Scout's Book Club

If Oprah can do it, why can't Scout? Summer is just around the corner (OK, around the block) and many of you will be looking for something to take to the beach or read on the deck on a sunny day. I read quite a bit, though much of it is just popular junk that does little but rot my brain, and every so often I come across a book that is above average for one reason or another. Maybe it opens a window into some topic about which I knew very little, or it inspires with its story of human endeavor. In some cases it is just a novel with exceptional characters and story.

"A King does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A King does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep while they stand at watch upon the wall. A King does not command his men's loyalty through fear, nor purchase it with gold. He earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden a King lifts first and sets down last.

Gates of Fire
Steven Pressfield

A King does not require service of those he leads, but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. A King does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free."

- Gates of Fire

"Stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words."

- Simonides
Epitaph at Thermopylae

So please allow me to help you pick out some good books. The books I recommend are not classics (you should have read those in school...ha,ha!), but they should be available through most moderately large libraries. I have tried to select a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from recent publications. The list is alphabetical, but if it were arranged in order of enjoyment, Gates of Fire would be at the top of the list.

Here are my recommended books (click on the title to go directly to the discussion of the book):

So that's two true adventure, one history, three non-fiction, one humor, and only one historical novel! Not bad! If by now you've decided that I have omitted one your favorite books, please let me know. I may decide to add it to the page later.

Book Suggestions

All the Trouble
in the World

O'Rourke, P. J.


Subtitled "The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty," this book still contains some of the best observations on the Human Condition since Samuel Johnson. Yes, P. J. O'Rourke's approach is irreverent and overly simplistic, but he's dead on the money more often than not. This is a companion piece to Parliament of Whores and Holidays in Hell, sort of an "Exactly why IS everything so f***ed up?" Trilogy.

For several years, O'Rourke has traveled the world, visiting the most unlikely places and asking the most straightforward questions of the most ordinary people. (And, unlike Michael Moore, he is a fairly intelligent person with some perception and understanding...not a dilettante with a camera and a cause du jour jumping out to surprise Charlton Heston or Roger Smith.) His articles for several leading magazines have always had a theme, structure, and, most of all, real humor. He has been what Dave Barry aspires to be.

Each of the three books is a collection (with minor editing) of O'Rourke's most recent articles. This book is the best of the three and should not be missed.

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Dennett, Daniel C.


A difficult book to read, but probably more rewarding because of it. I highly recommend that you read a chapter or two at a time and then return to the book after thinking carefully about what you have just read. This is not a book for a Saturday afternoon at the beach.

Some people have objected to this book based simply upon the title. In their opinion, consciousness is not something that CAN be explained. It lies outside of us, separated by some insurmountable epistemological barrier. That may be (I'm not a philosopher), but I think that Dennett does a fine job of presenting a model which goes far to explain much that we know (or CAN know) about our own conscious existence. His "multiple drafts" model is quite good, even if incomplete. He argues that our perceptions and thoughts exist nearly simultaneously in different forms in different parts of the brain and that there is no "central location" which is responsible for making the ultimate and final decisions. He further argues that this process breaks down at the millisecond level (since the processes are electrochemical, and therefore finite, in nature) and that this combination accounts for many of the anomalies observed in cognitive psychology and the neurosciences.

Give this book a try! What do you have to lose? Dennett spends time making sure that even the least scientifically-inclined reader feels comfortable with his discussions.

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The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Sagan, Carl


I am a skeptic. It is not that I doubt everything, but rather that I ask for evidence proportional (and appropriate) to the proposition. Therefore, if my neighbor tells me that he has just purchased 25 pounds of sugar, I will probably say, "That's nice!" and make a mental note in case I need to borrow some. If, on the other hand, my neighbor tells me he just bought 25 pounds of plutonium, I will probably not even bother to wear my radiation suit when I go to his house, since this would be a virtual impossibility.

Why aren't more people like this, demanding reasonable and objective evidence for the unbelievable? Boiled down to its basics, this is the essence of rational thought. (Don't confuse "rational thought" with Mr. Spock's precious "logic.") It has taken thousands and thousands of years for mankind to develop rational thought and it is arguably mankind's greatest accomplishment, since it makes true scientific endeavor possible. Rational thought, just like scientific thought, is unnatural to human beings and must be learned, but it is the most powerful tool we have to address the universe in which we live. So why do many people fear and avoid it?

As you have probably guessed, Sagan's book examines this topic. I normally don't care much for his work (and absolutely hate drivel like his book, Contact), but this book is an exception. He presents a well-ordered argument for discarding superstition (and psychic channeling, ESP, UFOlogy, dowsing, crystals...just name it) in favor of clear thought. The book reads like an essay and is an excellent, entertaining read for a long weekend.

