “Decline and fall” is brilliant and worth every minute, as is the Song of the Dodo, the most depressing yet informative book I have ever read. But, for an immersive anti airport alternate reality experience you can’t do better than Stephen King. It just doesn’t get any better than “It”. I plan to take “Tommyknockers” along on my next jungle trip!

  46. I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson. 500 pages but broken down into easily digestible sections of just a few pages each, so great for reading in a spare moment. Wilkinson does a good job of showing both the astonishing continuity as well as the changes over 3000 years, and where the bits and pieces of Egyptian history we are familiar with fit into this vast timescale – e.g., for Tutankhamen the age of pyramids would have been as long ago as the Viking age for us.

    1. Good choice! I also recommend Wilkinson’s book. A pleasure to read that reignited my interest in Egyptology.

  47. I highly recommend Jill Lenore’s “These Truths.” It is a history of the United States framed around the principles put forth in the Declaration of Independence and how they have and have not shaped the country over time. It includes what I think is an objective treatment of the major problems in American history (notably slavery, racisms, Native American genocide and slow progress on women’s rights, as well as the progress that grew from those principles. I guess you could think it as a synthesis of the best parts of Gordon Wood and Howard Zinn.

  48. If you haven’t read the memoirs of U S Grant or W T Sherman, they’re both fantastic, and big. But you’ll want to have access to maps via the internet to follow all the civil war maneuvers they both talk about.

  49. Ron Chernow’s “Washington” is fantastic. Also, have you read “Matterhorn”? It is fiction, but gives the best portrayal of the Viet Nam war that I have read.

  50. I recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. It’s a fascinating historical novel about Jacob Frank, the “heretical Messiah claimant” in mid 18th century Poland. Really fascinating historical fiction by the Polish Nobel Prize winning author. Plus it has the best subtitle of the year: “The Books of Jacob. Or: A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, And Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Minor Sects. Told By the Dead, Supplemented by the Author, Drawing from a Range of Books, Aided by Imagination, The Which Being the Greatest Natural Gift of Any Person That the Wise Might Have it for a Record, That My Compatriots Reflect, Laypersons Gain Some Understanding, And Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment”.

  51. A big fat book that’ll scare the bejebus out of you read “Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff.
    Another I’m just starting is by Fionna Hill, “There is Nothing For You Here”
    Dr. Hill was one of the stars at tRump’s 1st impeachment. Fairly fat at 400 pps.
    Another you might have already read by Adam Rutherford, “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived”. 350+ pps.
    Another a few years old by Svante Paabo, “Neanderthal Man”. Only 250 pps.
    Yuval Noah Harari, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”.
    Another very fat one at 730 or so pps. By David Halberstam, ‘The Fifties”. I was 18 in 1959 so lived through the decade as a very young, very callow teenager in Berkeley. ( Some would say I’m still ‘very callow’) The McCarthy and the Loyalty Oaths eras had a direct impact in my neighborhood. My father was a very active Democrat then and believe it or not Berkeley was very conservative in those days. Memories are filled in and expanded. Obviously goes much deeper into the period. Fascinating.

    1. I also have the Zuboff to read.

      Not sure Rutherford is the sort if thing Jerry would enjoy – his subject anyway, & written for non-experts.

  52. Max Hastings’s Inferno is the best single volume history of WW2 out there ( his Vietnam is also fantastic). Detailed, extraordinarily readable coverage of the greatest self-inflicted wound that humanity has inflicted upon itself.

  53. Stalingrad or Berlin by Anthony Beevoir (not sure of the spelling of the surname). Both great books describing the battles from the strategic and personal perspective. Good as Gold by Joseph Heller. Cider House Rules by John Irving (for no other reason than the right wing nut jobs want it banned). The ANZACS by Patsy Adams Smith. A good summary of Australia’s involvement in WW1. Defeat into Victory by Sir William Slim. A great biographical account of his commands in the Middle East and Burma in WW2. Monash & Chauvel. Two Australian Generals of WW1 Who changed the shape of battle in the Middle East and on the Western Front by Roland Perry

  54. Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography of Hitler (Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, 912 pages, and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, 1216 pages) should fit the bill.
    I’m currently reading Andrew Robert’s biography of Churchill (Churchill: Walking with Destiny, 1105 pages), which looks very good.
    For something slightly different, with a very interesting take, try Why the West Rules – for Now, by Ian Morris (800 pages).

