John McCain: By the Book

John McCain

Senator John McCain, whose new book is “The Restless Wave,” thinks all children should read “Huckleberry Finn”: “It’s funny and it’s scary, and it teaches us to see past our differences.”

What books are on your nightstand?

“Sinatra: The Chairman,” by James Kaplan; “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42,” by William Dalrymple; and “Leonardo da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson.

Tell us about the last great book you read.

Not long ago I reread “The Great Gatsby,” and was impressed again by the beauty of the prose and the distinctiveness of the style. Fitzgerald told his editor he wanted to write “something new,” and he did. Nearly a century later, it still reads as something new and different though its subject, the tragedy of desiring most what Ernest Shackleton called the “veneer of outside things,” is an old one.

What books do you think most accurately depict Washington?

Advise and Consent,” by Allen Drury. The characters have mixed motives. Their personalities are complex and their actions nuanced. They’re not all good or all bad, just as in real politics and real life. The story features foreign intrigue and scandal — as do many fictional treatments of Washington — but it’s without the simplified, single dimension that fiction by writers from somewhere else often impose on human behavior in this company town.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read about governance? And the military?

“The Best and the Brightest,” by David Halberstam, for governance, and “This Kind of War,” T. R. Fehrenbach’s classic study of the Korean War. Both concern tactical and strategic mistakes by smart, experienced people, who had more confidence than humility and more intelligence than insight.

What books do you think best capture your own political principles?

Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” It’s my favorite novel of all time. It instructed me to see the world as it is, with all its corruption and cruelty, and believe it’s worth fighting for anyway, even dying for. No just cause is futile, even if it’s lost, if it helps make the future better than the past.

What are the best books you’ve read about Vietnam?

“Hell in a Very Small Place” and “Street Without Joy,” by Bernard Fall, and “A Bright Shining Lie,” by Neil Sheehan. Fall’s two classics on the French Indochina War warned us about the mistakes we should have avoided making in Vietnam. Sheehan’s book examining America’s involvement in Vietnam through the experiences of John Paul Vann shows how we went about making them anyway.

Are there books that to you are important that your children read? That all American children read?

I’d like any child to read “For Whom the Bell Tolls for the reasons I gave for loving it when I first read it as a child. I think I was about 12, and it had an immediate and lasting impact on me. I’d like them to read Twain, too, at least “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s funny and it’s scary, and it teaches us to see past our differences to the inherent dignity we possess in equal measure.

And which novelists do you especially enjoy reading?

Hemingway, Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham are my favorites. Hemingway for his sense of courage and adventure, and the power of his spare style. Fitzgerald’s evocation of his time and the poetic quality of his prose. And Maugham’s cosmopolitan sensibility, his feel for the personal and social dramas provoked by clashing cultures. They might not be the greatest English language writers of all time, but along with Faulkner, I think they were the best of their time.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?

I’m old-fashioned or maybe just old. I like to hold the book I’m reading, turn its pages, and clap it shut when I’ve finished it. I usually read them one at a time, but sometimes I’ll set one aside for the time it takes to finish another that required my immediate attention. I read newspapers in the morning and books in the evenings and on airplanes.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read an awful lot as a boy. My father was a voracious reader, and he had a large library. My grandmother had a lot of books in her house, too. I was constantly raiding their collection for books my father had read as a child. My favorites were romantic adventures, like “Ivanhoe,” by Sir Walter Scott; “The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table,” by Thomas Malory; and “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read and reread almost everything Mark Twain wrote but principally “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Life on the Mississippi.”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Carl Sandburg’s “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie and the War Years.” If he doesn’t have time to read all six volumes, he could make do with the one-volume edition published in 1954. Despite the liberties Sandburg took with facts and legends, his portrait of Lincoln instructs the reader in the personal virtues that made Lincoln’s an extraordinarily wise, decent and crucial presidency.

Who would you want to write your life story?

Mark Salter. He’s been helping me write parts of it for 20 years. I think I can trust him to get the rest of it right, and, quoting Huck Finn, to tell the truth, mainly.

What do you plan to read next?

Grant,” by Ron Chernow. Historians began revising, some time ago, the earlier judgments of Grant as an unimaginative, bloody-minded general and bumbling president. But some reviews of Chernow’s new biography praised it as a thorough and insightful reappraisal of Grant, who was in truth an original and discerning military strategist, possibly the most influential in the history of the United States, and a brave and decent president. I’m looking forward to it.

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