Six books I have read so often that they are falling apart

William Shirer

I have a lot of books. I read a lot of books. And yet some books I keep coming back to, time after time, until their bindings crack and they are candidates for replacement, or, oddly enough, the recycle bin. So I thought I’d go through my library and see what qualifies.

Right at the top are two history books, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970) by David Hackett Fischer. One could say Nazism is a historical fallacy, but the connection between these two books for me is a lot deeper than that. Shirer’s book was my introduction to a realistic political history, demonstrating how people, institutions, and customs interacted, often in unexpected ways, to create and destroy Hitler’s state. While Fischer’s book is a serious look at how historians, professional, classical, or amateur, go off the rails with what often sound like plausible arguments.

David Hackett Fischer

Both books are outdated now. I know Shirer got some things wrong, and Fischer often used examples from academic controversies of the 1960s to make his points. Yet I often wish more people read Fischer’s work, because I see his fallacies crop up in social media all the time. And Shirer’s lessons about how informal power structures shape history as much as the formal ones are worth remembering.

Turning to fiction, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the book I read when I’m depressed in the wee hours of the night and need some snappy dialogue and cheerful thoughts. While The Heritage of Hastur (1975) by Marion Zimmer Bradley impressed the hell out of me at the time, thanks to its exploration of both politics and sexuality in a science fiction setting. MZB’s reputation has taken a nosedive because of allegations of extensive sexual abuse by her and one of her husbands, which raises the difficult question of how much we separate the writer’s work from the writer. I respect the novel; I am disturbed thinking about what human costs contributed to it.

J. Frank Dobie

Finally, there are heirlooms. My father passed along some books to me over the years. The very first was a book about legends of buried treasure in the American Southwest, J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children (1930). Dobie told wonderful stories, and introduced me to a very different part of the world. I wanted to go off and dig for buried treasure! While The Literary Digest 1927 Atlas of the World and Gazetteer showed me that there were many strange places in the world, and that people of that time did not fully understand the history that was being made right before their eyes. There’s a lesson to keep one humble about one’s own place in history.

Again, both books are in different ways obsolete. (That does seem to be a common feature of non-fiction with historical dimensions.) While his liberal politics once cost him his position at the University of Texas, Dobie’s attitude toward Blacks and Hispanics as expressed in his book seems condescending now. And not only is the Atlas long out of date, but its parent publication, the Literary Digest, folded not long after famously predicting the wrong winner of the 1936 Presidential election. It turned out the Digest‘s polling technique was disastrously flawed, being seriously biased to the well-off, which is why it predicted a Republican victory. Instead, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his third term by taking every state except Maine and Vermont.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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14 Responses to Six books I have read so often that they are falling apart

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    Do you find a difference in how many re-readings it takes for a paperback to fall apart vs. a hardback? And how many re-readings of a hardback does it take to destroy the dust jacket?

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I’ve personally never destroyed a hardback that I bought. It’s only the ones that have have been handed down from the previous generation that have (understandably) crumpled. And no dust jacket’s been destroyed, although I have a statistically insignificant number of them.

      What’s more intriguing, if understandable, is how variable paperbacks are. Some break at a point, often one I’ve consulted repeatedly. Some have visible creases in the spine but still hold together. And Dover paperbacks may separate from their covers, but their pages don’t come loose!

  2. Judy says:

    Well, in my particular library which ended up being constructed in our illegal carport to den conversion, my problem has not been entirely failure due to repeated consultation but rather to hungry bugs loving the glues in my best old books bindings. The pages themselves in my oldest tomes have fared fairly well. Oddly, new books are not so tasty, so it is the best old ones which are threatened. Some newer ones, I only wish would decay and crumble so I wouldn’t feel guilty throwing out. Since I’ve been getting complaints from family over all my old volumes, I suppose I ought to go through them once again and cull out a few things. If have any notable old history books I could pass the titles to you for consideration.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Does approving this comment make me a criminal accessory after the fact?
      I’ve known at least one other party who had bugs infest his bookshelves, to the loss of all books in question when the exterminators were brought in.
      And I’ll be happy to hear what treasures you find!

  3. lly1205 says:

    I did not know that about Marion Zimmer Bradley :S This is indeed disturbing. But I’m always happy to see Austen’s name mentioned! I think the book that I have read the most is Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. It’s an amusing YA novel set in medieval times and my favourite part is probably when the protagonist sets a privy on fire 😛

  4. crimsonprose says:

    My second attempt at reading this post. I got distracted at Pride and Prejudice, I then started to think of my favourite fiction books, and which ones I return to. Until I had a massive turn out of dust-coated novels, I had read, several times, two novels by Frank Yerby: Judas my Brother, and Tobias and the Angel. Yerby isn’t well known in Britain, but he was a favourite of mine in days before I discovered Orson Scott Card. I’d say he has influenced my writing, though I’m not sure how. 🙂

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I have to admit to not being acquainted with Yerby, though his name is familiar. Went looking through pictures of his paperback covers, but they are so much of their day that it’s hard to tell if I ever saw them growing up. I can see from the subject matters and what I know of his approach why you might find him interesting.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Oh, no, it wasn’t because of the sex!. The two I gave were less religious than they were political, so too most of his that I liked. WWII resistance movements, and later terrorist movements. Ironic, I don’t read that kind of book now. But I guess Yerby is best known for his Deep South slave stories. Gritty stuff.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          I’m sorry to dismay you by telling you I presumed you were more interested in the history than the sex. Do not condemn me too strongly. It was just that it was easy to figure out the topics of his novels, not so easy to figure out how steamy they were. Though if set in the Deep South B.C. (Before Carrier air conditioners), they would have to be steamy!

          Whereas if it had made it to my house in my youth, it would have to have been for the sex. Or the historical romance, sometimes the same thing.

          • crimsonprose says:

            I’m not sure your parents would have allowed it. I encountered Yerby on my father’s bookshelves . . . along with Perfumed Garden, Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

            • Brian Bixby says:

              NONE of THOSE would have made it to my parents’ book shelves. However, Kyle Onsttot’s “Mandingo” DID make it there, and there were some other racy paperbacks over the years, mostly my mother’s. She presumed we kids would not be interested or reading such books.

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