Here's the best of what I read in 2022. Prior lists: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016.
New feature klaxon: I’m picking a Book of the Year! It is Mazower’s Dark Continent. Mazower’s devastating review of 20th-century Europe reminds us to pay attention to history and the facts when we think about where Armageddon is likely to be found.
(fuller descriptions and a quote follow below)
This year’s list has two books, on Jane Stanford and Ukraine, from the learning journey that I am on at Stanford. I couldn’t find something suitable for this list from one of the most interesting courses I took (on poetry!).
As always, 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.
Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine
I continued to read widely about China, and two of those books made my list this year. The first is a biography of Deng Xiaoping. Until I read this book, my view of Deng was informed almost solely by his role as a transformational figure after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. This book revealed to me the details of his leadership roles before his purging in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s — roles that predated the founding of the PRC in 1949 and had a strong military component. His reputation for competence is one reason he was brought back in the mid-1970s (there was one more purge before his final rise — in his mid-70s!). This book is far more accessible than Ezra Vogel’s turgid tome.
After traveling this hard path of learning, Deng came to the conclusion that the Utopian Maoist model of socioeconomic development had to be reformed. Accordingly, he now confronted a new problem that lasted right up until the death of the Chairman, namely, how to oppose the Leader without compromising his own position in the party. He did not want to suffer the fate of the rebellious Peng Dehuai, but he was no longer able to follow blindly after Mao. (p 216)
Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge, Mike Resnick
Science fiction works have a short half-life as they often make reference to technological advances that turn out to be incorrect. There are many exceptions — the works of Iain M. Banks and Ursula LeGuin offer different paths to future-proofing this kind of literature. Mike Resnick won the Hugo and the Nebular awards for this short novella almost 20 years ago, and it still holds up very well. As is the case with Banks’ and LeGuin’s works, technology and space travel and so forth serve as scaffolding for a story that is about humanity. There is a twist in the tale; no spoilers here.
The tailless monkeys seem to be at an evolutionary dead end. Too small to hunt game, too large to feed themselves on what they can find in the gorge, too weak to compete with the brown monkeys for better territory. My guess is that they’re an earlier, more primitive species, destined for extinction. (p 8)
A Short History of the Mughal Empire, Michael Fisher
I read exclusively on the Kindle; I have not purchased a paper book for personal reading in over a decade. I feel the lack of availability most keenly when it comes to Indian history, for many books are only available in paper form. So I am constantly on the hunt and was very pleasantly surprised by Fisher’s book. Don’t let the title mislead you — this is not “Mughal history for dummies.” It incorporates the latest academic research and attitudes, and I found much that was new to me, especially in the Akbar-Aurangzeb period.
The Empire was primarily a military-fiscalist state that required a vast and growing army and administration in order to extract tribute and revenues from the diverse areas they kept conquering. (p 93)
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, Harald Jahner
For over three decades I have read extensively about the Third Reich, in an effort to make sense of how high European civilization could lead to such monstrous crimes. Here Jahner writes wisely and wryly and critically about the ten-year period after the fall. He probably rejected an editor’s advice in making an early chapter all about rubble — and it is perhaps the most interesting section of a very interesting book.
The piles of rubble altered the topography of the cities. Wartime moraines formed in Berlin, echoing the natural hills around the city. For 22 years up to 800 lorries a day unloaded so much rubble in the grounds of the former Factory of Armaments Technology that the resulting mountain, later quite appropriately called the Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, grew to become West Berlin’s highest elevation. (p 23)
Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, Mark Mazower
Because I have read so much about the Third Reich and the First World War, I have over the years become highly skeptical about European claims to civilizational leadership (without even touching the evils of colonialism — that is a whole ‘nother topic). That may seem unfair and too broad a brush — but then we have this brilliant work by Mazower that essentially makes my arguments for me. Forgive the long quote below, but I wanted to find something that really captured his line of attack.
