It’s time for the yearly tradition of trying to get this blog post out before the end of January. That hasn’t worked so well this year, but at least it’s out now. Contain your joy, if at all possible.
I’ve found it instructive, at the end of the year, to look back on the books that I’ve read over the past year. This is the second year I’ve done this – deliberately, and writing about it, anyway – and like the last year’s list, this is hopefully not just a list of bestsellers from this past year, although some of them are. Not all of these were published this year, but some of them were. What they have in common is that I discovered them this year, and they were the most memorable books or the books that I am most likely to recommend. This generally biased towards books that are somewhat more obscure. It wouldn’t do me a lot of good to recommend anything by William Shakespeare – if your English teacher couldn’t make you read it, I can’t imagine that some random guy that has a infrequently-updated blog would be able to. Likewise, it wouldn’t do anyone a lot of good for me to recommend Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, either: if you’re willing to read a lengthy discussion of books published in 2013, odds are good you’ve already made up your mind about Gladwell. 1 That opinion, whatever it is, is unlikely to be influenced by some random guy with a blog. All that to say: I’m trying my best to take these books seriously My opinions, well, not so much.
Without any further introduction, let’s jump into the list, starting with fiction:
Dave Eggers, The Circle. If Eggers hasn’t shown up before on lists of my favorite books, it’s only been because I haven’t been writing the lists for a long enough period of time. Although he’s probably best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (published in 2000), I’ve enjoyed some of his recent works even more. Zeitoun, the true story of a Syrian-American’s experience of staying in a post-Katrina New Orleans, paints a portrait of Muslims in post-9/11 America that needs to be far more widely-read than it probably has been. His most recent novel before The Circle was A Hologram for the King, which probably conveys the despair and drudgery of a dead-end IT job better than just about any experience short of actually having the job. It’s well worth a read, too.
Back to The Circle: as the story begins, we’re following the story from the perspective of Mae Holland, who has just started working at The Circle, a technology company that seems to be Google, Apple, and Microsoft all rolled into one. As Mae’s career progresses, what she first saw as beneficial technology starts to seem more and more an invasion of privacy, and eventually she’s faced with a scenario in which privacy, as we currently understand it, becomes nonexistent.
This is easily the most terrifying book about big data, which is a buzzword you’ll be sick of in another year or so if you’re not already. The picture that Eggers paints, though, is more frightening than what has been discussed so far: most companies are enraptured with the idea of big data because they think they’ll be able to make money off of it. The antagonists (or heroes, depending on how you feel about privacy, I suppose) of Eggers’ novel are far less interested in ending privacy for profitable reasons, and far more interested in ending privacy for ideological reasons.
I’ve read most of the books that Eggers has published, and The Circle strikes me as his first book that is philosophically conservative: if there are lessons to be learned from Mae, the most obvious one has to be that we can’t always anticipate what the unintended consequences of our actions will be. Following on its heals would be the observation that humans aren’t always right, or good, and our good intentions do not guarantee right decisions. Our inventions – even those that are intended to be good – are easily corruptible. Those are all profoundly conservative points that I wouldn’t expect from Eggers, but truth isn’t beholden to political or philosophical boundaries, I think he’s right.
It’s going to be interesting to come back to this novel in 20 or 30 years: not only will our conceptions of privacy have changed but Eggers seems more willing than most authors to tie his stories to a particular time and place. Consequently, the setting of The Circle really only makes sense to people that have heard about companies like Apple, Google . . . and, presumably, whatever startup is going to come after them.
Kent Haruf, Benediction. Haruf is one of those writers whose work doesn’t attract a great deal of attention, and I’m always puzzled as to why this is. Haruf has a stark, minimalistic way of constructing sentences that matches his what I imagine his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, to be like. Benediction is Haruf’s fifth novel. All of his novels have been set in Holt, and every one of them is an absolute treasure.
The plot, like the plot of most of Haruf’s work, is straightforward and almost incidental to the actual material of the novel, and describing the plot does little to explain the appeal of the book. The owner of the local hardware store, Dad Lewis, is dying. He has to come to terms with this, as do several other characters, as the life of the town continues. Haruf wields this minimal plot with great effect, as it’s primarily a way for both his fantastic prose, and for him to describe characters that feel more real that most people that I actually know.
The value that I’ve found in Haruf’s work – and what sets it apart from so much other fiction on the market – is not that it describes amazing situations, or describes something fantastic or supernatural. It’s that it describes completely ordinary situations in a way that makes it clear how sacred and special everyday events and people are.
I have very little doubt that if I’m still writing these lists when Haruf publishes his next novel, whatever it is will be on this list, as well. All of his novels are fantastic, and I expect that reading this one will make you interested in reading all of the others.
Bill Buford, Heat. I’ve got a weak spot for books that are about food – I read cookbooks for fun, and it’s taken a considerable amount of discipline not to put any cookbooks on this list. 2 Collections of recipes by themselves aren’t really much fun, but Heat is neither an essay about food or a collection of recipes. It’s Buford’s memoir of the adventures that resulted when as a middle-aged adult, he became fascinated with what happens in a professional kitchen. (Buford’s background, prior to these adventures, is that of a writer, and not a professional chef.) The book starts with a wine-infused dinner party with Mario Batali, and before long Buford is working in the kitchen in one of Batali’s restaurants in New York City. By the end of the book, he’s an apprentice to a butcher somewhere in Europe. Everywhere he goes, he cooks, learns, and writes about the experience.
Heat has probably been my favorite book about food since I ran across Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal a couple years ago, which is also a gem.
It also convinced me that as much as I love cooking at home, and as much as I love food, I have absolutely no desire to be a professional chef.
