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Isolation Bookshelf

Reading good history books takes us out of ourselves and places us, for a time, elsewhere and elsewhen. In our isolation, with our minds so preoccupied with the pandemic and its economic and social effects, such an escape can be just what the doctor ordered.

To discover more excellent reads and cinema selections, don’t miss our Isolation Bookshelf collection. 

Like a great many other people in these days of plague, I am “locked down” in my home, venturing out only on the strictest necessity. I am fortunate, unlike many others, that the current norms for work have not cost me my livelihood. And I am fortunate in another way: I have a house full of books. Here, I will recommend some of those books as good ones to turn to in moments of idleness. Some may be available as e-books. But for those who want hard copies, I will link to search results for them at abebooks.com, where decent used copies can be acquired inexpensively—and from small booksellers who need our support more than Amazon does.

Our thoughts have often turned in recent days to accounts of similar times in our history, such as the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. And then there is the folk memory of World War II, recalled as a time of collective sacrifice, herculean effort, great losses, and final victory. The enemy today is a virus, but can we learn something from those days? To “apply” what we can learn from the Second World War may be more than we can reasonably expect. But reading good history also takes us out of ourselves and places us, for a time, elsewhere and elsewhen. In our isolation, with our minds so preoccupied with the pandemic and its economic and social effects, such an escape to times and places when human beings were under equal or greater stress can be just what the doctor ordered.

I am no historian or scholar of the Second World War, but here are five books on the subject that I recommend. None is a standard attempt at a comprehensive history; all are wonderfully written; most are relatively brief. And each one may prompt reflection on how our situation is both like and unlike a great war.

Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989).

Fussell, a professor of English at Penn, was an infantryman during the war, and turned back to examine that formative experience decades later. In this profound, often acerbically funny book, he considers an extraordinary range of subjects, yet weaves them into an integrated reflection on the ways the war changed the societies embroiled in it. From wartime propaganda, to what people were reading, to what they were writing during and after living through the war, to the (frankly obscene) language of common soldiers, to the death of naïveté in the face of abject fear and horror, Fussell is unsparing, vivid, and brutally honest about our ability to blind ourselves to the realities of war.

Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II (2011).

Avoiding both the amoral so-called “realism” sometimes affected by historians and the arid moral abstractions too often employed by philosophers, Burleigh approaches the grim international conflict of the Second World War with both moral seriousness and a historical understanding of the vicissitudes of strategy and the stresses human beings were under. Battlefield behavior and bombing campaigns, the treatment of prisoners and civilian populations, the decisions of statesmen and the conduct of men on the front lines, are all weighed in Burleigh’s balance. One of the virtues of this book is the author’s candor and transparency about his judgments, which are presented in such a way as to give the reader sufficient information to agree or disagree with Burleigh’s conclusions. Few books convey more fully the impact of war on morality—and vice versa.

John Lukacs, Five Days in London, May 1940 (1999).

Lukacs, the author of many works of history, including several others on Winston Churchill, gives us a concentrated lesson in statesmanship. He describes the days from May 24 to May 28, 1940, as the time in which the new prime minister “saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization.” How Churchill saw his way through a miasma of uncertainties—in his own cabinet, on the beach at Dunkirk, in the plans of the enemy—and snatched survival from the teeth of disaster, makes for a riveting, fast-paced story.

David Brinkley, Washington Goes to War: The Extraordinary Story of the Transformation of a City and a Nation (1988).

Later famous as a television news anchor, Brinkley was mustered out of the army on a medical discharge and arrived in Washington as a radio reporter in 1943. The book he published forty-five years later is rich with anecdotes, a detailed portrait of the sleepy capital city on the Potomac that mushroomed in just a few years into the bustling bureaucratic center of the universe that we know today. If, as has famously been said, war is the health of the state, what Brinkley gives us often looks rather like a tumescent growth, often malignant and rarely benign. But it’s the city’s life that he really makes fascinating.

Marie Vassiltchikov, Berlin Diaries, 1940–1945 (1987).

I defy any any heterosexual male reader to make his way through this book without falling in love with the author, a White Russian princess who found employment in the German Foreign Office. Never in sympathy with the Nazi regime, she began to keep this secret diary in English. As the war churned on and the author was witness to the city’s destruction by allied bombing, she found herself on the fringes of the circle responsible for the attempt on Hitler’s life in the summer of 1944, but was not implicated in it. Her diaries have a fresh and detailed immediacy, surveying the social scene of an aristocratic class, and the struggle to survive total war. They show us how a human being can just keep going in the midst of collapse.

Books as good as these can put our own plight in perspective. We must help each other face the fears and uncertainties of the crisis we are in. But we must also resist the temptation to view the present as the worst of times, or the most heroic. Human beings have seen and survived worse.

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