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Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Lansing, Alfred


Ernest Shackleton and a crew of 27 men set sail in 1914 on the ship, Endurance, in an expeditionary attempt on the South Pole. The ship was trapped by ice and finally destroyed by the movement of the floes. Unaware of what had transpired, the outside world gave them up for lost. They were 1200 miles from the nearest human being and had the slimmest of resources. (Remember, this was before radios, snowmobiles, high-performance expedition clothing, freeze-dried foods, and all other modern paraphernalia.) Still, somehow, over a period of nearly two years, Shackleton guided them back to civilization without losing a single man.

This is truly an inspirational story. Using numerous resources, including letters, private diaries, and previously published accounts of the voyage, Lansing has constructed a detailed and vivid narrative that is almost impossible to believe. With obvious admiration for Shackleton, he describes the hardships and challenges, including the nagging self-doubt, which the great explorer must have endured.

This book is a bit long to read at a single sitting, but it is very difficult to put down. I've probably spoiled it for you by telling you that everybody gets back alive, but I was aware of this before reading the book and was still "on the edge of my chair" throughout the entire story. This is highly recommended, even if you are not a fan of adventure stories. (If you enjoy this book, try Safe Return Doubtful by John Maxtone-Graham. It is a fascinating account of various attempts on the arctic and Antarctic regions, although it inexplicably says very little about the Shackleton expedition.)

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Gates of Fire

Pressfield, Steven


In 480 BC, a force of 300 Spartan peers, reinforced by squires, Helots, and other Greek allies, clashed with the armies of the Persian king, Xerxes, at the pass of Thermopylae. This delaying action provided sufficient time for the Spartan army and its Greek allies to conduct an organized retreat, allowing them to prepare for the Persian invasion. The action made possible the final defeat of the Persian forces at the Battles of Salamis and Plataea. This is what we know from Herodotus, Diodorus, and other ancient historians.

Pressfield has constructed from the historical sources, and from the work of contemporary scholars, a truly epic novel about the Spartans and the Battle of Thermopylae. The characters are well-drawn and the themes of honor, bravery, self-sacrifice, civil responsibility, and love of family shine forth throughout. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to this book is that it "feels right." I am not a Greek scholar and I can't pass judgment on the authenticity of the book's details, but the atmosphere and the actions of the characters have a "rightness" about them that is hard to ignore. The battle scenes are truly horrific (I wonder what the upcoming film treatment will do with them), but it is the finely detailed characters that stay with you after you put the book down.

The book is actually a story within a story and Pressfield uses several literary devices, including a non-chronological narrative, to heighten the sense of reality. The story is told in a roundabout way because this is exactly how a person would actually tell it, inserting personal impressions and straying from the story to expand on items of personal interest. It is shocking to me that Pressfield could write this book, since I feel his The Legend of Bagger Vance is on a par with Johnathan Livingston Seagull.

You really should read this book. I have read it at least four times cover to cover. I own three copies (one hardcover and two paperbacks to lend out) and two audio books (including one unabridged 11-cassette edition). This is a superior novel and I would give it 11 stars (out of 10).

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Into Thin Air

Krakauer, Jon


Exactly what is the difference between this book and Chowdhury's The Last Dive described below? On the surface, they both deal with thrill-seekers... people pushing the limit of their abilities in dangerous environments. For some reason, though, this is a much more comfortable book. There is a sense of foolishness on the part of the Rouses in The Last Dive, but the theme of Into Thin Air seems to be that there can be a very thin line between success and disaster. It doesn't take much for even the best plans to go awry at 28,000 feet, regardless of planning and careful preparation.

As you are no doubt already aware, this book is the first-person account of a member of one of the ill-fated May, 1996, expeditions to Mt. Everest. A total of nine people died on Everest in a single week, including members of Krakauer's own team. Completed less than two months after the expedition returned that year, this book has received a lot of criticism, both from other climbers (some of whom were on the mountain at the same time) and from family members and friends of the victims.

Regardless of the absolute accuracy (and how can any work based on personal experience under such extreme conditions be absolutely accurate?) of the book, Krakauer writes in a vivid, yet matter-of-fact, tone. I do not believe that he is unduly harsh or critical of any of the other team members or climbers. As he said in a later interview, "People performed badly at times, but like everything in life, it's more complicated than that. Everyone up there was a complicated personality. There were no heroes and there were no villains. It was just this really sad disaster." At the end of the book, he provides the sad and inarguable truth - for every climber who summits Everest, one dies.

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The Last Dive

Chowdhury, Bernie


I am very conflicted about recommending this book. On the one hand, it is a fascinating story about Chris and Chrissy Rouse and their diving career, which ended with their tragic deaths from decompression sickness on a 41-minute dive in October, 1992. On the other hand, it is the story of a father and son with apparently little respect for their family and their responsibilities and an amazing disregard for the consequences of their actions. (Sort of reminds me of the Kennedy family.)

