By the Book: Four books to top your 2011 reading list

I dislike suggesting books I haven’t read but the reviews of these three have me cranked up so, I’m passing them on.

The first has the shortest title I’ve come across: ‘OK’ by Allen Metcalf. Metcalf devotes 210 pages to what he subtitles “The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word”— tracking its origins, trying to decide how to spell it (OK, O.K., okay?) and generally just having fun with it. He explores the different responses the word can evoke: “Dad, I want to go to Harvard,” “Ohh kayyy … ” (doubt); “I’m not rooting for the Red Sox, OK?” (testy); “Gas, OK, tire pressure, OK, wipers, OK” (brisk affirmation).

He is bemused that the texters have shortened it to “K”, and also points out that OK stands alone. You can’t say “nearly OK” or “sort of OK” and in this regard it resembles “pregnant.” The book seems short enough to not get boring, amusing enough to be, well, amusing and droll enough to be quoted at cocktail parties. Plus, it’s published by Oxford University Press, an institution not known for its amusingness. I can’t wait.

‘The Last Stand’ by Nathaniel Philbrick is about Custer, of course, and who is more romantic, reviled and revered than he? I can still see Errol Flynn, waving his pistol in the air, fearless to the end, although a folk song on David Wilkie’s “Cowboy Celtic” CD sees it differently :

“You’ve seen him on the silver screen
His yellow hair a-flyin’    
Calmly he surveys the scene
A good day to be dyin’ …
Like ants they swarmed on his command
Like bees the bullets hummin’
No time for a final stand
Custer died a-runnin’.”

But Philbrick gives us “one of the Union’s greatest cavalry officers” pitted against Sitting Bull, a military wonder himself, who had defeated the Lakota and Crow, among others, though this battle became the “last stand” for the Indians as well. One reviewer said that reading it was like “trying to catch a herd of stampeding buffalo.” Concise and honest — it sounds terrific.

(A sidelight: Olivia de Havilland played Elizabeth Custer in “They Died With Their Boots On,” another stop in her relentless pursuit of Errol the Peril, through English forests (“Robin Hood”), English courts (“Elizabeth and Essex”), a valley in Balaclava (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”), lashing seas (“Captain Blood”) and the Wild West (“Dodge City”). Imagine all the costumes!

In 1989 John Casey’s ‘Spartina’ won the National Book Award. I mostly remember true-to-life characters, a family in plausible situations, East Coast fishing people who worked hard for a living and who fell in and out of passions and problems. At long last Casey has written a sequel, ‘Compass Rose,’ and while I’m anxious to read it, I realize I’ll have to reread “Spartina” to remember where I left off with Dick Pierce and his family.

So I’m recommending four books, not three. Last year I offered you a New Year’s resolution: to read two more books than you’d read the year before. I’ve upped the ante, but one book every three months doesn’t sound like a deal breaker. Happy 2011.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]