Yes I am compiling my usual list, to be presented right before Black Friday in November, but assembling the list has been much harder this year. I am sent fewer review copies, the public libraries have been closed for many moons, and I haven’t been able to get to Daunt Books in London, or to my favorite Kinokuniya store in Singapore for that matter. I haven’t been to a real bookstore period since the lockdowns started.
So I am double-checking with you all — what are in fact the best books of this year? And please…in the comments list only the truly good ones.
Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity.
Susan Gubar, Late-Life Love: A Memoir.
Bernardine Evaristo. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel. The Booker co-winner and yes the focus of black women’s gender-fluid lives in Britain sounds too PC, but I was won over. There is a Straussian reading of it as well.
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again: A Novel.
On the classical music front, Jean-Paul Gasparian’s Chopin CD is one of the best Chopin recordings ever, which is saying something.
The list of add-ons is I think a bit shorter than usual, which suggests that other people’s “best of” lists are declining somewhat in quality. In essence I construct this add-on list by ordering the items off other people’s lists which I am not already familiar with. I didn’t find so many undiscovered-by-me winners this time around, the Gubar and Strout being the main choices I drew from the discoveries of others.
No, I don’t mean Proust, Cervantes, or the Bible. I mean Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.
To be sure, it is not the greatest book qua book, or even in the top tier (though it is very good and Marsh is very smart and knowledgeable).
It is possible it has become the greatest book of all time because of YouTube. Scroll through the pithy, one-page or sometimes even one-paragraph reviews of the various songs, and play them on YouTube while you are reading.
I had not known of Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache,” or Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Nor had I known the live version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from 1966 (though is it really “Slurred and obtuse as Little Richard reading Ezra Pound”?). I heard again many favorites as well.
Let’s be honest, amusia aside, do not humans love music more than books? By no means does everyone read, but virtually everyone listens to music, and with some degree of passion. It therefore follows that “book + music” is better than book, right? Whatever virtues the book may have are still contained in “book + music,” or more generally “book + YouTube.”
Have we now entered an age where all or most of the very best books are part of “books + YouTube”?
Of course I’m not trying to sell you on music or for that matter on Dave Marsh. What about reading Abraham Pais, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, accompanied by these videos? Might the possibility of YouTube combination make that the 37th best book of all time, displacing Braudel or Flaubert?
Should not at least 2/3 of your reading be books accompanied by YouTube? And if not, why not?
Inquiring minds wish to know. Perhaps there is a book accompanied by YouTube that gives the answer?
Is a quality book better or worse if there is no useful way to combine it with YouTube?
Soon I’ll offer up my longer lists for fiction and non-fiction, but let’s start at the top. My nomination for best book of the year is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity. I also would give a top rating to the book’s introductory essay, a mini-book in itself.
Normally I would say more about a book of the year, but a) many of you already know the Odyssey in some form or another, and b) this spring I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Emily Wilson, and I’ll save up my broader thoughts for then. I’ll just say for now it is one of the greatest works of political thought, as well as a wonderful story. In any case, a reread of this one is imperative, and you will learn new and fresh things.
There you go!
These are past suggestions from MR readers, pulled from the comments, endorsed by me only on a stochastic basis:
Michela Wrong, Eritrea
Rwanda: something Prunier, probably Rwanda Crisis though it stops in 1996
Uganda: Season of Thomas Tebo, though it’s fiction (is that disqualifying?)
Eastern Congo: Jason Stearns Dancing with Monsters (like China, the country is too big for one book)
The Government of Ethiopia – Margery Perham’s Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict’s Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.
Ethiopia: – Wax and Gold by Donald Levine – Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier
Pre-colonial Africa: The Scramble for Africa
For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It’s shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!
From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold’s ghost on the DRC.
Zimbabwe – The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart
Great Lakes region: this was actually good https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lakes-Africa-Thousand-History/dp/1890951358/
On Australia: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding”
On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews’ “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong”
Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux’s book about the South Pacific, “The Happy Isles of Oceania”?
And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” J. Anthony Lukas
What about outer space? Best book on Mars? The moon?
A while back I requested random recommendations from readers about the best books to read about particular countries. I call them “stochastically best” because I have some faith in your judgments, yet without really trusting you one whit. Here is one of the two very last installments in that series, taken and collated from comments you all have submitted:
…or Australia it’s still Year of the Angry Rabbit:Bill Bryson’s Down Under for a casual read on an outsider’s perspective or Phillip Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Russell Ward, The Australian Legend
Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.
