My Best Books of 2016
Here’s the best of what I read in 2016. All, to varying degrees, enlightening, entertaining and infuriating. It was tough to winnow down to a short list — this was a decent reading year.
I offer a line or two of commentary on, and a quote from, each work. The titles link to the Amazon Kindle page for the book. Page numbers are provided for the quotes if available and Kindle locations if not.
P.S. The answer to one obvious question is “on far too many long haul flights”.
Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, Adrian Goldsworthy. Anything by Goldsworthy on the Roman era is worth reading. Much of his writing is biographical; this book takes a more measured look at what it meant to live under Roman rule. “In the second half of the century many Romans began to worry that, as they sent their own young men abroad to fight for the Republic, their places and livelihoods were increasingly being usurped by foreign slaves.” (L852)
The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India, Jon Wilson. A thoroughly revisionist history of the British in India, and fortunately not overloaded with subaltern language. As with many of the books on my list, you may or may not agree with much that is said, but it forces you to think differently. “Both men thought India had been better governed before the British had conquered Indian land.” (Page 132, re Burke and Hastings)
Hitler's Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich, Ben H. Shepherd. Nazi Germany remains endlessly fascinating for those of us who wonder how this great country transmogrified into the worst of all human societies. It is difficult to imagine anything can be said that is new, but Shepherd manages it. At the end of this book, any notions you might have had about the good German army (versus, say, the evil SS) will be obliterated. “As has been made abundantly clear, the army as a whole was complicit in terror, exploitation and criminality virtually from the war’s start.” (L11874)
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith. While the book is intended to be a multithreaded investigation of what consciousness means, it is worth the price of admission just to get a deep insight into the radically different line followed by octopi in evolving to (potential) sentience. “Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior.” (Page 8)
Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe, Ian Stewart. An equation-free exposition of how math underlies the cosmos (quite a bit more complex than Rovelli’s book below). It is up to date for 2016 and there are major revelations in here for anyone who studied physics prior to 2010. If there is a minor criticism, it is that publishers’ fear of the effect of equations on book sales leads to ridiculous contortions — it can take 1,000 words to explain a three term equation. “Since dark matter seems remarkably shy whenever anyone actually looks for it, perhaps we should contemplate the possibility that there isn’t any.” (L4734)
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli. A slim and very high level walk through seven wonders of modern physics — it will take you no more than an hour to finish. It was written for a popular audience (the essays were originally newspaper columns in Italy) and is a good first point of entry, but a nice refresher morsel for science aficionados too. “Einstein wrote an equation that says that R is equivalent to the energy of matter. That is to say: space curves where there is matter. That is it. The equation fits into half a line, and there is nothing more.” (Page 9)
The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh. The first academically rigorous analysis of the sociological phenomenon that is Indian immigration to the United States. There are new data-driven insights on every page (disclosure: I know Dr. Devesh Kapur, one of the co-authors). “We argue that it is not inner, personal characteristics like drive or hard work that explain the “exceptionalism”—because without drive and hard work, it is difficult to succeed at anything, anywhere—but a combination of selection processes that have made a critical difference… It is this combination of selections—a triple selection—that has rapidly created this unique population. In essence, Indian Americans have been selected to be outliers—they have been selected for success.” (L961)
China in Ten Words, Yu Hua. I learned more about contemporary life in China from this short collection of essays built around ten Chinese words than from several large tomes now gathering virtual dust on my Kindle bookshelf. Caution: prepare to be very deeply moved. “If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.” (L901)
A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe, Tony Judt. This eloquent and prescient book — written in 1996 — puts forth arguments that, for this reader at least, were very difficult to refute. Perhaps it also offers a roadmap for what is going to unfold in Europe in the coming decades. “This is the foundation myth of modern Europe—that the European Community was and remains the kernel of a greater, pan-European prospect. Without such a myth, all the means by which this “Europe” came into being—the Marshall Plan, ECSC, economic planning, OECD, common agricultural policies, and the like, even the European Court—would be merely so many practical solutions to particular problems.” (Page 41)
