What I'm Reading (No. 84): non-fic classics from the 80s
Okay, I lied a tad in the subject line. The Right Stuff is from 1979. Close enough for me. Wolfe's classic was a rather unique reading experience — one I won't soon forget.
I also finished James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, which has long been considered the best single-volume history of the Civl War.
Let's do it.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (1988, 862 pages)
Penned in 1988 as part of Oxford's somewhat maligned series on the History of the United States, Battle Cry of Freedom won a Pulitzer, and a number of admirers. I've not read much directly about the Civil War; I've just sort of absorbed it from biographies and documentaries and pop culture at large. So I decided it was time to get right into the war, and this book is a widely acclaimed starting point.
It starts with the Mexican-American War of the mid 1840s, and continues to the end of the war itself in 1865. Why begin 20 years before the war actually starts? Well, really, it could have started from the nation's founding. Right from the beginning there were North-South tensions revolving around slavery.
Anyways, the Mexican-American War was one of the first of many catalysts that led to the eventual conflagration of the war. Others included Bleeding Kanas and John Brown, the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, and more. McPherson covers all of these in great detail, using almost a third of the book working up to Fort Sumter (the first shots of the Civil War).
From that point on, McPherson finds a way to cover just about every aspect imaginable of the Civil War: Northern and Southern politics (and elections), daily life for civilians and soldiers alike, important and not-so-important battles, the international impact of the war, the surprising (for me, at least) naval battles, and of course, some of the most interesting people in the history of history — Robert Lee, Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, Frederick Douglass, and more.
Given the broad nature of the war, and just how many different topics McPherson covers, there isn't a ton of depth given to any single subject. What this book really did was add a lot of follow-up books to my reading list.
That said, even though it's an overview, McPherson had some brilliant takeaways, including an epilogue that pretty well blew my mind.
It's dry at times (but not too often), nearly always taking a fairly scholarly approach. You could read this, do no further reading on the Civil War, and be far better informed than the vast majority of people out there. It's a style that's necessary and balanced when delving into this war; I intentionally read this before getting into Shelby Foote's more narrative, and controversial, style in his classic 3-volume set.
Anyways, for a history nerd like me, Battle Cry of Freedom served as a remarkable starting point.
An Astro Reading List
In newsletter No. 77, I gave you an aviation reading list. Now I'm giving you a spacey reading list (inspired by The Right Stuff). A few non-fiction titles and a few novels for your enjoyment:
American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley. With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this summer, there were almost a dozen new books about the subject, about half of which landed on my doorstep courtesy of eager publishers. A read a few chapters of each, and this one was certainly the best of the bunch. I've not read it all the way through yet, but will eventually.
The Martian by Andy Weir. If a novel can go viral, this one did it. Totally lived up to the hype.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. This sci-fi classic is really more a collection of related stories. It's a bit outlandish, but fun nonetheless.
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. An inventive novel about a group of astronauts who undertake a 17-month simulation in preparation for going to Mars. Makes your head spin by the end, in a good way.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979, 369 pages)
There are a lot of books about the Space Race and the NASA of the late '50s and early '60s. None are quite like The Right Stuff.
Wolfe earned his chops during that same time as a journalist, experimenting with what he called "New Journalism" — a way of inserting more literary prose into his newsy stories. (Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, and others of the era did this too.) The style is utterly unique in non-fiction, using eccentric punctuation, a lot of dialogue (including inner dialogue), and trying to get deep into the heads and psyches of his subjects.
In this particular book, those subjects were the Mercury 7 — the very first astronauts of America's budding space program. Before getting there, though, Wolfe looks at the test pilot mindset in general, using the incomparable Chuck Yeager as a case study. (The story of his breaking the sound barrier with a broken rib is, to my mind, one of the more memorable scenes in non-fiction literature.)
These guys had an indefinable quality that combines ego, courage, nonchalance, risk-taking . . . the right stuff. And the entirety of the book is about defining that quality. This is no science book; there's very little mechanical information. It's entirely about the characters.
The first three chapters blew me away. Like I said, I just have never encountered this type of writing in non-fiction. I was sucked in. Wolfe captured all my senses, describing the sights, sounds, smells, and even the nervous and kinetic energy of being a pilot and astronaut.
He also tells the stories of the wives, who had to play along and smile for the cameras and pretend that their family life was perfect. (It was not, but 1960s America wanted it to be.) I have to imagine some of the material for that astronaut wives show from a couple years back was pulled from here.
This book is a classic of non-fiction for a reason. It reads like fiction, and though I got a little tired of the style at times (excessive punctuation becomes less novel and more annoying as the pages keep turning), I was always drawn right back in with Wolfe's masterful descriptions of the astronauts' experiences. If you've not read The Right Stuff, do yourself a favor and get to it.
That's all for me this week. Next week I'm bringing you some thoughts on perhaps the best flavor of reading: vacation reading! As always, thank you for the time and inbox space.