“There are two motives for reading a book,” once wrote Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. “One, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” It does make you wonder what Russell would have thought of today’s political scene, where there’s no surer mark of fame than whether strangers are willing to read about what you’re reading—and where the book lists of top pols and pundits regularly make cameos in speeches, become the subject of cooing New York Times profiles and even spark White House rivalries.
And so, in the spirit of Washington, D.C., bookishness, we’ve asked the most interesting people we know to tell us what they’re reading this summer—both the tomes at the top of their lists and their recommended guilty pleasure, if they’ll admit to having one at all.
John McCain, U.S. senator from Arizona
I am currently reading The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America by Scott Weidensaul, a comprehensive history of the eastern frontier traced through the experiences of the earliest Native American inhabitants and European settlers. For a good summer read, I would recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Fast-paced, highly suspenseful, this thriller will keep you guessing until the very end.
Beverly Gage, history professor at Yale
I’m currently drawn to books that provide some broad context for our current political predicaments. Bill Browder’s Red Notice tells the wrenching (but compelling) personal story behind the Magnitsky Act. Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City looks at New York in the 1970s, showing how fiscal crisis can reshape everyday life—and probably not for the better. And David France’s How to Survive a Plague reminds us that ordinary people can make a difference if they organize in creative and effective ways.
For a “guilty pleasure,” I recommend You’ll Grow Out of It, by Jesse Klein. Her essays make me laugh and cringe all at once.
Leon Panetta, chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and former secretary of defense and CIA director
At the top of my reading list is: Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943 (FDR at War) by Nigel Hamilton. I need to remind myself about what presidential leadership is all about. A book to take to the beach is Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. As a westerner, I love stories of the Old West.
Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago
Top of my reading list: David Grossman, To the End of the Land. I just finished his recent Booker Prize-winning novel, A Horse Comes Into a Bar, which moved me very deeply, and I had the honor of meeting him and hearing him speak at the Hebrew University graduation ceremony on June 11, a very important speech.
My guilty pleasures are always detective novels translated into French or German, so that there is something accomplished and I don’t actually feel guilty. Right now, on a flight home from Germany, I’m reading Agatha Christie’s Mord auf dem Golfplatz. After that, another!
Jill Abramson, columnist for the Guardian, visiting professor at Harvard and former executive editor of the New York Times
My summer always involves curling up on a rainy day with The Great Gatsby, which can’t be read enough times. So we beat on …
Eddie Glaude, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton
I am rereading all of James Baldwin’s nonfiction, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Arundhati Roy’s novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
At the top of my list: I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet, a courageous Muslim journalist who risks her life to get the truth from ISIS leaders is my best source. Guilty pleasure: Do I Make Myself Clear? It takes the wicked wit of a brilliant British editor, Sir Harold Evans, to remind us Yanks how to write right.
David Petraeus, chairman of KKR Global Institute, visiting professor of public policy at the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College and former CIA director
Two books on Grant: Ron White’s splendid American Ulysses, the best biography to date on an extraordinary American leader who was vastly underrated for much of the 20th century; and General Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant, a delightful book I’d not read before and was recommended by Ron Chernow—whose Grant will be out in October (rap musical to follow?). Also Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, a gift from a KKR colleague who asked if it is the leadership book he should share with his team in Southeast Asia.
Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Top of the reading list: A Full Life by Jimmy Carter. And for the beach: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This book gets rave reviews, sounds creative and is a reminder of our past national sins. Only by remembering can we be better as people and as a nation.
Destined for War by Graham Allison. Probably the one recent book you need to read to wrap your head around our current dynamic with China. Allison is always a sharp thinker (full disclosure: he is also a former colleague and friend from our work together as part of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism), and I’m sure his logic will be clear and thought-provoking.
Strategic Vision by Zbigniew Brzezinski. This is one of his last books (if not the last one), written at the end of Obama’s first term. I will consume it for the wise insights of an experienced statesman (and father of my friends and colleagues Ian, Mika and Mark). My 91-year-old Hungarian-American father gave me this book when it came out, but I was working for the government and never got to it.
The guilty pleasure: Radiant Angel by Nelson DeMille. I’m a New Yorker and love beach towns (including on Long Island) and the authentic voice of John Corey, the detective protagonist—matter-of-fact, working class, funny. And this one has a Russia angle …
Paul Ryan, speaker of the House
My summer reading list includes Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker.
Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution
At the top of my reading list are two books I ought to have already read: Afshon Ostovar’s Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Eliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing. Ostovar’s book is a history of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, how it came to be central to both domestic power in Iran and the linchpin of Iranian foreign policy. Ackerman is one of the best in the current renaissance of veterans writing about conflict, so I read anything he writes, journalism or fiction. A book I’ve already read but want to recommend is Charles Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. It’s a lively account of Adams’ successful effort to craft an American grand strategy and unsuccessful effort to carry it out. My guilty pleasure is Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow, which my sister recommended.
Jonathan Chait, writer for New York magazine
I just returned from the beach, where I read Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas Egerton—a very brisk, captivating history that feels fresh even if you’re familiar with the major events of the period. Next on my list is Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.
Hugh Hewitt, host of "The Hugh Hewitt Show" and MSNBC’s "Hugh Hewitt"
Top of list: Sea Power by James Stavridis—a riveting tour of the world as it is, how it came to be, where it may be heading and all through the lens of sea power from the pen of one of the country’s preeminent strategists.
Not-so-guilty pure pleasure: House of Spies by Daniel Silva—the 17th Gabriel Allon novel and the best as the Israeli secret service operator moves into Smiley Versus Karla land.
Guilty Pleasures: Paradise Valley by C.J. Box. I don’t read this type of book—crime fiction—except the villain is so villainous I want him to meet his fictional end. Best to read Box’s The Highway and Badlands first for full effect. And The Fallen by Ace Atkins. C.J. made me do it. More of the genre I never read but now enjoy in two instances.
Laurence H. Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard
I’m now reading Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity and Andrea Sangiovanni’s Humanity Without Dignity: Moral Equality, Respect, and Human Rights. My beach book, for guilty pleasure this summer, will be David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002.
Andrew Sullivan, contributing editor at New York magazine and former editor of the Dish
On my reading list: The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère and Homo Seus, by Yuval Noah Harari. Guilty pleasure (but not guilty): Anything by P.G. Wodehouse, and My Dog Tulip, by J.R. Ackerley.
David Greenberg, professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and contributing editor at Politico Magazine
Most of my reading is dictated by what I’m teaching, researching or reviewing. Some highlights right now include The House of Truth, by Brad Snyder, a Metaphysical Club-style history of Progressive-era liberalism; Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism, by Lucas Graves, a smart take on the state of fact and truth in journalism today; and two books I failed to read when their academic buzz was peaking: Black Silent Majority, by Michael Javen Fortner, and The Age of the Crisis of Man, by Mark Greif.
For fun I’m reading David Grann’s devastating Killers of the Flower Moon, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (the memoir, not the album cover), and a novel I think everyone is going to be talking about this fall, which I’m lucky to have in galleys, Ruby Namdar’s brilliant The Ruined House.
Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans
Strangers In Their Own Land, written by Arlie Russell Hochschild, provides great introspective of how some voters feel alienated and disconnected. I’m rereading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s just my favorite. A World in Disarray by Richard Haass helps explain some of the chaos around the globe.
Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center
I have been saving up John Farrell’s new Nixon biography so I can luxuriate in it over the summer. Nixon is a notoriously difficult character to capture, and Farrell does so in such a balanced, meticulous fashion—and in such compelling prose—that I’ve been slowly doling it out a chapter at a time. I’ll be pairing that with Peter Conradi’s book on the new cold war, Who Lost Russia?
And then my guilty pleasure: David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a real-life whodunit that traces the origins of the FBI to the mysterious murders of dozens of members of the Osage tribe. Gripping, gorgeously written and—best of all—utterly unrelated to the current goings-on at the White House.
Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and host of video blog Factual Feminist
The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray is an enthralling account of the rise of Islamism in Europe. It’s beautifully written and cogently argued. But if Murray is right, Europe is committing suicide. One reviewer said, “I found myself continually wishing that he wasn’t making himself quite so clear.” I agree. And it would be easier too if he weren’t quite so persuasive. Next on my list: Churchill & Orwell by Thomas Ricks, and Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves.
I have a wild little dog (now a year old), and I bought a lot of books on dog training. (I read about it more than I actually do it.) My favorite: The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete. The monks say the best way to stop bad habits is not to let them get started in the first place. But I did let them get started—so I’m dealing with a fallen Malti-poo. But we are both improving.