Karl's Reading List

I made an all-too-hasty promise at the start of 2010 to list my reading and comment on the books as I made my way through the year. I failed, in large part, because my book tour (110 cities in 90 days) put me behind on my own reading and way behind on writing about it. While I did a little bit better in 2011, this year I’ll attempt to get my notes on books I’ve read done in a more timely fashion. 

So here’s what I’ve knocked out so far, starting with the book I finished most recently and working back to 2010.

72 The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger

You may be impressed with Bill Gates who has a net worth of nearly $80 billion and is Forbes’ richest man in the world, but Gates has a smaller share of the world’s wealth today than Jacob Fugger had at the end of the 15th century and the start of the 16th.  'The Richest Man Who Ever Lived' is a fascinating tale of the man who helped provoke Martin Luther into rebellion.  Know as 'Jacob the Rich,' he was the first international banker.  He and his family’s bank bankrolled popes, wars, and the election of Holy Roman Emperors.  Among the ways they recouped their loans was by managing the finances of the sale of indulgences, essentially get-out-of-jail cards for Catholics.  And if you borrowed but didn’t repay, you got an angry letter from a man who was born a commoner, the son of peasants. 

Written by former Wall Street Journal bureau chief turned securities analyst, Greg Steinmetz, this book follows the exploits of the man who convinced the pope to legalize interest on loans, which made the market economy possible and increased the pace of economic growth.  There has been a lot more wealth in the world available for everyone as a result of the pioneering practices of a businessman whose most visible personal expression of his wealth was his gold-colored cap.  

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71 The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

After a long stretch of reading plenty about the Gilded Age in preparing my forth-coming book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why The Election of 1896 Matters, I just finished a delightful book on how Shakespeare’s plays were rescued from oblivion by the playwrights, friends, and fellow actors who collected what scripts they could find and published them seven years after the Bard’s death. Most of these plays were previously unpublished and would have been lost to mankind where it not for John Heminges and Henry Condell, who were also business partners with Shakespeare.

But that’s just part of Andrea Mays’ story. Most of the book is devoted to Henry Clay Folger, the American oil millionaire. He and his wife Emily nearly cornered the market on copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and their quiet and enormous generosity gave the United States the world’s great collection of material on William Shakespeare, which is now housed in the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. This is a fun read for anyone interested in Shakespeare or books.

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70 The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

In a particularly vivid work, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a rollicking tale about two presidents - their friendship, its destruction, and their subsequent rivalry - in a rapidly changing country with even more rapidly evolving media and politics.  Goodwin has a gifted eye for detail and insight.  

A great read, especially for anyone who likes a political story about an oversized personality, a good man in the wrong place, and revolutionaries whose weapons were the pen and typewriters, and whose battlefields were the newspaper, magazine, and book. 

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69 Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream -- and How We Can Do It Again

In his new book, 'Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream -- and How We Can Do It Again,' National Review Editor Rich Lowry provides a masterful account of Abraham Lincoln's climb to the presidency from humble frontier beginnings.  It is a fantastic take on the sixteenth president's convictions, discipline, and ambition which allowed him to live the American Dream and be in a position where he was able to make it possible for others to do so as well.  

'Lincoln Unbound' is an especially timely read as today's Republican Party looks to renew Lincoln's belief that a society should embrace individuals who strive to better their own circumstances and advocate policies to make it possible for them to do so. I highly recommend it.

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68 Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance

A disappointment.  After an odd nine-page preface that opens with a Robert F. Kennedy 1968 speech about the notion of GDP, there are 121 herky-jerky pages on how an Italian monk and Venetian merchants used Arabic numerals and Greek math to construct the rudiments of modern accounting.  One hundred and twenty-two pages follow on how accounting has contributed to the decline of the planet and the growth of rapacious capitalism, while hiding the fact that the true cost of a Big Mac is $200.  No kidding.  I’ll look for a better volume on the same topic and report later.

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67 1861: The Civil War Awakening

This is a wonderful, brisk exploration by a talented historian of the Civil War’s first year.  Adam Goodheart tells the story of America’s descent into conflict through sketches of memorable characters who may be unfamiliar now, but who were very well known to the country then.  These include the commandant of Fort Sumner, the young military officer whose tragic death plunged President Abraham Lincoln into despair, and the three slaves whose escape to freedom helped alter public opinion in the North and seal the fate of the South’s “peculiar institution.”  This is a great read.    

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66 The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money-Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America's Future

Horowitz and Laskin have penned a sharply worded, deeply informed expose of the powerful, very wealthy network of liberal foundations that's spending hundreds of millions to reshape America's politics, culture and economic structure. The authors shart the liberal foundation executives and the money they’re using to drive the country leftward. The irony is that the money often comes from foundations founded by conservatives. Read this and be afraid.

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65 Everything and Nothing (New Directions Pearls)

I don't read much fiction but the stories, tales and essays of the Argentinan fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, are worth reading and re-reading, as I did when I picked up a new collection of his work EVERYTHING AND NOTHING (NEW DIRECTIONS PEARLS), with stories drawn mostly from FICCIONES (English Translation).  I enjoyed dipping back into Borges, with his stories about the encyclopedia on a nation that doesn't exist to a murder mystery to a lottery in Babylon at the dawn of civilization, that I devoured the larger volume from which most of EVERYTHING AND NOTHING was drawn.

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64 Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II

This scholar at the American Enterprise Institute has written a spectacular must-read volume that destroys the conventional wisdom about how the United States mobilized is industrial might to build the weapons that win the greatest conflict in human history. Herman builds a powerful,case that our country's war success depended on a small group of buccaneering businessmen who used their talents at organizing manufacturing cars and building ships and constructing airplanes to expand on an exponential scale the industrial might of the US, thereby providing the weapons and materiel for us and our allies to win WWII. He limes wonderful portraits of these now too forgotten leaders on whom so much depended and adds to the record of FDR as a often-confusing, too often inconsistent, frequently unpredictable president. An WWII history buff should pick this book up,  A great read.

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63 Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England

Having read little about Regency England, that period at the start of the 19th century where King George III sank into insanity, I learned much from this thin volume that centers on the rule by the Prince Regent (the future William IV) between 1810 and 1820.

While the last few years of the 18th century and the opening two or three decades of the 19th saw Great Britain vanquish Napoleon, it was also a period of scandal and decline for the British aristocracy and, with the start of the Industrial Revolution, also a time of growing social unrest and reaction (it is here the Luddites arise to protest the coming machine and power age), followed by the stirrings of reform.

Lively, bright and fast-paced, this slim volume was a delight to read.

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The Triumph of William McKinley

This book offers a fresh look at President William McKinley, whose 1896 campaign defeated William Jennings Bryan, ended a period of bitter gridlock, and reformed and modernized his party. The 1896 election is a drama in its own right, but McKinley's transformative political strategies and campaign tactics offer important lessons for both political parties today who face a similar landscape and many of the same challenges.

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