Steve Kohn's Deserted Island Book List


Minor Classics

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my Amazon reviews, mostly about books, movies and music

In alphabetical order:

THE CASE FOR LEGALIZING DRUGS, by Richard L. Miller (1991).

I couldn't describe the book better than has Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winner:

"The single most important book yet written about illegal drugs and the drug war. It's historically informed, thoroughly documented, and brilliantly argued. The US Treasury is being raided and American citizens are incarcerated and dying for lack of the knowledgeable realism Richard Lawrence Miller advocates in this authoritative, compassionate book."

Years from now, when our drug laws are finally repealed, Americans will marvel that citizens of the late 20th and early 21st centuries could have been so senseless for so long. I believe Miller's book will have played some part in making that change happen.

I especially recommend it to those who were, like me, on the conservative side of the political spectrum, but not yet convinced of the ruin our drug laws are causing our country. You may want to also watch the Ken Burns series on Prohibition.


The radio program On Point, with Tom Ashbrook, had a fine interview with Dr Carl Hart, author of High Price (2013) for those interested in this subject.




This book succeeds on a number of levels.

It goes into some detail to help us understand why certain societies failed: Easter Island, Norse Greenland, Rwanda, and other less well known but fascinating examples. He contrasts Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two halves of one island, with very different qualities of life. It's fascinating to learn about China and Australia, both paying dearly for past decisions, both taking measures now to correct them.

And it's reassuring to learn corrections can succeed, as has happened in Iceland, Tikopia, and Japan.

The opening discussion on Montana, a long chapter, is an engrossing analysis of the factors faced even by us Americans in the 21st century. 

Though written by a scientist, this book is a page-turner, a pleasure to read. 

It occurs to me that if this website's premise (which books to pack along to a deserted island) is taken literally, COLLAPSE is clearly the single most important book we would take. It may equally be the most important book for us all when we recognize that we live on a deserted planet.

(August 2015. I've just finished Diamond's first book, THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE, also superb. Diamond's gift for explaining science to non-scientists, or at least to this dummy, are a treasure, a gift to mankind.)




ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing (1959).

It's 1914 and you're one of 28 men in a wooden ship off the coast of Antarctica. Your ship becomes trapped, then crushed and sank by the ice. It's 19 months until you and every one of your mates are rescued.

Fortunately, many of you keep diaries, and one of them never stops taking superb photos.

Years later a great writer tells your story.



THE GYPSIES, by Jan Yoors (1967).

" the age of twelve ran away from home to join a Gypsy kumpania, and lived among them for ten years. He has written the first true portrait of Gypsy life - the hardships and exuberant pleasures of their campsites, their festivals, their complex customs and their never-ending struggle to survive as free nomads in a hostile world. He is the first person to write about Gypsies as an insider." -- from a professional review

Gypsies are universally scorned, often by people who never even met one. Reading this book over 40 years ago taught me more than about Gypsies, but also the need to keep an open mind in the face of uninformed prejudices. (As if a Jew wouldn't know that.)

The author was a gifted writer. Reading this book, we leave the present world and go back in time to his.

(May 2005: Have discovered another, certainly grittier, book on Gypsies, BURY ME STANDING, by Isabel Fonseca. Here's where more pieces of the puzzle get filled in.)



HAMILTON (2004) and WASHINGTON (2010), by Ron Chernow

These 800-page books seem 8000 pages too short. We're taken back to the late 1700s, and we don't want to leave. Letters and diaries were apparently as common then as emails and texts are now, letting us "hear" thoughts as if we were actually there.

At least two things I learned I should have already known:

1. Birthing a country isn't easy. (I think also of Israel, Singapore and South Korea, who did it well, and Iraq, Haiti and North Korea, who didn't.) America, even after defeating Great Britain, was divided in many ways. Urban and rural. New Englander and Southerner. Property owner and indentured servant. Federalist (country-first) and Democrat (states-first). Slave owner and abolitionist. And, of course, slaves and free.

How would the new nation collect revenue? How would it enforce the laws its Congress made? How would it feed, clothe and arm its military? Or fund roads, bridges, the new capital?

