What We’re Reading
In a new seasonal feature, QR writers tell us what’s on their reading lists for the summer. This time – PETER GEMMA
I’ve been asked to write a bit about what I am reading and plan to take up. Perhaps first I should say something about me and what I have read in the past.
I work primarily as a freelance writer now, but spent 30 years in politics – running campaigns, raising money for candidates and causes, and training candidates and campaign personnel. My reading reflects my professional life: history, politics, and biographies. I read only four or five fiction books a year and those are while on vacation (I don’t like to take books out of my library of approximately 2.000 volumes in fear of losing them.) I’ve been a bookworm from childhood. The author who impressed me most then was Harold Lamb, who wrote historically accurate novels. The dramatic covers of fighting Crusaders and exotic places captured my attention. He wrote exciting stories about Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Cyrus the Great.
It drives my wife crazy that I read two or three books at a time—she thinks it’s like switching TV channels to watch different shows simultaneously. But I can read a chapter or two of a biography and easily go to a history of the Dixiecrat Party for a day or two.
I’m writing a book on Southern politics covering the period of 1956-1976, the era ending segregation by federal law and judicial edicts. My focus is on the politicians who served then: some retired from the battlefield, some changed sides, and some went down fighting. My reading list for the past year has been mainly for research purposes.
I do take breaks to rest my mind: recently I read Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable—controversial because it delves into the subject’s past not seen before: womanizing, possible homosexual relationships, etc. I also read Kate Larson’s The Assassin’s Accomplice, an unconvincing attempt to tie Mary Surratt with the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln. She owned the boarding house that John Wilkes Booth frequented.
Currently, I’m reading a biography, Harry Byrd of Virginia by Ronald L. Heinemann. The late Virginia Governor and Senator Harry Byrd and his “Byrd organization” are legendary in Virginia political history, spanning 50 years. He was a true Southern gentleman just like ones portrayed in novels: white suits, deferential to women, still holding a bit of a grudge against the Yankee invasion of the South. He opposed desegregation, particularly of the public school system, going so far as closing schools and making them private so they were not subject to federal government mandates, a tactic illegal today.
I am also reading Clive Webb’s Massive Resistance, a movement in which Harry Byrd was a leader. Southern legislatures and political leaders placed roadblocks to the various federal and judicial desegregation statutes. Some tactics were very creative: South Carolina threatened to go out of the education business altogether, selling schools to private concerns, and giving vouchers to parents on an equal basis so they could send their children to the school of their choice. That sent Justice Department lawyers scrambling for ways to intervene.
Next on my list to read are three books, the first two for research purposes. J. Harvie Wilkinson’s Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics (on the list for the same reasons cited above), and Stand Up for Alabama by Jeff Frederick, a chronicle of George Wallace’s four terms as Governor. It’s 500 pages of fine print – ugh. I also have a copy of Ian Smith’s Bitter Harvest on my desk – given to me by a Rhodesian friend. I visited Rhodesia as a young man, met Ian Smith (a treasured photo of us is on my office wall), and went back 10 years later when it was Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. I probably have 100 books on Rhodesia and South African politics and history in my library. The issues and personalities in Southern Africa have always been of great interest.
If Derek Turner would send me a copy of his new novel, I may make an exception to my fiction reading routine.
PETER B. GEMMA, an award-winning freelance writer, has penned more than 100 commentaries for USA Today and written for such publications as The DailyCaller.com and Military History magazine