Modern Times From 1974

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This is a journalist’s list. My reading (and knowledge) is greatly influenced by the events of the day, the time, the era. My reading and my work are often one and the same. That is one of the best things about being a writer, but it may not be ideal for list making. This list is, I emphasize, not of the best books of the past 30 years, though many of these volumes might be considered for such a list. Some of these works were selected because of their immediate impact. Perhaps too often the more popular book is more important than the better book for the simple reason that more people read it at the time. In all, I know an impossible assignment when I see one. There are gaps I can’t fill; the most valuable end-of-the-Cold War writing, for example, is about the Soviet Union rather than the United States. I have listed my choices by their year of publication, beginning with the earliest, which were written quite a while ago.

The Holy Bible and the Holy Koran

In all their editions. These religious works were written or produced to change the world and continue to do just that. Most Americans have a working knowledge of the narratives and logic of Christianity and Judaism, but I am still surprised that so few people I know have read even a page of the holy book of Islam.

All the President’s Men

by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974; Simon & Schuster). The young stars tell their own story of regime change in Washington. This is the way it will be remembered, though the best comprehensive telling of the story is in Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, by J. Anthony Lukas, published two years later.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

by Robert A. Caro (1974; Vintage). Caro’s classic is a revelation of the ways of politics, governance, money, and the will of an extraordinary American builder.

A Time for Truth

by William E. Simon (1978; Reader’s Digest; out of print). This thin volume by a former Secretary of the Treasury, a book of passion and ideas, was a road map to power for the conservative counter-Establishment that took over the governing of the United States by promising to diminish the government.

Smoking and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (1979; profiles.nlm.nih.gov/NN/B/C/M/D/_/nnbcmd.pdf).

More than a war or an inspiration, the surgeon general’s report, the first version of which was published in 1964, changed the way we live. It was an extraordinary example of the power of knowledge and of computers and survey analysis to make (and prove) a case that could not be done in a laboratory.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

by Howard Gardner (1983; Basic). One of the many books, beginning perhaps with The Double Helix, by James D. Watson, that made both hard and soft sciences more accessible to a general public in a time of many and enormous explosions of knowledge.

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

by J. Anthony Lukas (1988; Vintage). A sweeping story of modern America told from the bottom up, through the hearts and lives of three Boston families during an era of racial turmoil. A true masterwork of reportage and narrative drive, Common Ground reveals much about the character of the nation itself.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63

by Taylor Branch (1988; Simon & Schuster). The story of a man and a movement. It, like Lukas’s book, could serve as an epilogue to the travels of Alexis de Tocqueville and his successor, the great British observer James Bryce.

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

by Neil Sheehan (1988; Vintage). The story of America’s loss of innocence, and faith in itself, in an Asian adventure, the sequel, as it were, to The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power