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Ralph Stayer

Brian Kilmeade is rapidly becoming one of my favorite history writers. He writes about interesting subjects that haven’t been covered elsewhere—and he is succinct, completely covering a subject in fewer than 300 pages that other historians would labor over redundantly for 600. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Kilmeade is a very smart man. His new book, The President and the Freedom Fighter, is a great example, discussing two very different people who each made remarkable journeys to prominence during our nation’s struggle to end slavery. 

Frederick Douglass was born a slave and would have grown up illiterate, as almost all slaves did, because it was against the law to teach slaves to read or write. He was fortunate to be placed in a home in Baltimore as a companion to a young boy. He was a few years older, and learned to read as the younger boy learned. The boy’s mother taught them both until her husband discovered what she was doing and forbade it. But, by then, Douglass had a taste for reading and he voraciously read everything he could. He eventually escaped to Bedford, Massachusetts, where he lived with his wife Anna, started a Black-owned newspaper and became a voice for abolitionists all over the country. He traveled constantly, and was a renowned speaker and writer who convinced many people that slavery was an abomination and must be ended.

Lincoln was also almost entirely self-taught. He read everything he could lay his hands on. Kilmeade demolishes the fairy tale that Lincoln failed at everything he did until he became president. He lost some elections, but he was a highly regarded lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, when he ran for president. One of the most interesting and important points in the book is that Lincoln was not an abolitionist: He regarded saving the union as his first and virtually only responsibility, and saw all other issues through that lens. Kilmeade’s description of Lincoln’s torturous progress to the Emancipation Proclamation must be the most important section in this book. Douglass was initially furious with Lincoln’s slow pace, but the two became great friends. The author does an expert job of contrasting their two lives to tell the shared story.

Occasionally, a book on science comes out that is understandable and fun to read for non-scientists who are interested in why things are the way they are. Paul Halpern has blessed us with just such a book: Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate. Where did we come from? Was the universe always here or did it all start at a single instant in a Big Bang? Scientists have been working to solve this mystery since the beginning of the 20th century when Einstein unveiled his Theory of Relativity.

This book revolves around two great scientists—one who believed the universe was always here (steady-state) and another who believed that it had a finite beginning (Big Bang). There were many other scientists involved, of course, but Halpern picks Fred Hoyle and George Gamow to represent each school of thought because they were the foremost scientists of their era. Each of them had brilliant insights that pushed forward our knowledge of the universe. 

We now know that the steady state theory has been almost entirely discarded, but there are still problems with the Big Bang theory that have yet to be solved. For instance, there was no Big Bang. It is now clear that there had to be a rapid expansion from a single point—but not an explosion. At the beginning of the debate, it was assumed that entropy would cause the expansion of the universe to gradually slow down and then contract. It has now been proved that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing velocity and will continue to do so. 

This book explains how the stars and the planets came to be. There was only gas in the beginning. What created the rest of the elements? These and many other questions were answered by brilliant people throughout the 20th century, and the learning continues today. I highly recommend this book for interesting summer reading. Peruse it and you will have what you need to be the star of your next cocktail party. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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