• What We're Reading - Spring 2020

    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this Spring. Share what you’re reading and send your review to scope@aao.org

    The Wright Brothers
    by David McCullough
    Reviewed by: John R. Stechschulte, MD

    This history book tells the story of two brothers who dreamed to fly like the birds. In accomplishing manned flight, they taught the nation much about aviation while fascinating the entire world.

    I enjoyed the audiobook, recorded by the author David McCullough, because it was like listening to my grandfather tell a story. His voice, though raspy, made the pronunciation of numerous early French aviators’ names very distinctive.

    Wilbur and Orville were inseparable brothers with fairly unremarkable personalities. Yet McCullough’s descriptions of their family, home and bicycle shop leads the reader to understand how their quiet, intense single-mindedness and humility led them to succeed. They went to windy Kitty Hawk, NC, to develop gliders and then build a biplane. They were frequently back in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio to redesign and sometimes rebuild damaged plane parts. Their love of reading, tinkering and experimentation led them to build and pilot the first powered machine. They were courageous yet cautious. Until their last few flights, they would never travel up in the plane together but instead take turns transporting other passengers into the sky.

    The thread that connected the Wright brothers’ love of bicycles to the construction of a plane was the fundamental principle of maintaining equilibrium or balance. The book doesn’t dig deeply into the engineering and aerodynamic principles of flight, but the reader is given a description of wing warping, which the Wrights learned from watching giant seabirds soar over the beach. Wing warping was a precursor to the aileron, a hinged panel on the wing’s edge. Once the brothers gained steady balance of a glider, they felt confident that they would soon conquer sustained flight. They only needed to add power, which proved to be a mere 12 horsepower engine.

    The Wright brothers repeatedly offered their technology to the U.S. government. But the government declined their offers because the flights had not been witnessed by the U.S. military or large audiences. Local newspapers didn’t report the Wrights’ accomplishments. Ultimately the Smithsonian Institute was embarrassed, as it had experimented with expensive, government-funded flights that flopped into the Potomac River after being launched in Washington. But the French government and early French aviators cooperated with the brothers. Wilbur demonstrated many flights near Paris in front of famous Europeans, including kings and queens. His record-breaking flights in France lead to a hero’s welcome back in America.

    The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
    By David Brooks
    Reviewed by: M. Bruce Shields, MD

    A senior person reading this book may find the concept of a “second mountain” to be quite familiar. It is, as author David Brooks describes it, the journey we take after reaching the top of one mountain and finding the view less than satisfying. Our first mountain, or first half of life, includes years devoted to education, career, family and our quest for success and happiness. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, the most fulfilled people are those whose lives begin with a single mountain. But there comes a time when other centeredness becomes more important than self-centeredness, and interdependence trumps independence. That’s when we realize that there’s a second mountain waiting to be climbed. And we embark on a new journey.

    Brooks suggests that we live in a society that has taken freedom and individualism to such an extreme that it endangers the moral fabric of our culture. He describes four commitments that will help us achieve a life of greater meaning and purpose — and reach the second mountain. Those are the commitments to spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith and to a community. Using real life examples, he shows what can happen when these four commitments are applied and integrated. Our lives improve when we commit to a cause, root ourselves in a community and bind to others in solidarity and love.

    David Brooks has written four other books on society and culture, but this is his best. 

    The Great Courses®
    Reviewed by: Thomas A. Harbin, MD, MBA

    The Great Courses® are technically not a book, but they’re great for audible fans! When I’m in the car or working out, I enjoy listening to a book — or, increasingly, to one of these courses. When Bill Gates enthusiastically recommended “Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth and the Rise of Humanity,” by David Christian, I was hooked.

    The premise of the Great Courses is that they search for the best lecturers across an array of disciplines and subjects, and ask those experts to record a lecture series. The series is then available in an audio or video format. To a large part, they succeed. I have listened to lectures on various topics, including infectious diseases, extreme weather, George Orwell, emergency medicine, music and history.

    The initial cost is high, but after joining their list you’ll receive offers for courses at greatly reduced prices. You’re sure to find something of interest in their collection of more than 500 courses.

    Dad’s Maybe Book
    By Tim O’Brien
    Reviewed by: J. Kemper Campbell, MD

    Tim O’Brien is an accomplished writer with nine published books, including his prize-winning novel, “The Things They Carried.” He was featured in Ken Burns’ 2017 documentary, “The Vietnam War.” O’Brien, like this reviewer, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and his war experiences defined the rest of his life, turning him into a dedicated anti-war activist upon his discharge.

    His latest work, “Dad’s Maybe Book,” took 15 years to write and celebrates another of life’s pivotal points: fatherhood. O’Brien became a first-time father of two sons at age 56. His new book is essentially a love letter to those now-teenagers, containing the musings and wisdom of a septuagenarian dad who realizes he may not be able to shepherd his offspring into full adulthood. The text meanders across the years of O’Brien’s life, describing wry incidents related to his precocious progeny and vignettes from his own childhood with a loving but alcoholic father. The book also delineates the dehumanizing effects of war and explains the anger and guilt that defined the author’s post-military life. O’Brien’s writing skills allow him to avoid the maudlin sentimentality inherent in any such project.

    O’Brien now teaches creative writing at Lyndon Johnson’s alma mater, Texas State University. His admiration for Ernest Hemingway’s craft and his respect for the written word are evident in this work. This gentle book would make a satisfying finale to O’Brien’s illustrious career, as he seems to have finally dealt with the demons unleashed by his military service in Southeast Asia. In fact, the only discordant chapter in the book is a bitter screed against the evil released by war within the hearts of those who wage it.

    This book will resonate with any parent who lies awake at night pondering the meaning of existence and the sort of legacy that should be left behind. O’Brien’s sons are fortunate. Macho readers should be forewarned to have a few tissues handy for the final chapter, as the room may become a bit dusty.