“Read. Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life.”
― David McCullough –
It’s a couple of weeks into the New Year and I usually take time to look back at what I’ve read over the past year and summerise the books. Then I begin a list of what I’d like to have in my ‘to read’ pile for the year ahead.
But this past year I wasn’t able to set aside as much time as I had hoped to relax and read. You know how it is. Real life often gets in the way of daily living.
So instead, I looked back over the last 10 years or so, and made a list of books, or stories, true stories, that have thrilled and inspired me.
Besides the entertainment value and the simple enjoyment of reading these books, mostly biographies, there is the wisdom gained from better understanding people – challenges that shaped their lives, and the motivations behind actions and decisions.
Sure, you wouldn’t expect to gain great worldly wisdom when reading a bio on Hitchcock or the rise of the Pixar Animation Studio. Still, what fascinating history it is that’s helped develop and influence Popular Culture.
And so, here is a list of several of my favorite non-fiction books, true stories, mostly biographies.
John Adams by David McCullough – (Biography/History – Themes: Mentors, Heroes, Courage, Sacrifice, Honor) – This is my favorite biography. I first read it about 10 years ago and it started me on a search for other good bios. David McCullough brings to life John Adams, his wife Abigail, and a whole cast of characters from the American Revolution. Tom Hanks produced an excellent mini-series based on the book, still the book is better. It deserved, and received the Pulitzer Prize.
The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family by Martha Raddatz – (Non-fiction/History – Themes: Courage, Sacrifice, Honor, Heroes) – An incredible true story of friendship and heroism. ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz does an amazing job of presenting this critical 48 hours in April, 2004 in Iraq.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – (Biography – Themes: Innovation, Role Models, Passion, Purpose) – Jobs has touch all our lives by his involvement and impact on changes in how we used computers and phones. He is responsible for the shift in how we listen to music and the dramatic transformation of the animated film. A marvelous biography of a modern creative genius.
The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company by David A. Price – (Non-fiction/Pop Culture – Themes: Role Models, Family, Mentors, Inspiration) – The backstories of the people with the vision that one day became Pixar. And there’s the stories behind the amazing Pixar films. If you’re an animation fan, as I am, this is a must read.
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough – (Biography/History – Themes: Self-discovery, Courage, Responsibility, Role Models) – An excellent book on the first 27 years of Teddy Roosevelt’s life and how these years shaped the man he became. My favorite non-fiction author, this is David McCullough’s first biography.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – (Biography/History – Themes: Wisdom, Courage, Role Models, Responsibility) – Steven Spielberg’s 2012 epic film Lincoln is based on just a small part of this great biography. There is so much here, such a great cast of characters, that several terrific movies could be made, each focusing on President Lincoln and his relationships with different members of his Cabinet.
I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson, Alfred Duckett – (Biography/ Sports – Themes: Courage, Role Models, Inspiration, Self-discovery) – I’m a big Dodger Baseball fan and this may be the best story in the grand history of the team. Not only a great sports story, but one of the great American stories.
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong by Mark Cotta VazVaz – (Biography/Adventure – Themes: Courage, Self-discovery, Role Models, History) – Amazing true life war hero and man of many talents, yet so few people know his name. Cooper was also a successful businessman later in life but it’s his work as a film producer and director of the 1933 film King Kong for which he is best known.
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Life by Patrick McGilligan – (Biography – Themes: Inspiration, Passion, Mentors, Pop Culture) – This book presents the man and his life, along with the huge contribution Alma Hitchcock made to her husband’s success. Alma’s advice and collaboration contributed greatly to making Hitchcock the legendary director he has become. And so many details and stories behind every film Hitchcock made.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow – (Non-fiction/Inspirational – Themes: Inspiration, Family, Wisdom, Self-discovery, Mentors) – If you haven’t read this book, click here and check out this 10 minute video. It’s the short version of the 75 minute video of his original lecture on which the book is based. The book and videos are all great.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill – (Non-fiction/History – Themes: History, Purpose, Role Models) – Yes, I’m biased because of my Irish heritage, but this is simply a wonderful book. A good part of it is about St. Patrick and his role in the ‘Saving’ of Civilization. And it starts with a terrific summary of the fall of Rome.
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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few books that may not be ‘Great,’ still they are good, and have some things that highly recommend them:
I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan – (Biography – Themes: Mentors, Father/Son, Friendship, Inspiration) – This small book in a way gives you three biographies for the price of one. Journalist and author Tim Madigan very nicely weaves together his life along with that of his brother, and of course, ‘Mr. Rogers.’
Kenneth Strickfaden, Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician by Harry Goldman – (Biography – Themes: Mentors, Humility, Role Model, Family, Pop Culture) – This isn’t really a ‘great’ biography, but it is the story of a fascinating man. Ken Strickfaden made a huge impact on Sci-Fi and Horror films with his special effects, starting with the classic 1931 Frankenstein. And he was simply a good man who made a huge effort to inspire students in the field of science.
Einstein: His Life and Universe – by Walter Isaacson – (Biography – Themes: Curiosity, Humility, Genius, Role Model) – I found Isaacson’s biography fascinating although there were several times where he lost me when he got a little too detailed discussing the fabric of spacetime, Quantum Mechanics and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. There were parts that I just had to slog through, but I’m glad I did. Some of the science sunk in, but much of it did not. Still, an excellent biography.
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Learning, growing, gaining insight and understanding – it never stops. That’s a big part of why I read biographies. Plus, the bios I choose to read are of course on people I’m interested in. There is so much to gain from better understanding people, villians and heroes, those we admire and those we come to admire because we discover them in a book.
I like people . . . for the most part. And reading a good book, being inspired by the lives and accomplishments of the subjects, learning from their mistakes – I love it. And these books are so good I will probably read most of them again. The subjects are real people who have become friends.
Wonderful books, like wonderful people, live on forever in our hearts.
“Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance, such infinite reward for time spent, as a good book.”
― David McCullough