The book: Professor emeritus Samuel Hynes’ writing career has long focused on his reflections from his stint as a World War II pilot in the Pacific theater. On War and Writing (University of Chicago Press) is a collection of his essays exploring the traditions of war writing from the 20th century to present. Hynes’ works from a premise that war as a topic is singularly difficult, if not impossible, to capture adequately for those who have not experienced it. This new collection of writings includes personal essays and criticism of other artists’ and writers’ depictions of conflict zones.

The author: Samuel Hynes is a professor emeritus at Princeton University. He taught in the English department and in the Woodrow Wilson School. Hynes has written many books, including The Soldier’s Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War.

Opening lines: “All my working life I’ve had two vocations — flying and professing. Sometimes one has dominated, sometimes the other; but they’ve always been there. The flying came first. Imagine a grammar school playground in Minneapolis, around 1934. It recess, and kids are playing the usual playground games, girls play hopscotch and boys are swirling around each other, darting in and out. They carry their arms stretched out wide, and as they run they make stuttering noises — ack-ack-ack—their imitation of machine-gun fire. They shout to each other: “I’m Eddie Rickenbacker!” “I’m the Red Barron!” If it’s winter, they don’t wear wooly knitted hats; instead, they wear leather flying helmets with goggles.

            The game they’re playing is Dogfight. Their heads are full of World War I flying images that they’ve gathered from movies like Wings and Dawn Patrol, and from stories they’ve read about the Lafayette Escadrille, and from pulp magazines like G-8 and his Battle Aces. Those bits and pieces are all about Aces and Heroes; they don’t add up to a true account of the at war-in-the-air, but they’re enough to stir those small boys. I’m one of them. We’re caught up in the romance of flying and planes. When a sky-writing plane appears above us we stop and stare while it scrawls Coca-Cola on the sky. On Saturday mornings, we ride our bikes out to the city airport and lie in the grass on the knoll just outside the perimeter fence and watch the planes as they pass above us on landing approaches. Not the commercial ones. The Navy has a reserve squadron on their field, and we’ve come to see and hear the Navy planes land, sleek and serious, so close we can see the oil streaks on their fuselages and the wheels coming down. It doesn’t occur to me that I’ll ever be inside one of those magnificent machines; it’s enough just to see them, up close and in the air.”

Reviews: The New Yorker praises Hynes’ Flights of Passage, an account of his experiences during World War II: “Mr. Hynes is a skillful, often funny writer; he has found in this book’s recital of the particulars of one boy’s experience something of a relevance to our understanding of men at war.”