YEARS AGO a writer of some distinction told me that books sometimes read you. I had no idea what he meant--until a book read me.
The book was Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," and I'd bought it in college thinking it was a book I'd immediately read. It was justly famous, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946. But for some reason I got stuck about 30 pages in. And so Mr. Warren's novel took its place on a bookshelf. But as it stood there and I would occasionally glance at it, it seemed to want my attention. This went on for some years until, one afternoon, I found myself strangely compelled to reach for it. I couldn't put it down. Upon finishing, I realized what my friend had meant. The book had read me. In one sitting.
"All the King's Men" is on my list of books to give this Christmas. With a new political season here, you can't go wrong giving our best political novel. Note well that the book (available in paper) is loosely based on the astounding career of the Louisiana Governor Huey Long. They don't make 'em like Long anymore, nor like Warren, the first Poet Laureate of the United States.
This year Richard Brookhiser published "Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution." Mr. Brookhiser has now written biographies of several American founders. The author specializes in identifying the essential character of his subjects, and, as you can see, he is not afraid of calling a rake a rake. Any of the biographies would do fine wrapped for Christmas. My favorite is "Alexander Hamilton: American," which captures the remarkable life of the nation's first Treasury Secretary, who remains yet with us on our ten-dollar bills.
Ronald Reagan is back in the news, thanks to the controversy over Hollywood's predictable caricature of him in "The Reagans," a Showtime movie. The real Reagan is available in a new book, "Reagan: A Life in Letters." The letters are mostly hand-written and reveal an intelligent man who could turn a phrase. Other worthy Reagan books are Lou Cannon's detailed account of the Reagan presidency, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" and Steven F. Hayward's insightful "The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980."
A rash of books on the Bush presidency will be out next year, but the best one so far--published back in January--remains David Frum's "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George B. Bush." Frum, a deft writer, crafted speeches for Bush until early 2002. The book is a study of the president's character that understands the pertinence of the man's faith.
Of the many books on Islam published in the past two years, none provides a better overview than "Islam at the Crossroads: Understanding Its Beliefs, History, and Conflicts" by Paul Marshall, Roberta Green, and Lela Gilbert. This short book makes my list because it is an accessible and engaging treatment of a world religion whose adherents are mostly but not entirely, as September 11 emphatically demonstrated, peaceable and moderate.
"The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions," edited by Kermit L. Hall, is a very useful reference book. It contains cogent treatments of the Court's 400 most significant and consequential cases--such as Marbury v. Madison and Roe v. Wade. The 2001 edition is the latest.
Michael Lewis's "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," which came out last spring, is a business book whose subject is baseball. Lewis explains how the Oakland A's can be one of the poorest teams in baseball and yet win so many games. The answer lies in the fact that baseball has an inefficient market for ballplayers. You can win big if you find undervalued players--precisely what Oakland has done. But to find those players you have to go beyond the game's ordinary statistics and take into account such things as the ability to draw a walk. "Moneyball" is the perfect gift for those of us long eager for spring training.
Precocious Katherine, my daughter, a high school senior, observes that my list includes neither poetry nor plays So here's to you, Katie: I'm adding "T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950" (and being complete, it does have the magnificent "Four Quartets").
Seeing Eliot's volume on a shelf near books by C.S. Lewis, who early in his life aspired to be a poet, I'm also adding "Mere Christianity." Grasping as it does the real meaning of Christmas, it's worthy of being read on Christmas Day--or any day.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.