Remembering Great Reads – books still burning bright in my memory

We are all kind of used to the “since you like that, you might like this” helpful features of shopping sites like Amazon or GoodReads recommendations. In Library and Information Science this type of search is sometimes referred to as a “pearl growing” strategy. You find a known, truly amazing author (or musician in Pandora for example) and an algorithm figures out what other things you might like. Pandora has the nice added feature of thumbs down so if you get something that is really off the range, you don’t have to suffer more of that same offering.

Now in my recollection, back in the day, it was Pattie Maes, an MIT professor (who still is there) who with her involvement in their Media Lab, invented what she called Firefly, which was exactly this “if you like this” first algorithm. So it was funny when this remarkable achievement struck me so completely as BRILLIANT and she went on to do a spin off company to pursue commercial development, that this in not in her too thin Wikipedia entry (which admits it needs more). So I have this really clear memory of learning about this as I was researching women in computer science, but I don’t recall more details and so on to add anything to the entry. The spin off changed the name from Firefly to something else I don’t recall. And whether other people once seeing the concept wrote their own code or licensed hers, or whatever, it soon became commonplace, especially when Amazon started using the concept with books. But her main thing had been about music, and friends sharing what they like in music to find new musicians they might enjoy.

So today, I happened to be on Amazon (I know I know, Republican evil empire bad labor practices, but so convenient!!) and up popped a really great list of books (by categories too) that I might like to read. Some of the recommendations are good because I frequently use them to link to books in this blog so people can easily buy them; I switched to Barnes and Noble some on fair play principles as well, but I do like the SMILE feature of Amazon despite being a shameless pandering to lefties like me to theoretically actually use some profit for good, but of course it is not really altruistic because they get the tax deduction. But at least it is something.

Many of the books I had read or will read in my ongoing history, constitution, world wars, and Supreme Court related books appeared thanks to the GoodReads algorithm. But what took my breath away was the sight of one of the best books ever written by an author who has written more equally astoundingly researched and well written:

book jacket WW I soldiers silhouetted against smoky skyBarbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August: the outbreak of World War I (first published 1962)

When I first read it, I did so without knowing it had received a Pulitzer. But I was definitely not surprised today to see it is listed as one of the top 100 best nonfiction books of all time by The Modern Library. EVERYONE should read this book and her others. The Proud Tower is so EXTRAORDINARY that there are not sufficient words to do it justice.

book jacket image of troops from World War OneThen there is the excellent book,  The Proud Tower: A Portrait of Europe Before the War 1890-1914 , that basically contains everything all people should know about recent history since the impact of these events are still resonating today and the names and events are pivotal to understanding the world we live in today.


book jacket with American soldiers and flags WWIThe Zimmerman Telegram is the final of her three comprehensive histories of WWI period. [The Proud Tower is the first, The Guns of August is second chronologically by events.] This one in particular disturbed me because of the deceitfulness that became known about the war and behind the scenes machinations. Over the decades of my life, I am astounded when I now read of the really bad behavior and dishonesty and corruption of our elected and unelected (Cabinet, Ambassadors, and so forth) people in control of our fate. And the fate of the world, all too often and too often to their detriment.

book jacket medieval book illustration of peopleMy absolute favorite has to be A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. In my recollection, I was visiting my mother and checked on the book on tape (pre-cd books) and the book was so huge (677 pp book) in audio there were two sets of tapes. I had managed to get through the first set, but the second set had been checked out and did not come back until after I had to fly home. The first thing I did on my next visit was check out the second volume, having waited for it for a year or two for the opportunity. But memory can be tricky and it might have been one of the other books she wrote, but it doesn’t really matter because it was this one that just blew my mind at the vivid history of the 14th Century (think Black Plague).

book jacket featuring an illustration of the Trojan horseI wish that she were alive today to diagnose and pierce the lies of the Iraq war, Afghanistan, and the multiple regime changes and crap that W et al pulled in South America including Middle America as well. PLEASE IF YOU KNOW ANY HISTORY SCHOLARS beg them to undertake Barbara Tuchman-like comprehensive histories of Bolivia, Chile, Iran-Contra, and the Middle East “messopotamia” (as the Daily Show dubbed it). Her book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam is enough to break your heart but as such it is a much needed reference given the Orwellian state of perpetual war we seem to be committed to as a nation. At least, war in other countries, just profits for our military-industrial complex, and the death of the cannon fodder the economic policies of our corporatocracy.

And of course, for a little lagniappe, one of my other favorite best books ever is by the author who also wrote an introduction to one of her books (not sure which edition), Robert K. Massie’s great Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (first published 1991) . Massie won the Pulitzer for his book on Peter the Great; he wrote books on the Romanov family as well. After I read, actually while I was reading Dreadnought, I became a huge admirer of Admiral Jackie Fisher. For months during and after, if I had a big decision to make, I would often say to my colleagues “What would Jackie Fisher do?!” He saved the world, basically, and now hardly anyone knows his name. At least in America, maybe he gets better treatment in Britain. From Wikipedia:

As First Sea Lord, he [Jackie Fisher] was responsible for the construction of HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun battleship, but he also believed that submarines would become increasingly important and urged their development. He was involved with the introduction of turbine engines to replace reciprocating engines, and the introduction of oil fuelling to replace coal. He introduced daily baked bread on board ships, whereas when he entered the service it was customary to eat hard biscuits, frequently infested by biscuit weevils.[6]

He first officially retired from the Admiralty in 1911 on his 70th birthday, but became First Sea Lord again in November 1914. He resigned seven months later in frustration over Churchill’s Gallipoli campaign, and then served as chairman of the Government’s Board of Invention and Research until the end of the war.

His hostility with Churchill over Gallipoli is discussed in Massie’s Dreadnought book. That disastrous wasted killing by stupid uncoordinated British commanders lead to the wasted death of many Australian troops. It was magnificently portrayed in a film by Australian director Peter Weir titled Gallipoi (the movie link) but heartbreakingly true.

Just recently (June 2016, though dated 2014 so maybe new to America) there has been a notable new PBS series on featuring the view of WWI from the ANZAC Girls — combined Australian and New Zealand military nurses’ point of view that was excellent at portraying the unbelievably dreadful conditions they endured, as well as the soldiers, from Gallipoli to France.  A touch too heavy on romance for my taste but I rather expect there was a lot of that going around in reality. It was based on actual people, the married couple [whose names I cannot recall or find in Wikipedia entry] in particular were astoundingly committed and courageous. She did special duty nursing on her husband (they had to lie about their marriage initially as married women were not allowed in the nursing corps) and with that attention she saved him after he was shot in the head during a battle. Alice Ross-King was another heroic nurse.

So there are plenty of pearls for you to read and to follow for even more excellent books on history (so we don’t repeat it with any luck).

Leave a Reply