by Gary Alexander
November 30, 2021
For each of the last few years, I have profiled the best 10 to 12 books of the year at year’s end. This is particularly appropriate during the COVID lockdown years, and now we have a new “Omicron” variant creeping up from South Africa, threating to lock us down going into Year #3. I usually read 100 book a year. In these two Covid years, I’m up to 140 or 150 per year… Maybe this all happened 100 years ago?
The “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918 lasted into 1920, but there were also widespread terrorist acts in 1920, usually blamed on “The Red Menace,” perpetrated by swarthy “anarchists,” often immigrants from Eastern Europe, which scared people off the streets. Sound familiar? We also had an absentee invalid President in Woodrow Wilson, felled by a stroke, with his wife Edith as our de facto chief. There was also a huge (-36%) stock market crash and a deep recession with high unemployment through most of 1921.
1922 brought a nervous country a cornucopia of new books, and a very special new magazine. Chronicle America reported, “Some say 1922 is a banner year in the history of Western art; others mutter prayers to the gods of decency.” The roll call of titles is epic, and chilling – James Joyce’s turgid Ulysses debuted on February 2nd; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned dropped in March, and his Jazz Age in September captured the new era in rhythm. Also in September came a long dystopian poem, The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot of London (via St. Louis and Harvard), while Sinclair Lewis satirized capitalist excess in Babbitt. Thankfully, Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society also debuted, defending the norms of decency.
New magazines that stood the test of time debuted about one per year – Barron’s in 1921, Reader’s Digest in 1922, and TIME in 1923, but one deserves a special focus for meeting the new needs of a busy nation.
A century ago, a multinational newlywed couple surveyed, selected, and summarized the best magazine articles and digested 31 of them each month, turning the result into the best-selling consumer magazine in the world in the last century. DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981) hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father was on the faculty (and later president) of Macalester College. DeWitt attended Macalaster and Cal Berkeley. After working in publishing a few years, he enlisted in the U.S. Army when America entered World War I and was wounded in action. During his four months in a French hospital, he would read articles in American magazines, imagining how he could shorten or tighten them. Upon returning to Minneapolis, he spent every day for six months at the Minneapolis Public Library reading and condensing what he thought were the best magazine pieces, attempting to fashion a pocket digest anyone could read.
Wallace showed his sample magazine to Lila Bell Acheson (1889-1984), sister of an old college friend, who responded enthusiastically. She came from Manitoba, Canada, daughter of a Presbyterian minister who brought the family “south” to North Dakota. She graduated from the University of Oregon in 1917 and taught school for two years before working for the YWCA. Dewitt proposed to Lila on October 15, 1921, and they soon married. Less than four months later, they decided to publish their first home-grown Reader’s Digest at home and marketed it through the mails. The first issue came out on February 5, 1922.
Reader’s Digest became #1 in U.S. circulation for over 50 years and is still #1 globally. Wallace was chief editor for 45 years, they were married nearly 60 years, and they donated over $60 million to charity in their lifetime. Who says gifted editors can’t get rich meeting the needs of busy readers?
The First Six of My Top 10 (or Maybe 12) Books Published in 2021
In the spirit of Reader’s Digest, soon to turn 100, let me digest six great books born in the second quarter of 2021, three of which I read in hardback and three on Kindle. Like DeWitt and Lila, I obviously prefer consequential non-fiction and history to the Waste Land of nihilistic poetry and fiction, so here goes:
The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, by Linda Colley (published March 30, 2021, 508 pages). I reviewed this book in an earlier Growth Mail in conjunction with our July 4th holiday celebrating our Constitution. I compared our American Revolution to similar revolutions in France and Haiti, which did not end so well. Ms. Colley begins her book even further back, in Corsica in 1755, tracing the history of Constitutions basically signed at gunpoint (hence “The Gun, the Ship”) by military conquest, a far cry from “social contracts,” but free to evolve later on.
Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters, by Steven Koonin (April 27, 316 page). The author is a former Undersecretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama Administration, and he was Provost at Cal Tech for a decade. He was also once an advocate of political action resisting climate change. However, the data kept telling him different answers than what the “consensus” was telling him to tell us, so he felt compelled to write this book. Naturally, he came under criticism from his peer group for breaking out of the lockstep of the global warm-mongerers.
DOOM: The Politics of Catastrophe, by Niall Ferguson (May 4, 492 pages) has a similar tone to “Unsettled,” but on a much wider canvas. Ferguson is one of our most eloquent, wide-ranging historians, and he uses the word “politics” with specific intent. He echoes President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” in the sense that threats must be raised to their maximum possible danger level to give the ruling party authority to install draconian measures that will last far beyond the initial threat. (Think of that the next time you take off your shoes in an airport.)
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis (May 4, 319 pages) is another story about panics and pandemics but this is a thoroughly unique tale, as befits that unparalleled storyteller, Michael Lewis, who covers the waterfront on so many subjects. Lewis profiles a half-dozen mavericks outside of the mainstream government who basically got the big dogs in line. These are unforgettable personalities who deserve our eternal thanks for risking all with little or no reward. They rattled cages and made big changes happen when nobody was listening nor seemed to care. It’s an old, old story, told very well.
MAVERICK: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason Riley (May 25, 249 pages) is not exactly a biography. I wish it contained more about Tom’s youth as an orphan in North Carolina and as a teen in Harlem, and the miracle of how he came from such disadvantaged roots to become one of the greatest economists and social observers of the last 60 years. Instead, it is a literary overview of Sowell’s superb 30+ books, and as such it is valuable. Riley penned a useful introduction to his views, and a guide for deciding which books to read first, but I would rather read Sowell himself than Riley’s reviews. (Sowell turned 91 last June and I was on a July panel at Freedom Fest reviewing this book and his life, so I also re-read five of Sowell’s best books over the summer in preparation for that panel, a delightful repast.)
War on Small Business: How the Government Used the Pandemic to Crush the Backbone of America, by Carol Roth (June 29, 352 pages). At last July’s Freedom Fest in South Dakota, I reviewed many films that profiled real people running small businesses that were choked off by uneven regulations regarding Covid lockdowns – while big businesses skated, due to their powerful lobbies. (I am a senior reviewer at the Anthem Film Festival there.) It is a crying shame that the government has played favorites with big business and put up so many barriers to smaller businesses during the pandemic. You can see it in boarded up shops all across America. This book gives you many of the saddening, maddening details.
The Internet is vital and timely. Magazines are convenient – as Dewitt’s good old Digest taught us – but Gutenberg’s original book-printing mandate of 1453 still provides us with the most detailed, footnoted, concentrated, thoroughly reviewed information, often written by the best experts using the best sources.