Books

The Book That Taught Tammy Duckworth How to Mummify Human Remains

“I haven’t found a use for that yet, but you never know,” says the Illinois senator, whose new memoir is “Every Day Is a Gift.”

What books are on your night stand?

As a busy mom of a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, I mostly listen to audiobooks. I’m currently listening to Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” and, for fun, Kevin Kwan’s “Sex and Vanity.” And I just finished Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

Tell us about the last great book you read.

When I picked up “Born a Crime,” by Trevor Noah, I figured it would be funny and engaging, since he’s a comedian. What I didn’t expect was how much it would teach me about South African history. I learned so much more about apartheid by reading his personal stories of living through it. And his experience spanned both the Black and white communities, giving him a deeper perspective on the country. It’s such a human book, and a great read.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I recently finished “The History of Ancient Egypt,” by Bob Brier, and learned the steps to mummifying human remains. I haven’t found a use for that yet, but you never know.

What books do you think most accurately depict Washington?

I like political memoirs, which give key players’ perspectives on the events they were involved in. Often their perspectives are very different from what was reported in the news at the time.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read about governance? And about the military?

I wouldn’t exactly call it a book about governance, but “White Rage,” by Carol Anderson, is a really insightful book about the effects and backlash that have followed the passage of landmark civil rights legislation throughout our nation’s history. It serves as both a description and predictor of the political movements that are likely to happen the next time our nation passes such major legislation.

A military book that I made mandatory reading for my officers is “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. Their descriptions of skirmishes in Vietnam show how crucial fundamental military skills are to success in battle. Time and time again, the units that carried out basic military fundamentals — tasks like setting up range cards properly, to make sure your perimeter is fully covered by your machine guns — are the ones that survived. The ones that ignored military fundamentals suffered the most losses.

What books do you think best capture your own political principles?

I really enjoyed “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’m not sure it captures my political principles, but I do like the idea of bringing together people from different perspectives to serve the same cause.

What are the best books you’ve read about the Iraq war?

“The War I Always Wanted,” by Brandon Friedman captured the coming of age for my generation of service members. It spoke to the illusions I had in the first half of my military career about what war was, versus the reality of war once I experienced it.

Are there books that you think it’s important for your children to read?

The diary of Anne Frank, Jane Austen’s works, “Charlotte’s Web” all come to mind. My girls are still young; Abigail is just learning to read, and Maile won’t start for a few years, so we’re at the beginning of their journey. I want them to be widely read, so I try to make sure there’s range in their reading materials.

What books would you suggest to someone starting out in politics today?

I’d recommend they read as many memoirs and biographies as possible, to learn the deeper details of how great leaders negotiate and achieve their policy goals. Some good ones are Katharine Graham’s “Personal History,” Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” and my personal heroine Madeleine Albright’s “Madam Secretary.”

Which books do you think capture the current social and political moment in America?

My colleague Michael Bennet’s “The Land of Flickering Lights” is an insightful look at partisan politics, from fights over the filibuster to Mitch McConnell’s slow, methodical plan to stack the judicial bench. It’s well laid out, and shows us where both parties are at fault in the current polarization.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, biographers, historians, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I love Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biographies. She goes deep into the relationships between people in power, which we don’t think enough about. In “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” she explored how personal relationships affected policies, which in turn affected the whole nation. And in “Team of Rivals,” she wrote about how Lincoln used relationships — human interaction — for his own ends.

Which genres do you like best, and which do you avoid?

I read just about everything and usually have three to four books going at a time. I love the “Great Courses” books, because they’re accessible overviews for a working mom like me with a crazy schedule. Then I’ll usually have a science or natural history book, and a political book or memoir. I also like to have a brain-junk-food book going, like “Crazy Rich Asians” or a mystery. I read everything except for horror.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Sitting on a cozy sofa next to a window during rain or a snowstorm.

How do you organize your books?

By genre — politics, science, brain junk food, military, etc.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

People would probably be surprised at how much ancient history (especially Ancient Egypt) and science (especially astrophysics) books I read. I really loved (and just reread) Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a voracious reader as a child. I loved the Nancy Drew books, fantasies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and anything that had kid detectives solving mysteries.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

For where we are in our nation right now, I’d have to say Carol Anderson’s “White Rage.”

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’d put together a dinner with Doris Kearns Goodwin and the subjects of her biographies, like President Lincoln, President Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. It would be fun to watch what they confirmed or denied, and then Doris could call their bluff by saying, “I read your letters.” And as a fellow Illinoisan, I feel like it’s mandatory to put Lincoln on my list.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Though I’ve started reading many books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only one I finished was “The War I Always Wanted.” It’s not that I’ve been disappointed in the others; I just find them emotionally tough. Whenever I read accounts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I dream about my Army missions in Iraq. I’ll spend an entire night feeling elated because I’m flying as part of my helicopter crew again. Waking up, I’m exhausted and feel a sense of loss that I’m no longer a part of my aircrew. So, I tend to read those books in spurts, sections at a time rather than reading them completely through all at once.

What do you plan to read next?

Next up on my audiobook schedule are “Dereliction of Duty,” by H. R. McMaster, “12 Essential Scientific Concepts,” by Indre Viskontas, and “Scrappy Little Nobody,” by Anna Kendrick. I’ve heard great things about “Scrappy Little Nobody,” and I love the title. No matter how successful or privileged a person may seem today, you never know what they had to go through to get there.

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