Even the bloody excesses of the French Revolution deeply divided us, Jefferson and Madison in strong disagreement with Hamilton and Washington. This division had real-world effects: having to choose between the two strongest nations in Europe; embargoes of our manufactured goods and agricultural products; our ships seized at sea, especially by Great Britain; the continued threat of British forts to our north and west; and more.

Feeding the divisions, as gas to a fire, was our free press, where the most vicious libels could be, and were, printed. Some of them influenced votes. Some of them led to a tragic duel.

It would take great minds, great leaders, to create a nation out of this turbulence.

2. Which we had in amazing abundance, of course, but who I now see were also deeply flawed. Were human, of course. We've all heard of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but there was more of him I didn't know that he would wish we didn't. Adams was petty, petulant and self-centered, raging uncontrollably at his cabinet, abandoning his presidency for months at a time to return to his comfortable home and family. Burr...well, there was a fascinating man, both admirable and despicable. Hamilton himself, as brilliant in many ways as any of our nation's heroes, suffered misjudgments of his own.

And then there's George Washington. Sure, he was the Father of Our Nation, but who was he when not General, when not President? With these two books, we can now fairly say we know the man beyond the portraits. Again, not a saint, not without fault, but also fair to say a remarkably wise and good man in both his public and private lives.

Reading these books, it becomes clear that no one besides George Washington could have placed America on its path as the great nation it became. Without him, the revolution itself would have died stillborn, as he kept the ragtag force on the field against the British, year after miserable year for eight years, always leading from the front.

Then, after we had won independence, the innate divisions among the 13 colonies would surely have created two nations at least, slave and abolitionist, with more nations to come as new lands to the west were being settled. The many laudable precedents he set, not the least to step down after two terms in contrast to royalty around the globe, still influence us today.

More than just lessons in history, these two books remind me of the fallibility of human nature that applies to us all. I need to take some comfort from that when contemplating my own personal "imperfections."

The books are also a reminder that mortal men (and women, of course) can alter the course of history. And that elections have consequences, as we have seen in our own lifetimes many times over. (As I write this, in early 2016, about to happen again.)

These are two books I never wanted to end. Reading them was as stepping into another time and place. One, in many surprising ways, not all that different from our own.




HOLE IN OUR SOUL, The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, by Martha Bayles (1994).

Please go to my Deserted Island Music for a review of this fascinating book.





INFIDEL (2008) and NOMAD (2011), by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. "Infidel" is a book you've probably read, but must be included here to bear witness to the bravery, the humanity, of this special woman. (And to the beauty and the intelligence, for what they're also worth.)

It's women, most of all, who will find the memoir most fascinating as Ali describes her childhood in Somalia, her father's attempt to marry her off to a man she doesn't know, to her own missteps in love.

The book contains two stories: One, a girl grows into a woman. Two, a Muslim child grows into an adult with a clear-eyed view of Islam.

At age 34, Ms Ali was elected to Parliament in Holland (is that not amazing enough?), where she spoke for the rights of women, mostly Muslim women, who apparently needed the most support. Her views on immigrants, again mostly Muslim immigrants, will not win her any votes with the politically correct.

Parts of this book are painful to read. Somalia was/is a broken country. Her family was a broken family. But it's a book that must be read by each of us. 

"Nomad" was published in 2011 but predicted so much chaos and tragedy since then.

I happened to be reading "Nomad" the week two parents in San Bernadino -- one born in America, with a good $70K/year government job -- left their 6-month old baby at home to shoot, bomb, murder and maim innocent civilians at a social event. "Nomad" helps us understand the mentality, the insanity, that made this possible.

Near the end of "Nomad," Ms Ali offers advice that I, for one, find mostly sensible on defeating radical Islam in the West. I say "mostly" because she wants churches, Protestant and Catholic, to get involved in this battle for Muslim minds just as mosques and imams do now.

But I fear this might then become a struggle for believers between religions. We don't need that. We can defeat the fundamentalist Islam with secular, post-Enlightenment rationality and principles of freedom.