I liked Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World
Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.
For the Philippines, either “In Our Image” by Karnow or “Touch Me Not” by Rizal
I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.
On Myanmar: “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma” by Richard Cockett
Indonesia…etc. for… Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)
I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.
For Thailand: “Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.
Michael King’s “A Penguin History of New Zealand”
The Search for Modern China, China – Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson
Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum’s Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum’s lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.
If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country – mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.
Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan
The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.
India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600, Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree
Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha?
For India, one of my favourite books is “India: A History” by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.
While I haven’t found any properly good book that covers South India history, “A History of South India” by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.
I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.
Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country” is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends “The Koreans,” since updated as “The New Koreans,” by Michael Breen, and “The Two Koreas” by Robert Carlin as “two foundational texts.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.
Burma / Myannmar: The River of Lost Footsteps
Haiti: Dubois’ Aftershocks of History? (though you’d know better)
Here are previous installments in the series.
What exactly does that title mean? It means they are your suggestions, and I kind of/sort of trust some of you, and I didn’t want to throw in all of my opinions. At the very least, I know a lot of these to be good, but I am reporting these recommendations from a distance. These are pulled from the comments section on my earlier post on the best book to read about each country, with my recommendations. So here are your contributions for Europe:
Roy Foster on Ireland.
James Hawes has just published what has been reviewed as an excellent short history of Germany. His previous book on Anglo-German relations before WW1 felt like a fresh and convincing re-interpretation of what is very well-trodden ground in political/diplomatic history.
Jonathan Steinberg’s “Why Switzerland”
For Poland, yes, Norman Davies’ God’s Playground is the best book in English.
Poland: A History by Zamoyski is concise, but probably too concise for someone not already somewhat familiar with Polish history.
For Scandinavia – The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.
One of the best books for understanding any nation, ignoring much of the history and most of the politics, is ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox.
Is it possible the best book for “getting” France is the Larousse Gastronomique? Because I already have that one also.
Czech Republic – “Gottland” by Mariusz Szczygiel. A description of the Czechs by a Pole. Will give you a lot of insight into the Czech character. I suppose a lot of Czechs will tell you The Good Soldier Swejk is the best book about Czechs, but that is self-serving.
Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann is also very good.
On Bulgaria: “Border” by Kapka Kassabova
The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation” by Mark Kurlansky
Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain
On Romania: “Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania” by William Blacker or perhaps Robert D. Kaplan’s “In Europe’s Shadow”. I also liked Kaplan’s portrait of Oman in “Monsoon”.
My choice would be Iberia by Michener.
The Bible in Spain by George Borrow. Very old, very good.
Patrick Leigh Fermor on Greece, Crete – Mani…etc.
Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)
Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke
There are two good and readable historical books on Amsterdam (and, by extension, The Netherlands)—one by Russell Shorto and the other by Geert Mak. Both are available in English. A bit more highbrow than the other books mentioned.
On Spanish recent history I enjoyed Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Specifically on Barcelona I’d recommend Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. Inside into Catalan physcho.
On Scandinavia: The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth
On Eastern Europe – Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.
On the history of Russia you can’t beat ‘Internal Colonisation’ by Alexander Etkind.
And on English – wonderful AA Gill, RIP, ‘Angry Island: Hunting the English’
Spain – John Crow – Spain the Root and the Flower, Italy – Dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Not sure these are the best, but they give an interesting psychological insight for the occasional traveller
Russia – big country so 3 books, not histories – War and Peace (Tolstoy), Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman), Everything is possible (Pomerantsev)…
Enjoy! Here are previous installments in the series.
This list is aggregating from my reader recommendations:
Jorge Castaneda “Manana Forever” on 21st Century Mexico isn’t as polished but it’s pretty informative.
“To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is…” Mexico: Riding, Distant Neighbors, — definitely. Being up to date is not that relevant for attempting to show “what the country is…”. As good or better: Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) (1950) and Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico! (1908)
El Laberinto also came to my mind as a better candidate on Mexico. And then there is Understanding Mexicans and Americans: Cultural Perspectives in Conflict (Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero and Lorand B. Szalay) originally published in 1991.
