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Books

This summer, heavy hitters will rule beach reading

| Saturday, June 2, 2018, 10:54 a.m.
This summer's collection of beach reads tends to be a little less 'fluffy' than in years past.
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This summer's collection of beach reads tends to be a little less 'fluffy' than in years past.

Sometimes air needs clearing. Sometimes windows need opening. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves about the bedrock beneath our feet. Spring is a good time. But summer is even better — reading alone on a park bench, on an empty beach at 8 in the morning. It never made sense that summer reading should be inconsequential, and feather light, just as the head and the air get clearer and there is more room to think. Summer reading — especially this summer — offers the possibility of refresher courses.

About everything.

Good news is, there are more new books to fill this role than any one vacation could hold. Bad news is, the world appears profoundly, even irrevocably, screwed up, and we demand more clarity on more fundamentals than ever.

The Common Good

For instance, I just read two small, accessible books about the Common Good, and I was transfixed by this crazy idea for a nation where people set aside self-interest.

Where is this place?

And what, exactly, is this Common Good?

That you might sincerely wonder is why Robert Reich's “The Common Good” (Knopf, $22.95) and Steve Almond's “Bad Stories” (Red Hen, $16.95) read like civic lessons recast as invigorating thrillers: Can the American people remind themselves of their shared goals before it's too late? Can a great nation withstand leadership ­— political, corporate and otherwise — for whom the common good has mostly been a talking point?

Reich was secretary of labor for Bill Clinton, and his book is tiny, pocket-ready, clean-looking and a touch morally pure at times to seem applicable on Planet Trump — in the appendix, he cites the screenplay for “It's a Wonderful Life” as recommended reading — but that earnest, generous clarity of vision is also what makes the book compulsive: He directs us to ways Clintons, Bushes, Obama and Trump, and countless CEOs, tested the common good — which Reich describes as “our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society.”

Jon Meacham's “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” (Random House, $30) is a casual tour of pivotal, at times inspiring road stops, moments when leadership and electorate pulled together (mostly) for a vision grander than the length of their noses. If these “good stories” — useful partial-truths, really — are messier than this speedy book allows, Meacham does a good job of casting triumphs as never quite forged.

Besides, context is everything: Donald Trump, of course, is the elephant in the room, the catalyst for retelling our civic successes, trotted out at times to serve as contrast. Meacham notes in the days before the 2017 inauguration, the president told aides to regard the office as a TV series with himself as the star, tasked with squashing each week's enemy. A story like that rattles in your head as you read an account of Lyndon Johnson pressing George Wallace about conscience: “Listen, George,” Johnson said, “don't think about 1968. Think about 1988. Do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, ‘George Wallace — He Hated'?”

It's a welcome, foundational approach to familiar history, a digging up of the social contract that we've left so long at the bottom of the shoebox, to reread the small type.

And far from alone this summer.

The founding documents

Need a reminder of those founding documents? There's “The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide” (Hachette, $18.99), from constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk. Looking for a politician who lived up to those papers? “Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope”(Center Street, $28), a series of interviews about the legacy of RFK, between his daughter Kerry and (somewhat obvious) figures like John Lewis and Bono. Given up on hope entirely and need a patient, intimate diagnosis on our collapse and rate of decay? “America: The Farewell Tour” (Simon & Schuster, $27, August), by journalist Chris Hedges, groups our ailments under starkly titled chapters like “Work” and “Sadism.”

A little lighter

Even a subject as light as the saga of superheroes just got something as necessary as artist Ed Piskor's “X-Men: Grand Design” (Marvel, $29.99), a beautiful, sprawling one-book retelling of the 55-year soap opera of these mutant crime fighters that streamlines and rearranges decades of flashbacks and revelations into nice chronological cohesion.

Taking a late summer holiday and no time to read at all? Awaiting in early September are a pair of basement-level air-clearings, on American football, Mark Leibovich's 400-page “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times” (Penguin, $28), and American division, Jill Lepore's 960-page “These Truths: A History of the United States” (Norton, $39.95).

You don't need much interpretation to grasp the urgency — or at least the political subtext — behind new books with titles as plainly stated as “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” (Norton, $21.95), by Stephen Greenblatt, or “Fascism: A Warning” (Harper, $27.99), by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

You need a newspaper subscription. Or maybe cable TV. Or a set of eyes, watching a protest. “Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You'll Never Hear” (Knopf, $15.95) by Carl Hiaasen and cartoonist Roz Chast is a fun twist on that early summer publishing staple, the commencement address held between hardback book covers for posterity. Except the message is: “Life is a (expletive) blizzard,” and “If you don't learn how to judge others — and judge fast — you'll get metaphorically trampled from now until the day you die,” and “Never stop worrying. Live each day as if the rent is due tomorrow.”

Which frankly, is just efficient.

Christopher Borrelli is a Chicago Tribune (TNS) writer.

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