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My Best Books of 2017
Here's the best of what I read in 2017.
It was as good a year as 2016, if not better. My original shortlist was twice the length and it was very difficult to figure out which ones to drop.
As before, I provide a line or two of commentary on, and a quote from, each work. The titles link to the Amazon Kindle store page for the book. Page numbers are provided for the quotes if available and Kindle locations if not.
This year's answer to the obvious question remains the same as last year's.
The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner. Buettner led a National Geographic study of areas of the world that produce an anomalous concentration of long-lived healthy centenarians. The resulting book goes into the specifics of each location (Sardinian wine!) and abstracts to universalities (beans?!). The nine lessons at the end are timeless.
"In the Western world, accomplishment, status, and material wealth are highly revered and require most of our time. Americans employed full-time work on average 43 hours a week and take the shortest paid vacations in the industrialized world. Then when they do take time off, according to one source, 20 percent of them stay in touch with the office. We generally hold working and being productive in high regard; being busy often wins us esteem. Few cultural institutions exist to encourage us to slow down, unwind, and de-stress." (p285)
The Complete Guide to Fasting, Jason Fung. I approached this book with skepticism as I'm suspicious of faddish "diets", and was pleasantly surprised to find a scientific and empirical take on an ancient habit.
"For most of human history, large amounts of food were not readily accessible all throughout the day. Intermittent fasting was likely a regular part of human evolution, and it’s possible our bodies—and brains—have come to expect periods of food scarcity. Because we are blessed with abundant food all year round in the twenty-first century, we now have to make a special effort to impose food scarcity upon ourselves for therapeutic purposes." (p70)
China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, Arthur Kroeber. I read widely on China this year. If you have to pick one book to get up to speed on modern China this is it; beyond just the facts and the information, Kroeber has hundreds of useful insights.
"China was fortunate to open up to trade just at the moment when the shipping container, invented in the 1950s, was beginning to make possible the creation of global production chains, spanning multiple countries, through steep reductions in long-distance shipping costs." (p44)
The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama. If you find Fukuyama's quarter-century-old prediction of the end of history laughably erroneous -- get over it and read this superb prologue (it ends with the French Revolution) to his even more insightful sequel on political decay in our time. He's always highly readable, even about the most abstruse subjects.
"Of all the components of contemporary states, effective legal institutions are perhaps the most difficult to construct. Military organization and taxing authority arise naturally out of people’s basic predatory instincts." (p247)
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Sonny Liew. The content of this graphical novel, involving intricate and opposing views of Singaporean history, can overshadow the astounding brilliance, creativity and innovation that Liew brings to the art form itself. You need not be interested in the history to appreciate this marvelous work.
"For me, though, drawing is in fact a kind of studying. Or even more, perhaps. As Noro Shinpei once said, "To draw is to see and discover." (p19)
Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; and Stalin:Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, Stephen Kotkin. These first two volumes of a three volume biography of Stalin add up to 2,100 pages -- and I am here to assure you that they read like an unputdownable thriller even though you know how the story turns out. Meticulously footnoted and sourced, it portrays the evolution of a pyschopath and his bizarre hold on those around him.
"But Stalin’s rule also reveals how, on extremely rare occasions, a single individual’s decisions can radically transform an entire country’s political and socioeconomic structures, with global repercussions." (L176 of volume 1)
The Dawn Watch, Maya Jasanoff. This book is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part biography. For me, the greatest merit was in the scrupulous (yet engaging) recounting of Conrad's travels as a merchant seaman, and their influence on his writing; I had not realized that there is far more Southeast Asia than Africa in his work.
"For Conrad, writing fiction would also be a translation of past experience, a way to find the meaning in all those happenings in life whose significance a person doesn't fully grasp in the moment." (p161)
"The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do." (p52)
How To Live: or A Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. I've recently read a number of biographies of philosophers (you can see this in last year's list; there were several others that didn't make it to this year's). My interest is in placing philosophy in a historical context. This is a wonderful and affectionate history that does precisely that; and is naturally a best-of collection of Montaigne's bon mots too.
"One should be able to accept everything just as it is, willingly, without giving in to the futile longing to change it. Montaigne seemed to find this trick easy: it came to him by nature. “If I had to live over again,” he wrote cheerfully, “I would live as I have lived.”" (p102)
The Practice of Religion
Gita Press and The Making of Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul. One interesting element of modern historiography in the Western tradition is the production line in the academic factory: monographs, often readable, on a huge array of large and small subjects. By comparison Indian history is poorly served; this book is a refreshing exception (on a very large and important matter).
"This study of the phenomenon of Gita Press/Kalyan will show how Hindu revivalism constituted a response to various forces—of modernity and Western education, of challenge from other religions (in particular Islam), and of change within Hindu society itself." (L302)
The Ecumenical Councils of The Catholic Church, Joseph Kelly. The two longest-lived realms of human institution-building are religion and education, and the oldest extant example of the former that I am aware of is the Catholic Church (there are religions that are older, but their governing bodies or orders are of more recent origin). This delightful book takes us through two millennia of humans gathering to determine church policy and doctrine (trust me when I tell you that it's far more interesting than that description might suggest, thanks to the deft interweaving of historical context and much wit).
"Paul’s account gives the first example of a recurring problem in conciliar history: believers, even leaders, who were reluctant to accept conciliar decisions." (p14)
On Tennis: Five Essays, David Foster Wallace. I re-read most of David Foster Wallace's essays this year. He was a masterful wordsmith who could make a computer manual a compulsive read. If you want something more "serious" (although Wallace writing on tennis is pretty darn serious), I recommend This is Water.
"“Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time. I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution, and all of us know we’ve got to take it one game at a time and hang in there and not look ahead and just basically do the best we can at all times.” This stuff is stupefying, and yet it also seems to be inevitable, maybe even necessary. The baritones in network blazers keep coming up after games, demanding of physical geniuses these recombinant strings of dead clichés, strings that after a while start to sound like a strange kind of lullaby, and which of course no network would solicit and broadcast again and again if there weren’t a large and serious audience out here who find the banalities right and good." (L476)
The Times on the Ashes, Richard Whitehead. If you're a cricket fan who enjoys good writing, this is a treasure trove of wonderful turns of phrase. It's amazing that these men produced the writing that they did in an era of producing on deadline with limited or no ability to edit or use any of the myriad writing tools we now have at our disposal.
"As so often in recent years England’s batsmen made their profession look almost impossibly difficult when the Test series began at Old Trafford yesterday." (L1781 -- that's John Woodcock in 1972; as I write this, England is down 3-0 in the Ashes. Plus ca change)
Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee. This book won the 2016 Locus Award, and was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula (the nomination processes for these awards are now enmeshed in controversy; I am sympathetic to both sides). This is a wonderful exercise in world-building, with compelling characters of both genders -- and very funny in often macabre ways.
"Mikodez was notorious for the time he had assassinated two of his own cadets, apparently out of boredom." (L1892)
Borne, Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is a master of the surreal, and this unclassifiable novel involves a giant flying bear, a shapeshifting blob, and the wreckage of systematic biological manipulation. Remarkably these are the natural ingredients of a deeply emotional and moving story.
"Whoever heard of a floating bear?” I told Borne. “That’d be like finding a plant that was actually a talking octopus.” (p113)
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. I read the most recent of Ishiguro's novels right after he was announced as the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize, and wrote a blog post on it. Nothing will compare, for me, with The Remains of the Day, but this was up there.
"Our memories aren’t gone for ever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist. We’ll find them again, one by one if we have to. Isn’t that why we’re on this journey?" (p49)