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.
Could it be the lengthy NYT profile of Stevenson and Wolfers? Other than finding material on economists interesting per se, and knowing them a bit, I found this profile relevant for two reasons. First, successful economists really can earn a good amount these days, and at relatively young ages. They could probably earn much more, if that is what they set out to do. Second, there really is a cognitive elite engaged in assortative mating, and the children of those couples will have a big head start. Furthermore that cognitive elite is now global (Justin is from Australia). No, Murray’s econometrics do not demonstrate all of his conclusions, but nonetheless this family is a walking embodiment of The Bell Curve, not to mention the new book. (I would have preferred a piece which explored this irony with more depth.) Some of you are negative in the comments on my post, but the facts about the Wolfers/Stevenson family are hardly exceptional, conditional on a few other variables but of course strongly conditional on those variables. They own a Noguchi table, we own a Noguchi lamp (cheaper than you think, by the way). They ban sugar, we do not, but there is no junk food, sugary or otherwise, kept around our house. My professional writing rails against junk food. I was disappointed that their nanny has only a Master’s degree. The nanny in our family has a Ph.d and is a well-known economics blogger.; going back in time, the two other nannies were a professional linguist and translator and an engineer (they are sometimes called “the grandparents”). Get the picture? The rhetoric in the profile is oddly non-self-conscious, perhaps in a way that makes the couple look less charismatic than they really are, and that too is worth thinking about. Parts of the profile felt like a bit of a slog to me (despite my interest in the topic), but I suspect not to most NYT readers, and of course we are seeing a highly skilled and experienced journalist at work along with a first-rate team of editors.
Always try to give things the more subtle reading.
The New North: The World in 2050, by Laurence Smith.
I’ve already covered best economics books, best fiction, and the very best books. General non-fiction remains missing. It’s been a very good year, and these are the other non-fiction books which I really liked, a stronger list than the year before:
Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.
Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.
Javier Cercas, The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-Five Minutes in History and Imagination. In the waning of Franco’s time, how did Spain turn away from military rule and toward democracy? Can a mediocre man make a difference in history simply by retreating at the right moment? Can a political life boil down to a single response, under gunfire at that? Half of this book is brilliant writing, the other half is brilliant writing combined with obscure, hard-to-follow 1970s Spanish politics (does Adrian Bulli understand the life of John Connally? I don’t think so). Cercas is a novelist, intellect, and historian all rolled into one, and he is sadly underrated in the United States. There’s nothing quite like this book. On top of everything else, if you can wade through the thicket, it is an excellent public choice account of autocracy.
Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: Religion of Protest.
Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life. This vivid biography brings its subject to life through the extensive use of correspondence and quotation. The reader gets an excellent feeling of how Bismarck’s government actually worked, his intensity and also his mediocrities, and also the importance of Bismarck in building up Germany as a European power. The story is as gripping as a good novel. Sadly, almost no attention is paid to the origins of the welfare state. Still, this has received rave reviews and rightly so.
Daniel Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts.
Jacques Pepin, The Origin of Aids.
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Funny thing is, I read this on Kindle, didn’t have a physical copy to put in “my pile,” had no visual cue as to the continuing existence of the book, and thus I forget to cover it on MR. I enjoyed it very much.
John Gimlette, Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge. This book covers Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. A revelation, I loved it. Could Gimlette be my favorite current travel writer?
Robert F. Moss, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.
Anna Reid, Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II.
John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. I’ll blog about this remarkable book soon.
What is striking is how many “big books” make this list, and that is exactly what you would expect in an age of Twitter, namely that a lot of shorter books are being outcompeted — aesthetically though not always economically — by on-line reading.
Here is the best “best books” list I’ve seen so far, apart from my lists of course.
2. Best economic history book, Alexander Field, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth.
3. Second best eBook of the year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. By the way, here is my recent debate with Erik; we both agreed in advance to mix things up and generate controversy, so interpret the exchange accordingly. In reality, Erik and I agree about many many things and Matt Yglesias notes as much. (We do, however, seem to disagree about what this graph means.) Arnold Kling comments on the debate itself.
