You have been called the “dean of Cold War historians.” Besides your own, what books (fiction or nonfiction) best capture the Cold War? Have any books on the subject caused you to change your views?
That title originated as a prank by an evil colleague and is the only deanship I haven’t managed to dodge. The best overall book now is Odd Arne Westad’s “The Cold War: A World History.” But anyone working on that topic — or any other in recent history — should be prepared to rethink as new sources appear. I once wrote a book on my own rethinking (“We Now Know”), but found that it made graduate students and international relations theorists nervous. So I’ve tried since to be a bit more discreet.
You co-teach a famous seminar on grand strategy. What is your favorite book to assign and discuss with your students?
Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” because it so shakes the students. Young as they are, they’re ambitious enough to see themselves in it.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid? Ever tried the other Gaddis (William)?
I’ll try anything that’s not shrill or self-indulgent, although these days that excludes a lot. I have attempted the other Gaddis but never got beyond the first few pages. Fortunately, he wasn’t a relative.
What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
Train books. I’ve been a fanatic since the age of 5 (months) and in recent years have become addicted to the locomotive cab ride videos that are part of the Slow Television movement. They’re great for viewing without having to think, as on the exercise bike. I especially recommend the six-hour run from Omsk to Novosibirsk, on which nothing happens.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
Pierre in “War and Peace” and Anna in “Anna Karenina.” But I also like Virginia Woolf’s hero/heroine Orlando, with whom I’ve always begun my undergraduate seminar in biography.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
Precociously discriminating. Therefore, A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Thucydides’s “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” or at least the Cliff Notes.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Machiavelli, Elizabeth I and Isaiah Berlin. They would have a blast!
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?
To the dismay of my students, the Harry Potter novels. I fail to finish books frequently, but it wouldn’t be charitable for me to specify which ones.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
C. P. Snow’s now sadly neglected Strangers and Brothers novels, as well as the naval history epics — not neglected at all — of Patrick O’Brian. Also Jack Miles’s “God: A Biography,” with which I always end my undergraduate seminar.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
It’s not that I haven’t read the Jane Austen novels — I have — but it’s still embarrassing to have to be told by well-meaning friends and my wife what I’m supposed to get from them.
Whom would you want to write your biography?
The first Yale student to get into my voluminously indiscreet diary when it’s opened for research a hundred or so years from now.