  55. Midnight in Chernobyl (Adam Hochschild; topic obvious); The Fatal Shore ( the late great Robert Hughes history of Australia); Noble Savages (Napoleon Chagnon’s life, career etc.); Johannes Brahms (Jan Swofford, biography); Education of an Idealist (Samantha Power autobiography); War of Two (John Sedgwick; purportedly Hamilton-Burr duel but actually a gossip column about the people and issues of that era, brilliantly written by the descendant of a friend of Hamilton); The Quiet Americans (Scott Anderson; how the CIA used American creative artists to spy on Russia); Shakespeare (Peter Ackroyd; by far the best written and most interesting book on Shakespeare from a terrific writer); In Europe (Geert Mak..one of his many interesting cultural, political and social reports on Europe, from a truly honest, compassionate and insightful writer); Post War (Tony Judt; must-read for anyone interested in European culture and history); ANYTHING by: Anne Applebaum (eastern Europe) such as Gulag, and more.

    1. Let me second Tony Judt’s “Postwar”, and add his moving and powerful final books “The Memory Chalet” and “Ill Fares the Land”, both unfortunately (for present purposes) rather short. To which I
      must add Neal Ascherson’s brilliant “Black Sea”, medium length, utterly absorbing.

  56. Jerry, do you not have a Kindle, on which you can bring your own personal library? (I find mine to be invaluable.)

    I will second Churchill, Walking with Destiny

    I will also second Midnight in Chernobyl, along with:

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
    Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser
    Strange Glow, The Story of Radiation, by Timothy J. Jorgensen
    The Perfect Weapon, by David Sanger

    Also, if you haven’t read these already:
    Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond)
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Shirer)
    The Guns of August (Tuchman) All her books are great.
    The Conquest of Mexico (Prescott)

    And, a truly massive one: Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War Seems intimidating; but I couldn’t put it down. A friend had a similar experience.

  57. I also have to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo, if you haven’t read it. One of the greats. The Penguin Classics translation is the one to get. They have it on Kindle!

  58. Looking back at Post #48 by Ramesh, and #55 by Boris–they both recommend “ocean” books by David Abulafia. I’m going to suggest a Much Bigger ocean book: The Sea and Civilization,” by Lincoln Paine. This is “all” of world history told as a history of ocean travel & exploration. Great maps, too!
    Oh, and I’ve seen several people recommend Kindles, which is pretty much all my wife uses. But . . . I tried to read Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” on a Kindle, and most of the cartoons, tables, etc. didn’t render well–if at all. I’ll stick to real books. Just sayin’.

    1. I will stand as advocate for the Kindle (mine is a paperwhite). Small and light weight. (Every time I now read a hardware book, I get tired of holding it. I also read while I eat, which is hugely easier with a Kindle.) It holds a huge number of books. You can adjust the font on the fly. You can read it with internal; lighting at night. Battery last for weeks (I read a lot every day). You can search it. You can add bookmarks and highlighting. You can touch words and get the dictionary definition of Wiki article immediately. Want a book? You can have it in seconds without getting out of your reading chair! (That next volume in the series!)

      I got my Kindle in 2015. I thought I’d mostly use it for travel. It rapidly (weeks) became my preferred tool. It’s now almost my exclusive reading mode. I have massively downsized my collection of books, which is especially important as we are about to move for the first time in 20+ years! Kindle books weigh zero and take up zero space in your house.

    2. You did, however, identify the one significant (IMO) drawback of the Kindle: Graphics and photos: They don’t render that well. (I’m sure you know that you can zoom in on them, which helps quite a bit.)

  59. Vincent Bugliosi, “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” (1648 pages), or the abridged text “Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” (688 pages). Bugliosi manages to make this deep dive riveting.

    1. Ha, I was going to suggest just this book. A great (and loooong) read and a cure for so many nonsensical conspiracy thinking.

