BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I read 112 books in 2017. I didn’t really set out to break 100; it just sort of happened. I followed no plan, just wandered from one engaging topic to another. It was a great way to spend the year.
This will be a long post. I say a little something about every book I read in 2017. Even friends and family might not make it through the whole thing, so let me say up front, while you are still paying attention: Thank you to my dear mom for being a big part of my great 2017. You taught me how to read way back when, and your Christmas present last year paid for many of the books I so enjoyed this year.
So just how much did I read, and what did I count as a book? A few of my reads were only novella-length essays, like “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” by Oscar Wilde and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hofstadter. But a few were real honkers. The unforgettable Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon topped 1,300 pages. Diarmaid McCullough’s massive Christianity: The First 3,000 Years was, well, massive. And Norman Mailer outdid himself, literally, in The Executioner’s Song, with 1,000-pages of crystalline prose delivered entirely in the spare, bleak voices of his characters rather than his own heavily ornamented one. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad epic Life and Fate topped 900 pages. Capital in the 21st Century went on toward 800 pages if you read all the charts and notes, which I did. Heavy stuff.
I bookended the year with a pair of low-culture romps. In January I read Guy Thorne’s unintentionally hilarious 1902 novel When It Was Dark. It’s the story of how a conniving English Jew fakes some archaeological evidence to disprove the resurrection of Jesus, and people around the world suddenly revert to Satanic form, murdering, raping, going to bed without brushing their teeth and so forth. You know: chaos. In December I read Dan Brown’s Origin, which explores roughly the same theme of how the masses and their elite controllers might react once the news breaks that life has no supernatural origins.
I feel like all books change my life, at least in some small way, so that breathless appellation constantly threatens to wear thin. (How many times have you heard, “Read this book–it will change your life!”?) Still, I must say 12 books I read this year left a deep and lively impression on me, insinuating themselves into that constellation of other people’s ideas that I call my own, plagiarism be damned. Yes, I will say it: they changed my life. They were:
- The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Baldwin argues convincingly that America has a white problem, not a black one. A Copernican revolution in thinking about race in America, it changes all our bearings.
- I Will Bear Witness, by Victor Klemperer. A Jewish professor of German Literature records the rise of Nazism as seen from his home in Dresden. A deeply instructive portrait of populism.
- Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon. In this fantastic roman à clef, a group of all-American boys traveling the pre-WWI globe in a dirigible discover the world is run, or at least haunted, by destructive powers. The richest story-telling I’ve ever read.
- Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Americans have never witnessed on our home soil how utterly authoritarianism can blot out any political idea, no matter how enlightened or progressive. Vonnegut sets his novel in the 1945 ruins of defeated Germany and invites us to abandon our naivitee (and laugh grimly).
- The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz. An intellectually thrilling essay on the various ways independent thinkers bent and sometimes broke under the authoritarianism of Warsaw Pact Poland. Universal in scope, a beacon of free thinking.
- Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. Far and away the best of Vidal’s seven-part American Chronicles series. Vidal renders Lincoln as human and therefore much, much more heroic and captivating than the flawless saint depicted in our schoolbooks.
- Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty. Piketty explains the macroeconomics behind the world’s ever-widening wealth gap. Spoiler alert: trickle-down doesn’t work; or perhaps like communism, it hasn’t worked yet.
- To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson. Never have writers and philosophers influenced history so directly as they did between the French and Communist revolutions. Wilson catches the whole spectacle, in fascinating intellectual detail. One of the best books I’v ever read in the history of ideas.
- Libra, by Don Delillo. Delillo’s novelistic version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life tells a story our country is still absorbing–how the JFK assassination “broke the back” of the American century and taught us anything is possible. Stands up to any 10 competitors for the great American novel.
- Political Fictions, by Joan Didion. Didion is a supremely cool and sly political observer; she is also an effortlessly great writer. These essays spanning from Bush I to Bush II tell how how America’s ruling class has come to wall itself off so thoroughly from the ruled even while it justifies a casual domination of their lives.
- The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Many societies cheapen human life, but America seems to do it in a way that reliably produces violence–especially gun violence–as its main side effect. The story of Gary Gilmore, told without mercy.
- Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Although usually compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to me this is the Dostoevskan novel of the 20th century. Raises a monumental philosophical question for anyone living after World War Two: how can we take ourselves morally seriously after the crematorium and the gulag? These things were built by people who thought they were striving mightily for humanity’s good.
Here’s the rundown of all the other books I read:
The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. Roaring good fun; a light comic novel balanced by a deft command of recent cultural history.
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan. A fetus discovers his mom and her good-for-nothing boyfriend are plotting to murder the unborn baby’s father. Set in contemporary London; deep existential themes treated with a masterfully light touch.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. A jaundiced British depiction of American recklessness and naivitee in 1950s Indochina.
Europe’s Angry Muslims, by Robert Leiken. Leiken describes the political and cultural roots of contemporary Europe’s alienated Muslim communities. Great journalism; detailed and free of the cant this subject usually arouses.
Living in the End Times, by Slovoj Zizek. The manic Slovenian philosopher uses the failures of both communism and capitalism to argues that barbarity might be humanity’s default setting. Dense. Zizek assumes you know almost as much Hegel as he does. I do not.
The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis. Amis at his subtlest. He explores the meaning of aging, friendship and identity. Everyone drinks an inhuman amount.
Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. This book gave me my first indication that, for such a celebrated novelist, Greene is not always great. Demonic teenage thug rises to become crime boss of English seaside resort town. Greene clumsily overlays some Catholic superstitions on an instantly forgettable story.
The Second Plane, by Martin Amis. I read this collection of miraculously good essays about 9/11 while I was staying in the shadow of the One World Trade Center last February. Destined to outlast all the high-pitched editorializing and stern “analysis” that 9/11 sparked.
Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer. Mailer gets drunk and participates in the 1968 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war. Still worth reading.
The Fight, by Norman Mailer. A slightly novelistic presentation of Muhammed Ali’s heavyweight championship fight against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Deeply engaged, creative journalism that shines light on an American icon.
Candide, by Voltaire. What can I say? There are about a dozen short classics that I read every year or two. Voltaire’s devastating critique of theodicy is one of them. We should all tend our gardens.
Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Kostler. So far in human history, every ideological revolution (except ours) has consumed its own loyalists. This is Koestler’s shattering depiction of a week in the life of the 1937 Soviet show trials, which did just that. How effortessly the communist rulers betrayed the revolution, turning white to black and up to down. I read this one every couple years too.
Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky explores the moveable distinction between individuality and madess, principle and spite. A study in human agency.
“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” by Oscar Wilde. Political pornography of the highest, most enjoyable order. Of course socialism cannot do all the wonderful things Wilde thinks it can do, but as he famously asserts, any worthwhile map of politics must include a utopia.
The Child in Time, by Ian McEwan. This book will break your heart in several ways. A self-absorbed London writer loses his 3-year old daughter to a kidnapping. He then loses his wife to grief and his once-worldly best friend to a reverse-dementia that pulls him back into a state of childhood. Shattering.
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. This is also one of the books that have changed my life, but I didn’t mention it as such since this is the third time I’ve read it. Explosive. You cannot read it without reflecting on the state of wage slavery today.
The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera. A breezy Nietzschean meditation on how we create ourselves and see ourselves in the mirror of other people.
The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan. McEwan seems to be this generation’s Nabakov, writing about the extreme boundaries of human morality and reminding us how differently everyone negotiates them. Suburban London kids encase their dead mom in concrete because they don’t want to be put in an orphanage.
The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud. Why did humanity conjure up the idea of an angry sky god as its ruler? Freud says it was so we could have someone to petition rather than just dealing with the impersonal, unanswering forces of nature. This illusion, he says, will eventually fade. My fourth or fifth reading of this classic.
Encounter, by Milan Kundera. Some of Kundera’s best essays on the meaning of the novel.
Outsiders, by Howard Becker. A classic in sociology. By dispassionately observing social deviants, Becker discovers (1) non-deviants are deviants too, and (2) the criteria for judging deviance are trumped up by the members of an in-group with the liveliest interest in marginalizing the out-group. Haters gonna hate, and they get a jump on their adversary by making the rules.
