As I wrote just last week, I'm not usually inclined to recommend books generally, to all readers, instead hedging my recommendations with caveats and explanations, rooting everything fully in my own sensibility. Part of what I enjoy about reading good critics--James Wood and Michael Dirda, for example--is learning, over time, what they like and dislike and where their tastes and mine overlap; learning their sensibilities means both that I gain some appreciation for books I might otherwise not have noticed or liked and that I learn when and how far to trust their recommendations.
I've also written on this blog about how personal reading decisions are, how people read for different reasons and in different ways. I don't really believe that people should be reading a certain type of book in a certain way or that reading those books will make you a better person. Will serious reading of Tolstoy make you think deeply about how people live their lives? Sure, but so, in a different way, will reading Watership Down. If I had a book-related motto, it would be read what you want to read; take those minutes or hours to simply be, separate from the world and concentrating deeply on something that requires your active participation, your collaboration, your bringing to bear your lifetime of thoughts and experience Do that, and I'll call it good.
So if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll realize how unusual it is that I'm saying the following: Every American who wants to understand this country should read Taylor Branch's America in the King Years. I read the first volume, Parting the Waters (1988) last January and it was so utterly involving that I had to take a break. I spent my Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday this year reading the second volume, Pillar of Fire (1997), and I'm going to have to take another break before I tackle the similarly acclaimed third volume, At Canaan's Edge (2006).
In the first two books, Branch performs the seemingly superhuman feat of covering every aspect of the civil rights movement from 1955-1963, with all its successes and failures, dramatic moments and dull meetings, charismatic leaders and brave followers--and making it spellbinding. The cast of characters is tremendous; King himself, at the center through the first volume, by the second volume is only the most important voice of many, disappearing from the narrative for pages at a time. Branch gives us real insight into countless figures, including the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Lyndon Johnson, Bayard Rustin, Bob Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, Adam Clayton Powell, James Bevel, John Doar, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Without ever sacrificing the tone of a serious historian, Branch makes moments of high drama such as James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss as gripping as any thriller, and he's equally good at explaining the intricate political maneuvering, both high- and low-level, that underlay every bit of forward progress. Somehow, he makes it easy to keep track of the movement's proliferation of acronym-named organizations and their leaders, as well as dozens of different protest actions in cities across the United States. There truly is never a dull moment.
Branch accomplishes both of what I see as the historian's highest goals, fully bringing the period and its people to life and making clear the very real possibility that these events, many of them completely familiar to us by now, could easily have happened in a different way, or not at all. The two goals are deeply interconnected: placing us so firmly in the time constantly (if indirectly) reminds us that progress is not inexorable and that history is the product of individual decisions, in this case often ones of jaw-dropping bravery at great personal cost. It's a stunning achievement, and it makes America in the King Years the best history writing I've ever read, hands down.
At the same time, by bringing to life the complexity underlying the simplistic national narrative of progress in civil rights, Branch points the way to an understanding of the following forty years of politics, from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, from the crumbling of the Solid South to the continuing (but nearly finished) realignment of the Republicans and Democrats into Southern vs. Northern, Rural vs. Urban, lily-White vs. multi-racial parties. If I were to teach a class in contemporary politics (for which I'd be astonishingly unqualified), I'd start my syllabus with this trilogy, Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), and Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes (1970); from them alone, I think even a novice student of American history could gain a working understanding of how we've ended up where we are as a nation.
But start with Taylor Branch. It will make you think in complicated ways about race, rights, American history, personal responsibility, bravery, non-violence, organization, power, and an uncountable host of other topics. In other words, I guarantee it will be worth your time.