This is no ordinary summer.

In an ordinary summer, I’d be following a lifelong pattern: life would slow down as days got longer. Instead, our schedules were rudely altered a few months ago by a pandemic, and we’ve all had to reshuffle what we did, when, and how, we did it.

But, old habits die hard. And, come May, I found myself scanning for books that would help me add some perspective to these unusual times. Here’s what I found for my 2020 Summer Reads list.

My ‘historical perspective’ choice is “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough.

While it covers a period over 200 years ago – the settlement of the Northwest Territory in the years before 1800 – it touches on topics that are on the front pages today as the nation revisits its beliefs.

McCullough writes about a band of courageous pioneers. The conditions of access to settlement lands were freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery. They faced overwhelming hardships and, in the process, established the ideals that would define the U.S. But even for a master at narrative like McCullough, what adds an extra dimension to the main characters is that they’re drawn from a collection of diaries and letters by the characters themselves. 

The New York Times Book Review calls it “a tale of uplift.” I call it “a great story, period.” 

This year, my ‘do business better’ book is “The Road Less Stupid” by Keith J. Cunningham.

Cunningham starts by asking how much better off you’d be financially if you could reverse any three financial decisions you’ve made over the years. I found my three pretty quickly, and I’d imagine you can, too. His premise is that getting – and staying – rich is less a matter of doing more smart things than it is of avoiding stupid ones. And he shows you how.

Your poor decisions probably resulted from too much emotion and optimism, and too little thought. The author says, “We make it harder than it needs to be. We gravitate toward impulsive, glandular decisions instead of thoughtful, rational ones.”

As a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner, I know the value of a well-thought-out plan. But it has to be implemented. And implementation calls for countless decisions, large and small. Imagine having a book that can help you avoid bad ones by following a simple strategy called “Thinking Time.”

My surprise choice this summer is Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” by Yuval Noah Harari

I never thought I could get into the evolution of our species, but this is fascinating.

I admit I wondered how a book with that title could become a #1 New York Times Bestseller. But if it made the summer reading lists of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and British business magnate, Sir Richard Branson, that was enough for me to give it a try.

What I discovered is a book that helps us understand who we are and what made us this way. Better yet, where do we go from here?

Dr. Harari is skilled at bringing distant realities into today’s context by removing the dry, scientific filter that usually comes with the topic. He’s also written a book called “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” which focuses on the biggest questions of the present. That might have to be my next read.

My biography choice for this summer is “Grant,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Chernow.
When I chose it, I had no idea that the statues of key figures of that era would become part of this summer’s conversation. And, as I read it, I realized that what’s encapsulated in those larger-than-life bronze replicas are human beings, with all the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Chernow explores all sides of this man, from his business foibles and disgraced resignation from the army after the Mexican War to his rapid rise to hero status during the Civil War. Another rollercoaster ride followed: two terms as U.S. President marred by corruption among his staff, then more financial losses, and more efforts to redeem himself. And, beneath it all, a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.

What is often overlooked is Grant’s hard work for African Americans after the Civil War. He championed the 13th, th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and, along with dismantling the early Ku Klux Klan, he fought tirelessly for equality and voting rights.

This great historian humanizes Ulysses S. Grant for us through the depth of non-judgmental detail. I was left with the image of a great war hero and a fascinating personality.

My self-help book this summer is “The Majesty of Calmness: Individual Problems and Possibilities,” by William George Jordan.

It’s a classic, but, as you read it, you’ll forget that it was first published in 1898. You would think it was written for today.

This book is out of print in the traditional sense. Because no one has a copyright on the body of the work, it’s in the public domain in the U.S. It’s available in many formats – print, digital and audio – including for free on the internet and Kindle. So, there’s no reason not to add it to your summer list.

Most people who discover this book see it as a gift. It’s certainly timeless. For example, as we sheltered in place this year, thanks to the pandemic, many of us had a chance to revisit our use of time. Jordan had already done that, over 100 years earlier:

Hurry has ruined more Americans than has any other word in the vocabulary of life. It is the scourge of America and is both a cause and a result of our high-pressure civilization. Hurry adroitly assumes so many masquerades of disguise that its identity is not always recognized.”

Find the time to read this little book.

So, what will you be reading this summer? I’d love to hear what has made your list. And, in the meantime, here’s to a beautiful, relaxing summer!

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