Reading books is good for you

The internet is an amazing resource. But if you do online research right, you should end up with some books on the topic you’re learning about. Yes, there’s a wealth of information online, and you can get lots of great information and even some keen analysis from online sources. But a typical book represents a year (or more) of work, and will deepen your learning about a topic that you get interested in. A book goes through multiple drafts and is worked on by editors. It’s usually a great resource. And thanks to libraries, books are free!

[for high school students reading this post, “books” are rectangular paper objects filled with words and pictures; they don’t even need batteries!]

Here’s an example of how online research led me to a book… well, actually, several books…

I was doing some research about the Iraq War, because as a high school US History teacher I’m going to be teaching about it this coming school year. I found a great NPR program from 2013 with a panel that included Ted Koppel, among others, talking about the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I’m going to have my students listen to the first 12 minutes of the program — it’s excellent.

That NPR piece led me to another program titled:

What Lessons Should Americans Draw From Iraq War?

Here’s the Ugly URL (there will be a link coming to explain what an “Ugly URL” means and why I want my students to cite sources the ugly way).

One of the callers to this NPR program did four tours of duty in Iraq. He described one of the speakers’ books, Fiasco, as “one of the best books” about the Iraq War.

Here’s the transcript from NPR:

I was [in Iraq] in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08 with the 101st Airborne. I just want to briefly mention that Tom Ricks mentions us, our unit, at the end of his book “Fiasco,” and I want to thank him for doing a great service, for writing one of the best books about the war

I was impressed with what the speaker, Tom Ricks, had to say in the NPR segment (he was on the 10th anniversary program as well), and so I decided to check out his book.

I looked the book up on the Durham library’s website (that was easy!)


And I saw that two copies were available — one at the branch I usually visit. So I decided to visit the library. I went into the library armed with a simple book title and its call number:


And before I knew it, I had lots more context about the Iraq War that I can use with my students next year. Here’s one example — in teaching about the Iraq War that started in 2003, I tell my students they need to start with the Gulf War in 1990-91. I had been teaching that that war was a success — it met its objectives of driving Saddam out of Kuwait and the world community backed those efforts.

While that’s true, I now have more context and another take on that war — this is from pages 5 and 6 of the book Fisaco:


That’s a powerful sentence at the start of that last paragraph:

“Having incited a rebellion against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government stood by while the rebels were slaughtered.” I will be sure to share these paragraphs with my students when we learn about the Iraq War in the 4th quarter of the year.

So that’s what book learning looks like. And there are more than 400 additional pages I can learn about the Iraq War from Thomas Ricks (here’s his bio from Wikipedia)

Thomas Edwin “Tom” Ricks (born September 25, 1955)[5] is an American journalist and author who specializes in the military and national security issues. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as part of teams from the Wall Street Journal (2000) and Washington Post (2002). He has reported on military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He currently writes a blog for Foreign Policy[6] and is a member of the Center for a New American Security,[7] a defense policy think tank.

Ricks lectures widely to the military and is a member of Harvard University‘s Senior Advisory Council on the Project on U.S. Civil-Military Relations.

But here’s the problem with me and libraries… I am the kind of person who loves learning, so while I was in the library, I looked around on the shelves…

And I came home with this selection of books:


Now before you think I’m crazy, let me explain my thinking:

The book about comic books looked interesting — and I’m guessing some of my students will be more graphically-minded. It would be good for me to understand comics better. The Monterrey Pop festival is something I learned about from some of my students last year, and I’d like to see some footage from that event in 1967. The CD was on display, so I picked it up.

The “Open Leadership” book — also on display in the “New Books” section — speaks to how I want to run my classes — giving students more autonomy about what topics we learn about and how we learn about history in general. Learning about best practices from the business world seems like a good idea.

“Trump’s War” is a book that I never would have picked up if it had not been not on display in the library. It’s written by Michael Savage, who I know as a conservative radio host. I just looked him up on Wikipedia:

Savage has summarized his political philosophy in three words: borders, language, and culture. Savage has characterized his views as conservative nationalism,[9] while critics have characterized them as “fostering extremism.”[10] He opposes illegal immigration to the United States, supports the English-only movement and argues that liberalism and progressivism are degrading American culture. Although his radio delivery is mainly characterized as politically themed, he also often covers topics such as medicine, nutrition, music, literature, history, theology, philosophy, sports, business, economics, and culture, and tells personal anecdotes.

Since 2009, Savage has been barred from entering the United Kingdom, for “seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred.”[14]



I want my students to consider multiple view points, and as I seek to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump, I think it would be good for me to read a book that explains what kind of “war” Trump supporters see him fighting.

Fiasco is the book I came for.

The North Korea book was on display above it, and my son had been asking questions about life in North Korea recently. I skimmed the book and it  looked interesting — and I don’t know much about North Korea. Learning about it from one of the women who escaped from the country seems like a good idea.

Finally, the “For Love of Country” book was not on display — but it was located on the shelf near the Fiasco book I came for (I love open shelves in libraries). This book explores a topic I’ve been interested in for some time — ever since we got rid of the draft at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 there has been a huge gulf between the military (1%) and the civilian population (the other 99%). What can we learn from the military?

Because it’s summer and I don’t have to teach, I’ll actually get to read these books (maybe not all of them — but certainly big parts of them) over the next few weeks. And I’ll follow up on my blog about the most interesting parts of each book.

Indeed, a key skill I want my students to learn this year is how to curate information (that verb will be described in more detail in another blog post), so it makes sense for me to do the same for them with my summer reading/learning.

Update: I just came across Bill Gates’ summer reading list. He curates his list, explaining why each book made the list.

While I was writing about my learning experience at the library, it occurred to me that I want my students to emulate my behavior pattern of visiting the library on a regular basis. In fact, at some point this year — ideally before December — I want each of my students to identify a book that is relevant to his/her final project (I’ll explain the final project in another blog post and link to it here), and I want the students read the book by the end of January.

It’s actually better for me if they read their books at different times, because that will mean that I won’t have to read all of their summaries of their books at the same time. But if I know high school juniors, most of the books will get read at the last minute…

But at least they’ll get read — and reading books is good for you.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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