A true story: in 1986, when I was a senior in high school, I read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and then read Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas's The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Both were about the interplay of the personal and the political, and I was so swept up by both that, after finishing The Wise Men, I started the whole thing over again, rereading Warren and then rereading Isaacson and Thomas. Years later, when I first met Thomas, I somewhat sheepishly told him this. He looked at me for a moment, then said, "You must have been a real dork." To that I plead guilty, but I would not trade the serendipity of encountering the two books at the same time for anything. At the time (and ever since), I was intrigued by the extent to which the character of those in authority could affect the course of history.
It is a question that still consumes me, and I suspect is of perennial interest to you, too. Many young people go through a Walden phase, believing that Thoreau and, in "Self-Reliance," Emerson saw through to the realities of life, past the "phoniness" that so obsessed Holden Caulfield. That was a phase I largely missed. In school I was more taken with Emerson's essay "History," in which he wrote: "There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages and the ages explained by the hours...All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself. We sympathize in the great moments of history, in the great discoveries, the great resistances, the great prosperities of men; because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck, for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded."
As Philip Graham said four decades ago, journalism of the kind we practice here is "the first rough draft of history"—the history of a world that, Graham added, we will never fully understand. We try, though; Lord knows we try. The tension between the immediate and the reflective was quite vivid for us as June came to a close. We had planned a double is-sue on books and reading as a counterintuitive offering in a world where those of us who love the news find ourselves overwhelmed by the story of the moment, whatever that story might be. Then Michael Jackson died, which put our noble sentiments about transcending the pack to the test. Jackson was an undeniably important cultural force, the kind of figure about whom I would like to read a piece or two on his -bizarre life and artistic legacy, but not much more than that. Since we edit the magazine on the assumption that our readers are like us, we moved quickly to produce just those pieces while preserving the books coverage. There is one cover, about Jackson, for the newsstand, and another, about books, for our subscribers, a solution we think helps make us part of the current conversation in the marketplace and gives our committed readers a broader-gauged cover with the same content inside.
In the reading package we have taken a highly subjective stab at naming books we think you could profitably read (for the record, I am devoted to Trollope, but I was not the only one at the magazine who suggested our No. 1 pick, The Way We Live Now). I am particularly grateful to Marc Peyser, our culture editor, for his work on this; thanks, too, to David Gates, Raina Kelley, Mark Miller, Louisa Thomas, and Malcolm Jones.
A stipulation: lists are dangerous things. Though the project was great fun—there were more than a few battles over what made it and what did not—it is inevitably incomplete. Writers can be epic logrollers, taking care of those they know and admire. But it would be crazy not to mention authors you like just because you know them. I am therefore exercising editorial privilege to say that, in addition to the books noted in the lists and those written by the roundtable participants, you would be well served by reading Michael Beschloss, Taylor Branch, Alan Brinkley, Christopher Buckley, Ron Chernow, Joseph Ellis, David Halberstam, Christopher Hitchens, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, Claire Messud, Patricia O'Toole, Richard Reeves, Geoffrey Ward, and Sean Wilentz. On an eclectic note, I also commend three of my favorite books of the past few years: James Collins's Beginner'sGreek, Alex Witchel's The Spare Wife, and N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is, I promise, good counsel. Take it, as Evan might say, from a dork.