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in which the author discusses five books he’d read, if time permitted.

1. The Iron Bridge, by Anton Piatigorsky
Was Chairman Mao a typical teenager? Maybe, maybe not. A more relevant question: Would the typical teenager, given command of the world’s most populous nation in the 1950s, have embraced five-year plans and cultural revolutions that terrorized a continent and resulted in the deaths of 70 million people? Maybe, maybe not—-but the cast of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis often seems ready to crack.

2. Kafka: The Years of Insight, by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch
I’m not sure if I’m prepared to accept the insight of a depressed insurance-claims adjuster who died of TB at age 40.

3. Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, by Arvind Sharma
I once wrote a paper for a one-armed South African-history professor comparing the zealotry of Mahatma Gandhi and that of racists in South Africa’s apartheid regime. (Clarification: The one-armed man was both South African and a professor of South African history.) I was trying to make the point that ideology without nuance is problematic, whether that ideology is positive (Gandhi’s ahimsa, or nonviolence) or negative (racism). The professor thought this paper ill-advised, and I got a B. I never found out how the one-armed professor lost his arm, though it may have been in the Boer Wars. (That’s a joke—-my professor was way too young to have fought in the Boer Wars, as was everyone living in Connecticut in 1997.)

4. The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Vint Virga
If my dog doesn’t stop waking me up at 6 a.m., I’m going to teach him about being barbecue.

5. North American Lake Monsters: Stories, by Nathan Ballingrud
I thought this book was nonfiction, and got excited, then realized it was a collection of short fiction, and was less excited, though still somewhat excited.