David Frum attends the 2019 Politicon, October 26, 2019, Nashville. Photo: Ed Rode/Getty Images for Politicon
David Frum’s Present Reading List Includes a Lot of Stories About the Past
The Canadian American political commentator lets Zoomer in on some of the hefty tomes that line his shelves, and the very close relative he'd give anything to have dinner with again / BY Shinan Govani / July 12th, 2023
For David Frum — son of legendary Canadian broadcaster Barbara Frum (not to mention, developer Murray Frum, an aesthete in his own right!) — reading and writing are all in a day’s work. Words, after all, have long been the fuel that powers his career, both in his erstwhile role as speechwriter for former U.S. president George W. Bush as well as an author of his own books; the latest being 2020’s Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy. And even as a senior editor at The Atlantic these days, as well as a frequent commentator for MSNBC, he still finds plenty of time to read. Zoomer checked in with Frum about what comprises his current reading buffet, as well as what books have always loomed large for him. And, it’s a wonderfully varied spread, indeed. Proust, anyone?
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Years ago, I started Winston Churchill’s massive biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Marlborough: His Life and Times, then got distracted and put it away. A visit to Blenheim Palace this past April inspired me to return to the book, this time in audio format. Wowza. It’s not just a masterly study of its period, it’s also — and was intended to be — a poignant and prophetic analysis of the two world wars of the 20th century. And if all that doesn’t float your boat, there’s also plenty of sex and real estate too.
You think modern families are complicated? Marlborough got his start thanks to a favorite sister, who was then the mistress of the brother of King Charles II. Marlborough himself became the lover of one of the king’s ex-mistresses. Twenty-five years later, one of Marlborough’s most effective opponents on the battlefield was his sister’s son, who had gone to work for the king of France. Despite all that background, Marlborough and his wife, Sarah, enjoyed one of the most committed and faithful love matches of their era. After he died, and she was left one of the richest women in Europe, she was barraged with marriage proposals. She turned them all down — and replied this to the most insistent of her suitors: “If I were young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never share the heart and hand that once belonged to John, Duke of Marlborough.”
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
My own friend Anne Applebaum lavishly praised a novel titled, My Brilliant Friend, written in Italian by Elena Ferrante. I didn’t take her advice at the time, but I’ve at last bought my own copy and eagerly look forward to starting just as soon as I finish the writing project that is consuming most of my time this summer, a memoir of 40 years inside the U.S., U.K. and Canadian conservative movements.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
When I was 18, a family friend gave me twelve beautifully printed volumes of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. I read the whole thing that summer. I have re-read the whole series at least three times and have many times returned to big passages of it.
As a young reader, I was most affected by his rather harrowing vision of love. In later years, I’ve been more touched by his astute analysis of the culture and politics of his time. I again and again quote a passage of his that is very consoling on the mistakes of youth and the perspective of age. “There is no man … however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man — so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise — unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. … We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”
What book completely changed your perspective?
Too many to list — what’s the point of a book that does not change your perspective? But here’s one that is aimed at Canadian readers of a certain age: Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory, a study of the First World War. The book was published on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 victory to which Canada contributed so much — and for which Canada sacrificed so much. You may carry in your head a shared collective memory of the war as a pointless slaughter led by idiot generals indifferent to their troops.
That’s a falsehood and slur upon soldiers who faced a problem that had to be solved, but that could only be solved with tools and methods not yet invented or understood. Misunderstanding of that history — and ignorance of the true reasons that the world failed to find lasting peace after that first round of horror — is a knowledge gap that continues to have harmful consequences in our own time.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
If God allowed me a full and free and joyful discussion with any writer called back from the shades — even if for only the span of a single meal — I’d request one last dinner with Barbara Frum, author of the 1974 book As It Happened. I worked as an unpaid research assistant on that project, organizing her papers upon an octagonal dining table that now stands in my living room in Washington D.C. The table now displays Barbara’s book alongside my sister Linda’s biography of Barbara and my late father’s privately published memoir of his and Barbara’s shared adventures as art collectors. You’ll see there too, the autobiography of my late father-in-law, Peter Worthington, and the biography of his father, General F.F. Worthington, written by the general’s wife and widow, known universally as Larry. The written words still grasp us, even after the hands that typed the words no longer can.