For Father’s Day, I got a new hammock, a present that stormy weather prevented me from trying out. Even so, the idea of the hammock has been good enough. It promises what we all want from summer — a chance to rest within the folds of some private world, removed from the one we inhabit the rest of the year.
At its best, summer reading provides that alternate universe, if only for an hour beneath a beach umbrella, or sitting in an armchair on an afternoon of endless rain, or suspended in a hammock shaded — as mine is — by a grove of bamboo.
But with indulgence can come guilt, especially when the book on your lap is about Winston Churchill, who didn’t become the man he was by being still. Or so I’ve been reminded by one of the books on my summer reading list, “Hero of the Empire,” Candice Millard’s account of how the young Churchill’s early experiences in the Boer War helped him become the British prime minister.
Churchill got his start, we’re told, as a war correspondent — comforting evidence that the newspaper trade, so often derided as a den of scoundrels, can produce an occasional statesman.
The man who led Great Britain through World War II is the key character in another summer book of mine, “Churchill’s War Rooms,” a coffee-table volume that documents the underground complex where Churchill often directed combat operations. A close-up of Churchill’s chair reveals gouge marks in the arm, apparently made by a man nervous about how things would turn out.
Although I didn’t plan it that way, a third Churchill book has ended up on my nightstand. In “Churchill & Orwell,” author Thomas E. Ricks explores striking similarities between Churchill and George Orwell, who’s best known for writing “1984” and “Animal Farm.” Both men had the ability to change deeply held beliefs when facts no longer supported their assumptions. Each man also marshaled the English language with clarity and precision in the cause of human liberty. Someone who can respect facts, and write and speak clearly? Surely, the times need such leaders now more than ever.
Churchill figures, to a lesser degree, in “Last Hope Island,” Lynne Olson’s winning story of how the city of London, ravaged by German bombs during World War II, nevertheless became a beacon of liberty for European refugees. It’s a theme that chimes poignantly with recent headlines, as modern-day London, facing new forms of terror, continues to keep a stiff upper lip.
But Churchill isn’t my only friend this summer. In the pages of “My Life With Bob,” I’m also getting to know Pamela Paul, who’s kept a list for years of every book she’s read — a “book of books,” or “Bob” for short.
“When we read,” she says, “we are spying on someone else’s imagination.”
When the weather is right, you can even do your spying from a hammock.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.