  60. Also: The Fatal Shore, The epic of Australia’s founding by Robert Hughes. I started it a few days ago and can tell it’s going to be good. And it’s big.

    It’s the story of Britain’s use of Australia as a place to get rid of their convicts — terrible people who stole bread and whatnot.

  61. ‘Andersonville’ by MacKinlay Kantor, a novel about the infamous concentration camp set up in Georgia by the South to keep Yankee captives from further involvement in the Civil War. At 750 pages, it should last the distance on your southern journey.

  62. Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance. 2 volumes, together 712 pages (first published in German in 3 volumes in 1975, 1978, 1981)
    one of the towering works of twentieth-century German literature
    Spanning the period from the late 1930s to World War II, this historical novel dramatizes antifascist resistance and the rise and fall of proletarian political parties in Europe.

    Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad: A Novel. New York Review of Books Classics, 2019, 1,088 pages
    Vasily Grossman: Life and Fate. New York Review of Books Classics, 2006, 896 pages

    From a review of Stalingrad in The Economist:
    Western readers mostly know Grossman for “Life and Fate”, his epic of the battle of Stalingrad and its aftermath. After its completion in 1960, the KGB confiscated the manuscript. Soviet censors decreed that the novel’s unflinching comparisons between the barbarism of Nazi and Stalinist regimes would make it unpublishable for 250 years. Its Jewish author’s vigilant attention to the anti-Semitism perpetrated by both systems embarrassed Soviet apparatchiks for decades.
    “Stalingrad” came first. Published in censored form as “For a Just Cause” in 1952, it contained sections reluctantly inserted to obey the party line. In 1956, after Stalin died, a new edition allowed Grossman to restore much of his own voice.
    The result is another huge, seething fresco of front-line combat, domestic routine under siege, and restless debate. Again, Grossman transforms into art “all the savage grief and homeless happiness of those terrible years”. Again, he resolves the impersonal waves of 20th-century history into brilliant particles of human life. The peril of each hour on the brink of destruction makes “the value of every individual” shine brighter than ever before.
    “Stalingrad” (Grossman’s original title) introduces many characters who return in “Life and Fate” …

    Vasily Grossman, the greatest bard of the second world war. June 8 2019
    Like “Life and Fate”, the newly translated “Stalingrad” is a masterpiece

  63. Another one. As a Brit I learnt more about how modern America became the way it is by reading James M. McPherson’s brilliant history of the US Civil War “Battle Cry of Freedom”

    1. Yes, a large number.

      The Battle Cry of Freedom is a wonderful (yes) single-volume history of the US Civil War and what led up to it in the (mostly 1850s). McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize for this book and deservedly so.

  64. Cultural criticism: “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,”
    by Clive James. A wide-ranging, encyclopedic collection of short essays on major figures from the humanities and history, focusing mostly on the 20th century and its carnage. Distinguished by the author’s immense erudition and equally great wit. 912 pages; I wish it was longer.

    History: “The History of England from the Accession of James the Second,” by Thomas Babington Macaulay. A chronicle of the Glorious Revolution and the crowning masterpiece of “Whig history.” Assailed by later historians but still a classic thanks to its narrative power and Macaulay’s mastery of prose. Originally in five volumes, but the Penguin Classics edition (edited by another great historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper) collects the best sections into a 576 pages.

    A long, high-quality work of fiction: “Bleak House,” by Charles Dickens. This gets my vote as Dickens’s masterpiece. A masterful look at an entire society—embodied by a pack of unforgettable, vivid and often grotesque characters—and its corrupt judicial system. Over a thousand pages too.

    A travel book: “An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi,” translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim. Evliya Çelebi (1611 – 1682) traveled the length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire, from Vienna to Cairo to the Caucasus. He left behind 10 volumes of his “Seyahatname” (book of travels). “An Ottoman Traveller” has 576 pages of highlights from what might be the most eccentric travelogue ever written, combining straight reportage, ethnographic sketches, myth, complete fabrications, and some very bizarre stuff. The only travel book I know of that has tips on how to have sex with crocodiles.

