Bedtime Stories: Feb. 2018

  • February 26, 2018

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what he said.

Bedtime Stories: Feb. 2018

Garrett M. Graff:

I read for different purposes in different settings. Nearly all of my at-home pleasure reading is magazines and newspapers; as a magazine writer and former editor, I read print newspapers during the day and magazines in the evening.

Despite working around and covering tech, I find there’s no better way to encounter things you didn’t know you were interested in than by reading magazines and newspapers in print. The A section of the New York Times is a humbling daily experience in realizing how little I’m actually following events around the world.

At home, most of the books I tend to read are for work — skimming through nonfiction books related to topics I care about or that I’m writing about for a magazine story or book myself.

After years of treating books as all but sacrosanct, I started about a decade ago writing in the margins, underlining key passages, and jotting thoughts for my own writing, so the “work” books I read are covered in marginalia. I then transcribe those notes and key passages into files on my computer to ease my future research.

It’s not uncommon for me to “read” two or three books a week for work, although I’ll be the first to admit that in those circumstances I’m not literally reading every line, just trying to find what’s new, interesting, or relevant to me.

I’m just finishing my next book project, about cybersecurity and cybercrime, so I’ve been reading a lot about the founding of the internet, like Steven Levy’s classic, Hackers, and biographies and memoirs about early cyber cases, like Katie Hafner and John Markoff’s Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier.

I save most of my pleasure-book reading for travel; on planes or vacations, turning to fiction or general nonfiction is a way for me to tell my mind that it can unplug from daily life for a while. While I have literally years’ worth of unread books piled up at home — when my wife and I moved to Vermont from DC two years ago, we shipped north of 5,000 pounds of books — I can’t help myself from perusing used-book stores on vacation and stopping in independent bookstores.

It doesn’t help my rapid book acquisition that I’ve spent chunks of the last year on a book tour, taking me into indie bookstores from Salt Lake City to Boston, and I can hardly ever leave without buying something.

On a recent weekend trip to New Orleans, I finished a 65-year-old Eric Ambler thriller about life in post-World War II Europe — a find at my favorite used-book store in Washington, Second Story Books — and then stopped in the Garden District Bookstore and purchased Omar El Akkad’s American War and spent the rest of the trip reading his tour of the future post-civil-war United States.

On another recent trip, I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which was a blast, and Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which made me deeply professionally jealous of Jason’s creative turns-of-phrase and his discovery of Elizabeth Friedman’s life as the country’s preeminent codebreaker.

The book I’m most excited to read right now is Ron Chernow’s Grant, which I have set aside for a cross-country plane ride in a couple weeks. With big books like that, if I don’t make several hundred pages of progress at once, I’ll tend to bog down and never finish it.

Grant has fascinated me since elementary school, when I was a young Civil War buff who memorized the Gettysburg Address for a school talent show. I read, in 2013, Joan Waugh’s biography of him, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth, which rewrote in my mind much of my understanding of Grant in the broad historical context. His memory in modern life, as it turns out, was badly distorted by a generation of Southern historians who self-interestedly projected him as a drunk and a butcher. I’m curious to see how Chernow interprets him; I’ve loved all of his previous works, and still recommend Washington: A Life to anyone as worth the investment of time.

My definition of “fun” reading can stretch the common definition of that term; the next book I’m reading is Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, and then I’m looking forward to Howard Blum’s In the Enemy’s House, about the FBI and the hunt for Russia’s atomic spies. The magazine editor in me is excited to read Tina Brown’s diaries of being editor of Vanity Fair. I asked for it for Christmas and am hoping to have a plane ride this spring to sink into it.

Garrett M. Graff, a distinguished magazine journalist and historian, writes about politics, technology, and national security. He’s written for publications from WIRED and Esquire to Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the New York Times and served as editor of both Washingtonian and POLITICO. His most recent book, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die, explores the history of the government’s Cold War Doomsday plans. He’s currently writing an oral history of September 11th based on his POLITICO article, “We’re the Only Plane in the Sky.” (Editor’s note: Click here to read the Independent’s 2017 review of Raven Rock.)

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