Reading Matters

Jon Buchan’s five most memorable books

Jon Buchan
Jon Buchan Alice Peck editorial

I was an avid young reader growing up in a small South Carolina tobacco town, devouring those orange-backed Childhoods of Famous Americans books, then moving on to the Hardy Boys, to Clair Bee’s wonderful Chip Hilton sports series, Wilfred McCormick’s Bronc Burnett sports books, and the more serious Iron Duke sports books by John R. Tunis. Somewhere, I sprinkled in some Landmark biographies for young readers and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Once in the sixth grade, I inadvertently impressed my teacher by eagerly picking a volume from the bookmobile entitled The U.S. Constitution. She told my mother about my apparent precocious interest in the law. My mother later informed the teacher that I had thought it was about the U.S.S. Constitution – also known as Old Ironsides – and its famous 1812 naval battle.

In later life, my reading range expanded. Here are some of my “most memorable” books.

1. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. This rich novel of the dark side of American politics, modeled on Huey Long and his unquenchable will to power, features populist political idealism tarnished by the realities of corruption, as well as passion, blackmail and betrayal, all told with a poet’s eye and ear. This winner of the 1947 Pulitzer prize for fiction may be the Great American Novel, so far.

2. Simple Justice by Richard Kluger. A beautifully written account of the key players and events leading to the desegregation of America’s public institutions, culminating in the Supreme Court’s culture-changing 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Legally insightful and layperson accessible, it’s a compelling story of the heroes –stubborn plaintiffs, creative lawyers, and courageous judges – who crafted the strategy and handled the cases that pushed this country in the right and necessary directions, using the rule of law to get us there.

3. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Berry’s moving novel of a simple rural Kentucky barber narrates the human tolls of the American 20thcentury – wars and the U.S. military machine, the relentless “bigness” of corporate farms and businesses, and the environmental impact of the worship of mammon – on the agrarian ideal. It is a modern chapter in this country’s counter-cultural tradition. Berry portrays beautifully the joy and sorrow that intense love between men and women, between fathers and sons, and between lifelong friends can bring.

4. Passage of Power by Robert Caro. This fourth volume of Caro’s granular biography of Lyndon Johnson is among the masterpieces of American political history. Tracing Johnson’s immediate isolation and political neutering by the Kennedys after the Texan became vice-president, Caro chronicles in powerful detail that fateful day in Dallas and President Johnson’s subsequent and successful push for civil rights legislation. The first four volumes – the fifth, which will address Johnson’s role in the tragedy of the Viet Nam war, is still underway – are the authoritative history of LBJ’s modest upbringing in the Texas hill country, his hunger for power and this complex man’s willingness to use it ruthlessly and often for good, as well as an insightful political history of the middle third of the 20th century.

5. Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse. Life needs humor, and this book makes me laugh every time (at least seven so far over the decades) I have read it. Wodehouse is better known for his short pieces featuring Jeeves, the unflappable British valet, but his novels, especially this one and Code of the Woosters, are even better, deliciously funny and unfailingly clever in plot and character. Trust me on this one and give it a try.

Jon Buchan, a partner with McGuireWoods, LLP, is a commercial litigator and often represents media clients, includingThe Charlotte Observer. He is the author of one novel, Code of the Forest, set on the S.C. coast, involving a corrupt state senator, a stubborn newspaper publisher, a young female lawyer, and a little courtroom drama.