Welcome to the Monthly Reading List Newsletter! Each month I will share a few thoughts on 3-5 books I’m reading and why I think you should pick them up. So, if you enjoy this email, please forward it to friends and family and help us continue to grow! Also, make sure you sign-up for our new The Sunday Email where each week we will share a quote/passage from a book and a short insight.
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This month, I completed a book that I never would have finished, or more accurately, even attempted in the past. It’s the longest book I’ve read and the longest biography I’ve read by at least 300 pages. I started it back in July and finally finished it this past month.
The Power Broker: Moses and the Fall of New York. by Robert Caro, is an 1162-page biography about Robert Moses, a city planner in New York in the first half of the 20th century. The book follows his life and his career that spanned more than four decades. As Caro points out in the book, no one in the history of the United States has even come close to rivaling Moses’ construction acumen and productivity. The landscape of modern-day New York City owes its development to Robert Moses’ vision. The book is extremely well written, and Caro wanted readers to feel like they were reading a great work of fiction instead of a dry biography.
In telling the story of Moses, Caro illustrates how power and ego can alter peoples’ personalities, leading them down troubled roads. I read it for the leadership value but walked away with a few lessons about reading large books I want to share with you.
Think of it as a road trip. Have you ever driven across the United States? I’ve done it a few times. My favorite memories are the ones where I took my time, stopped at places like the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, or 1880 Town and enjoyed the trip for the experiences it offered. However, I’ve also made the trip with the goal of making the best time possible, arriving on the other end after long hours spent in the car.
I used to approach reading like I would a fast-paced road trip: Get to the end as quick as possible. If the page count exceeded a couple of hundred pages, I considered it too long and not worth the effort to pick it up. I wanted to read a book as quickly as possible and place it back on the shelf. I didn’t want to spend months, maybe an entire year, reading the same big, boring book.
A few years ago, I began a habit that encouraged me to read longer titles: reading multiple books at once. I learned I could take a few literary road trips at the same time, reading a mix of titles of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty, without getting frustrated or overwhelmed with a single book. This habit prevented me from ultimately giving up on the practice of daily reading. This summer, I decided to get behind the wheel and take a very long road trip.
I read this book in small chunks; very small chunks. Each day for the last six months, I read anywhere from 3-10 pages a day, slowly chipping away at it a few pages at a time, pairing this long journey with more entertaining books at the same time. I finished 16 other books while slogging through The Power Broker!
This experience taught me that if I had approached the book with the mindset of trying to get through it quickly, I either would have avoided it in the first place or given up long before finishing. If not for my slow, deliberate stroll through this behemoth of a book, I would have missed this next critical lesson.
This book had equally valuable lessons on page 1 and page 997. Leaders and academics alike have admitted to me they only read the introduction and conclusion of books and believe they’ve soaked up all the value the book has to offer.
I can’t do that.
I have to read the entire book because I’m curious what lessons or insights the book will present to me deep within its depths. For me, books are a catalyst for reflection. Therefore, a word, a phrase, or a fact might spark a thought or help me make a quick connection with a previous book I read or a previous experience. I often find that books provide great lessons that might not have anything to do with the central figure or theme of the book. In The Power Broker, I found important lessons scattered throughout the text.
For example, on page 121 I learned the value of doing those things that no one else will take the time to do. In 1908, Al Smith, a young New York State representative, spent hours studying bills as they were introduced in the state legislature. He did so while the other representatives were out partying every night. This work, doing the things that no one else wanted to do, paid off. He gained an understanding of laws and politics that propelled him from a childhood of poverty and an eighth grade education to the office of the governor of New York and eventually, a presidential candidate.
