Yellowing, Dog-Eared, and Perfect

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This 1971 classic tops the author's holiday gift list this year. hide caption

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I'm the kind of guy who reads old best sellers. I mean this quite literally. When I'm looking for a good read, I like to go to the library, saunter into the microfilm room, and pull out a 30-year-old copy of the New York Times in order to read the best sellers list. Either that or I will ask my parents or great aunts and uncles what their favorite books are.

The point is: I don't want to be the sixth guy to walk onto the subway car with a copy of The DaVinci Code in the crook of his arm. I'd much rather have a yellowing, dog-eared copy of The Magus by John Fowles.

About the Author

Jake Halpern is a commentator for All Things Considered, a freelance journalist, and the author of Braving Home. Hear him on NPR:

I guess, more than anything else, I love the feeling of discovering a dusty gem that almost everyone else has forgotten. For me at least, this makes the entire process of reading the book that much more intimate and uniquely my own.

I employ the same strategy when it comes to choosing gifts during the holiday season. This year I am going to give Herman Wouk's The Winds of War to a few of my family members. In case you're wondering, The Winds of War was a No. 1 New York Times best seller when it came out in 1971; and, not surprisingly, it's an amazing read.

Despite the fact that the novel is nearly 1,000 pages long, I tore through it at lightning speed. The book follows the lives and adventures of a Navy captain, Pug Henry, and his extended family during World War II. In classic Tolstoy fashion, the novel has an exhaustive list of characters. Captain Henry has two sons battling in the Pacific, a Jewish daughter-in-law trapped behind enemy lines in Germany, a wife who is cheating on him, and a lover whom he is forced to leave on the snowy streets of Moscow.

Over the course of reading Wouk's book, I felt as if I came know all of these characters personally, and I eventually found myself rationing the number of pages that I would read each night, as if to forestall having to say goodbye.

The Winds of War first came onto my radar when my stepfather, Paul Zuydhoek, mentioned that it was the best book he had ever read. My mother then told me that my grandfather, before he died, had declared it to be his favorite book as well.

"He read that book every night into the early hours of the morning," my mother recalled. "That book just spoke to him. He lived through those times, and as an American war veteran and a Jew, I think that he felt a deep connection to many of Wouk's characters."

Shortly after hearing this, I placed an order for a copy of the book.

The wonderful thing that I felt throughout my reading of the book was a sense of closeness both to my grandfather and my stepfather. With my stepfather, of course, I had the chance to discuss the story every time I saw him. We talked about Pug Henry and his sons as if they were old friends ours. We also discussed numerous chapters of American History — the Battle of Midway, the Tehran Conference, and the death of Roosevelt — as if they were current events that immediately stood to affect our lives.

In a day and age when it seems as if most men can only talk to one another about professional sports or how best to grill a steak, it was wonderful to tap into a much deeper vein of feelings and ideas that we could both discuss and share.

Although my grandfather has been dead for more than 20 years, The Winds of War also left me feeling closer to him. Wouk wrote the book with a meticulous devotion to historical accuracy and, as a result, I felt like I developed a much better sense of what it might have been like to live through World War II as my grandfather did.

As I read the book, I tried to see the characters and the storyline through my grandfather's eyes; I tried to imagine which parts he liked best; and as I stayed up late at night, reading into the wee hours of the morning as he once had, I felt a fleeting sense of connection to this man whom I never really got a chance to know.

My plan is to give The Winds of War to my brother and a few of my cousins at Hanukah this year, and when I do, I'll make sure to give the whole back story about how I learned of the book and what it meant to me. And hopefully that, as much as anything else, will be the gift.

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The Winds of War
The Winds of War

by Herman Wouk

Paperback, 885 pages | purchase

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The Magus
The Magus

by John Fowles

Paperback, 668 pages | purchase

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The Magus
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John Fowles

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