like i'm still on vacation
friday random ten, 2004 edition

what i read on vacation

Boring traveler that I am, I spent a lot of time just reading. Of course, that’s pretty easy to do when the Mediterranean is just past your balcony.

The book I spent the most time with (because it was really long) was The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in Robert A. Caro’s five-volume biography of LBJ. I confess I haven’t read the first three, but I jumped in with this one, because I thought it was the first of the two I had the most interest in. I spent a lot of time (too much, perhaps) regaling my family with Tales of Johnson … I just couldn’t keep them to myself. Beyond the excellence of Caro’s scholarship and his captivating, if occasionally repetitive, style, there were two things that particularly drew me to the book. First, while Caro’s portrait of LBJ is certainly of the warts-and-all type, he manages at times to make you feel sorry for the guy. I imagine this would be even more intense if I’d read the previous volume, Master of the Senate, since Caro does such a great job of setting Johnson up as, well, a master of the Senate, impossibly skillful, an effective bully, a man who got things done. Caro also answers the biggest question about Johnson in 1960: why did this man, generally considered the second-most powerful man in the country, accept Kennedy’s offer of the vice-presidency? (Johnson foresaw changes coming in the Senate that would stifle his efforts to some extent. Perhaps more important, LBJ was a calculating man, and he could do the math: his best chance of reaching the presidency by the time of JFK’s offer was not to wait until 1968, but to become Vice-President and play the odds … Johnson knew what percent of presidents died in office.) Johnson was treated so poorly as Vice-President that I actually felt pity for him. This made his actions at the beginning of his presidency, when he accomplished more than anyone expected, a true triumph, in Caro’s presentation.

The most important person in the book outside of Johnson was not JFK, but rather his brother, Bobby Kennedy. The younger Kennedy and LBJ hated each other with a passion. Johnson treated Bobby like shit when he ruled the Senate; Bobby treated Johnson like shit when he was Attorney General and Johnson was merely Vice-President. Caro uses a strategy so effective you can’t blame him for returning to it more than a few times: he sets Johnson up as an all-powerful man, then tosses in a transition like “except for Bobby Kennedy”, at which point, Caro regales us with stories of how Bobby fucked Johnson over when Bobby had the power. Caro spends some time near the end of the book talking about Bobby’s transformation into something deeper than a hatchet man, but for most of the book, Robert Kennedy is a magnificent bête noire for Johnson.

I tried to read Stuart Banner’s The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption, but I found myself skipping through large chunks. Banner is thorough, and his book provides a valuable service to historians. But, unlike with Caro’s book, the repetition here is hard to get through. Banner discusses pretty much every step in the long history of that antitrust exemption, but for most of that history, the stories are the same … I could only read so many stories of how the players tried something and lost. Eventually, the true subject of the book arises: not the antitrust exemption, but the reserve clause. And that part of the book is interesting, although it doesn’t break much new ground compared to the earlier material on antitrust.

Finally, I read Philip K. Dick’s first three published novels, Solar Lottery, The World Jones Made, and The Man Who Japed. They are much closer to standard science-fiction than his loopy 1960s “drug novels”, but all had their charms, and it was fun to see the beginnings of a few of the characters who showed up again and again in later works: the insecure hero, the male mentor who ruled much of the world, the women who had devious neuroses of their own underneath their outward abilities. These novels would not have been my first choices if I were to just read my three favorite Dick novels (those would be Now Wait for Last Year, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly, with Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch if I were doing a Top Five, and maybe Clans of the Alphane Moon as honorable mention), but they were fine “vacation reads”.