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March 21 2020
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Read the author’s latest book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, out now from Crown, and you’ll have a hard time thinking of Larson as anything but a lifelong Churchill scholar. Consider that his 2006 book, Thunderstruck, set in Edwardian London, focuses on an inventor of the radio, and characterizing the author gets slightly more complicated. Add to the mix his 2003 book, The Devil in the White City, set in late-19th-century Chicago, plus several other books tackling different moments in history, and you’ll realize that the driving force behind the tremendous works of nonfiction Larson has produced over the years is not an interest in a particular era but rather an overarching love of the past and its best stories. Here, Larson recommends four books “that influenced how I think about writing history.”

In Our Time and Men Without Women, by Ernest Hemingway

I recognize that Hemingway is not exactly the darling of today’s literati, but for me he remains the master of a particular talent—the art of not saying. In these collections of short stories, he manages time and again to convey meaning larger than the spare phrases he deploys on the page. Nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite of all his stories, “Hills Like White Elephants,” which centers on a conversation at a rail station in Spain between a man and a young woman, the latter identified only as “the girl.” While Hemingway never explicitly tells you what’s really happening here, in the end you knowbeyond doubt, and this is a high achievement indeed. The story includes a line of dialogue that in these times of ours bears repeating: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

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