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What to Read at the Beach This Summer: Sens. Schumer and Durbin and More Weigh in With Recommendations

20 must-read titles from Sens. Schumer and Durbin, Paul M. Smith, Paul Clement, Faiza Patel and more.

August 15, 2014

I’m heading off to the beach this month, and I asked 11 people — some from the Brennan Center, some accomplished friends, and some legal luminaries — what I should take with me. Here’s what they had to say…plus a few books I already had in a stack.


When Congress comes back from its August recess, first up will be a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment regarding campaign finance. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), two of the leaders in that forthcoming effort, had these to recommend: 

“One of my favorite books is “Freedom” by William Safire, which is a historical novel based in fact. The book is a detailed, fascinating discussion of how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and it has many little known bits of Civil War-era history that even Lincoln buffs would be surprised to learn.”

Sen. Charles Schumer. The Brooklyn-born senior Senator from New York has been in the Senate since 1998.


“An Idea Whose Time Has Come” by Todd Purdum. The story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act recounting LBJ’s mastery, of the seminal work of Rep. William McCulloch and Sen. Everrett Dirksen when the GOP stood up for social issues, and of a Congress that actually functioned to address a national challenge.”

— Sen. Richard Durbin. The East St. Louis-born senior Senator from Illinois has been in the Senate since 1996.


Voting rights and election administration have been at the top of my mind this summer. The two Supreme Court advocates who argued against each other in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (on the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter ID law) have surprisingly similar taste in books.

“I am reading two books right now: “July 1914” by Sean McMeekin, which explores how WWI really began exactly 100 years ago, and “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann, a wonderful multi-character novel portraying New York City in the 1970s.”

— Paul M. Smith. Paul is a leading Supreme Court advocate at the law firm Jenner & Block. Among other cases, Paul argued that Texas’ sodomy law should be held unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas.


“I just finished “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford. This is a fascinating study of British soccer violence in the 1980s, which is very readable, but quite different from Buford’s better-known book about cooking, “Heat” (which I also highly recommend, but I digress). On my re-reading pile is Charles Lane’s “The Day Freedom Died” about the Colfax massacre, which is must reading for anyone interested in the Reconstruction Amendments and federal efforts to enforce the Constitution after the Civil War. It does an amazing job capturing a time period that is the second most important period in American constitutional history and manages to be a page-turner at the same time.”

— Paul Clement. Paul is the former Solicitor General of the United States and a leading Supreme Court advocate at the law firm Bancroft PLLC. He also argued on behalf of Hobby Lobby in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby StoresInc.


We’re marking big anniversaries this year — Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago, passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago, Brown v. Board of Education 60 years ago, the start of World War I 100 years ago. That’s gotten Brennan Center’s President Michael Waldman and Vice President for Programs John Kowal thinking.

“Forty years ago, as a teen, I wallowed in Watergate. This summer I’m doing it again. I devoured John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which relies on scores of never before transcribed tapes. Mostly for buffs, but there are many surprises (including persuasive speculation, from the mouths of Nixon and Haldeman, as to why the burglars went into the DNC in the first place). A new generation knows little about Watergate, but we all live in the distrustful, dysfunctional political system it helped create.”

Michael Waldman, author "The Second Amendment."


“I’ve been reading Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” one of the new histories about the period leading up to the start of World War I. I’m enjoying it very much, partly because it introduces wonderful new scholarship and partly because I have been thinking about the meaning of this cataclysmic and almost meaningless war. The book wonderfully lays out how human failings and misunderstandings escalated beyond the point of no return.”

— John Kowal. John is vice president for programs at the Brennan Center. He guides the Center’s programs on Democracy, Justice, and Liberty and National Security as well as its Washington, D.C., office.


The witches’ brew of national security and privacy has been my second greatest obsession in the last year. Here’s what some leading writers and thinkers in that area are reading. One of them wants a little relief from the topic.

“I’m spending most of August powering through dense essays on privacy policy, in anticipation of my new blog that will be partly on that topic. But clearly the book to read is Naomi Klein’s up comer, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. I hope my review copy comes in time for my week at the beach."

— Dan Froomkin. Dan is a senior writer at the newly launched The InterceptHe has served as the senior Washington correspondent and bureau chief for The Huffington Post and as editor of


“Arun Kundnani’s “The Muslims are Coming” is indispensable and powerful. It’s essential reading for government officials engaged in designing our counterterrorism policies, as well as readers trying to make sense of them.”

—  Faiza Patel. Faiza is co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.


“I recommend two books to be read in tandem as essential reading to understand both the history and the real stakes in Iran and, more broadly, the real roots and profound evil of jihadist Islamism. The first is “Debacle: The American Failure in Iran” by Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, and the second is “Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran” by Barry Rubin. Both were written shortly after the Iranian Revolution. Why such old ones? They are ones I’ve read in the past two years (when doing some research) that I thought were very well done, and that really go to the heart of the start of the Islamic revolution without 30 years of intervening events coloring our perceptions.”

— Quin Hillyer. Quin is a contributing editor at The National Review and a senior editor for The American Spectator.


All the folderol about an Obama impeachment these last few weeks got me thinking about all the fun I had with the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s. So I asked my friend Rachel Mariner, who was one of Clinton’s lawyers in Jones v. Clinton and whose one man play about Clinton is in the midst of its run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, what she advises.

“I would take “Cure at Troy” by Seamus Heaney, a muscled retelling of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes,” re-read by President Clinton every year. The conflict of ancient enemies on an actual beach is rewarding in the extreme to contemplate. A beautiful play about the relationship of justice to our own hardened hearts.”

— Rachel Mariner, playwright, “Bill Clinton Hercules”


No post about books to read would be complete without asking for ideas from someone whose job it is to find good books.

“Two books I recommend for beach reading. Nell Bernstein’s “Burning Down the House” is heartbreaking. It’s also engrossing and essential to understanding how and why we must move beyond juvenile incarceration. I am also enthralled by George Prochnik’s “The Impossible Exile,” a magnificent chronicle of Stefan Zweig’s years as a refugee from Nazi dominated Europe.”

— Carl Bromley. Carl is the editorial director at the non-profit, public interest publisher The New Press. He previously held the same post at NationBooks.


When it comes to books, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. I already had a stack at the ready. Here’s what I have on my list:

I always pick up anything by Jill Lepore and can’t wait to finally read her biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, "The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin." I’m finally going to finish my friend Marc Dunkelman’s "The Invisible Neighbor." Our vision and reality of community has changed dramatically since World War II and that change has dramatically impacted policy and politics. Marc’s book is both a good read and a compelling meditation on what it all means.

In between those two books, I’m going to dip into the essays in “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality” edited by David Cay Johnston. It’s a great collection of pieces by leading thinkers addressing inequality in our society, from education to health care, food policy to banking.

Finally, I’m bringing along Michael Waldman’s wonderful book, "The Second Amendment," to give to one of my housemates who runs a political discussion group. The group is chomping at the bit to discuss gun policy informed by Michael’s enlivened and intelligent analysis.


The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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