You could spend the next few months reading nothing but new books about Abraham Lincoln. That would be true almost every season, Honest Abe being the closest thing the publishing industry ever comes to a safe bet. But on Feb. 12, he’ll be 200 years old, and in this business, every big birthday is preceded by an avalanche of books.
A small sampling:
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief, by James M. McPherson (The Penguin Press, Oct. 7).
Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, by Eric Foner (Norton, Oct. 13).
Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan (Harper, Oct. 28).
Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon, by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Knopf, Nov. 18).
(Lincoln, you may have surmised, is the Kunhardt family business.)
And why not turn to a national hero in these parlous times? Berkshire Hathaway looks like a pillar of strength even as Wall Street wobbles—why not plunge into a 900-page biography of the pillar behind the pillar: Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam, Sept. 29)? If you’re still hungry for more after that supersize serving of Omaha wisdom, try genial Michael Kinsley’s Creative Capitalism (Simon & Schuster, Dec. 2), which expands on Bill Gates’ ideas about how to make capitalism, well, less destructive. Itching to become a hero yourself? Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t do how-to (he’s a high-end journalist), but you might be able to pick up some tips from his next mega-best-seller, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, Nov. 18).
Alternatively, you could search for a villain. If blame-the-media is on your list of favorite pastimes, you’ll want to pre-order The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch (Broadway, Dec. 2), by the loathsome critic/enabler Michael Wolff. And perhaps, as chaser, Ted Turner’s autobiography, Call Me Ted (Grand Central, Nov. 10).
Maybe Conrad (Joseph, not Black) had the right idea: “In the destructive element immerse!” Let’s embrace disaster and thereby master our fear, or at least quiet the shakes so they’re just jitters. Our guide will be Max Page, a professor of architecture and history, whose new book is The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (Yale, Sept. 28). Have you ever noticed how calamity always strikes at the southern tip of Manhattan?
IMMERSION IN LITERATURE—that’s my particular poison. Comfortably top of the pile is Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (Knopf, Nov. 11), which, experts agree, is her best novel since Beloved. Read that last clause again; if it doesn’t speed up your pulse, consult a physician.
Next up, John Updike’s sequel to The Witches of Eastwick … three decades later … The Widows of Eastwick (Knopf, Oct. 21). Any bets on whether the new novel makes it to the silver screen? Cher, Sarandon and Pfeiffer, reunited.
Anne Rice (we’ve moved on from literature) has written a memoir, her first. The title—Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Knopf, Oct. 7)—is enough to stifle my curiosity, but they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Some books cry out to be read in tandem: Laura Claridge’s Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners (Random House, Oct. 14) is a book I intend to give my mother for Christmas. Susan Cheever’s Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction (Simon & Schuster, Oct. 7), maybe not. But somebody, somewhere, wants both.
WHICH LEAVES THREE books I have no idea how to categorize, except to say that I’m eager to read them all.
Russell Shorto, who in 2004 wrote a wonderful history of Dutch Manhattan, has reemerged with Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Doubleday, Oct. 14), in which he traces the posthumous career of Descartes’ skull and the rest of his remains (they got separated—don’t ask).
At long last, George Plimpton is getting golden-rule payback. (In case you’ve forgotten: Do unto others …) Yes, it’s an oral biography, compiled by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., and it has a very George title: George, Being George: George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals—and a Few Unappreciative Observers (Random House, Oct. 21).
A touch of fantasy to round off the list: In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, Dec. 3), Laura Miller, one of our finest literary critics, goes back and explores C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, the enchanted world of her childhood—and she does this knowing what we know.
Adam Begley edits the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.