I'll bet you're already making plans for your vacation, eh? Let's hope gas prices don't go up any more, or you might have to cut that family trip to the coast down to a weekend in a Wal-Mart tent outside Horseshoe Bend, hah hah!
Just kidding. I'm sure you'll have a real good time.
But here's the thing. Wherever you go, there's a 98.6 percent probability you will spend 49.8 percent of your waking moments there reading a book. Maybe two, if you're quick. A recent study has shown that over four-fifths of all the books ever read get that way while the reader is on vacation.
That's right, in spite of the fact that I totally made up all those fake percentages and the crud about the recent study, you're likely to spend much of your vacation time with a book in your hands. You know ... while you're sitting in the sun on a quiet beach somewhere, trying to forget about melanoma ... sitting by a quiet mountain lake somewhere, trying to forget about the flesh-eating flies ... or sitting in a quiet rustic inn somewhere, trying to forget about the communal toilet.
And this is why every summer all the political columnists in America offer a list of books to take with you. Those opinion shapers know good and well that one of the things you're trying to forget is them, so they try to extend their influence by recommending reading material which, of course, will reflect the views of whichever opinion shaper recommended them.
I, personally, have never done such a list, in part because I have too much respect for your desire to leave contention and controversy behind while you're on vacation, and partly because I'm afraid that if you get to reading something else, you might never go back to reading me. (This also accounts for why I never go on vacation, myself. Why take the chance?)
Today, though, with things being so ucked fup and all, I feel I must break with my own habit and send you off to Margaritaville with some good books. No law says you can't get laid-back and wised-up at the same time, right? Seriously, if America ever needed an infusion of erudition, it's now. Plus, I figure I'll beat George Will and Ellen Goodman by three weeks. Hah!
OK, you're probably thinking my list of summer reading will include all those nonfiction books about the current administration, right? Like The Price of Loyalty, Paul O'Neil's memoirs of what a dunce his ex-boss is. Or Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke's memoirs of what a dunce his ex-boss is. Or Plan of Attack, where Bob Woodward actually gets the dunce, himself, to explain what a dunce he is.
Wrong. Sure, if I had my way, those books would be required reading for anyone old enough to vote. Yet, I still feel—even after ten years as a writer of somewhat-true nonfiction, myself—that what sticks best to a healthy mind is fiction. In the ways that matter most, good fiction is more true than nonfiction. You heard me right. Fiction, at its best, gets its makings from the world at large, and distills those ingredients down to the heart of the matter, boiling off all the impurities and distractions and White House press conferences.
The theme I have chosen for this summer's reading list is war. Not this war, in particular—though you may apply what you learn to this war if you wish. But I mean WAR! ... the historical generality ... the persistent human condition ... the "last resort" so many leaders have turned to first. I got the idea from the pains the Pentagon took to deny the American public those pictures of servicemen coming home. The ones who are coming home in coffins. It seems to be the administration's position that images of fallen soldiers—even draped in pretty flags as they may be—might possibly give the public a negative impression of war.
Fine. But it is my position that those of us privileged enough to stay home and sit out wars should know exactly what's going on—especially when it's going on in our names. As of yet, this war has produced no great works of fiction ... unless you count Colin Powell's address to the U.N. last year. But there are plenty of great works from previous wars that offer us a valuable insight into what war ... any war, even the ones that were started for good reason ... really accomplishes. (And keep in mind, almost all of the books on my list were written by men who had actually been to war, as opposed to those who joined the Texas National Guard.)
Take All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarkque), for instance. One of the best. If you've ever wondered what it was like to try to scramble back to a foxhole with your feet blown off, this book's for you. Or should you care to know why a young man would turn his back on sweet life and choose the battlefield, pick up The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane). The "red badge," in case you don't finish the story, is a bullet hole.
For a glimpse into the spirit of those who would sacrifice themselves and their friends for the vanities of honor and empire, take a gallop through Emerson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." I know it's only a poem, but by golly, hardly anyone comes out of it alive.
A favorite back in the Nam days was Catch-22 (Joseph Heller). It is set during WWII and in fine, funny style, it shows how even in the good wars, many of the people who die, die for nothing more than to enrich the few.
For pure, unadulterated bleakness—if that be your taste—thumb through Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo). You'll never again say, "It's a miracle he survived."
Of course, the granddaddy of all war books is The Iliad (good ol' Homer—the Tom Clancy of his day). It's all there, brother ... severed limbs, gore-soaked earth, thick-headed leaders who send thousands out to die because their egos were bruised, Gods on our side, Gods on their side, lies, treachery, post-war chaos, glorious heroes who couldn't care less anymore because they're dead ... and if you think the epic isn't relevant anymore because they were using swords instead of flying gunships, you evidently haven't heard that the blood pouring out of some mother's son doesn't know the difference.
Oh gosh, there's so many more. Truth is, almost as soon as humankind learned to tell tales, soldiers have been trying to show the rest of us that WAR!—all pre-packaged blather of duty and heroism and patriotism, aside—isn't just Hell. That body parts strewn over a blighted landscape is also just plain stupid.
So, have yourself a merry little vacation, traveler. And happy reading.