When Light Pierced the Darkness
By Nechama Tec (1986)
1. In this book Nechama Tec, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, combines a brief memoir of her own experience being sheltered by Christians with a study of such "rescuers," especially those in Poland—a "Jewish graveyard." Studying 189 Christians who aided Jews, she concluded that they defied conventional categorization—by class, politics, denomination and personal loyalties. Some were deeply religious; most were not. Most were apolitical. While intellectuals figured disproportionately among them, other professional middle-class people did not. Most rescuers, she concludes, were socially "marginalized" people who identified instinctively with the persecuted and were indifferent to how society viewed them. Few saw themselves as heroic. Crucially, they shared "an enduring, strong commitment to help the needy" that made rescue seem a natural, often reflexive response—"mere duty"—to the suffering of others. "The very presence of such people," she writes, "must give us hope."
By Oscar Wilde (1905)
2. 'Where there is sorrow there is holy ground," Oscar Wilde wrote in early 1897 as he neared the end of his soul-crushing two-year sentence in Britain's Reading jail for homosexuality, then called "gross indecency." In this powerful, alternately flamboyant, petulant, superficial, profound and contradictory letter to his feckless lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde describes his prison discovery of the importance of nature, art and love, of self-acceptance, of disregarding the scorn and disdain of others and resisting the overwhelming temptation of self-loathing and bitterness. During his earlier incarceration in Pentonville prison, Wilde had been ordered to untwist old rope "till one's finger-tips grow dull with pain." "The silence, the solitude, the shame," he wrote, had taught him "humility," which he defined as the "frank acceptance of all experiences." He would try, he said, to "absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance." Free again, he published only one long poem and two letters advocating prison reform and then died, impoverished, at 46.
The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens
By Lincoln Steffens (1931)
3. Born to privilege, Lincoln Steffens was a pioneer of investigative journalism. In 1903, he published a celebrated series of articles in McClure's magazine documenting urban political corruption—the "shame" of American cities. Increasingly radical in his views, Steffens saw capitalism as the prime cause of America's ills and, after the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, uttered the words that would forever haunt him: "I have seen the future, and it works." An admirer of men of action, he wrote glowingly of both Henry Ford and Lenin and, after moving to Italy, began work on a biography of Mussolini. Fascism, like Bolshevism, was oppressive, he acknowledged, but it alleviated poverty and insecurity. Published in the midst of the Depression, his "Autobiography" is both an apologia and an explanation, of sorts, of his evolution from reformer to "revolutionist." It is filled with memorable portraits, all drawn with wit and the kind of self-directed irony that could well serve as a model for journalists. "Remember," Steffens wrote, "we really don't know anything."
Present at the Creation
By Dean Acheson (1969)
4. If there were a bible for foreign-policy "realists," Dean Acheson's magnificent 800-page tome would qualify. In reviewing his years of service in the State Department and as secretary of state under Truman, Acheson meticulously chronicles the collective effort, as he puts it, to create "half a world, a free half" in the postwar era "without blowing the whole to pieces." The book, which became an instant classic, is dedicated to Truman, "the captain with the mighty heart." Sen. Joseph McCarthy, by contrast, was in his description a "lazy, small-town bully, without sustaining purpose." His decision to reverse an earlier vow of silence was prompted by a national mood not unlike our own today. Acheson's book was meant to target isolationists and "revisionists" arguing against any concern with the menace posed by Soviet ambitions. The world was educated by his warnings on "the Soviet Union's newfound power and expansive imperialism, and the development of nuclear weapons." There is no better single guide to the crises of his age or, for that matter, our own.
Apples and Oranges
By Marie Brenner (2008)
5. To discover the brother she is destined to lose to cancer, Marie Brenner forsakes her journalist's life in New York and travels to his home in Washington state's Cascade Mountains. The two were never close—he was the "yin" to her "yang," a "red" to her "blue state." She is an investigative reporter for Vanity Fair, the slayer of Enron and tobacco companies. He gave up practicing law in their native Texas to farm apples and has an NRA sticker on his truck. But when Carl discovers that he has glandular cancer, he calls the sister he once labeled "subversive" and asks for help. And she responds. One result is this jewel of a work—a moving, memorable, painfully funny exploration of the most binding and mysterious of ties.