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. A deeply implausible S&M horror story set in Venice.
The World as Will and Representation, by Arthur Schopenhauer. If you read this to get at the roots of Nietzsche, as I did, just skip to Nietzsche instead. Bloated and off-target. Read The Wisdom of Life if you must read Schopenhauer.
First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan. McEwan’s first book, a collection of dark, id-driven love stories and, again, Nabakovian reflections on the boundaries of human morality.
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin. Essential reading in American letters. Baldwin locates his own ideas with respect to Richard Wright’s. Baldwin thought Wright was powerful but profligate.
The Rebel, by Albert Camus. Together with Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, this is probably the most important book in my life. A plangent hymn to the human situation: we are born alone and live without a blueprint, under an indifferent sky. The only rebellion that matters is the one against meaninglessness.
The Myth of Sisyphus, by Camus. Despite the absurdity of our condition, it is reasonable to struggle for happiness and find solidarity with others.
The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins. I told myself I would read more science books this year, but I didn’t. This was a worthy exception. Dawkins describes a world whose naturalistic explanations are far more spellbinding than magical myths.
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I didn’t get it. While I understand Greene’s conviction that ministers of grace are fallen sinners too (this is an old trope from Kierkegaard), his story of a drunken Mexican priest standing up (unsteadily) for the Church just isn’t convincing. The things that Greene took seriously are baffling.
Nobody Knows My Name, by James Baldwin. Part of my lightning education in Baldwin this year. A portrait of the writer as social critic.
The Green Man, by Kingsley Amis. A distracted, middle-aged English innkeeper in the 1970s discovers his inn is haunted. He combats the offending demon while managing to talk his wife into a threesome. Only one of these undertakings goes well.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca N. Goldstein. This novel tries to argue that religious identity can still be a good thing even without its underlying metaphysics. This gauzy message is underecut, though, by the the main characters’ knock-down arguments against the existence of God.
Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic. This was the most gripping novel I read this year. The antagonist wakes up on a clear summer day in contemporary Vienna to discover that every last human being has disappeared from the earth. A powerful, haunting existentialist story.
Ignorance, by Milan Kundera. Kundera takes up one of his most reliable themes, exile. The world insists on seeing people uprooted by politics as victims, but for Kundera, exile is just another whim of fate to be embraced, like one’s personal appearance or place of birth. Explores the idea that time and chance are worthy of determining our fate.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus. Another classic that I re-read regularly. Camus reminds us of the enormous, lethal power we humans wield in our authority to write and enforce laws. Many of us comfort ourselves with the myth that our death-dealing laws get written on our hearts by a heavenly author. No, we make them up, and it is the most serious thing we do.
On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder. This brilliant little book links Trump’s tin-pot, reality-TV populism to much darker currents in 20th century history, and tells how to resist it. Snyder, by the way, is no talking-head journalist. He is America’s preeminent historian of 20th century political atrocities.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell. A miracle. Orwell tells a spare, grim allegory of how the socialist instinct for humanism is so easily turned into authoritarianism. I read it every year.
Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham. Yes, I had some fun this year. An idealistic defense attorney makes himself at home on the seedier side of life so he can better help the marginalized and unsympathetic poor.
Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon. This sprawling novel of northern California weed counterculture was probably the first serious work of fiction to take note of the crypto-authoritarianism loosed upon America by the avuncular Reagan. A masterpiece. Introduces the phrase, “Grab them by the pussy.”
1984, by Orwell. The bible of anyone who hopes that love and freedom will outlast bigotry and stupidity. Read it often and dare to ask yourself just how much you, too, love Big Brother.
The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad. In a sense, all of Conrad’s seafaring novels are about a man who tests himself against overwhelming forces of nature and discovers what he’s made of. In this one, the hero grasps the wisdom of accepting the world as it is. I guess that always happens in Conrad too.
Comrades!, by Robert Service. A clear, accessible history of the communist world movement from its roots in 19th-century European social democracy to its denouement in the fall of the USSR.