Even today it seems easier for many people to envisage inter-war Europe as a continent led astray by insane dictators than as one which opted to abandon democracy. We lap up books which portray Mussolini as a buffoon, Hitler as a demented and disorganized fanatic, Stalin as a paranoid psychopath. But what, for instance, can Mussolini’s life really tell us about Fascism’s appeal? It was, Michael Oakeshott noted in 1940, a characteristically liberal failing to see the enemy of liberty as “the single tyrant, the despot”—first monarchs, then dictators—and to lose sight in the process of where the real challenge to democracy came from. (L634)
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, Serhii Plokhy
And so we come to another European killing field. I read this book as part of a course on Russia and Ukraine. The author has skin in the game; he is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard and director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, so we’d hardly expect him to suggest Ukraine is simply a province of a Russia that has been around since antiquity (or rather, since the Varangians and Kievan Rus). But as long as we know that, we can admire this for what it is — a deeply researched and extremely well-written history of the region that we now call Ukraine.
Historians look to those principality-based identities for the origins of the modern East Slavic nations. The Vladimir-Suzdal principality served as a forerunner of early modern Muscovy and, eventually, of modern Russia. Belarusian historians look to the Polatsk principality for their roots. And Ukrainian historians study the principality of Galicia-Volhynia to uncover the foundations of Ukrainian nation-building projects. But all those identities ultimately lead back to Kyiv, which gives Ukrainians a singular advantage: they can search for their origins without ever leaving their capital. (p 86)
Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama
I don’t have to say anything here about Fukuyama’s intellectual pedigree. And we in these parts have visited with him before. This is a short book, and while Mazower’s is the Book of the Year, it is Fukuyama’s work that I’d most want everyone I know to read. It is written with extraordinary clarity and simplicity; it articulates a brilliant argument without resorting to polemic or panegyric; and makes a sensible set of suggestions, which I have adopted, about how to survive the assault on what he calls “classical liberalism” from both right and left.
Jonathan Haidt and other social psychologists have suggested that in practice many people follow a very different cognitive model. They do not begin with any kind of neutral observation of empirical reality. Rather, they begin with strong preferences for the reality they prefer, and use their considerable cognitive skills to select empirical data and devise theories that support that reality in a process labeled “motivated reasoning.” (p 104)
The Invention of China, Bill Hayton
My reading and writing on nationalism, over the last twenty years, has given me a better understanding of how “constructed”, and historically contingent, supposedly eternal and immutable national identities are. My journey began with wanting to better understand Indian identity, which I’ve written about in a roundabout way here and here, and the deep British involvement in the creation of that identity came as a revelation (it really shouldn’t have, but that is also a whole ‘nother story!). And of late I’ve been thinking about what it means to be American in this era. So it felt like quite the gift to run across Hayton’s book. This is a highly (and intentionally) provocative book, and I am on the lookout for a thoughtful rebuttal.
The idea of a regional order led by a state called ‘China’ or Zhongguo or Zhonghua existing in a defined East Asian territory is a distinctly modern invention. (p 55)
History of the University of Pennsylvania, Edward Potts Cheyney
I play a number of volunteer roles for my alma mater, all with a slightly “demented fervor.” The longevity of the institution and the historical lineage of these roles give oomph to my motivations. There is a real need for someone to write a deeply researched canonical history, but in the meanwhile this will serve, and it is one heck of a read. This book is the best of what is out there. The quote below is from an episode in 1753, which shows you that in university-world, there is nothing new under the sun.
At the outset of the career of the English School the Trustees were met by a problem that has faced them many times since, what to do about a member of the Faculty of undoubted ability, usefulness, and popularity, who would not conform to their requirements. (p 76)
Who Killed Jane Stanford?, Richard White
I now unexpectedly have a second alma mater, and in a delightfully recursive way found myself reading, as part of a course on the archive, the Inquest into Jane Leland Stanford’s death. That led me to this wonderful book about the co-founder of Stanford (and sole remaining founder, with substantial legal control, for the twelve years following her husband’s death). No other university has an origin story that is remotely similar to this murder mystery. This book is an exhaustive yet compelling analysis of the facts by an emeritus professor at Stanford.
By the time David Starr Jordan and Timothy Hopkins reached Honolulu, it was apparent that all the suspects were lying. (p 217)