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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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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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