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Weekend Reading Assignments: Superhuman Runners, Vexing Virtues and the Civil War

Book recommendations from the staff of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

2:30 PM, May 28, 2011 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, MATT LABASH and PHILIP TERZIAN
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As with Christmas form letters and amateur poetry, I don’t take kindly to friends sticking books in my hand that lie outside my areas of interest, then insisting that I must read them. When one recently did just that with Born to Run, it was nearly cause for excommunication. Sure, I subscribe to the notion that this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide wrap, we gotta get out while we’re young. But I’ve never entirely trusted Springsteen. If he’s really from Freehold Borough, New Jersey, why does he talk like a Dust Bowl Okie?

Born to Run

But since it was a good friend who pawned the book off on me, I did him the courtesy of reading beyond the title, all the way to the subtitle, “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen.” This was not a Boss hagiography after all. From there, it was all I could do to stop reading.

Author Christopher McDougall, a former war correspondent for the Associated Press and a three-time National Magazine Award finalist, has written what is at heart a book about why we run. By “we,” I mean you, since I don’t run, and still don’t quite understand why people do.  When I see people running, I think, “Why the big hurry?” If running were that important, God wouldn’t have created so many bikes and chairs.

But the fact that I’m not a runner, and yet was completely absorbed by McDougall’s narrative, speaks volumes about its drawing power. McDougall begins his inquiry by asking a simple question: “Why does my foot hurt?” His overpriced space-age running shoes, it seems, aren’t enough to protect his lower extremities from the formless, lumbering  pounding he gives them whenever he jogs. From there, he is literally off to the races, attempting to weed out the running secrets of a hermitic tribe of freakish, injury-free superathletes, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s forbidding Copper Canyons, who can run for days on tire-tread sandals. 

McDougall had figured they were the Shaolin monks of running. But after penetrating their secretive society as much as an outsider can (they’re not big chatters), he discovered that he couldn’t have been more mistaken:  “When it comes to marathoning, the Tarahumara prefer more of a Mardi Gras approach. In terms of diet, lifestyle, and belly fire, they’re a track coach’s nightmare. They drink like New Year’s Eve is a weekly event, tossing back enough corn beer in a year to spend every third day of their adult lives buzzed or recovering… They don’t rebuild between workouts with protein bars; in fact, they barely eat any protein at all, living on little more than ground corn spiced up by their favorite delicacy, barbecued mouse. Come race day, the Tarahumara don’t train or taper. They don’t stretch or warm up. They just stroll to the starting line, laughing and bantering……then go like hell for the next forty-eight hours.” 

But McDougall isn’t just Franz Boas in track shoes. “Born to Run” works on several levels. Not only does he delve into an anachronistic world completely foreign to most of us, but a 50-mile cross-canyon race between the Tarahumara and the gringo ultra-runners who want to compete against them (every single one of whom is a gold-plated eccentric), sets in motion the introduction of one strangely wonderful character after another, from surf-bum seekers to on-the-lam desperados.  Any of them could carry a quarter of a book on their own steam. 

McDougall also hits the science labs and medical literature, taking a wrecking ball to most conventional wisdom on the modern running shoe.  Since its advent in the last half century, runners now experience the same or even greater amounts of injuries than they did when they were running on much less sophisticated footwear, which allowed the human foot to move more naturally, by for instance, hitting ball-first, rather than heel-first. 

I generally don’t trust everything-you-know-is wrong treatises. (I prefer everything-I-know-is-right treatises, since I don’t have to pay as close attention on account of already being familiar with the material.)  Nor would you catch me dead in any of those goofball Vibram Five-Fingers barefoot running shoes. It’s better to be injured than laughed at. But McDougall so convincingly makes the sale that even I, a card-carrying skeptic with a dull ache in my right arch, switched out my cross-trainers for some flat-soled boxing shoes while jumping rope and hitting the bags.  Besides the shin splints that I’m doubtlessly developing, so far, so good – my foot pain is gone. 

So run to the nearest bookstore, assuming you still have one that hasn’t recently gone under, and buy Born to Run. Or walk, it doesn’t really matter to me. If you do the former, however, follow McDougall’s lead, and don’t do so in overpriced, moon-bounce New Balances.

—Matt Labash

The year is still young –  or not yet middle-aged – but I doubt I’ll read a better new book in 2011 than Eric Felten’s Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. I’d say this even if I weren’t bound by loyalty to my friend Felten. He’s done something that’s hard to describe, since I’ve never read a book quite like it. It’s a moral exploration, a collection of poignant and funny stories, a brief sociological history, and a primer on how to think ethically and carefully and honestly. Every page has at least one witty insight that will make you stop reading and look briefly into the middle distance. And it’s a page-turner, I don’t know how. Perfect for Father’s Day, too, by the way, at which time the year will be officially middle-aged.

—Andrew Ferguson

I am occasionally asked to recommend a one-volume account of the Civil War, and invariably suggest James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom or Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. There are other popular accounts of the war as a whole -- Bruce Catton's series, as well as multi-volume works by Allan Nevins and James Ford Rhodes and other historians of yesteryear -- but from my perspective, the best account of the defining conflict of American history is Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (1942).

One big caveat: This is a three-volume, not a one-volume, work, and as the title would suggest, it is not a general history of the war. But taken altogether -- for literary distinction, narrative skill, telling detail, and a genius for transporting readers to the battlefields -- this is the best work I know about the Civil War, the one most likely to convey its story in a thoroughly compelling and satisfactory style.

Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) was a Richmond newspaper editor and historian, and his four-volume life of Robert E. Lee (R.E. Lee), despite its hagiographic tone, remains an essential study of the Virginian who commanded the Confederate armies after 1862 and personified the South after 1865. Lee's Lieutenants, however, is a history of Lee's army, the Army of Northern Virginia, and concentrates not only on its role in the conflict and Lee's generalship, but on the complicated relations between Lee as commander and his many and varied subordinates (Stonewall Jackson, A.P. Hill, John Pelham, and dozens of others). This is military history combined with psychological insight, rigorous research, and a prose style that remains remarkably fresh and engaging. Nearly three-quarters of a century after publication, Lee's Lieutenants is somewhat dated in terms of scholarship and outlook, but it is a splendid introduction to a complicated subject, a masterful evocation of time and place, and a study of one particular aspect of the struggle which seems to capture the Civil War in its entirety. (A one-volume abridgment, edited by Stephen W. Sears in 2001 and published by Scribner's, is available on Amazon.com.)

—Philip Terzian

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