4. Best economics/business book of the year: Tim Harford’s Adapt.
5. Best Austrian or Austrian-influenced book of the year: Daniel B. Klein, Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation. It’s not out yet, I’ll cover it more when it appears, more information here.
6. Best economics textbook, Ahem! I don’t mean my favorite economics textbook (though it is that too), rather best economics textbook. The revised second edition of Micro just appeared, the macro is due out any day now.
Overall if I had to pick one, text aside, it might be the Alexander Field book, but this is a diverse lot with something for everybody.
1. Murakami I now have finished it, don’t think it adds up to anything but it is consistently fun for 900+ pages. How many other books can claim that?
2. Steve Sem-Samberg, The Emperor of Lies, A Novel. “I don’t want to read any more about the Holocaust” is not good enough reason to neglect this stunning Swedish novel. A fictionalized account of the Lodz Ghetto, it looks at the lives of the ghetto rulers and whether they were heroes or collaborators. I found it tough to read more than one hundred pages of this at a time; by focusing on the suicides rather than the murder victims, it is especially brutal. Get up the gumption.
3. Audur Ava Olafsdottir, The Greenhouse. From Iceland, it’s funny and sheer fun to read and short and easy yet deep and moving.
4. Habibi, by Craig Thompson. I don’t enjoy many graphic novels, but this is my favorite of all those I have read.
Away from fiction proper we have:
5. The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom. In part this is a lifetime achievement award, but his best passages are still stunning.
6. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003, by Roberto Bolano. Will make you want to read a lot more Latin American fiction.
Soon I’ll cover the best economics books of the year.
Between the ages of five and ten, I liked books on science, books with maps, and by age ten I liked books on chess and also on cryptography and mathematics, most of the Trachtenberg method of speed arithmetic. An alternative approach is to give your kid books which invest in analytical capacity, without trying to teach economics at all. Is economics a topic or a mode of thought? Perhaps it matters what age you are at.
By the way, did you know that the awesome FiveBooks has now merged with the awesome The Browser? Let's hope the antitrust authorities let that one proceed…
Here is one list and here are the top five:
1 The Cairo Trilogy by Egyptian (Nobel-prize winning) author Naguib Mahfouz. Yes, of course it’s available in English: Trans. William Maynard Hutchins, Everyman’s Library, 2001.
2 In Search of Walid Masoud by the Palestinian author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. This is available in English, translated by by Adnan Haydar & Roger Allen. Syracuse University Press, 2000. Also, Ghassan Nasr’s translation of Ibrahim Jabra’s The Journals of Sarab Affan, published by Syracuse University Press, was a runner-up for the Banipal translation prize in 2008.
3 Honor, by the great Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim. As far as I can turn up, this has never been translated into English. Ibrahim’s Zaat, The Committee, and Stealth are easily available from AUC Press, AUC Press, and Aflame Books. The Smell of It was translated, too, but it’s long since out of print.
4 War in the Egyptian Homeland, by the Egyptian Yousef Al-Qaeed has not been translated. (Oops! Hilary notes that War in the Land of Egypt by Yusuf al-Qa’id–see where a non-standard transliteration will get me–was published by Interlink in 1997, translated by Olive and Lorne Kenny and Christopher Tingley. Yes, and my title translation was lame. Worse, I’ve read that translation….)
5 Men in the Sun, by the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, was translated by Hilary Kilpatrick and published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 1998.
Hat tip goes to Literary Saloon.
I've been reading lots of year-end "best of" lists, from serious outlets that is, and these are the books which I see recurring with special frequency:
2. Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey.
3. David Grann, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.
4. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic.
5. Columbine, by David Cullen.
8. By Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.
9. Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World.
10. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout.
I thought all of those were well done but Lords of Finance was the only one I loved. My favorites are here and Lords arguably would be third on that non-fiction list of two. In fairness to the authors I've only browsed Gordon Wood (report coming soon) and I haven't yet read Pops but suspect I might like it very much (report coming soon).