On page 1096, I learned the importance of remaining diplomatic, unemotional, and logical in the information space. I read about how Robert Moses became so arrogant and egotistical that he attacked the press when they started criticizing him in their papers. He accused them of writing false stories and “went out of his way to show his contempt for them; the face he turned on them was one of disdain; his answers were sarcasm and scorn. He lectured them ---and he antagonized them. It would have been easy to make them allies; he made them enemies instead.” Caro follows this passage with a great quote from Joe Kahn, who wrote, “There is only way to get the press united and that is to attack it.” Because of his actions, the press turned against him, and began to publish articles that forever tarnished his reputation. The loss of the press' support also negatively affected his influence over politicians and power brokers, ultimately forcing him into retirement.
I found both of these valuable lessons outside the introduction and conclusion of the book. They only cost me patience, diligence, and small chunks of time.
Walking away with a sense of accomplishment and increased confidence. Now that I’ve finished this book, I feel much more confident tackling equally lengthy titles. For instance, Caro also wrote a 4-part series on the life and career of President Lyndon Johnson. Edmund Morris has a popular trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt. Biographers Chernow and Isaacson have award-winning biographies on Washington, Kissinger, and Rockefeller. There are also several classics such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Homer’s The Illiad that are epic in length.
I learned that by knocking out a heavy weight, I’ve unlocked an entire section of the library that I was hesitant to pick up.
Lastly, I would like to thank Steven Calhoun whose recommendation motivated me to pick up the book in the first place.
The Monthly Reading List.
Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm. The Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca served in the court of one of the most famous tyrants in history: Nero. Here, Seneca attempted to educate a teenage Nero and stay on as a strategic and moral advisor as the emperor grew into adulthood. But as the boy grew into a man, Seneca’s influence waned. Romm eloquently captures the bargain that Seneca then made:
"Seneca had made the bargain that many good men have made when agreeing to aid bad regimes. On the one hand, their presence strengthens the regime and helps it endure. But their moral influence may also improve the regime’s behavior or save the lives of its enemies. For man this has been a bargain worth making, even if it has cost them –as it may have cost Seneca –their immortal soul."
In addition to examining Seneca’s relationship with Nero, Romm also captures how power and ego can corrupt anyone in its proximity. He introduces the head of the Praetorian Guard who looked the other way; the mother who encouraged her son to reach for more and more power, until he turned on her; and the sycophants who moved into the inner circle and how they influenced decision making. Romm’s writing is engaging and interesting, and this book offers so many valuable moral and leadership lessons.
I recommend this title for anyone interested in Stoicism, the influence of power and ego, or how populism can enable a tyrant.
Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule. I’m only a quarter of the way into this book and I’m already hooked. Seidule was a professor at USMA for decades, authored the award-winning West Point History of the Civil War, and even helped us develop the history section of the former Maneuver Leader Self Study Program back in 2013.
In the book, Seidule provides historical facts to uncover truths that have been buried by over a century of myths. I grew up in the south, and this book has already challenged many of the stories I heard from family members, grade school teachers, TV shows and movies. In other words, he’s already hitting me in the toughest part for most of us to receive blows –my belief system.
I’d like to share with you a paragraph from the introduction that shook me considering recent events in our Nation:
"Eleven southern states seceded to protect and expand an African American slave labor system. Unwilling to accept the results of a fair and democratic election, they illegally seized U.S. territory violently. Together, they formed a new “Confederacy” in contravention of the U.S. Constitution. Then West Point graduates like Robert E. Lee resigned their commissions, abrogating an oath sworn to God to defend the United States. During the bloodiest war in American history, Lee and his comrades killed more U.S. Army soldiers than any other enemy, ever. And they did it for the worst reason possible: to create a nation dedicated to exploit enslaved men, women, and children, forever.
I recommend this book for anyone who fervently opposes the renaming of military bases; who doesn’t see the big deal with the U.S. government recognizing Robert E. Lee; or who like me, grew up in the South with the myth of the lost cause.
I’m against rewriting history to satisfy an emotional argument, but as Seidule points out “[his book is about] recovering a story lost and creating a more accurate portrayal of the past. History is always changing. We link the past to our conception of the present and we always have.” It’s worth being open to hearing him out in Robert E. Lee and Me. This book may just change your own belief system, like it did mine.
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