This year my three favorite books were:
3. Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, read it slowly in small bits.
A very good gift book is Eric Siblin's new The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. It signals the sophistication of both the giver and receiver and yet it is short and entertaining enough to actually read. Package it with the recent Queyras recording of the Suites, if need be.
My favorite classical recording this year was Alexandre Tharaud playing Satie for piano.
Richard Squire writes to me:
Some friends and I last night came up with a parlor
game, Best Books with Worst Titles. Here were
The Audacity of Hope
The Beautiful and Damned
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Moby Dick (winner)
I agree with the middle three picks but think that Freakonomics and Moby Dick are both very good titles. I’ve never actually liked the title Ulysses, as used by James Joyce. I know all about the structural parallels with Homer’s Odyssey but to me they are superfluous to enjoying the work. The title stresses those parallels and so it irritates me. What nominations do you all have?
What are they? A loyal MR reader wants to know. Comments, of course, are open.
It was a very strong year for non-fiction, these were the best books, more or less in the order I read them:
Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.
James W. Cortada, IBM: The Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon.
Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History.
Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon.
Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.
Bruce Cannon Gibney, The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System.
Ben Westhoff, Fentanyl, Inc.
Judith Grisel, Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction.
David Sorkin, Jewish Emancipation: A History of Five Centuries.
Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.
Lydia Davis, Essays One.
Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.
Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.
Alan Galley, Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire.
Robert Alter, translator, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (or should that go under “fiction”?).
And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.
Of course the year is not over yet, this list is for your holiday shopping, I’ll post an update toward the very end of December.
In the meantime, apologies to those I missed or forgot…
First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.
Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.
All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three. Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review. These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority. Here goes:
Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.
Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.
Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.
David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.
Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.
Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.
David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.
David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.
Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.
W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.
Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.
Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.
M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them. Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.
Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction. And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours. Sorry!
Here is my list, more or less in the order I read them, and the links typically bring you to my lengthier comments:
Neil M. Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius.
Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer, Essays.
David Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama.
James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.
David Der-Wei Wang, editor. A New Literary History of Modern China.
David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State.
Ken Gormley, editor, The Presidents and the Constitution.
Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.
Brian Merchant, The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia. Technically this doesn’t come out until January, but I read it smack in the middle of 2017 to blurb it. It is my pick for “best of the year,” if I am allowed to count it. It is one book that has changed how I frame 2017 and beyond.
Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy.
Tim Harford, Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy.
William Taubmann, Gorbachev: His Life and Times.
Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste.
Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won.
Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy.
Douglas Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.
I didn’t like most of the widely reviewed fiction of this year, but I did have a few favorites, namely:
Domenico Starnone, Ties. This is one of the better Italian novels of the last few decades. It is short, easy to comprehend, utterly compelling, and the basic story line is that of a married couple and their children, to say more would spoil the plot. The introduction and translation are by Jhumpa Lahiri, also first-rate (by the way, here is my conversation with Jhumpa, toward the end she discusses this project). This Rachel Donadio NYT review provides very useful background knowledge.
Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak. This short Chinese noir novel, with a dash of Murakami, is one of this year’s “cool books.” I finished it in one sitting. Set in Beijing, the protagonist sells audio equipment, and then strange things happen. Here is a good interview with the author.
Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu. A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu. Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.
Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An old-fashioned literary drama, unfolds slowly but is gripping, reminds me of Dickens and also Vikram Seth but set in Korea and Japan as an extended set piece running throughout most of the 20th century. For me, this was clearly the #1 fiction book of the year, and I didn’t include it in my Bloomberg column only because I read it after the column was in the pipeline. It’s also rich with history and social science, a real winner. NYT picked it as one of their top ten of the year.
Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, the new translation and edition by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.
My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, though it wasn’t published in 2017. It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever. Just to recap, I like volume one the most, and it is the most complex, but for many readers disorienting. You don’t find out the real plot until p.272, so perhaps spoilers will help you. Volumes two and three are more in the style of classic science fiction, a’la Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke.
My best “classic I had never read before” gets two picks, the first being James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer (review at the link). The second is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, though come to it with at least a basic understanding of its Anglo-Catholic milieu. Sooner or later this novel will be completely unintelligible to even highly educated readers, except for a few specialists.
In Spanish I will pick Juan Marsé, Rabos de lagartija, from 2011, don’t bother with the English translation. In German it was Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld, Der Briefwechsel, a series of letters exchanged between an author and his publisher, some of them concern money (I haven’t finished it yet but so far it is quite consistent in quality). As good as a really good Bernhard novel, also from 2011, there is no English-language translation.
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In most cases, my review is behind the link, though a few times it leads merely to the Amazon page. If I wrote only a few words about the book, I have reproduced them directly in this post. And the books are listed, more or less, in the order I read them. Apologies if I forgot your book, each year I do neglect a few. Here goes:
Marco Santagana, Dante: The Story of His Life.
Melancholy, by László F. Földényi.
Ji Xianlin, The Cowshed: Memoirs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The classic account of its kind, in this edition brilliantly translated and presented.