If you are going to go with a dated option for Mexico, Paz’ “Labyrinth of Solitude” is considerably better than “Distant Neighbors”.
El Nicaragüense by Pablo Antonio Cuadra (for Nicaragua)
On Mexico: Enrique Krauze’s book “Mexico: Biography of Power” has the reputation of “best book about [modern] Mexico,” but I’ve struggled to read it.
The textbook answer should be “The Peruvian Experiment Reconsidered” ed. Cynthia McClintock & Abraham F. Lowenthal.
My personal favorite is another book by McClintock (the aforementioned editor and GWU Professor of Political Science and International Affairs) titled “Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru.” Unlike the broad surveys of political and economic history given in the McClintock and Lownthal edited book, “Peasant Cooperatives” gives a great case study of agrarian co-ops and the socio-economic horrors of military rule.
On Nicaragua: Stephen Kinzer’s “Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua”
On Guyana: “Wild Coast” by John Gimlette
And Michael Reid’s “Forgotten Continent” is a useful book about South America.
Here were reader recommendations: remember the ground rules, namely that the book must aspire to some degree of comprehensiveness:
Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy.Japan and the Shackles of the Past is very good. David Pilling’s Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of SurvivalAlso, Japan through the looking glass, by Alan Macfarlane.While Richie is *the* famous foreign voice on Japan, Alan Booth’s “The Roads to Sata” is, to use Tyler’s favorite word, underrated and worth a read.
Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West Paperback – March 28, 2000 by T.R. Reid
Good book about Japan by the WaPo correspondent. Funny.
Alex Kerr is another great writer on Japan, but this one is a bit dated although definitely still worth a read. His Lost Japan is my favorite.
The best book I’ve read about Japan, or at least modern Japan, is “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr. It’s a fairly pessimistic book about how various postwar obsessions — material comfort, social harmony, and clear class identities — have created a surprisingly unambitious, overly conservative, deeply sclerotic country that has seen its brief glimpse as one of the world’s major powers unambiguously pass.
Modern: Bending Adversity by David Pilling is an excellent view on modern (deflation era) Japan.
Recent: Covering the Showa Period (1923-1989), the graphic novel “Showa” by Shigeru Mizuki is excellent. (I’m not usually a graphic novel reader, but this was amazing)-4 volumes.
Through 1867: A history of Japan by George Sansom (published 1958) is a three volume set covering -1334, 1334-1615 and 1615-1867.
There are a number of other enjoyable books as well (e.g., Road to Sata) but I would not say that they are representative or “must-reads”, regardless of how pleasant reading it may be.
I am not endorsing (or rejecting) those selections, merely aggregating them. That said, you should read them.
Here are reader suggestions, I am aggregating this information, do not think of these as independent recommendations from me:
Canada: A Story of Challenge by J. M. S. Careless
For Canada, read “A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul, “Clearing the Plains” by James William Daschuk, and pretty much any of Pierre Berton’s books.
I recommend “Right Honourable Men” by Michael Bliss for Canada.
Yeah, Vimy is the standard “coming of a nation” book for Canadians – although too oversentimental. The underappreciated element of that book is some weird attempt to recover Hughes’ tarnished image as a proto-Canadian.
Definitenly recommend it to non-Canadians to get a sense of common denominator Canadian “nationalism”
I would second “A Fair Country” but suggest it as part of a field entry with Saul’s “Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin”. Though neither works are above criticism, taken together they represent the best attempt available to answer the questions “Why, and how is Canada different from the United States (and western Europe).
Saul’s work is influenced by Harold Innis, particularly “The Fur Trade in Canada” (1930). This also remains worthwhile, if you feel robust enough to handle Innis’ drier-than-the-Sahara prose, and the fact that it is literally a history of the fur trade in Canada.
Canada is a hard one, esp because of the French/English duality — there’s by definition no single overarching narrative. There’s also no single overarching meta-narrative. But to get the sense of what’s up with English Canada, you could do worse than read George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, particularly the 40th anniversary edition with intro by, er, me. The issue isn’t that Grant got it right, it’s that the ways in which he was wrong, and why he remains so wrong influential, are crucial to understanding the anxieties of English speaking Canada. https://www.amazon.ca/Lament-Nation-Canadian-Nationalism-Anniversary/dp/077353010X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515422833&sr=8-1&keywords=lament+for+a+nation
For Canada, I’d suggest “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow or “Lament for a Nation” by George Grant.