Tyler Cowen, An Economist Gets Lunch. This is the sort of book that would result if the guys that wrote Freakonomics were foodies. Cowen is an economist by trade, and a food enthusiast by hobby, and the combination of these topics results in a bunch of advice on how to track down the best food for the least amount of money. This is full of quirky observations, stories, and advice on how to track down good food whether your in the U.S. or somewhere abroad.
A good percentage of Cowen’s advice seems to be what will seem like common sense, once you think about it. If you’re anything like me, though, the beauty of the book is that most of what will seem obvious in retrospect will not have been something that you had not thought about before you opened it.
Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat. I ran across Klosterman’s football essays on grantland.com awhile back, and started picking up his books as a result, and I’ve enjoyed every one. I Wear the Black Hat is probably my favorite one yet – it’s a series of essays on, of all things, villainy and it’s relationship to evil.
There’s a excerpt of his latest book on grantland.com that you should go read. If that can’t convince you to read the book, there’s probably not much else I can say.
Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone. Franzen is justifiably well known for his last two novels, but his nonfiction has attracted comparatively less attention. The Discomfort Zone is, unlike his other books of essays, a memoir, and it’s probably the most accessible Franzen book if you’re looking for a place to jump in.
One of the reasons that this is particular book is interesting to me: for the last couple years, I’ve been dividing most novels into “books that are written with an awareness of New York City” and “books that would be the same if New York City did not exist.” Jonathan Safran Foer would fall into the first category, for example, while Kent Haruf and Wendell Berry would fall into the second. Franzen’s fiction has seemed to be written with the pessimistic and cynical self-awareness, for lack of a better term, that seem to be hallmarks of the writing that happens in NYC, but his fiction has (for the most part, up until now) been consciously set in the midwest and seems at home there, as well. The Discomfort Zone is a memoir of his boyhood, which – no surprise here – is in the midwest.
Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty and Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today. Both of these books deal with epistemology and the relationship it has to theology in general and Christianity in particular, although the approaches that Willard and Taylor have are almost entirely different: Willard emphasizes that Christianity is something that we must know to be true instead of just believe to be true. Taylor, on the other hand, discusses how it’s possible for Christianity to work even if we aren’t entirely sure that we’ve got all the specifics right.
I can see the value in both these approaches, but I’m not at all sure how to reconcile them in a coherent way.
Charles Mann, 1491. When I was in elementary school, history was taught with the assumption that not much of importance had happened in the North America until Columbus showed up. There were maybe a few Indians that showed up occasionally, but it was never mentioned that North America was, y’know, populated, or that the people that were here before Columbus were doing anything like building a civilization.
I’m not sure how much of this was the reluctance of white people to own up to the fact that other white people were behaving badly, or how much of it was skimmed over to avoid discussing genocide with 8-year-olds, or how much of it was just not discovered yet. In any case, Mann’s 1491 is a compilation a considerable amount of the new evidence that per-Columbian America was far more interesting than was previously thought. The population was greater, the level of civilization was higher, and the environment had been modified by the indigenous people and was not the pure wilderness that our teachers assumed it was when talking about Lewis and Clark.
These new discoveries are not without controversies, as everyone involved seems to have an interest in proving the virtue of their ancestors, using (alas) the standards that we have in society today. Some discussions about whether or not the indigenous people in the 1400s were (or would have been) environmentalists are admittedly useless, but Mann has written a compelling book here that is far more interesting than the topic would have you believe.
Paul Tough, How Children Succeed. Tough’s 2012 book has been making the rounds among educators, at least as far as I can tell, and (in more ways than one, perhaps), it’s finally the response to Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve that no one has produced until now. Tough makes the case that levels of determination and curiosity exhibited early in life have more to do with success than pure intelligence, and explains why this is.
The observation that talent is overrated and hard work is underrated isn’t a bad lesson to hear at any point in life, frankly, but how to teach these things – specifically to younger children – is, of course, a larger and more complicated question.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night. This is probably the oldest book on this list – it was first published in 1942, and went out of print shortly thereafter. However, it was rediscovered in 1982 and has had something of a comeback since then.3 There’s something of a puzzle of how Markham could have turned out a book like this: it’s beautifully written, and she never wrote anything else that came close to it. There’s something of a controversy over whether she wrote it, or her third husband wrote it, or one of the writers with whom she had an affair (one of which was Saint Exupéry, who became known for his own aviation memoirs) wrote it or helped edit it. (The general consensus, if there is one, seems to be that her third husband helped edit it, and the prose was inspired by Saint Exupéry). It’s difficult to see how any of this controversy makes her any less interesting, and regardless, the book is still fantastic.
This has probably become my favorite aviation memoir since I ran across Ernest K. Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, and I anticipate that it’ll stand up to being reread well.
- Incidentally, the variety of opinions on Gladwell consistently amaze me: I frequently run into opinions of the overly-educated that denigrate Gladwell for being “only” a journalist and bemoan the (to them, obvious) fact that someone who doesn’t do any original research cannot be admired in any capacity. I run into other people that think that he’s brilliant, and feel that because they’ve read a Gladwell book, they are now brilliant, too, and as a result they are qualified to speak as a public intellectual. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, and I’m surprised that so few people seem to take Gladwell’s writing as I can only assume that he means it to be taken: firmly middlebrow, and with equal goals of education and entertainment. [↩]
- Perhaps I should have. I tend towards the sort of cookbooks that have essays about the recipes and explanations for what the author was trying to accomplish and how they did it. [↩]
- Odd bit of trivia: West with the Night was re-discovered because it was mentioned in one of the letters of Ernest Hemingway, in which Hemingway said that she was a better writer than he was, in addition to being “high-grade bitch,” which, c’mon, totally sounds like something that Hemingway would say. [↩]