I spent much of my childhood inside a library. My mom was a librarian at the time, so being surrounded by books was just a natural thing. From an early age, I fell in love with books. Like many others in my generation, I progressed from Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go to The Indian in the Cupboard and A Light in the Attic; from Charlotte’s Web and Lord of the Flies to Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye.
As an adult, I dove head-first into non-fiction and discovered that history was so much more exciting than my textbooks had led me to believe. The textbooks were overflowing with mundane charts and ridiculous essay questions at the end of each chapter (“How did cotton manufacturing change during the Industrial Revolution and what effect did it have on middle class values in rural America?” Answer: I don’t care). But once I started choosing my own “textbooks,” the past came alive with first-person accounts of adventure, conflict, triumph, blood, and guts.
My book acquisition strategy can be summed up in two words: “buy used.” I stand by this, even though I once saw a woman pull a book off the shelf in a Goodwill store and carry it into the bathroom (seriously, whose idea was it to put the bathroom right by the book shelves??). My go-to place for the past decade has been Half Price Books. I practically live at that store, and most of my collection comes from their shelves. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve visited other Half Price Books locations while on vacation. Wide selection + friendly employees + cheap prices + timely coupons = happy Michael.
While searching for my next book to read (spoiler alert: Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan), I asked myself, “Could I actually name my favorite books if someone asked me?” So I set out to create a list, which you’ll see below (you’ll also see that some of the covers have scuff marks in the upper right corner; those are the remnants of Half Price Books price tags). Instead of trying to rank them all, I labeled them based on what kind of reading mood you’re in. Here are my selections:
If you want to read about a president who defined “badassery”…
The Theodore Roosevelt trilogy by Edmund Morris
(The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt)
Morris covers “The Bull Moose” completely and definitively. This trio of books covers every stage of Roosevelt’s life: amateur taxidermist, rancher, war hero, president, big game hunter, and more. The trilogy spans some 2,500 pages, so be prepared to know Teddy up close and personal by the time you finish.
If you like 500-pound French guys who call people “boss”…
Andre the Giant: A Legendary Life by Michael Krugman
You don’t need to be a pro wrestling fan to gaze in awe at the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Krugman shows how Andre lived a life of Paul Bunyan-esque proportions… but unlike Bunyan, Andre was mortal. This biography shows that Andre was larger-than-life, but at the same time, his heartbreaking medical problems remind you that he was still human.
If you want to see the travesties that humans inflict upon one another…
Where the Birds Never Sing by Jack Sacco
Follow Jack Sacco’s father, Joe, and his fellow troops as they push through France and Germany during World War II. Surrounded by death the entire way, they discover the value of life after coming across a horrible sight at the end of the war.
If you like to laugh and cry at the same time…
The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts by Tom Farley
This is a book where happiness and devastation seemingly collide on every page. If you’re like me, you grew up with Saturday Night Live and Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, only seeing Farley’s restless humor. Farley’s brother, Tom, uses an oral history to show us the heart-wrenching, destructive side that offset everything that was endearing about Farley’s personality. Most of the big SNL names from Farley’s era contributed to this oral history, along with his family and friends.
If you like nostalgic tales of torture that have a happy ending…
Now I Can Die in Peace by Bill Simmons
This anthology of Simmons’ sports columns takes the reader through the anguish, heartbreak, and ultimate exhilaration of the Boston Red Sox and their 2004 World Series title. Simmons (who, by the way, is my favorite columnist) weaves a mix of sports, pop culture, and personal emotion that shows just how meaningful it was for the Red Sox to break their 86-year drought.
If you want to see history from the other side of the fence…
The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III
When you hear the name “Crazy Horse,” you most likely think of either A) the Battle of Little Bighorn or B) the monument in South Dakota that’s been in progress since 1948. Through the Lakota’s tradition of orally relaying history from generation to generation, Marshall uses a storytelling style to show how Crazy Horse led and cared for his family and his people.
If you think Lincoln’s hardships ended when he died…
Stealing Lincoln’s Body by Thomas J. Craughwell
Eleven years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, a gang of
counterfeiters idiots attempted to steal the Great Emancipator’s body and hold it for ransom. Did the grave robbers succeed, and what ultimately happened to Lincoln’s body? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
And finally, if you want to read quite possibly the best biography ever written…
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
This is hands-down the best book I’ve ever read. It follows Louis Zamperini through the seemingly unbelievable adventures in his life, including meeting Hitler at the 1936 Olympics and surviving World War II as a Japanese prisoner of war for over two years. Once you read this book, you’ll learn that “hero” is a word that shouldn’t be flung around so recklessly in today’s world. To show you how much I endorse this book, I should probably tell you that I own five copies of it… so I can lend one out to anyone who wants to read it.
Doc Dorman’s Peacocks by Fred Breckner
The Air-Raid Warden Was a Spy by William B. Breuer
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
High Porch Picnic by Hayden Fry
Bobby the Brain by Bobby Heenan and Steve Anderson
The World According to Garp by John Irving (note: this is the only work of fiction on my list)
Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger
Dead Famous by Gordon Kerr
Never Die Easy by Walter Payton
Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In by Louis Zamperini