The single best thing we could do, in my opinion, is to make these two books part of the curriculum in every high school in the western world. Not much chance of that, I know.

For those of us with high school behind us, I'd say that to not read these two books is to be sleepwalking in the 21st Century.

If the Nobel Peace Prize committee had any integrity -- which, judging by its awards to Yasser Arafat and Barack Obama, appears to be no -- it would next year select Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Not much chance of that either.



THE LOOMING TOWER, by Lawrence Wright (2006).

Imperative to understanding Al-Qaeda, this book is also a can't-stop-reading account of fascinating individuals.

It's been at or near the top of most military reading lists since it was published in 2006.

Civilians have apparently also recognized this book's value, awarding it many prizes.

You won't be able to put it down.



THE MEANING OF SPORTS, by Michael Mandlebaum (2005).

My favorite books might be the ones that give me some new insight to the world or, as in this case, some part of it.

Until reading this book, I now realize I'd never understood baseball, football or basketball, especially how these sports came to have such prominence in American life.

Fact is, I'd never thought much about these sports at all. Just played them -- softball to this day, basketball and football as a boy in the schoolyard. I've enjoyed watching them all my life, if only the championship games as an adult.

But I now see I was looking at pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, scattered on the table, never seeing how the parts fit together. Or even how they fit together with parts of other puzzles. Yes, that's confusing, but read the book to see what I mean. I don't want to tell you more, so you can enjoy as I did the author's countless connections.

I'm in awe of the scholarship that went into this book. And marvel at how it was made so readable and relevant. George Will has long been one of my standards for great writing, including his book on baseball, "Men at Work". Mandelbaum is in Will's league.

My only kvetch is the title, which really should be "The Meaning of Baseball, Basketball and Football in America: a Historical and Sociological Perspective." But that's way too long, and not very catchy. "The Meaning of Sports" is good enough.

In my sixth decade, and a lifelong reader, I've enjoyed many fine books on sports. This is the best I've ever read.



Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin (1983).

Opening the book at random to any of its over 700 pages, and we'll find more wit and wisdom - on a lot more than table settings - than we'd have ever expected from a book on "mere" manners.

Indeed, the book covers so many areas of our lives, as a few chapter titles illustrate: Basic Civilization; Marriage (for Beginners); Work; Intermediate Civilization; Death; and more.

One could be a determined hermit or in solitary confinement for life, with no possible way to enjoy human interaction, and this book would still be a delight. That's entirely due to the delicious way Judith Martin expresses her opinions.

She ranks in my eyes as one of our greatest humorists. The excellent advice she gives is icing on the cake.




Rather than my own feeble attempt at describing this book (I would just babble in admiration), let me extract from Ben Shephard of the London Observer.

"Harari's account of how we conquered the Earth astonishes with its scope and imagination. A bravura retelling of the human story. Brilliantly clear, witty, and erudite. Thrilling and breathtaking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world."

I couldn't have said it any better, so I won't even try.

I will say that if I didn't have so many other great books on my nightstand, I'd start rereading this one. It's a carnival for the mind.



THIS KIND OF WAR, by T. R. Fehrenbach (1963).

An account of the Korean War.

All wars are fascinating, but the Korean War stands out for me as more remarkable than any other. In three years, it compressed more stupidity, cruelty and bravery than any I know.

In Fehrenbach, this war gets an author capable of doing it justice.




Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return To His Jewish Family, by Stephen J. Dubner (1998).

Parts of two reviews at Amazon:

"In this age of tell-all memoirs about dysfunctional families, I was happy to read this great story that treats its subjects with dignity and humor and mystery. The writing is great and the story is unbelievable."

"We all have a turbulent soul some time in our life. This book is not for guiding you on your journey but tells you what one person did to bring his soul peace. A very wonderful story of family and life. Very well written. A joy to read."

I couldn't say it any better.



Well, that's a few more books than the ten I promised, but I can't bear to drop one of them. Check back later for changes.

Also see Minor Classics, where I grab a few more books on a second salvage trip.


-- Steve Kohn