Everyone has a different idea of summer, or breach books. Some go for trashy novels, others thrillers. Myself, after a few rounds with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board's disclosure rules, I like to lug around thick bricks of history and biography. Last year, it was Ackroyd's "Dickens" and Caro's second volume on LBJ. This year, it's Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" (Harper Collins, 1,095 pp., $35).

What's the bond angle? This week we can afford a time-out; it's summer, yet still billions of dollars of bonds are coming to market every week, and every issuer or underwriter worth his or her salt needs a break from the game. And so to Mr. Johnson's book. It may not be making its way up the bestseller lists -- as his previous books did -- but it is a masterly work and a wonderful read.

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