The story of the fatal dive has been told many times in sports magazines, but this book paints the background for the tragedy. Chowdhury is non-judgmental in his approach (though the foreword by Homer Hickman is nothing but a long and pathetic attempt to defend the Rouses' actions and to justify their thrill-seeking as somehow "heroic" and essential to society), which makes the story all the more chilling. When you read about Chris Rouse (the father) becoming more and more obsessed with diving and then selling his business's construction equipment and canceling insurance policies (ostensibly due to a decline in business...though he still made time and had money to go diving), you begin to shiver, since you know what fate awaits him. The decision to dive to a wreck at a depth of 230' using air instead of trimix was also just plain foolhardy. Sadly, Chrissy, his son, decided not to dive on that last fatal day in 1992 because he did not like the weather or the feel of the wreck they were planning to visit. His father pressured him to dive anyway and they both (rather unsurprisingly) died.

I am a novice diver myself, and one of the very first things my instructor emphasized to the class was that we should UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES do any diving if we were not completely comfortable with our physical condition, our equipment, and the location and conditions of the planned dive. Too bad the Rouses didn't follow this injunction. And, no, Mr. Hickman, the Rouses were NOT heroes and our society does NOT need more such people. They were thrill-seekers who failed at taking care of some of the basics...that's it.

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QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

Feynmann, Richard P.


Finally, a book on quantum electrodynamics (QED) you'll want to take to the beach!

Well, I don't know about that, but this is a great way to get a feel for "The Master" of QED. Feynmann was greatly admired for his teaching style and clarity of explanation. This book captures much of this, though it can sometimes be slow-going for the scientifically disinclined. Frankly, I'm quite fond of any book with the guts to tell the reader/student that the universe is a certain way for no apparent reason...and that you'll just have to accept that it IS that way. No further explanation or justification is offered

As Feynmann writes about reflectance, photos, energy quanta, and other esoterica, we can't help but get excited. It's like a peek inside the closed door. We may not know why things are the way they are, but it's great to see what we DO know about out they behave. (Do you know why glass reflects light?)

In all fairness, this book can be a challenge for the scientifically disinclined, so prepare yourself. Take it a piece at a time and digest before taking another bite.

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The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership
in the Civil War

Buell, Thomas B.


In spite of living in North Carolina, I am not a Civil War buff (er, I mean "War Between the States buff"...make that "War for Southern Secession buff"...oh, forget it!) However, a lot of people ARE students of the Civil War...and more than a few of them hate this book.

If you don't believe me, check out some of the electronic bulletin boards or the reviews at Buell commits the unforgivable sin of (gasp!) stating that General Robert E. Lee was not only imperfect, but that he contributed to the suffering and ultimate collapse of the Confederacy in several ways.

Now, Buell was no admirer of General Grant's, either. In fact, his pick for the best and most effective Civil War general is Union General George H. Thomas. In Buell's estimation, Thomas was one of the few commanders to organize and utilize his resources, address logistical problems effectively, develop coherent strategies, and learn from his mistakes. Buell argues that the myth of Southern commanders and leadership being superior to those of the Union is simply untrue. The evidence that Buell offers for his argument is striking.

I have read several books which try to provide an overview of the Civil War, but Buell's book is the only one which actually lent perspective to the battles and the political considerations. He organizes the history of the War around a framework of three Union and three Confederate commanders, and manages to convey the importance of each victory or failure along with the underlying factors for either. A highly recommended book, even for non-historians and those who "hate" war.

Unfortunately, Buell passed away in 2002. This was truly a loss, as I have no doubt that he would have produced additional work of a similar caliber.

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Remember, I also have a "Reading List" page, where I list some of the books I have read, both good and bad, and comment on them. Maybe I've read something you were thinking about reading and you'd like to know if it sucks.

Links to Other Sites

P. J. O'Rourke Website - This site has information about P. J. and his other books, and includes some nice quotations.

Thomas Buell Interview - An interesting and informative article based on an interview with Buell. This will probably give you a better flavor for the book than I ever could.

The American Museum of Natural History's Pages on the Shackleton Expedition - This is a great website with details on the expedition, the members of the expedition, and some of the major events that occurred.

"What Have the Spartans Done for Us?" - A transcript of an interesting lecture on the relevance of Sparta and the Spartan concept of duty and civil responsibility to our modern life.

Jon Krakauer Site - A collection of interviews and articles about Jon Krakauer, including some on his Everest experiences, Into Thin Air, and his other work.

Review of Consciousness Explained - An extremely detailed and complex review of Dennett's book. Not for the faint of heart.

Skeptic Website - This is the Website, with a huge collection of articles, commentaries, case studies, and examples related to human foolishness. You could spend days working through this site and then come away wondering if mankind has REALLY developed rational thought at all.

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That's it for now. Come back again and maybe I'll have expanded this page. Better yet, drop me a line if you have any suggestions for the list.

If you want to correspond with me about these books, I'd be happy to discuss my selections. Just send mail to me.

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