The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk. The only disappointing novel I’ve ever read by Pamuk. The story of a Venetian scholar imprisoned and emulated by an Ottoman prince, it explores one of Pamuk’s favorite themes, identity, but it stays stuck in disorienting plot devices. Read The Black Book instead, Pamuk’s masterpiece.
Achieving Our Country, by Richard Rorty. This book was the Rosetta Stone of my reading experience this year. It unlocked several resounding, compelling new themes about democracy and freedom in almost everything else I read. I kept going back to it and probably read certain passage nine or ten times. Buy it.
What’s Wong with the World?, by G.K. Chesterton. So what is wrong with the world? Answer: It’s not medieval enough. Chesterton seems to write while he is blind drunk, and I’ve found I can only read him when I return the favor. Fat Bastard says one offensively stupid thing after another.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. The Nietzschean heart of this novella is that we all create ourselves: there is no divine plan for what it means to be human. Kurtz’s famous horror is his reaction to this cosmic aloneness.
Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens. Reading Hitchens’ literary criticism is, for me, like eating a big, velvety chocolate cake that magically never fattens one’s wasteline or produces feelings of over-indulgence. This is possibly his best, published as he was dying in 2011.
The War Against Cliche, by Martin Amis. Did I just say Hitch was my favorite critic? Amis, Hitch’s best friend, sometimes makes it too hard to choose. It is highly unfair that Amis is such a good novelist AND critic. A delightful, ingenius collection of literary reflections, although I disagree with Amis about Don Quixote, which he found long and trying.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter. Way back in 1964 Hostadter assayed the reactionary right’s tendency to view any progressive political agenda (or anything else they disliked) as evidence of a conspiracy.
Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte. One of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. An Italian pro-fascist journalist undergoes a change of heart as he tours the Eastern Front in World War Two and reflects lyrically and critically on the demoniac heart of Nazism.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. Another one I read every few years. The problem with existence is not that it’s too heavy, says Kundera; it is too light. We have ony one life; without the prospect of repeatibility, we face the fearsome task of trying to get it “right” the first time. Einmal ist keinmal.
Democracy: An American Novel, by Henry Adams. A widowed New York socialite moves to Washington and tries to figure out what makes our government work. It’s corruption.
Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt. As he was dying of ALS in 2010, the celebrated historian Tony Judt posed some hard questions about which way our democracy was headed. We have abandoned the welfare of our citizens as a national priority, he says, trading it for wealth worship and militarism. He might have added general jackassery.
Everyday Drinking, by Kingsley Amis. Amis reflects on the drinking life, sometimes hilariously, always based on assiduous research, or, as he called it, “unsleeping vigilance.”
Education and Democracy, by John Dewey. One of Dewey’s most powerful works. Makes the unlikely-sounding case that education is not “for” anything except habituating the human mind’s capacity to add new experiences to old. When the concept of education is left so radically open-ended, minds are enriched and democracy flourishes.
Take a Girl Like You, by Kingsley Amis. One of the most disappointing novels I read this year. Amis can usually make swinish and parochial behavior sound fall-down funny, but this deeply unsympathetic story of bad-boy-meets-nice-girl falls flat. Turgid, exceptionally bad.
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, by John Mearsheimer. In miraculously simple terms, Mearsheimer explains how great powers are locked into a perpetual arms race for ever-better offensive capabilities. We live in a world where the most secure country is not necessarily the best defended, but rather the apex predator. Sobering.
Veil, by Bob Woodward. Reagan empowers William Casey, the most activist CIA chief in history, to fight several covert wars of questionable strategic value and demonstrably vile morality. We called it containment. Reagan napped through the whole thing, bless his heart.
Slowness, by Milan Kundera. Do we know what we are doing by speeding up human life with technology, mindlessly packing more and more of everything into our personal histories? Kundera modestly suggests, no, we do not. A beautiful, allegorical novel that recommends we savor our humanity rather than expiating it through quick, easy thrills.
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut examines with warmth and humor our need to create gods and religions. His made-up “Bokonism” is very nearly as silly as a real religion.