Robin Hanson, The Age of Em. Unlike any other on this list, this work created a new genre.
Benedict Anderson, A Life Beyond Boundaries.
Tom Bissell, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. Fun, engaging, and informative, worthy of the “best of the year non-fiction” list.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History.
Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia.
Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Continental Drift: Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the Rise of Euroscepticism.
Peter Parker, Housman Country: Into the Heart of England. It’s already out in the UK, which is where I bought my copy.
Lawrence Rosen, Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco. Superb descriptive anthropology.
Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Due out in February, the UK edition is already out. Substantive and delightful on every page.
Kerry Brown, CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.
Richard van Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity through the 19th Century.
Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam. The best general history of Vietnam I know, and it does not obsess over “the Vietnam War.” Readable and instructive on pretty much every page.
Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.
William Domnarski, Richard Posner.
Peter Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs.
Daniel Gormally, Insanity, Passion, and Addiction: A Year Inside the Chess World. A personal favorite, you can read this as a study in labor economics as to why people hang on to crummy jobs.
Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. Short descriptions of places you ought to visit, such as ossuaries, micronations, museums of invisible microbes, the floating school of Lagos, the Mistake House of Elsah, Illinois, Bangkok’s Museum of Counterfeit Goods, and the world’s largest Tesla coil in Makarau, controlled by Alan Gibbs of New Zealand. The selection is conceptual, so I like it. I will keep this book.
Jean Lucey Pratt, A Notable Woman.
Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich.
Sebastian Mallaby, The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan
Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.
Marina Abramović, Walk Through Walls.
Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.
I would describe this year as thick in wonderful, superb books, though I remain uncertain which of these is truly the year’s winner. So many plausible contenders! I can only promise I’ll continue to cover what comes out between now and the end of the year, and apologies if one or two of those above are from late 2015.
For best non-fiction book of the year, a late entry swoops in to take first place! That’s right, I am going to select The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert, by Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh.
This is an unusual book. It is only 85 pp. of text and about half of it is aerial photos and maps. It covers the history of the Negev desert, the Bedouin, Israeli policy toward the Bedouin, ecology, seed botany, and the roles of water policy and climate change, all in remarkably interesting and information-rich fashion, with a dose of Braudel and also Sebald in terms of method.
For one thing, it caused me to rethink what books as a whole should be. This is one cool book.
To make it stranger yet, this book is Weizman’s response to Sheikh’s The Erasure Trilogy, which is structured as a tour of the ruins of the 1948 conflict. That book is I believe from a Palestinian point of view, and described as a “visual poem.” I just ordered it; note that Sheikh is the photographer for The Conflict Shoreline and thus listed as a co-author.
Some will read The Conflict Shoreline as “anti-Israeli” in parts, but that is not the main point of the book or my endorsement of it. The book however does point out that Israeli policies toward the Bedouin often were prompted by a desire to remove large numbers of them from their previous Negev land and move them into the West Bank and Egypt. I had not known “The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 70 times in the ongoing “Battle over the Negev””. The book ends with a two-page evidentiary aerial photo of that village, taken during 1945; other photos of it date as far back as 1918. This is all part of Weizman’s project of “reverse surveillance.”
It is a hard book to summarize, in part because it is so visual and so integrative, but here is one excerpt:
The Negev Desert is the largest and busiest training area for the Israeli Air Force and has one of the most cluttered airspaces in the world. The airspace is partitioned into a complex stratigraphy of layers, airboxes, and corridors dedicated to different military platforms: from bomber jets through helicopters to drones. This complex volume is an integral part of the architecture of the Negev.
And then it will move to a discussion of seed technology, or how Bedouin economic strategies have changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these various topics fit together. Think of it also as a contribution to location theory and economic geography, but adding vertical space, manipulated topography, rainfall, and temperature to the relevant dimensions of the problem.
Here is a good interview with Weizman, who among other things outlines his concept of Forensic Architecture.
These are in the order I read them, more or less, not in terms of preference. And I would say this year had more good entries than ever before. Here goes, noting that most of the links go to my earlier reviews of them:
First, here are the economics books:
Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect, by Joshua D. Angrist and Jörn Steffen-Pischke, technically late 2014 but it was too late to make that list.
Dani Rodrik, Economics Rules.
Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. Self-recommending.
Garett Jones, The Hive Mind. Why national IQ matters.
Scott Sumner, The Midas Paradox. Boo to the gold standard during the Great Depression.
And the rest, more or less the non-economics books:
Robert Tombs, The English and Their History.
R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past. The last section is brilliant on current Japanese politics.
Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China. Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a good book.
Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey. Will improve your listening.
The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti. Rewritten and edited to be easier to digest, intelligible and rewarding. As “an achievement,” this book does have some claim to be number one.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. You can never read enough commentary on the Torah.
Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential, how things really work there (speculative), rain boots for instance are a fashion item and black markets are rife.
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, a good general history of the country.
Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He’s a very smart guy.
Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.
Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The Nordics, that is.
Timothy Snyder, Black Earth. He succeeded in writing an original book about the Holocaust, which is hard to do.
Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie? Background on France being screwed up.
Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger, vol. I. Background on America being screwed up.
Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane. How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside.
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. The best of the various recent books on Humboldt.
Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan. Background on a whole bunch of other places being screwed up.
Daniel P. Todes, Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science. I didn’t have time to read all of this book, but it seemed very good in the fifth or so I was able to read. By the way, the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.
Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, readable and useful.
Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987. This one I haven’t finished yet. I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January. There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.
I don’t quite see a clear first prize. If I had to pick, I would opt for a joint prize to the biographies of Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. This was the year of the biography.
Sorry if I forgot yours, this list is imperfect in various ways! And the year isn’t over yet, so I’ll post an update on the very good books I read between now and the end of the year, probably on December 31.
First there are the economics books, including books by people I know, including Piketty, The Second Machine Age, Tim Harford’s wonderful macro explainer, Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down, Lane Kenworthy on social democracy, The Fourth Revolution by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, Daniel Drezner The System Worked, and Frank Buckley on why the Canadian system of government is better. And Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. We’ve already talked, written, and thought about those plenty, and they are not what this list is about, so I will set them aside. Most of you are looking for excellent new books in addition to these, books you might not have heard about.
Here are the other non-fiction books of the year which took my fancy, mostly in the order I read them, noting that the link usually leads you to my previous review or comments:
Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Long, exhausting, and wonderful.
Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya, a broader history than it at first sounds, fascinating from beginning to end.
Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.
The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert.
John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition. An excellent treatment of how much work remains to be done in the “nation building” enterprise in South Asia.
Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugutive Life in an American City. A sociology graduate student hangs out with lawbreakers and learns about police oppression, an excellent micro-study. My column on her book is here.
Gendun Chopel, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, Tibetan scholar goes to India and records his impressions, unusual.
George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of His World. I loved this one.
I’ve only read the first half of the new Tom Holland translation of Herdotus’s Histories (I will get to the rest), but surely it deserves note.
Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction.
David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China. A look at China’s outermost regions and their ethnic minorities. Just imagine that, we had two excellent popular China books in the same year.
The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa. Repetitious in parts, sometimes incoherent too, but it offers a smart and unique perspective you won’t get from any of the other books on this list or any other.
Jonathan Rottenberg, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. This treatment stresses the (partial) cognitive advantages of having a tendency toward depression.
Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary, assorted facts and insights about the English language, you don’t have to feel like reading a book about poetry to find this worthwhile.
David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition, huge, expensive, wonderful, more than just a cookbook though it is that too. I’ve spent some of the last few weeks learning these recipes and what makes them tick.
Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. A good overview of how some of the main pieces of today’s information technology world fell into place, starting with the invention of the computer and running up through the end of the 1990s.
Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life.
Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. As good or better than the classic biographies of the composer.
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1. This one I have only read a part of (maybe 150 pp.?), it is very long and does not fit my current reading interests, but it seems very good and impressive and also has received strong reviews. So I feel I should include it.
Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.
So who wins? If I had to pick a #1, it would be The Very Revd John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, not the kind of book I would be expecting to coronate, which is a testament to the magnetic force it has exercised over my imagination.
My fiction picks were here. There are still some wonderful books to come out this year, and already-published books I will still read, especially after mining other “best of” lists, so around Dec.31 or so I’ll post an updated account of what I would add to this list.
There were more strong candidates this year than usual. The order here is more or less the order I read them in, not the order of preference:
Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschmann.
Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities.
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.
Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.
William Haseltine, Affordable Excellence: The Singapore Health System.
Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China. Good text but mostly a picture book, stunning architecture, no art, full of lessons.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.
Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia gets rave reviews, although I have not yet read my copy. From the UK I’ve ordered the new Holland translation of Herodotus and Richard Overy’s The Bombing War and have high expectations for both.
If I had to offer my very top picks for the year, they would all be books I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did:
Mark Lewisohn, Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, volume I.
Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.
Apologies to those I left out or forgot, I am sure there were more.
Every year I offer my picks for best books of that year, today we are doing fiction. I nominate:
1. Karl Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Two: Man in Love.
2. Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs. Great fun.
3. Amy Sackville, Orkney. Not every honeymoon works out the way you planned.
4. Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
5. Kathryn Davis, Duplex: A Novel. Non-linear, not for all.
Since I think the Knausgaard is one of the greatest novels ever written, I suppose it also has to be my fiction book of the year. (Except, um…it’s not fiction.) But otherwise I found many books disappointing, perhaps because my own expectations were out of synch with contemporary writing.
Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt produced decent plane reads, but I wouldn’t call them favorites. The new Thomas Pynchon I could not stand more than a short sample of. I sampled many other novels but didn’t like or finish them. I read or reread a lot of Somerset Maugham, which was uniformly rewarding. The Painted Veil may not be the best one, but it is a good place to get hooked. I reread quite a bit of Edith Wharton and it rose further in my eyes. Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence are my favorites, more intensely focused than the longer fiction. I loved discovering the Philip Pullman trilogy and vowed to give George Martin another try this coming year.