In high school I inhaled Ayn Rand. I was inhabited by Atlas Shrugged and its main female character, Dagny, swept up with the freethinkers at Galt's Gulch. I was too young to grasp the political implications of Rand's philosophy; instead I focused on how important it was to be unemotional and to make up my own rules. Like the backseats of lovers' lane cars, Ayn Rand is for the young.
War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy
Let me be boring and admit that my all-time favorite book is War and Peace. I lived in 19th-century Russia; I agonized with Natasha over whom to love. I watched the war from a hilltop with Pierre: I can still see him, walking through battles in his clean white suit and top hat. I can't think of anyone who understands human nature—our foibles and motivations—better than Tolstoy. How often did one of his characters feel something or think something that I believed only I had felt or thought?
No Ordinary Time By Doris Kearns Goodwin
No one tells a better story than Doris Kearns Goodwin. No one. In this book, she tells the story of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt's marriage. We end up with a brilliant history of World War II and Washington, D.C. Rising above the great events are the monumentally complex personalities of the couple—earnest Eleanor, with her hurts and passion for social causes, and the bon vivant Franklin, with his abiding sociability. You come away with a sense of how their marriage worked and survived, and of how, together, they changed the world—what a wonderful way to write history.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power By Robert A. Caro
This, the first of two volumes, tracks Lyndon Baines Johnson's rise from his dirt-poor Texas roots into politics as a congressional aide in D.C., then back to Texas to run for Congress. You can taste Caro's disdain for the man on every page—still, you can't help but like LBJ.
Truman By David McCullough
In this book, you sense the author's admiration for his subject. Self-made and henpecked, yes, but Truman, it turns out, was also a natural leader, starting with his days in the army in World War I. McCullough shows that although Truman was the product of a corrupt political machine, he was nonetheless a man of strong character, integrity and great intelligence. If only his contemporaries had been able to read McCullough's portrait of the 33rd president, they would not have underestimated him. He might even have run for another term—and been elected.
My Traitor's Heart By Rian Malan
It's hard to explain a country, but Malan does it vividly and definitively. This book is South Africa. It's about apartheid, as most books about South Africa are, but this one—chilling and honest—gets at truths you cannot expect.