Reagan : A Life In Letters by Ronald Reagan (2003, Free Press)
I’m continuing with the Holiday gift books this week with Reagan: A Life In Letters. It’s an ideal gift for many people who are interested in politics, either deeply or casually, unless they have a long-standing animus against Reagan (and a nice Carter book was covered for that group last week.)
Books of letters are typically among the last books purchased about a person, which means this one is less likely to already be on the shelf of a loved one; they’re often among the best books produced on a subject, though.
Lacking a direct narrative, when edited well (and this one is) they provide an overview of a person’s development and many of their core thoughts and views. They’re invariably shaded to be positive about the writer; few people include destructive and defamatory statements about themselves in letters to friends and professional associates. That said, they allow a reader to jump in at random points in a person’s life and get a feel for what they were thinking and saying about a topic at that time… including topics which seemed minor or incidental but which became defining moments in their lives.
That “jumping in” also allows letters books to be used as everything from bathroom to bedtime reading. While they’re unlikely to be purchased, if someone starts reading through a decent book of letters they’re likely to read a decent portion of it, as opposed to having it languishing on their shelf looking important.
There’s also a perception about letters books about their being more intellectual than normal biographical work. As with the poetry book, it allows the gift-giver to provide an implied compliment along with the present… always a nice touch.
If the potential recipient is a hardcore Trump fan who has been hearing about how different he is from Reagan for the past three years, this book isn’t for them; other than that, if they’re moderate to conservative, this is a very good political book for a gift.
How To by Randall Munroe (2019, Riverhead)
This is the fourth book by Munroe; the first was a collection of his XKCD comic strips. The comic bills itself as being about “romance, sarcasm, math and language” and his other books are written in the same vein. How To provides highly detailed explanations of simple tasks, such as “How to Dig a Hole”, “How to Play Football” and “How to Cross a River”.
These questions are approached with the innocence of a child and the knowledge of a highly educated physicist, producing explanations of (for example) the way to differentiate between the many types of football throughout the world and how, if a player were to decide to ride a horse toward the opposite goal line, the horse would be unable to push aside a cluster of players if running at top speed but might be able to move through them if the rider pushed through slowly.
The mixture of simplicity and deep complexity results in a lot of humor while encouraging readers to look at the world with wondering eyes. It’s also comparatively new, which reduces the chance that the gift recipient might already have the book… a serious concern for the prior titles, which were (with the exception of the cartoon collection) all national bestsellers.
If you’re certain they’ve never encountered any of his prior books, though, it might be worth it to pick up What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions instead. It’s equally good, it’ll give the reader a chance to get a feel for Munroe’s humor style, and it’s about half the price because it’s an older book.