How the World Works, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky arouses extremes — he begets adulation or vituperation, no in-between. I find him logical and readable (while I don’t see the same conspiracies everywhere that he does, he consistently forces me to think differently). He is the leading public intellectual of our time and this is a great introduction (it is a collection of well edited speeches and interviews). “For whatever reason, diaspora communities tend to be, by and large, more extremist, chauvinistic and fanatic than people in the home country.” (Page 271)
The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations, Gil Fronsdal. Nothing in here that we all aren’t subliminally aware of — and possibly inclined to dismiss — but in verse form, in this wonderful translation from the Pali original, there is a mellifluousness that has a calming effect. And of course you could pay attention to the substance too. “If, desiring happiness/You use violence/To harm living beings who desire happiness/You won’t find happiness after death.” (Page 35)
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others, Sarah Bakewell. A brilliant combination of philosophical history, biography and memoir. Bakewell also provides remarkably accessible explanations of especially incoherent philosophers (that’s you, Heidegger). “The ambiguous human condition means tirelessly trying to take control of things. We have to do two near-impossible things at once: understand ourselves as limited by circumstances, and yet continue to pursue our projects as though we are truly in control. In Beauvoir’s view, existentialism is the philosophy that best enables us to do this, because it concerns itself so deeply with both freedom and contingency.” (Page 226)
Hasan al-Banna, Gudrun Kraemer; Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert; Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Michael Crawford. If you are a citizen of a Western country that has troops in the Middle East, it is best you acquaint yourself with the philosophical biographies of the most relevant thinkers in the region. And if you are a policy maker, at any level, for one of these countries, it would be unforgivable if you haven’t done so already. These three books are a good place to begin — I learned a ton. “Beneath the Qur’anic veneer of Qutb’s Islamist writings resides a structural resonance with modern-era ideological currents. That is to say, Qutb imbibed and repackaged in Islamic form the Jacobin characteristics of the European revolutionary tradition.” (Page 15 of Calvert).
Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky. I consume a great deal of science fiction and fantasy fiction — over the years I’ve concluded that is where the best literary writing is, by a wide margin — but this was not a great year. This incredible book by Tchaikovsky, though, would have risen to the top in any year. “The elegant and sophisticated way of life that the spiders have built for themselves has always been strung over a great abyss of barbarism, cannibalism and a return to primitive, savage values.” (Page 251)
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (author), Leslie Klinger (editor) (this is a set of three books — two for all the short stories and one for the four novels). Sherlock is Sherlock — the stories obviously haven’t changed over the last 100 years. What is different is Klinger’s masterful annotations — well worth re-reading the whole oeuvre again just for the notes, which are delightfully presented using the literary device of assuming Holmes et al were real life characters. “Brad Keefauver builds a thesis, based on the physical description of Dr. Mortimer and on his behavioural characteristics, that Mortimer is Holmes’s brother.” (Note 16 at L8155 of Vol. 3, which covers the novels [The Hound of the Baskervilles in this case])
Michael Clarke: My Story, Michael Clarke. Cricket is cursed with terrible autobiographies — limp, banal, premature. Clarke’s is none of these — it is raw and deeply personal, and one of the best such of the last few decades. As a consequence it got nailed by the Australian tabloid press (and since professional cricketers themselves appear to not read very much, the selective press excerpts re-ignited long-ago feuds). “The signs have been there since the beginning. When I was a kid, my room was spotless. I made my own bed and packed my own school bag, had to have everything just so. I wouldn’t even let my own mum pack my lunchbox. What kind of boy is that fussy about having things a certain way?” (L4450)
Stroke of Genius, Gideon Haigh. There is no writer on cricket today who comes close to Haigh. Anything by him is worth reading. I fully acknowledge, nevertheless, that you have to belong to a vanishingly small group of true cricket tragics — i.e. slightly bonkers — to read a book-length deconstruction of an iconic cricket photograph. For those: this is a wonderful book. “Cricket was devised to be played, not watched. Much of the action occurs very fast, almost all of it very far from the spectator.” (L179)