Everyman, by Philp Roth. Roth reflects unflinchingly on the process of aging. To slowly shed our youth is to enter another country.
You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann. Mitteleuropa is still producing novelists capable of haunting us with the everyday. Kehlmann tells of a harried screenwriter and family man retreating to the Austrian Alps to knock out a quick TV script. An unnamed menace awaits in the mountains. It may be ordinary life, or possibly a demon from another world.
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s most subversive novel challenges us to spot the difference between everyday irrationality and raging lunacy. Done with sympathy, as always.
The Panda’s Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould excels in using the cul de sacs and whimsical offshoots of evolution to prove the determinative power of natural selection.
John Brown: Abolitionist, by David Reynolds. A monument to the man who saw so clearly that the historic crime of slavery would be reversed only by violence. Brown’s appalled sense of American hypocrisy unhinged him and turned him into a holy warrior.
Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, by George Friedman. In this surprisingly thoughtful book, a celebrated futurist tries to answer “the most important question in the world”: Will Europe experience total war again? He’s not optimistic.
Jailbird, by Kurt Vonnegut. In this Watergate roman à clef, an ex-con political operative exposes the commercial-industrial sector’s increasing domination of government in America. Brought to you by the RAMJAC corporation. A wicked delight.
The Last Empire: Essays 1992–2000, by Gore Vidal. Weighs up the state of the union during the Clinton years. Vidal is a priceless political observer. With Roman hardness–a comliment he once paid to Edmund Wilson–Gore insists on telling the only real story of politics: who spent how much on what.
On Violence, by Hanna Arendt. The German philosopher breaks down the modern state’s preferred method of controlling dissenters.
A Clergyman’s Daughter, by George Orwell. In this, his best novel after 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell explains that religosity is more a mental climate than a firm set of beliefs. The fog lifts on the mind of Dorothy, an English country girl who just isn’t having it anymore.
Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman. Read this novella-length poem to discover just how radically free Amreicans once were and still can be. We are a nation that thrives on novelty, diversity, and open-endedness. We don’t belong to bigots or fearmongers.
Falling Man, by Don Delillo. One of the small tragedies of 9/11 was the abundance of second- and third-rate soul searching it inspired among the scribbling class. (John Updike’s Terrorist, for example, is outstandingly bad.) But Delillo, an incomparable master, sanctifies 9/11, catches it right in the middle of American life. Transcendant.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, by Robert Shogan. Shogan narrates a disappointlingly boring account of America’s largest labor uprising. King Coal wins.
The Unwinding, by George Packer. All literate Americans should read this book. It traces the subterranean currents of labor, finance and politics over the last 40 years that have come together to deny more and more people access to the American dream.
On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. This short book sets out the principle at the foundation of American political culture: individual sovereignty. Neither government nor society should try to rule any private thought, speech or act that does not harm other individuals.
Democratic Vistas, by Walt Whitman. America’s poet writes prose. Here he expands John Stuart Mill’s liberalism into a concept of American individualism. Americans, Whitman urges, should cultivate new, inventive tastes and should boldly seek out untested life-situations so they can create ever-new selves. Whitman is the most radical American who ever lived.
Zero K, by Don Delillo. America’s Thomas Mann explores humankind’s obsession with our ultimate fate, and our desire to control it. Delillo’s contribution to this theme is his ability to reflect the perspective of rich, vain Americans and their leading role in the technological “anti-aging” movement.
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. I don’t even know why I read Chesterton anymore. All his books have the same purpose: to persuade you that you, too, are a repressed Christian Medievalist, just waiting to be re-awoken to common sense and something he keeps calling “wild romance.” The most offputting thing about Chesterton is how his bluffly corporeal Christianity accords so nicely with his native tendencies for gluttony, cupidity and drunkeness. A truly repulsive man.
Self Reliance and Other Essays, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. A classic that all Americans should read, but Emerson’s transcendentalist style is stuffy and abstract.