Canada – “The Vertical Mosaic”
For Canada, I recommend “How to be Canadian” or binge watching TSN will suffice. Also check out, trailer park boys and corner gas.
The best book about Canada is “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow. Though Brimelow is now a mostly fringe figure associated with the alt-right and white nationalism, for many years he was a perfectly respected mainstream Canadian journalist who wrote for all the big newspapers and magazines up here. As a Brit, he saw Canada with a certain degree of aloof detachment, and “The Patriot Game” was his effort to write a “Unified Theory of Canada,” that focuses heavily on how Canadian politics, and the “game” of manufacturing a sense of nationalism for a rather curious, anachronistic country (he famously called it “one of the toadstools of history” — that is, something that grew up unexpectedly) provides the essence of Canadian identity. Even as Brimelow’s own reputation has declined, it is still a very widely-quoted book, and was particularly influential in the life of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
As a Canadian, I’d like to know an answer to this question. Growing up, history seemed to be a series of microaggressions (e.g. Boer war, endless fur trade disputes). It would be nice to read a more overarching narrative!
Note that several other commentators expressed displeasure with the work of John Ralston Saul. What else might you recommend as the stochastically best book to read about Canada?
I will be aggregating information for some other countries and regions soon.
I believe it was Dan Wang who loved the Robert Tombs book The English and Their History and asked for more books of that nature. Another reader wrote in and wanted to know what was the best book about each country.
To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country. So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance, nor is Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s splendid Wittgenstein’s Vienna. I thought I would start with a list of some nominees, solicit your suggestions in the comments, and later produce a longer post with all the correct answers.
2. Germany: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.
3. Italy: Luigi Barzini, The Italians. Or David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.
4. Spain: John Hooper, The Spaniards.
5. France: Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.
6. Portugal: Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.
7. Ireland: Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.
8. Russia: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians. One of the very best books on this list.
9. Ukraine: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.
11. Canada: ????. Alex?
12. Mexico; Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans. Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.
13. Caribbean: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.
I’ll give South America further thought, Africa and the Middle East too.
14. Cambodia: Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
16. Pakistan: Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.
17. China: ???? I find this to be a tough call.
18. Singapore and Malaysia: Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.
19. Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date. What else?
Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region gets tossed in somewhere too.
All of those are subject to revision.
Do leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point I’ll publish an expanded and updated version of this post, with additional countries too, or perhaps split into multiple posts by region.
Here 22 ambassadors recommend one book to read before visiting their country, mostly mediocre selections. Here is a suggested list of the most iconic book from each country. Don’t take me as endorsing those.
The Valmiki Ramayana, translated by Bibek Debroy. I have only browsed this so far, but it is definitely worthy of mention.
Peter Guardino, Dead March: History of the Mexican-American War. The link brings you to my commentary.
Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream: A Novel, [Distancia de Rescate].
Navid Kermani, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity. My review is behind the link.
Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own. Ditto, a real favorite.
Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. At first this was slated for my 2018 list, but it turns out the Kindle edition is out now, so it gets to make both lists.
The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart.
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. I haven’t read this yet, but it is getting consistently rave reviews.
Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times. Again, a review is behind the link.
This year there are three stand-out winners, which is not usually the case. These are all major books which virtually everyone should read, at least provided you read non-fiction (fiction) at all:
1. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. My review is here.
3. Haruki Murakami, IQ84. I haven’t finished it yet, but I feel confident putting it on the list (I’m about one-third through). I even agree with many of the reservations expressed in this review but the book is nonetheless a major achievement. There are dozens of reviews here.
Here is the (lame) PW list of the ten best books of the year. And if you are wondering, I have sour impressions of the new Eco and Joan Didion books.
Soon I’ll prepare a longer list of my favorite books of the last year, in part for your gift-giving purposes.
I've read through the lists of many other sources, and these are the fictional works which recur the greatest number of times, in my memory at least:
1. Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs.
2. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin.
3. Dan Chaon, Await Your Reply: A Novel.
4. David Small, Stitches: A Memoir.
By the way, via Literary Saloon, here is a French best books of the year list. They pick Let the Great World Spin as the book of the year, non-fiction included. I will be reading it soon.