Suggestions for Christmas Presents

J. E. Lendon (University of Virginia, Charlottesville)

Ian Toll's Pacific War Trilogy does not come at you like the insinuating snake of academic history or the hopping bird of high literature: it blasts you like the forty-six centimeter guns of Japan's battleship Yamato. It has grandeur; it has terribiltà; it inspires the sort of awe in its reader that historians used to strive for but now have mostly forgotten, or scorn to seek. In 2020 Ian W. Toll published the last of his three considerable volumes, Twilight of the Gods. Before that came Pacific Crucible, 2012, and The Conquering Tide, 2015. This series will make even the most jaded professional historian remember why he or she was first attracted to the study of History. I challenge even the most hard-bitten among us to read Toll's account of the deeds of the Americans of 1942 without a thrill and the plight of the Japanese of 1945 without a tear. And it is indeed Toll's depiction of the Japanese that was most striking to this reader, the Japanese, whose fate the reader pities but whose dreadful works the reader is never allowed to forget. Having better Japanese reports available to him than previous writers, deep sympathy with the underdog, and a real curiosity about Japan's aims and ideals, Toll answer the great old question: Why did the Japanese imagine that they could defeat the United States of America?

The Library of America is a rather special publisher that offers editions of American classics, books that are a joy to hold and read. Nearly a Homerist's attention is paid to the perfection of the texts; the books are set in exquisite type; and they are made and bound to a high standard. This year has seen the ennoblement in that series of the Bruce Catton's history of the US Civil War, The Potomac Trilogy (1951-1953). Catton is one of the finest prose-stylists ever to grace American letters, and serves as a first-rate model of style and manner for any historian who seeks to write in English: even the title of the last volume, A Stillness at Appomattox, may rank as one of the best pieces of English ever, for its balance and sound. Here the three original books are combined in a single volume, with an introduction by the almost impossibly learned Gary Gallagher, a delightful piece itself worth the modest price of the whole. Were only the Library of America to survive some unimaginable apocalypse, the men of future days would form a fine opinion of the United States.

I am finally pleased to recommend Read Dead Redemption 2, a video-game from 2018 but still widely available (with German subtitles in the German edition). Ignore the catch-penny title: what lies beneath the Karl May adventures (which are mostly optional: one can spend months of real time hunting and fishing or just wandering around) is a wise and understanding portrait of the American West and South in 1899, far more detailed and beautiful than any novel could ever evoke. Buy it for your children for Christmas, but, when they are sound asleep and your delicate dignity is safe, play it yourself.