The Cold War and the Income Tax, by Edmund Wilson. All Wilson ever really wanted to do was read literature and write criticism. After the IRS went after him for unpaid taxes in 1953, though, he felt compelled to write this short denunciation of America’s tax-and-arm government. One of the beauties of the national security state we got in 1947 was its silent imposition of a permanent tax scheme that Washington had always reserved for the special demands of wartime. If special circumstances justify special powers, can it come as any kind of surprise that, after Truman, we have always been in a national crisis of some kind?
Burr, by Gore Vidal. Vidal reconstructs the American revolution from the rascally perspective of Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, Aaron Burr. The inventive, resilient Burr was uniquely placed to witness George Washington’s military incompetence and Jefferson’s political hypocrisy. Gore has Burr dish on both, of course.
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut. In his excellent first novel, Vonnegut prophesies about the ultimate alienation of labor–the massive elimination of meaningful jobs by knowledge work and automation. Timely and deeply insightful.
Nausea, by Jean Paul Sartre. Somehow, this ur-existentialist novel was much better when I read it as an undergrad. Fascinating puzzles and insights still abound in it, but this meditation on the contingency of existence just seems muddy to me when compared with Camus’ pitch-perfect treatment of the same theme.
The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis. Just read the crystalline first chapter of this alternate-world novel and see if you can put it down. The forces of tyranny have won World War Two, and Himmler and Beria have been installed as cardinals of a unified church. The main action turns on Rome’s plan to have 10-year old Hubert Anvil “altered” to preserve his beautiful soprano voice. One of Amis’s best.
“The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. This novella-length short story from 1909 predicts the invention of a worldwide communications network uncannily similar to the Internet. What goes well beyond the uncanny–and is in fact deeply unsettling–is Forster’s depiction of people worshipping and abasing themselves to the Machine, even when its effects are clearly dehumanizing.
1876, by Gore Vidal. Vidal has the coldest eye for politics in all of literature. Here he recounts how pervasive corruption was in the U.S. government at the time of our centenerary. Vidal gives much needed instruction in the moral ambiguity of political leaders, even heroes of our cherished history such as Grant.
Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, by Raymond Carver. Bleakness has never been a defining American trait. Ours is a country of promise, struggle, hope, vanity, money, motion. Even losers are on the go or on the make. Carver explodes this myth. This devastating collection of short stories depicts lower-middle class Americans beaten down by an enemy they cannot name.
So Damn Much Money, by Robert Kaiser. Kaiser delivers a deeply revealing profile of one of Washington’s most successful lobbying firms. Recounts the numerous ways that influence peddling has become a normal part of governance in our country.
The Golden Age, by Gore Vidal. Another fascinating installation in Vidal’s American chronicles series. Argues that FDR stage-managed America’s entrance into World War Two and Truman cashed in our postwar standoff with communism to create a permanent national security state.
The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, by Lionel Trilling. I’ve long wanted to read Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination. While browsing for it, I had to laugh out loud at the audacity of this title and then of course had to read the book. I was expecting something as brilliant and rousing as Milosz’s The Captive Mind, but this collection of essays is dry and dated.
Notes on Democracy, by H.L. Mencken. Although I diasgree thoroughly with many of Mencken’s basic assumptions (for example, that there exists a “lower order” of humans), his attacks on yokelism, puritanism and mob politics in this book are pure gold.
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino. Twelve-year old Cosimo resolutely refuses to eat what’s on his plate one day in 1767. Then he stomps out of the house, climbs a backyard oak tree and resolves never to come down again. The essence of childhood, Calvino muses, lies in the tenacity to be oneself. It is an idea that ennobles adulthood as well.
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipual. An amazing novel that describes the life of Salim, a trader who watches as various kinds of political order come and go in east Africa. This book upends my perception that the political left has a monopoly on good ideas for novels.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari does himself a huge favor by not calling this astounding book what it really is, a Nietzschean account of civilization. Honesty would have hurt his sales. Humankind’s genetic endowment, Harari argues, is robustly adapted for mindlessness–lifetime upon lifetime of hunting and gathering on the steppe or in the bush. After the invention of abstract ideas, though, we began to make up really interesting things for which we are probably not adapted, like laws, rights, and political order. Where is it all going? We don’t know, but it is moving very fast.