My Life in Reading – 1990

In 1990 my life was up in the air. We were in SF but I was not focused. Nor was my reading. I did read two volumes of Robert Caro’s excellent biography of LBJ. For part of the year I worked as a wildland firefighter up in Marin County. I didn’t get to go to any big fires though. My main task was to survey and mark the boundary of the park. This was before GPS so I spent a lot of time walking through the woods with a map and a compass. I also always brought a book for some trailside reading during lunch. I had a great time up there and spent a lot of time on and around Mt. Tam. That experience led me to read “The Sleeping Lady.”

He Died with His Eyes Open, Derek Raymond
I can remember very little about this. My recollection is that it was a pretty grim and gritty British crime novel. I know I liked it because I went on to read several more of Raymond’s stories.

Invitation to an Inquest, Walter & Mirriam Schneir
The making of the atomic bomb, the stories of the atom spies, the Cold War – these have always been really interesting to me. I can’t recall what lead me to this book but I was glad I read it. I won’t go into details now but I will say my interest and scant knowledge of the Rosenbergs led – through an unlikely series of events – to an unexpected meeting in 1991 . . .

A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan
Again I don’t know what drew me to this book. It was the first history of Vietnam that I’d read. I recall it being good though and it led me to read a number of other histories of the conflict over the years.

Frogs at the Bottom of a Well, Ken Edgar
I have no idea what this book was about or why I read it.

Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen
This was a holdover from my time at the JFK birthplace. It was something we sold there and I purchased it at some point. This book was a pleasure to read – especially the dross I had just finished. Thinking back, I think this was the first book I read on early US history. There have been several more that followed, as you will see in the future years.

Out of the Cold, Robert S. McNamara
Somehow I heard that Robert McNamara was going to be speaking over at Berkeley. For some reason I decided to go. I can’t recall if I went because I was reading this book or if I read this book because I went but I’m pretty sure there was a connection. This fit in with my Cold War and Vietnam reading.

About Face, David Hackworth
More on Vietnam. I recall enjoying this book very much. More than “A Bright Shining Lie.” Don’t get me wrong – both books were excellent – but there is something about
Hackworth’s voice that made this book more memorable for me.

The Path to Power, Robert Caro
My dad has been the greatest source of inspiration and recommendations when it comes to my reading. His library is easily over 10,000 volumes at this point – and probably far more. For as long as I can remember he’s given me books at every opportunity. And if he hasn’t given them to me he’s always offered great recommendations.

The Path to Power was a gift from my father and I enjoyed it very much. My time at the Kennedy birthplace resulted in an interest in presidential history and political history in general. Knowing this my dad thought I might enjoy the Caro biography. He was right on the money.

These books paint a picture of political power: how it is gained, developed, strengthened and exercised. Say what you will about LBJ but there’s no denying that he understood how to amass and use power. Master of the Senate, the third book, is particularly stunning in its illustration of how Johnson worked.

The first volume dealt with Johnson’s early years in Texas. It was an auspicious beginning but you get a sense of what drove the man.

There are a lot of books called Apollo as it turns out; and for the life of me I can’t recall which one this was. You probably don’t want to read it anyway . . .

Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
This, the second of Caro’s biography, deals with Johnson’s early days in Washington – and particularly his relationship with Sam Rayburn. I can’t recommend this biography enough. If you’re interested in politics you need to read it.

Sleeping Lady, Robert Graysmith
Were it not for the fact that I was spending a lot of time in the shadow of Mt. Tam in 1990 I probably wouldn’t have read this book. It was one of the first true crime books that I read and I do enjoy the genre but I don’t recall much about this one.

The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
Certainly a classic. I watched several of the conversations between Bill Moyers and Campbell the formed the core of this book – and I went on to read one of the Masks of God. I tried reading the Golden Bough as well but that doesn’t have a very smooth narrative – it reads more like a simple catalog of curious behaviors.

The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies was another gift from my father. This book in particular but just learning of him as an author. I recall little about this trilogy (partly because I read it so many years ago – and partly because I read so many of his stories). What I do remember is that they are written in a language so rich – and tell stories so involved – that I didn’t want them to end.

