Wh en I used to visit troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, I liked to ask an unexpected question: "What are you reading?" The responses weren't much different on the battlefield than at my local shopping mall. Lots of thrillers (Patterson, DeMille, Clancy ), hobby magazines, continuing education texts and "nothing really, sir" — except nobody called me "sir" at the mall.
But what about the political battlefield in Washington, where every day is another bombshell? Which books offer our lawmakers insight, knowledge and, yes, escape? I asked my former Democratic and Republican congressional colleagues to name the titles they have most enjoyed reading this year:
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio): "How To Fight," by Thich Nhat Hanh. Always instructive on staying grounded personally and professionally. He understands so well the suffering of others.
Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.): David McCullough's "The Wright Brothers." I like it because it's about tackling ridiculously hard, scary problems and figuring out how to solve them.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.): Two great books for "fun": David Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI" and Kyle Harper's "The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire."
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.): I've always been intrigued by World War II and the events leading up to it. Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts" relates the fascinating perspective of the American ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, in the 1930s during the run-up to war. His insider knowledge about Hitler's Germany is definitely worth reading.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.): "The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness," by Sy Montgomery. A fun and fascinating diversion from the political stuff I usually read. It's about a biologist's relationship and attachment to octopuses. Amazing animals, octopuses possess powers of thinking and feeling far beyond anything I knew.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.): "Journal of a Soul," by Pope John XXIII. I read it years ago but needed something uplifting, so I went back to it.
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.): "Fading Shadows," by William Chance. This is part memoir and part history of a high school dropout who lies about his age and serves in the Korean War at age 15. Many years later, Chance earned his PhD and became a higher-education policy expert of national repute.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.): "Leonardo da Vinci," by Walter Isaacson. Da Vinci's relationship with Michelangelo, who was more than 20 years younger, was complicated in the love-hate nature of the Adams-Jefferson political relationship.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.): The book that probably affected me most of late is "When Breath Becomes Air," by Paul Kalanithi. It's about as gut-wrenching as it gets but asks important questions about priorities, quality of life and our health-care system.
Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.): "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon," by Daniel C. Dennett. Dennett is a professor of philosophy. When I am not reading history, biography or current events literature, I tend to default to philosophy. I find it's abstract enough not to feel like work, but interesting. As you might surmise, I don't tend to read fiction. Except for the White House daily press briefing.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.): "Before I Forget," by B. Smith and Dan Gasby. About an African American woman's struggle with Alzheimer's. She had restaurants in D.C. at Union Station and in New York. Alzheimer's research related to African Americans has been absent. I'm a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services. I've led efforts for increased funding on health disparities research regarding people of color. This book is very well-written, informative and helps me make the case.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.): I am reading the "Nebula Awards Showcase 2017: The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy" because the truth coming out of the White House is weirder than science fiction.
Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.): "The Plot Against America," by Philip Roth. Reason? Duh. And that's on the record.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.): "Manhattan Beach," by Jennifer Egan. I love historical fiction, especially when it features nontraditional strong women heroines. This one is determined to be a diver repairing ships in New York's harbor during WWII. Secrets and double-crossing on a personal level kept me turning the pages.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.): "The Iliad" right now for no particular reason other than it's a great book."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Guess Which State): "Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland," by Dave Barry, and "Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country," by Craig Pittman.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.): I like to be reading a work of fiction and nonfiction at the same time. The former is a great escape from the stresses of the day, and the latter contributes to what we know about history. Pierce Brown's Red Rising series is like "Game of Thrones" set in space. If you want all the mayhem of the House of Lannister in low gravity, this is the series for you. Imaginative and well-written.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.): "How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes From an Impeachment Summer," by Jimmy Breslin. I don't think you need a description as to why I'm reading it."
And, in what is truly the most bipartisan and collegial response, here's Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.): Actually just finished "Giant of the Senate," by Al Franken, and now I'm reading Chris Matthews's new "Bobby Kennedy." Big Steve Israel and Joe Kennedy fan, too.
Steve Israel is a former Democratic congressman representing New York's 3rd District and the author of the forthcoming novel "Big Guns."