He went on to explain that a good biography or historical account is infinitely more exciting and fulfilling than anything somebody could make up. It changed my life. Imagine, a football coach who reads!
Turns out he was right. To this day, I still read an occasional novel on an airplane, but mostly, I stick to nonfiction. With vacation time now upon us Tucsonans, please allow me to offer some suggestions. You can thank me later.
A friend of mine sent me a book called (and I'm not making this up) From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame by Mark Monmonier (University of Chicago Press). This book is a scream.
It not only goes through some of the strangest place names in the world; it explains how name changes are used to cause political and social change.
Monmonier introduces us to the geographer's word "exonym," which is basically more than one way to name the same place (Peking and Beijing, for example). The United Nations, which has steered clear of the genocide in Darfur by simply refusing to use the term "genocide" in its reports, actually has an entire committee devoted to discouraging the use of exonyms. Now, that's the real path to world peace.
Name confusion reigns in Africa, where Upper Volta (which sounds like where Dracula would live) is now Burkina Faso, with a capital of Ouagadougou, which is pronounced just how it's spelled. There are the nearby countries of Niger and Nigeria, which the average person probably thinks are one and the same. (Niger is the place that the Bush administration lied about when they were trumping up the charges against Saddam Hussein and his, ahem, nuclear program.)
In the United States, names have been changed out of political correctness. There used to be a place on Lake Ontario called "Niggerhead Point." It was a terminus of the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves would pass to freedom into Canada. On U.S. maps, it's now called "Negrohead Point," while New York state maps call it "Graves Point." (Cerro Gallardo, near Douglas, where Pancho Villa's men camped before attacking Agua Prieta, was, for decades, called Ol' Niggerhead.)
Sometimes, names are stronger than PC. Cape Canaveral was renamed Cape Kennedy, but after a couple of decades, its original name is back. Same for Oregon's Whorehouse Meadow, which in the 1960s became Naughty Girl Meadow, but is now back in its full whorehouse splendor.
Another book I highly recommend is James L. Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, a thrilling account of a war-weary nation grieving for an oft-maligned, but ultimately victorious, leader. It begins the day of the assassination (which, by long coincidence, was Good Friday, April 14, just as it was this year), only five days after Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
The details of the assassination are grim, but John Wilkes Booth's unlikely flight from a closed-down Washington is almost exhilarating. The book ultimately leaves one angry that, in an era with no satellites or electronic surveillance of any kind, U.S. troops could track down one man in a still-hostile South in less than two weeks, while five years after Sept. 11, we still have no clue as to the whereabouts of a 6-foot-5 Arab responsible for the deaths of thousands of American civilians.
One other great thing: This book absolutely debunks the long-held myth that Dr. Samuel Mudd (from whom comes the phrase, "His name is mud") was simply an innocent physician when he set the broken leg of a stranger passing through his neck of the woods. For generations, Mudd's descendents have been nursing the story that he got swept up into infamy by forces beyond his control, but it's not so. A very good read.
If you want to have some real fun, pick up Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio, now in paperback. This is the story of phi, a glorious number derived by adding the square root of five to one and then dividing the sum by two. This gives you 1.618033 ... , a number with almost mystical properties. I'm told that phi and its first cousins, the Fibonacci numbers, figure prominently in The Da Vinci Code, but I've neither read nor seen it.
You may know that the Golden Ratio pops up in classic art and music all the time, but the sheer math of it is overwhelming. For example, the square of 1.618033 ... is 2.618033 ... , and the inverse (one over phi) is 0.618033 ... ! If this alone doesn't convince you that God loves mathematics and so should you, nothing will. Even clods who proudly proclaim that they hate math will find something here to pique their interest.
And finally, if you still haven't read Erik Larson's spectacular tale of a serial killer loose in the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair), Devil in the White City, go get it right now. It will almost certainly be the best book you'll read this, or any, year. You're welcome.