      1. Yes, I wasn’t going to suggest a novel, but if I were, it would have been Bleak House. Also, though I doubt it would appeal to our host, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is 1,148 pages long and I agree with the reviewer who called it “a weirdly compelling page-turner.”

  65. Take a tome of Icelandic Sagas – really good reads with a lot of history in them. Keeping names straight can be difficult though.

  66. I’m in the process of (re)reading Michel Tremblay’s sequence of novels “La Diaspora des Desrosiers” in one volume and highly recommend it but a) it’s fiction (well, ficionalized family history) and b) I’m not sure if you read French (especially Montreal French).

    I got Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton for Christmas and am looking forward to reading that (it’s been on my list for a while).

    A few years ago at an airport bookstore I bought Andrew Hodges’s “The Enigma”, a biography of Alan Turing which delves into both his personal life and his mathematics. The book lasted me my entire trip.

    You may have read it already but I read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies”, about the history of treatment of and research into cancer.

  67. I arrive late to this party with three recommendations.
    (1) The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture (Vintage) (1970) by James H. Billington. Long, discursive, immensely erudite, and stimulating disquisition on a large, sometimes threatening, and fascinating nation much in the news.

    (2) We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2012) This is fiction, but it is historical fiction, so it
    borders on non-fiction. Long and rich, It concerns the history, from early 19th century through WWII, of a small, never threatening, and fascinating nation that is never in the news. Full of insight, dead-pan Danish humor, and hints of magic realism. It reminded me of the work of Peter Hoegs, which I admire. Which reminds me of another recommendation.

    (3) The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Hoeg (1995). Rather like Carsten Jensen. Beautifully written, but (alas) at about 400 pages not very long.

  68. It’s not big, but if you want to collect a set of smaller nonfiction books, I recently very much enjoyed Maria Konnikova’s “The Confidence Game.” It’s about the psychology of con men and successful cons.

  69. The Invention of Science by David Wootton.

    A wholly remarkable reinvention of scientific histeriography.

    “The scientific revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers.”

    1. How does this compare to John Gribbin’s The Scientists? Subtitle: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors. I thought it was excellent. 616 pages.

  70. “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” by Martin Gardner. Not so “fat,” but dense. Via the below link you can peruse the table of contents.


  71. If you want a real big fat one, why not Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilisation in China”?
    I think there are 7 volumes, it is ‘yuuge’ and non-fiction.

  72. How about Charlotte Bronte’s wonderful novel “Villette”? Everybody in
    the world has read “Jane Eyre”, but have you read “Villette”? It’s pretty
    sizable, as well!

  73. I think if you want popular book on science itself ” Real Science’ BY John Ziman is comprehensive coverage of every aspect of science as a institution, and as philosophy. It touches on what distinguishes common sense (life world) from Science

  74. Here are two I can recommend:

    Non-fiction: I’m currently reading “A Peoples History of the United States”, by Howard Zinn. Not a new book, but interesting. It’s about our history from the perspective of native Americans, blacks, women and working-class whites.

    Fiction: “Underworld”, by Don Delillo. One of my all-time favorites. Also, not new. It’s fiction, but includes some real people (Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce). Some of it is disturbing, some is laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve read a bunch of Delillo’s books, and like them all, but this is the best.

    Happy travels, and Happy Reading!

  75. Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. It’s about how the internet is designed to make you stupid. It’s not a relaxing read; it will make you angry.

    1. I thought I suggested Josephus earlier, but perhaps I did not submit.

      The Wizard & the Prophet by Charles Mann?

      Two friends just published books –
      Ananyo Battacharya – The Man from the Future about von Neumann, &
      Rebecca Nesbit – Tickets for the Ark, inter alia on what we can or cannot save from extinction.

      1. Also want to read The Burgundians by Bart van Loo, also
        With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 by David Stevenson, also
        Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe By Norman Davies.

  76. I know it is too late but I really want to share this great book I just found that meets the criteria : apologies for the all caps I am in haste :

    A Treasury of Jewish Folklore




    1948, 1975
    >743 pages
    ISBN 0-517-50293-3

    … it has copious short witty tales, songs, and more that I’ve only just started on, which originate in antiquity – or at least a long time ago.

Leave a Reply