If you wish, you can dig into some of the book source lists I used for this meta-list here. Have someone ready to throw you a rope.
Here are some "best albums" lists, if you wish to wade through those. They are harder to aggregate and I haven't found a useful way of doing it.
Not all the "best of" book lists are out, but I can issue a preliminary report, with possible updates to follow. This year opinion about best books seems unusually diverse. Not so many books have been intellectually central to the market. I have seen the following titles pop up repeatedly on "best of" lists:
Roberto Bolaño, 2666. Duh. After four hundred pages of reading, I see it as less perfect than The Savage Detectives but it has greater world-historic reach and even some sprawl. A clear first choice in almost any year.
Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of. I like some of Barnes’s work, most of all Flaubert’s Parrot, but I am embarrassed that such a shallow book would receive any favorable notice at all.
The Forever War, Dexter Filkins. The quality of the journalism is high but for me it was insufficiently conceptual so I put it down after fifty pages or so.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel, By David Wroblewski. I liked the 150 or so pages I read but just didn’t have the time or the love to finish it. It reminds me of Stephen King’s better work.
I’ve drawn from the lists you will find here, among others.
During the year I saw many favorable reviews for Alexsandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (I liked it) and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (I haven’t read it yet), though neither seems to be popping up on so many "best of" lists. Perhaps Robin Hanson would view such lists as signaling rather than a honest statement of preferences.
Here is Arnold Kling’s list. I liked this part:
Two books that show economic intellect to advantage are Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen and One Economics, Many Recipes, by Dani Rodrik. Cowen’s book is a set of observations on everyday life, while Rodrik’s book looks at the high-level issue of which economic institutions to recommend for underdeveloped countries. I made the case for Cowen’s book here and the case for Rodrik’s book here.
What Cowen and Rodrik have in common is a gentle approach. In contrast to Caplan and Clark, who self-assuredly hammer away at alternative viewpoints, Cowen and Rodrik allow room for disagreement and self-doubt. Cowen and Rodrik encourage their readers to think, and I encourage readers to try to learn how to think like Cowen and Rodrik, whether or not you agree with them.
The entire list is useful, so go out and elevate the practice of holiday gift-giving.
Here is the list, courtesy of WorldHum, via Bookslut. I agree with most of it, recognizing that no single author (e.g., Thubron, Raban, Theroux) can receive more than one pick. But where is Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams? David Campbell’s The Crystal Desert? For my first choice I would select either Naipaul’s Turn in the South or Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana. Surely they forgot Marco Polo’s Travels, which remains riveting. Herodotus? Can we count Democracy in America? Gulliver’s Travels? Dante’s Inferno? Your further suggestions are welcome.
Here is a left-wing list. Here is a National Review list, with Hayek and Robert Conquest near the top. Here are two Random House lists. The critics elevate Henry Adams, William James, and Booker T. Washington. The readers favor Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, and John Lott. The readers’ list has all kind of libertarian books, including David Boaz and Tibor Machan. Thanks to the ever-interesting www.politicaltheory.info for the link. All of the lists make for fun browsing, especially once you start thinking about the contrasts.
Elena Ferrante named her top forty, and I am not sure I approve of the exercise at all. Still, here are my top twenty, in no particular order, fiction only, not counting poetry:
1.Lady Murasaki, Tale of Genji.
2. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
3. Alice Munro, any and all.
4. Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan quadrology.
5. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.
6. Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis trilogy.
7. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
9. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter.
10. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
11. Virginia Woolf, many.
12. Willa Cather, My Antonia.
13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
14. Jane Austen, Persuasion.
15. Anne Rice, The Witching Hour, and #2 in the vampire series.
16. Anaïs Nin? P.D.James? A general award to the mystery genre?
17. Christa Wolf, Cassandra.
18. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian.
19. Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.
20. Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness.
Comments: No, I didn’t forget George Eliot, these are “my favorites,” not “the best.” Maybe Edith Wharton would have made #21? Or Byatt’s Possession? The other marginal picks mostly would have come from the Anglosphere. I learned my favorite Latin American writers are all male.