Facing Unpleasant Facts (And Fictions)

I became a stay-at-home dad after writing a novel and spending nine good years as a reporter. With diapers to change and a newfound passion for photography, I imagined I was done with writing. The itch to write hit again in 2004. But what I wanted to write — that our president was incompetent and unworthy of his own party's nomination — didn't seem kosher for a guy who'd covered politics and might want to do so again. So I stayed silent and (nominally) objective. The Bush/Cheney re-election left me despondent. Civically, I went numb.

These are some of the books that coaxed me out of numbness. There's a vitality that flows from "facing unpleasant facts," to borrow the Orwell phrase that inspired this list. By facing facts, I started acting like a citizen again. I stopped caring whether honest, blunt writing might spoil any chance of returning to a newspaper job. Of the many books I've leaned on during this first year of blogging, these are ones that seem most important to read or re-read now.

"Facing unpleasant facts" sounds like a miserable way to spend one's time. Ultimately, though, it's exhilarating. Because it's the first step toward meaningful patriotism. Try it. You can handle it — especially if you're reading great books like these.


The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

by Jane Mayer

If I could hypnotize Oprah, I'd get her to slap her book-club sticker on "The Dark Side." Every American should read this brilliant, meticulous book. It will shame you, but it will also make you proud. Some heroic Americans — including Bush Administration insiders — fought back against legalized torture and other affronts to our founding fathers.


Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis

I put this book on THIS list because it inadvertently taught me why America's mission in Iraq was doomed from the start. For our own country, there was no shortcut to 1776. No foreign army — no matter how well-intentioned — could have pushed us to successful independence any faster. Washington wasn't ready to be Washington yet. Jefferson wasn't ready to be Jefferson yet. Virginians and Pennsylvanians didn't even think of themselves as "Americans" yet. If you think of U.S.-style democracy as inevitable, this book offers a stark set of lessons.


The Forever War

by Dexter Filkins

Most of my old newspaper colleagues notice bylines. I almost never did. But after 9/11, I read such a brilliant story about our new war in Afghanistan that I flipped back to see who had written it. The byline? Dexter Filkins. A few days later, another astonishingly good story. Byline? Filkins again. I stopped my executive editor in the newsroom, waved a copy of the paper at him, and said, "We need to run everything this guy writes." I'd never done that. This book, which covers Afghanistan and Iraq, manages to surpass the blend of compassion, guts, precision, and eloquence I count on from Filkins.


The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

by George Packer

A counterinsurgency expert recommended this to me. The book shook me up and made it impossible to keep thinking of Iraq in purely strategic, purely tactical, or purely American terms. George Packer introduces the reader to so many people so memorably — Iraqis and Americans, civilians and soldiers. It's sobering as can be. Because these are the people we'd need to be able to look in the face if we sprinted out of Iraq. They're also the people we'd need to be able to look in the face we stayed and stayed and stayed. This book bolsters our collective conscience as we cope with the damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don't legacy of Bush's war.


The Places In Between

by Rory Stewart

Whether you're a blogger, a senator, or a guy running his mouth at the corner bar, it's hard to resist generalizing. I can sit here in Seattle, read two articles, and start typing away confidently about what people in Kabul or Basra or Gaza want. The best antidote I've found is this book. The author walks across Afghanistan. Walks! Across Afghanistan! Experiencing the vast differences that exist between villagers who live short distances apart, I grasped an unpleasant fact that I should have known intuitively: We can't say "what Afghans want" any more than we can say what Texans want or what Midwesterners want.


Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

by Steve Coll

Sunday's Washington Post quoted America's new envoy as saying Afghanistan is "much tougher than Iraq." That assessment couldn't surprise anyone who reads this exhaustively reported book. Outsiders have a miserable track record in Afghanistan. We should hold victory parades for our returning troops if we can extricate ourselves without suffering the same bled-dry fate as the Soviet Union once did. The crowd that likes to shriek "white flag of surrender!" should have the guts to read this book.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Di­az

Here's how good this novel is. I finished the English version last week and immediately started in on the Spanish version. At first, this book seems only to be an enthralling portrait of a nerdy immigrant kid. But, as Díaz told a Slate interviewer, his novel "is all about the dangers of dictatorship." Díaz recreates the quotidian terrors of Dominican life during the Trujillo regime.


House of Meetings

by Martin Amis

Why put fiction on a list like this? Simple. Fiction, in its own way, is best at helping us face unpleasant facts. In this potent, engrossing book, Amis evokes Stalin's Soviet police state. Reading it left me feeling more urgent than ever about the need to treasure and preserve our liberties.


Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro

Ernie Chen says:

In this day and age where it seems as if NOTHING gets done by our Congressmen and Senators, this book treats us to a time in which one man, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, used everything in his power to move the U.S. Senate to enact legislation bringing us closer to the United States we know today. Each and every anecdote and serves as fodder for legislative finagling and success later in the book. By the end, Johnson is clearly the "puppetmaster" as he pulls the strings to pass Civil Rights legislation and election to the Vice-Presidency of the United States.

This book also appears on Ernie Chen's Favorite Non-Fiction