What to Read Next (No. 129): Hamilton + 2020 favorite reads so far

Hard to believe we’re halfway through 2020. Been a year, hasn’t it? When January rolled in, this is obviously not what any of us expected. But, we’re resilient. We find ways to adapt and we eventually blaze a path to a new version of normal day-to-day living.

And yet here we find ourselves at America’s birthday with no end in sight to this new pandemic spike. It’s not terribly different from the circumstances of 1776. A war was on, the Americans were losing, and it seemed like the British would ultimately win the darn thing. But then a few remarkable individuals took center stage and, with the help of some astoundingly good luck, turned it around. The new nation improbably won the war. One of those remarkable individuals was Alexander Hamilton.

Let’s do it.

Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004, 731 pages)

When Ron started writing this book in 1999, he was consciously making an escape from the Gilded Age financiers that had dominated his writing career up to that point. He started by reading over 20,000 pages of Hamilton’s papers and archives — “he must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in 49 years.” Little did Ron know that the massive biography which would emerge five years later would cement his place among the pantheon of American biographers, as well as place him into the very small club of writers who gamely tackle our nation’s founders and presidents.

Of course the eponymous Broadway show has done more to bring Alexander Hamilton to the forefront of America’s consciousness than the book did, and while that’s a great story in and of itself, I suppose I should quit wasting space and get to my own review here.

Part of the reason Hamilton’s tale is so appealing is its undeniable human drama. He was born in the Caribbean, orphaned young, made his way to the mainland at the start of the Revolution, and fortuitously found himself in the company of the most powerful people and the most important action. In his twenties, Hamilton proved his worth enough to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp, which is a fancy French term that basically means Assistant to the Regional Manager.

From there, his career absolutely skyrocketed until Hamilton reached his apex in his running of the Treasury Department, which was functionally the second most powerful position in the nation. He nearly single-handedly drew up the blueprints for the capitalist, Wall Street-driven economy we find ourselves in today. Then, of course, THE DUEL. I get that it was 200+ years ago, but even back then it was unconscionable that the Vice President would shoot and kill a Founding Father in a petty feud. And I didn’t even mention the sex scandal!

Outside of a couple hundred pages of the forming of the Treasury and America’s economic policies, the story itself keeps this door-stopping book moving; it required little in the way of readerly discipline to keep going. Chernow is a master storyteller; his argument for Hamilton’s influence on early America is convincing to say the least, even if his subject is a bit idealized (and Hamilton’s enemies a bit demonized). Those are very minor quibbles. I spent plenty of graphite underlining whole passages at a time and Hamilton is a marvel of a book that will remain on my shelf for decades to come, sure to be revisited now and then when I feel the need to mainline some patriotism.

My Favorite Reads of 2020 So Far

Despite the craziness of this year, my reading has been stellar. I’ve read so many good books. It’s been especially marked by looong reads; my “Books Read” list has a handful of titles that went over 700 pages (and a couple that went well past that). Those were certainly some of the best of the year, but not all.

I actually had a really hard time compiling this list, so without further fiddling, here are my favorite and most memorable reads so far of 2020, in no particular order and regardless of when they were published.

The North and South Trilogy by John Jakes. Civil War historical fiction at its finest. Equal parts informative, illuminating, and cheesily entertaining. I’ve read two of the three so far and I’m excited to read the final installment sometime later this year.

Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller. One of the most unique and well-written mystery thrillers I’ve come across. I don’t remember any of the character names without looking, but the story and the feeling I had while reading the story have stuck with me.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. My first reading of Kindred was in high school; my second reading of it made me fall in love with Butler even more. Truly belongs on every list of American classics.

Grant and Hamilton by Ron Chernow. As a biographer, Chernow is hard to beat. His books are very long, but oh so good. You won’t look at American history the same.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Elegant and fun and playful and mysterious. It’s one of those books that just about everyone will enjoy — the only possible objection is its pretentious language (which is on purpose anyway).

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. The story of the last Russian czar and his family has bit of drama you could dream of. Massie’s writing is delightful — he’s a storyteller rather than a professorial historian.

Dark Matter and Recursion by Blake Crouch. I haven’t yet written about Recursion (coming up later this month), but I think I liked it just a bit more than Dark Matter. The themes are definitely related and Crouch gives their sci-fi premises a huge dose of heart and soul.

Furious Hours by Casey Cep. Haven’t written about this one yet either (next week!) but it’s soooo good. It’s about Harper Lee and the true crime story she tried to write but never could. Best non-fic I’ve read all year. I can’t stay away from a good literary backstory.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The novel of all novels. What more needs to be said. I heard from a number of you about reading it daily in 2021. I’ll probably formalize the group somehow to give it some structure and then do extra content and expert interviews and what not. Stay tuned, and if you didn’t last week, shoot me a note if you’re interested.

I’d love to hear your favorite reads of 2020 so far! Thank you for the time and inbox space, as always.