Twenty Years of Reading – 1989

I was married on January 2, 1989. I was reading A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre on our honeymoon. Arbitrarily I decided to keep track of everything I read. It has seemed silly at points but after more than 20 years I love that I know everything I’ve read since I’ve been married.

Looking over the list, I can see interests rise and fall; I can see authors discovered and their works exhausted; I can see those times I traveled more and the times I traveled less. Because reading has always been important to me it offers a good – if unintended – window into my life.

A few weeks ago I decided to look back and write about my reading. I pulled out the list (actually, a small journal) and went to work. I’ve read more than 450 books since I started and so the post quickly became unwieldy. For each year I was writing a brief overview of what I’d read, links to the books and then a few comments on selected titles. Trying to do that for 20-plus years in a single post was just too much.

Instead, I’ve decided to break it down year-by-year. This makes it much easier for me to write and will make it much easier for anyone to read. It also gives me more time and space to think and write about what I read. Looking through the list I realize that the further back I go the less I can recall but for what it’s worth, here’s the start.


1989 was the year I was married. It was also the year Wendy and I moved from Boston to San Francisco. There aren’t really any discernable patterns to what I read that year. Maybe the closest are the few books I read on JFK (I was working as a park ranger at his birthplace in Brookline when the year started) and a couple on the Cold War, which was an area of interest for me.

A Perfect Spy, John Le Carre

Leaving Home, Garrison Keillor

Remembering America, Richard Goodwin

The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Phillips

A Thousand Days, John Scheslenger Jr

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
I loved these stories. I read it after seeing a few of the stories on television with Jeremy Brett. I’d read a story here or there as a kid and saw some of the Basil Rathbone movies but the Brett portrayal really brought Holmes alive for me.

And as often happens, once I was hooked I wanted to go back to read the original stories – all of them. Over the years I’ve read a few of Conan Doyle’s other stories (The Lost World was great – his boxing stuff not so much . . .) but none captured me like Holmes. Recently my son started to get interested in Holmes as well and I’m hoping he and I can read a few of the stories together.

War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, John Newhouse

Your Cheatin’ Heart, Chet Filippo
When I was in college I worked at Mississippi’s Restaurant in Kenmore Square in Boston. One of the things I loved about the place (and there were many) was that everyone would put together mix tapes to play during their shift. Bill Grant made a mix called “Hank and Frank” that combined the music of Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra. It was a fun mix and it introduced me to Hank Williams – for which I will be forever grateful to Bill.

As with Holmes, I went whole hog. I bought several tapes and LPs of Hank and played them to death. I also decided to find out more about his life and got Filippo’s biography. Williams had a troubled and tragic life. A lot of that comes through in his music. Much more of it came through in his story.

JFK – A History of an Image, Tom Brown

Death in Midsummer, Yukio Mishima

In the Western Lands, William Burroughs

Atomic Candy, Phyllis Burke

Libra, Don DiLilo

The Private Elvis, May Mann

Harry S Truman, Margaret Truman
I bought a copy of this book at Aardvark Books on Church Street in San Francisco. At the time I think I was working at the Guinness Book of World Records museum on Fisherman’s Wharf (I was only 23 and new the the city, what can I say . . .). One day I was waiting for the bus to work on the Embarcadero. Somehow – with only a hundred pages left – I left the book at the bus stop. As soon as I realized what I’d done I got off the bus and ran the many blocks to retrieve my book. Alas, by the time I arrived it was gone . . . :(.

I ended up taking it out of the library to finish. It was OK but not worth buying twice.

Shock Value, John Waters

Crackpot, John Waters

Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy

That’s all I have for 1989. I was my first year as a dedicated reader – free from the required reading of college and setting off on what has been a wonderful life of reading.

No 1

How annoying. The number one on my cell phone has stopped working. Because I’m unemployed I shut down my iPhone and started using an old Sony Ericsson. Now that phone is dead. Do I root around the house for another old phone (I think I have a Razr someplace)? Do I reactivate my iPhone? Do I just get some cheapo one from AT&T?

I really hate incurring unnecessary expenses but a phone is pretty hard to be without.