Kohn's Deserted Island Books

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Steve Kohn's Deserted Island Book List


Minor Classics

Now tell me, how can we possibly limit ourselves to just ten books?

As we salvage what we can from our reef-stuck ship, let's see if these minor classics can be included.


Again in alphabetical order:


Books that make me laugh

Gosh, but being stranded on a deserted island is hard enough. At least let me bring some books that make me laugh. Here are a few.


Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, by Jean Shepherd (1982). Medical alert: you may laugh so hard you'll gasp for breath. Here's where "die laughing" probably originated. What a great book, one I enjoy repeatedly. Shepherd was in a class of his own.





Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, by Michael Krasny (2016).

"...and what it all means" is what makes this book more than a mere collection of jokes.

The role Jews have played making us laugh in the past century is amazing. Take, for example:

Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Victor Borge, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Art Buchwald, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Al Capp, Larry David, "Mrs Goldberg," Al Franken, Goldie Hawn, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Howie Mandel, Elaine May, Bette Midler, Zero Mostel, Mike Nichols, Gilda Radner, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Mort Sahl, Amy Schumer, Dr Seuss, Jerry Seinfeld, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman, Phil Silvers, Shel Silverstein, Neil Simon, Jon Stewart, Billy Wilder, Gene Wilder, Henny Youngman, and many more.

What is it in America's air and water that we Jews found so refreshing?



Little League Confidential, by Bill Geist (1999). A nourishing snack, enjoyed in an afternoon, you'll chuckle all the way until the chapter near the end, on the championship game, when you'll howl with laughter.

This is a great book for everyone who's ever played organized baseball as a child, or is the parent of one who does or did.




A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, by Thomas Fleming (2013).

The author's aim is to answer why America had to go to war to eliminate slavery. Other nations - England, Brazil, Cuba - stopped slavery without war. Why not us?

Also needing to be understood is why our war was so ferocious. A far greater percentage of Americans died in the Civil War than in all our other wars. What accounted for this ferocity?

I think of divisive issues in my lifetime - civil rights, the Vietnam War, the impeachments of Presidents Nixon, Clinton and Trump, abortion, immigration - but none came close to causing states to threaten secession (ignoring occasional overwrought Texans), or to inspire members of the same family to wear different uniforms and raise arms against each other.

Scholars of American history don't need this book. The rest of us do.



THE DISCOVERERS, by Daniel J. Boorstin (1983).

Though I once thought my grasp of history and science was reasonably strong, this book shows that what I actually had was a collection of facts, not a true understanding of the flow from one century and one people to another. 

More, the book told me of unsung, fascinating heroes in the march from ignorance to knowledge.





GENGHIS KHAN and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (2004).

Like me, did you grow up with this huge gap in your understanding of world history called the "Mongol Invasions?"

Who were these tribesmen who swept out of the desolate wastes of inner Asia to conquer everything between the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, from China to Russia to Baghdad?

Why did they disappear so suddenly, and what was their impact before they left?

Not just a fascinating story, this book reminded me how much I still need to learn. 




THE INTELLIGENT UNIVERSE, by Fred Hoyle (1983). 

My views on deism were developed many years before reading this book, but Professor Hoyle confirmed the concept and filled in some scientific details.

Get the hardcover edition to appreciate the many full-color photos. 






PLATOON LEADER, by James McDonough (1985).

Describes his year as a young lieutenant leading his men on patrols through the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. A giant among men.

"I have long waited for someone to do for the platoon leader what I tried 38 years ago to do for the company commander. Now James McDonough has not only done it; he has done it in a way that cannot be beat. It will become a classic." -- Charles B. MacDonald, author of the famous WWII book, COMPANY COMMANDER.

This is another book that's on most military reading lists, especially those aimed at the lower leadership level.





POPULATION: 485, by Michael Perry (2003).

Perry is a volunteer fireman and EMT in a small Wisconsin town, population of 485. It fills me with awe that men like him - heroes like him, though he wouldn't think of himself that way - toil quietly and unsung throughout America.

Perry's a remarkably good writer, ably describing both tragedy and humor. I defy you to put this book down once you're past page 2. 





ROAD SONG, by Natalie Kusz (1990).

It's subtitled "A Memoir," and is the story of a poor family - young parents and their four small children - who pick themselves up from Los Angeles in the late 1960s and move to the Alaskan wilderness in optimistic if not naive hopes for a better life.

Things do not go well.

Even if the tale itself was not compelling, the book would be, having an author with astonishing skill well beyond her 27 years. The family included some remarkable people, both heroic and flawed, who broadened my understanding of human nature. 





SHOAL OF TIME, by Gavan Daws (1968).

Subtitled "A History of the Hawaiian Islands," this book describes not just Hawaii, but a collision of cultures.

It's a fascinating story, well told, of interest to anyone who cares about the Pacific islands and especially that magical place called Hawaii.





SONS AND SOLDIERS: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, by Bruce Henderson (2018).


I can understand why others might not enjoy this book. Not Jewish, not having been in the US Army, not having had family murdered by Hitler, why would we care?


But I am, and was, and did. So this book was, for me, fascinating. It answered some questions, in particular why so few German Jews didn't flee the country during the 1930s. (Short answer: Because Germany wouldn't let them out, and because other countries, in particular Roosevelt's America, wouldn't let them in.)


A page turner, this book follows six (out of 1,985 German-born Ritchie Boys) from their lives as children in Germany to  D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.


Fifty of their Fort Ritchie classmates didn't survive the War.



WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF '65?, by Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky (1976).

Ten years later, the authors looked up 30 of their high school classmates to see how they had turned out.

For the generation - as the Who song goes, "My Generation" - lucky to be young then, the '60s was a blessed period. 

But some didn't survive it. Each of us wonders if we're unique. Of course we are, but no, this book shows us, we're not that much either. 

I graduated high school in '64, so "What Really Happened..." resonates with me more than it might with you. 

If your parents were a child of the '60s, this book will help you understand them better.



This list could be hundreds of pages long. I need to return to it often, and will.

My home is full of books, too many still unread and with more somehow always being added. In my 70s now, it's the 4th quarter and I can't count on the game going into overtime. After my dear wife and the family, it's the books (and the music and the films) I'll most miss when the whistle blows.


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